Halfway through the winter season, Southwestern Alaska finds itself confronting a strange, new world.
The lower Kuskokwim River remains unfrozen. December felt like an average November, maybe October. And the temperature on Sunday evening in Bethel was 37 degrees, 25 degrees above the norm of 12 degrees.
To the west, the Bering Sea remains strangely devoid of ice in many places south of Nunivak Island, which is iced in by now in most winters. The lack of ice continues a pattern the National Snow & Ice Data Center observed in its annual report on Arctic Ice in December.
“Baked Alaska and 2017 in review” is how the federal agency headlined that report. It noted slow-growing ice in the Chukchi Sea, the lack of ice in the Bering Sea, and the warm temperatures over Central Alaska.
December air temperatures at the 2,500 feet level over “the Arctic Ocean were 2 to 6 degrees Celsius (4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average,” the report said. “Prominent warm spots were found over north Central Asia and Central Alaska (more than 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit above average).”
On the ground, Bethel recorded a December 14.4 degrees above normal. The average minimum for the month – 19.4 degrees – matched the average monthly maximum for last year, which was not a particularly cold winter.
The warm weather has made travel hazardous in a region where the 21st Century residents look forward to easy travel by snowmachine on the region’s frozen creeks, lakes and rivers.
River ice remains broken and shifting 30 to 35 miles downstream from Bethel, the regional hub for the Southwest, and several miles upstream from the village of Tuntutuliak the river is wide open. Tuntutuliak is about 40 miles downriver from the regional hub.
“It was unsettling to see so much of our river still unfrozen when in 2017 there was a marked truck road on the ice all the way to Tuntutuliak by Jan. 9,” the Bethel Search & Rescue Group reported after an overflight to survey river conditions about 10 days ago.
Winter returned for a few days after the survey. The temperature reached a low of 5 degrees on Tuesday only to start climbing again. The average for Saturday was 34 degrees – 17 degrees above normal. It continued the trend of December.
Bethel Search & Rescue, a volunteer group, has been kept busy marking open leads up and down the Kusko trying to keep snowmachine riders out of open water, and rescuing those who don’t pay attention and end up in the water anyway.
The group has been pleading with people to respect the markers instead of taking risks – “water skipping” is an old Alaska game for crossing open water by hydroplaning a snowmachine – and to avoid driving after drinking.
“Successful rescue this morning of another intoxicated traveler,” the group posted below a photo of someone on the ice wrapped in a space blanket last week. “This person was hurt badly and severely hypothermic. Just a few hours before this a BSAR team completed an all night search successfully for another intoxicated person. This picture is only a snap shot of the dozens of similar searches BSAR has had to do in recent weeks since the trails started opening up.
“Please Don’t Drink & Travel”
The goods news for Bethel and the rest of Southwest Alaska is that it appears winter will make a return later this week, but the National Weather Service doesn’t seem all that certain it will stay.
Through the week, the agency is predicting the weather pattern to become “much quieter over the mainland as cold is allowed to filter south from the Arctic. This will bring temperatures back to normal for this time of year, likely dropping below normal by the end of the week, especially out West.
“By Thursday, (however), the models fall out of agreement and solutions become unclear regarding specific features that may track into the area, though at this point models are all generally showing the storm track still staying to our south. Models come back into agreement by weekend as the next low tracks across the northern Pacific and into the western Bering, which could potentially be the next weather system to impact the mainland.”
Those lower pressure systems packing warm, moist, Pacific air are what have been playing havoc with weather in much of Alaska all winter. Some climatologists have suggested this might be something of a new normal linked to an increasingly ice-short Arctic Ocean.
They believe the warming Arctic has altered atmospheric air currents (think of the atmosphere as one big river) enough to put a northward bend into the generally west-to-east jet stream that drives global weather.
“Below-average pressure over easternmost Siberia and above-average pressure over the Gulf of Alaska drove southwesterly winds into Central Alaska and the Yukon region” is how the Sea & Ice report put it. Those are the winds that bring more warmth to an area of the globe already warming.
“Ocean temperatures for the previous decade from an oceanographic mooring (in the Bering Sea) show a shift toward warmer temperature of 2 degrees C around 2000,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Of particular importance is that recent winter temperatures are above the freezing point, indicating no or little sea ice in the southeastern Bering Sea for the previous four years.”
There is both good news in that and bad news.
“The biomass of pollock, a major commercial fishery, increased by 400 percent following the late-1970s climate shift and has generally remained high at 10 million metric tons, an enormous amount compared with many other fisheries,” NOAA says. “Lack of sea ice should favor biological productivity in the upper ocean compared to near bottom species.”
Pollock provided the basis for most of the country’s fishsticks and fast-food fish sandwiches.
On the other hand, the warming trend has been a bit of a bummer for the winter playground that once was on Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. Snowmobilers usually start hitting the trails in the Chugach National Forest there around Thanksgiving.
Most of the forest has remained closed this year due to lack of snow. Only a tiny area in and around Turnagain Pass is open, and avalanche danger is considerable in much of that area at the moment.
The Weather Service is calling for a possible inch or two of snow for the Kenai Monday, but then it’s supposed to start raining again. By Tuesday night, the report for Moose Pass in heart of the Peninsula says, “rain. The rain could be heavy at times.”
Welcome to the new Alaska.