The climate-change Grinch did its best to steal the Christmas spirit from the tiny and remote, Alaska fishing community of Cordova, population 2,200, on Sunday.
Screaming into town with hurricane-force winds and sideways rain, the Grinch ripped the top off the community Christmas tree, tossed Connex containers across the waterfront, broke windows, removed the roofs of a few buildings and more.
A fabric-covered, steel framed building used as a boat house in the Cordova shipyard was destroyed. It appeared to be the community’s biggest loss.
The howling chaos kept many up through the night as it blew and washed away the last remnants of winter.
Luckily, no one appears to have been injured, city manager Alan Lanning said Monday.
“We are still looking around, but it could have been a lot worse,” he siad. “Our town Christmas tree broke in half.”
He didn’t know if the city would try to designate a new Christmas tree or not.
Rob Campbell, an oceanographer at the Prince William Sound Society Center, said the winds started seriously intensifying around midnight. As a guy living on a floathouse in the Cordova harbor, he had a ringside seat for the worst of the blow.
“We didn’t sleep much,” he said. “It took the roof off my duck house. Luckily the ducks were in the freezer.”
Campbell maintains and monitors a weather buoy in the Cordova harbor. It measured 68 knots (78 mph) at the peak of the storm, but he noted the buoy averages speeds and thus misses peak gusts. The peak gust he was aware of was 92 mph at the boat harbor.
Tony Schinella, the Cordova harbor master, said the anemometer there had winds gusting form 85 to 100 mph.
“It was a good one,” he said. “We had four or five finger-floats tear loose. The ship yard got hit hard. We had a few trees down on houses, a few cars got hit.”
He estimated damage to the shipyard at $500,000.
White Christmas gone
Following on days of wind and rain, the big blow stripped all sign of the normal White Christmas out of the community at the southern edge of Prince William Sound.
“It’s like spring time,” Schinella said. Temperatures in the area have been unusually warm for a week.
“Three or four degrees colder and we could have had another snowpocalypse,” said Campbell, the scientist.
Schinella said this is the worst storm he has seen since 2012. Campbell noted how it illustrates the massive changes that can be brought by just a few degrees of temperature change in Alaska, where the weather has been moderating in recent years.
In early 2012 when a similar storm blew into Cordova, more than 15 feet of snow piled up in Cordova in a matter of days. The Alaska National Guard had to be called in to help dig the city out. Snow is the norm this time of year in Cordova, not rain.
But last year was the warmest on record in the 49th state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And though the state started cooling off significantly as the winter of 2016-2107 began and remained cold into the spring, a warm summer and fall have the annual temperature for 2017 tracking above normal again.
“Much-above-average temperatures were observed along the western and northern coasts of Alaska where Arctic sea ice extent offshore was record and near-record low for the month,” the National Centers for Environmental Information reported earlier this month. “Barrow had its warmest November on record with a temperature of 17.2°F, 16.4°F above the 1981–2010 normal, and 1.9°F warmer than the previous record in 1950.
And that warm water off Barrow might have a lot more to do with what happens in Cordova, and the rest of Alaska, than most people think.
Climatologists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are theorizing that the annual extent of arctic sea ice influences so much control on the climate of the Pacific basin that the loss of ice there has implications that affect most of the coast of the North America.
The focus of their most recent study is on droughts in California, but the research published this month in Nature Communications has implications for Alaska.
“The exceptionally dry conditions (in California) during the winters of 2012–2015 were accompanied by a prominent dynamical feature: a persistent geopotential ridge located in the North Pacific,” they write. “This ridge pushed storm tracks further north, resulting in wetter than normal conditions over the northwest and substantial drying over the southwest of the United States. A La Niña event in 2011/12 and anomalously warm sea-surface temperatures (SST) over the west tropical Pacific in 2012/13 and 2013/14 may have helped sustain the North Pacific geopotential ridge.”
These are the conditions that pushed warm, winter storms into Alaska in the same period, and they’re doing it again this year.
Climate scientist Daniel Swain – a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles – has fingered what he calls a “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (The Triple R)” over the West Coast blocking the normal eastward movement of tropical weather systems.
When those systems hit the ridge, they are forced north toward the Gulf of Alaska. The result can be the wind and rain that hit Cordova on Sunday, and before that the snow bomb that landed on Valdez and the Copper River Basin.
Ivana Cvijanovic and her team at Livermore are theorizing these Triple Rs could be a new norm. What their research indicates is that even without global warming, the mere loss of Arctic sea ice “alters the high-latitude energy budget” enough to change the way climate functions.
The reason is simple. White ice reflects the sun’s energy back into space. Dark ocean waters absorb some of that energy. And the influence of that extra energy reaches far beyond the Arctic.
Think of the Earth as a big, sweating organism constantly trying to dump heat into space. As it warms up, it has to figure out different ways to shuttle heat between warm areas and cool areas to maintain a comfortable temperature, and the movement of that energy has big implications.