With less than five weeks to go until the first day of spring, winter has finally arrived on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, though the wilderness playground south of the state’s largest city remains a bit short on snow.
Chugach National Forest trail technician Irene Lindquist Thursday reported she and others on a snowmachine expedition along the trail from Cooper Lake to Upper Russian Lake were turned back “by willows obstructing the winter route to the south of Cooper Lake.”
In a normal winter, those willows would be buried beneath snow, but this is not a normal winter. That’s good news for moose, which survive the season of the cold and dark by browsing on willow twigs, but bad news for winter recreationists who look on winter as the time to get out and roam in the 49th state.
Still, the winter play season is into full swing at last. Lindquist reported the Carter Lake Trail access to Crescent Lake in the Kenai Mountains near Cooper Landing will open to snowmachines today as will the Placer Creek drainage at the head of Turnagain Arm.
Both areas had been closed up until now because of a lack of snow.
The ability to travel with ease to places hard to reach in the ice-free, snow-free months is the upside of the winter cold and snow that have been fading in these days of climate change.
Climate normal did, howevder, stage a bit of a comeback in 2017 after the warmest year in history across the state in 2016. The 2017 Anchorage temperature averaged 37.6 degrees for the year – almost four degrees less than the year before. It was the coldest year since 2012, and ninth coldest or ninth warmest (take your pick) in the last 18 years.
Still, the year was a full degree above a 50-year average dragged down by the state’s big freeze in the early 1970s. The five years from 1971 to 1975 averaged only 33.2 degrees. The last five, even with the chill of 2017, have averaged 39.6 degrees and included the only two years on record when the annual temperatures went over 40 degrees.
The Anchorage temperature averaged 40.5 in 2014 and hit the record of 41.5 in 2016 as it followed the statewide trend.
Whether 2017 was the beginning of a slide back toward colder years in an ever oscillating but slowly climbing climate record or an oddity only time will tell. The new year started off 3.1 degrees above normal even if an end of January cold snap that pushed temperatures down to zero made it feel colder.
Temperatures of zero are not historically unusual in Anchorage. The 1971 average temperature for the month was 2.7 degrees, and it averaged 2.9 in 2012. The 20.2 this January was way above the 13.6 average of last January, but nowhere close to the Januaries of those years that reached annual temperatures above 40 degrees.
February 2018, like January, is so far running well above average in Anchorage, too, with the regional trends generally tracking the same path. The Palmer area ended 2017 almost 4.5 degrees colder than 2016 – its warmest year on record – but the month of January was 10 degrees warmer than a year ago.
From the major cities on the Peninsula north to Mount Denali-jumping-off-point of Talkeeta in the foothills of the Alaska Range, regional temperatures followed that same general trend.
The new norm
As winter temperatures have moderated all around the Gulf of Alaska coast in recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of a permanent shift to milder winters linked to shrinking Arctic sea ice.
Bob Berwyn at Inside Climate News wrote a good explainer on the theory earlier this month. The general thinking goes like this:
Less white, sunlight reflecting off ice in the Arctic means more dark, blue, sunlight absorbing water. As the water absorbs sunlight and warms, it stores heat. The subsequent release of that heat warms the entire region, and the Arctic begins to heat up faster than the rest of the planet.
“Research suggests that this reduction in the temperature difference is robbing the jet stream of some of its strength,” Berwyn writes, “making it wobblier and contributing to more temperature extremes.”
Thus instead of revolving neatly around the planet, the jet stream wobbles around the planet. Alaska has been the beneficiary or victim of these wobbles, depending on your idea of the best winter, and the U.S. East Coast has been the opposite of whichever because of the way the wobbles line up with the U.S. West Coast.
Basically the jet stream wobbles north across the Pacific Ocean carrying warm, moist air into the urban gut of Alaska, pushes north to the edge of the Arctic, picks up cold air, and then wobbles back south into the Central and Eastern U.S.
Maybe Minnesota is onto something with wanting to rebrand the Midwest as the “North.” Geographically, of course, the label is inaccurate, but in a climatological, freeze-your-butt-off sense it might work if this newer theory of climate change proves true.
But any sort of proof in that regard is a long time away. In the nearer term, the weather is what it is. Climate prediction is a difficult business. Last fall, the national Climate Prediction Center was predicting a colder than normal winter for coastal Alaska.
That didn’t happen. The Center is now predicting warmer than normal temperatures through the end of February into early March. The prediction also calls for above normal precipitation. Whether it will come as rain or snow, if it comes, remains to be seen.
Beyond March 9, the predictions are for equal chances of warmer or colder, which is certainly the safest best. In the near term?
The National Weather Service is predicting temperatures today into the low 30s. The long-term normal high is near 28 degrees.