As yet another warm Gulf of Alaska storm slammed into the 49th state’s urban underbelly on Tuesday, pushing temperatures to near 40 degrees on the slopes of the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, the shrinking, growing, shrinking glaciers of the north were once again in the news.
“Scientists stunned by massive snowfall increases among Alaska’s highest peaks,” read the headline above a Washington Post story reporting what most Alaska mountaineers have known for a long time now:
Warm, moisture-laden storms that come roaring north across the Pacific Ocean from down near Hawaii to dump rain on Anchorage and the surrounding area in any month from October through July can generate big snows as they push deeper into the state and higher into the Alaska Range mountains.
What Dartmouth College scientists added to the discussion on Tuesday were numbers and a twist.
Annual snowfall on a major summit in North America’s highest mountain range has more than doubled since the beginning of the Industrial Age, said a press release coming out of the East Coast school. It summarized data from ice cores researchers from Dartmouth, the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire collected near 13,000 feet on Mount Hunter.
They tied it to a strengthing “Aleutian low” driven by “warmer tropical sea-surface temperatures, particularly in the western tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans.” They claim to have found a clear correlation between warming seas and deepening snow.
The correlation could have broad implications for Alaska.
“Climate change can impact specific regions in much more extreme ways than global averages indicate because of unexpected responses from features like the Aleutian Low,” said Erich Osterberg, who headed the latest research effort. “The Mount Hunter (snow) record captures the dramatic changes that can occur when you get a double whammy from climate change – warming air combined with more storms from warming ocean temperatures.”
The Hunter data would indicate Alaska could witness a future getting ever snowier, at least at high elevations, as it gets ever warmer and rainier at low elevations. What all of this means in the global context of melting glaciers and rising seas is harder to say.
The balance between glacier melt due to warming at low elevations in Alaska and glacier growth due to increasing snows at higher elevations has been the subject of considerable discussion among scientists for years.
A few Alaska glaciers have grown in recent times, but most are shrinking as the unstoppable force of gravity drags them down out of the cold mountains into the warmer lowlands.
Shad O’Neal, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) glaciologist at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage, said it is interesting that East Coast scientists managed to find a spot amidst the state’s ever-moving, ever-melting glaciers that enabled them to obtain ice cores that track annual snowfalls back 1,000 years.
But what those scientists discovered about recent snow wasn’t all that surprising. Weather patterns over the last 40 years have increasingly brought warm, moist air into Southcentral Alaska. Such air would be expected to dump a lot of snow as its move north through coastal areas into the higher, colder Alaska Range.
And though the Dartmouth study documented huge volumes of snow falling on the upper reaches of the glaciers there, the overall effect on the glaciers appears to have been minimal.
“None of the glaciers in the Alaska Range are growing,” O’Neal said, meaning that no matter how much snow is falling at higher elevations, the accumulation is being more than offset by melting at lower elevations.
So there is, at this time, no need to fear all that snow falling at 13,000 feet in the area around North America’s tallest peak is going to spark another Ice Age. In fact, just the opposite is expected.
“Glaciers have retreated dramatically during the last century in southeast Alaska, in
the Alaska Range, and along the south central coast,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted in its 2017 year-end report. “In Glacier Bay National Park, for example, Muir Glacier has retreated more than 31 miles since it was first observed in the late 19th century.”
The retreat is expected to continue. There are lengthy, geologic processes at play. A graph with the Dartmouth study shows snowfalls starting to increase along about the time the U.S. became a nation, and then increasing dramatically sometime in the mid-1800s.
“….Wintertime snowfall has increased 117 percent since the mid-19th century in southcentral Alaska in the United States,” the press release said. ” Summer snows also showed a significant increase of 49 percent in the short period ranging less than two hundred years.”
Those summer increases and growing winter accumulation would be in the mountainous parts of Southcentral Alaska. With the exception of the winter of 2011-2012, which set an all time snow record in Anchorage, the lowland, urban heart of the region has been generally getting less snow than normal for a most of a decade.
The winter of 2014-15 set a record for the lowest amount of snow in Anchorage. Just a shade over 25 inches fell, less than a fifth the amount of three years earlier. The following winter, 2015-16, ended with only half the normal snow accumulation.
Last year started with a snow drought,but ended with a little more snow than normal after an unusually snowy January and February. That bucked what has become a trend. Four of the five least snowiest winters in Anchorage since 1999-2000 have come in the past seven snow seasons.
This year is looking like another replay. The Anchorage Hillside is at 30 percent of normal, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Alyeska, a ski resort in Girdwood east of the state’s largest city, is at 46 percent of normal.
The Susitna Valley High School in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage is at 34 percent of normal. Exit Glacier south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula is at 31 percent of normal.
With more snow falling high in Alaska’s mountains and more rain and warmth at low elevations, the big, lingering climate question these days is whether the pattern seen in the past few years – the one that brings that “double whammy” to which Osterberg referred – is an anomaly or a new norm.
The urban core of Alaska, the region home to more than half the state’s population, will be a different place if it is the latter. When what climatologist Daniel Swain has described as a “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure air forms over the U.S. West Coast, it serves to push tropical weather systems north across the Pacific Ocean right into Prince William Sound and then north into Anchorage and the MatSu valley.
A number of climatologists are now theorizing that rising sea surface temperatures in the tropics, which look to continue, and disappearing sea ice in the Arctic, which looks to continue, might be responsible.
These two events far from Southcentral Alaska may “have an effect in amplifying the atmospheric anomalies,” as Ming-Ying Lee of the Taiwan Center Weather Bureau wrote, that create an impenetrable wall of high-pressure air over the West Coast that blocks east-bound weather systems and sends them spinning north toward Alaska.
An intensifying Aleutian Low in the western Pacific and a ridiculously reselient ridge along the North American West Coast are almost made for that double whammy. They would sync almost perfectly to push a lot of warm, moist air north into Alaska’s midsection.
These are the sort of low-pressure weather systems that bring warm weather and rain or snow to Alaska’s urban core, and snow to the mountains to the north of where most Alaskan live.
This weather pattern has been hard to miss in Anchorage in recent years, but the Dartmouth snow data would indicate it might have been going on at some level longer than most Alaskans ever thought.
“The general long-term trend for glaciers in Alaska is one of sustained mass loss,” said Shad O’Neal, A USGS glaciologist who also studies Icy Bay glaciers and is based at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. “While we have seen short term fluctuations like a heavy snow year and seasonal advance-retreat cycles, only a few tidewater glaciers are gaining mass over longer time scales, and these are exceptions, not the norm.”