The hillsides climbing into the Chugach Mountains above Alaska’s largest city were bare and brown with lingering patches of green grass as Thanksgiving approached, and the only hint of the season was the sun low in the southern sky as it closed in on the winter equinox with its fewer than five and half hours of daylight.
Forty miles to the east, the slopes of the Alyeska Ski Resort were empty. For decades, the by-far-biggest ski area in the 49th state scheduled its opening for Thanksgiving Day. It announced last year that it was ending that tradition because of years of erratic snows.
On Wednesday, that decision looked prescient. Anchorage was cooling off after another week of almost unbelievably warm weather, but the temperature still hit 31 degrees – five degrees above the normal high for the day, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
State parks director Ethan Tyler, a resident of the ski town of Girdwood at the base of Mount Alyeska, was thinking about digging out his surf board to ride a Thanksgiving Day bore tide expected late in the afternoon. His decision was hinging on air temperature.
Tyler had a cut-off of 35 degrees. The most optimistic forecasts called for temperatures in the mid-30s, but the NWS was predicting it would peak at 31 degrees – near normal for Girdwood this time of year.
That was a change.
Most everything else related to the weather has been abnormal in recent weeks. What little snow there was earlier in the month has melted or been washed away by rain.
About the only white to be seen in the Anchorage area these days is the white of the snowshoe hares flashing across the brown terrain as they run for their lives – their winter fur evolved over eons to blend with the snow now a major liability.
The weather has sparked a lot of discussion of global warming and climate change, but the climate in the north has always been hugely variable. Part of what is going on is likely due to a slowly and steadily warming planet, but double-digits temperature shifts – the temperature on Monday in Anchorage was 15 degrees above normal – are far above the predictions of climate models.
As the Fairbanks-based Alaska Climate Research Center in notes, the long-term trend for the state rollercoasters upward from 1949 to where we are today and is not “a linear trend (that) might have been expected from the fairly steady observed increase of CO2 (carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) during this time period.
“It can be seen that there are large variations from year to year and the five-year moving average demonstrates large increase in 1976. The period 1949 to 1975 was substantially colder than the period from 1977 to 2014, however since 1977 little additional warming has occurred in Alaska with the exception of Barrow and a few other locations. The stepwise shift appearing in the temperature data in 1976 corresponds to a phase shift of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation from a negative phase to a positive phase.”
The Centers graphic about says it all. The cold Alaska climate of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s has been replaced by the warmer Alaska climate since.
Alaska views on the change appear mixed. Few complain about the warmer temperatures, but many curse the lack of snow which makes the short days of late fall and early winter look even grayer and bleaker.
Many wonder how long it will last – if it lasts. History would argue for a shift back to cold, but the 2017 report from the United Nations Climate Change panel argues ever-increasing volumes of atmospheric CO2 due to human use of fossil fuels has created a new paradigm.
“An astonishing 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century. The past three years were the hottest since records began,” Patricia Espinosa, the panel’s executive secretary writes in the report.
Though a warming planet is generally viewed as a “bad thing,” temperature increases are more a mixed bag for the coldest state in the nation.
“Salmon stocks from Alaska have been highly productive since the 1976 regime change in the North Pacific, an estimate three times more productive than in the 1946-75 period,” according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “The periods of increased salmon production correspond to…a warming of the surface waters in the Gulf of Alaska.”
The three largest salmon harvests in Alaska history have come in the past five years. The 2013 catch, the largest in state history, was 272 million. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists used to consider anything about 100 million a good year. The five-year average harvest is now more than twice that at about 205 million salmon.
Warmer weather has boosted not only fisheries but agriculture as well. Alaska barley – the great hope of the late 1970s and early ’80s that turned into the big bust of the early ’90s – is making a comeback.
Could it become even more? Possibly. The global brewing industry is being threatened by a shortage of barley, which is driving up barley prices.
“Barley crops in northern Europe have fried under the hot and dry weather, raising potential problems for brewers that need to buy malt. Yields in key producers in Scandinavia, northern Germany and the Baltic countries could be 30 to 40 percent below normal,”Bloomberg reported in August.
Alaska, which now produces great beer, might simply have been ahead of its time on barley. The growing season is tilting in the state’s favor. It now averages more than 110 days – almost four months – in the Fairbanks area of Central Alaska, according to the National Weather Service.
The season has not dropped below 100 days since 1996, something that happened regularly from 1996 back to 1930. Fairbanks in that year witnessed a 130-day growing season that would not be bettered until 1999, and since then there have five days with seasons of 128 days or more.
The 2006 to 2015, 10-year average is almost 121 days, and the last few years have been warmer than that period. Fairbanks was 3 degrees above normal in September of this year and 8.5 degrees above normal in October.
For the month, the coastal city of Anchorage – in or around which lives about half the state’s population – is running 7 degrees above normal, according to the NWS. And the federal agency is expecting that to continue.
Rain and snow are in the forecast for the weekend with temperatures expected to climb near 40. That is expected to continue into the last week of November, and the national Climate Prediction Center is expecting warmer than normal temperatures for Alaska for December, January and February.
If this isn’t the new normal, it sure looks a lot like the new normal.
But then the Vikings once thought that, too, in a place they called Greenland. Unfortunately, the warming didn’t last and the Vikings were gone, which is its own interesting story and it has changed signficantly from what was thought to be known a decade ago.