Warm North!


An ice-free upper Cook Inlet at Anchorage’s doorstep/Craig Medred photo

The temperature at the airport in International Falls, Minn., hit 11 degrees below zero at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

It was a balmy 32 degrees in Anchorage at the same hour, and 9 degrees above zero in Fairbanks where the average low is minus-5 and once hit minus-36.

Cook Inlet, which normally starts growing ice in October, was ice-free, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast projected ice wouldn’t begin forming until the first part of December “due to warm sea-surface temperatures.”

Hello, global warming. Or would that be global cooling?

The normal Nov. 12 low for International Falls is 20 degrees – more than 30 degrees warmer than it was there Tuesday.

Minnesota has been trying to rebrand itself as “North.” Apparently, it’s getting what it wanted. Maybe if this keeps up, it can grow some glaciers – of which it once had many – to further the brand.

This is not a dismissal of global warming; it is a recognition of climate change.

The best evidence indicates the atmosphere above the planet is warming, and the volume of Arctic sea ice on the planet’s surface is shrinking. Both of these changes affect the movement of the atmospheric winds swirling around the globe.

And then there is the Siberian snow….

Blame/credit Russia

When it snows a lot in Siberia, says MIT climatologist Judah Cohen, the atmosphere takes note, and it has been snowing a lot in Siberia this year.

“The first step following above normal Siberian October snow cover are cold temperatures in Siberia,” Cohen wrote on his blog Monday. “This is coupled with a northwestward expansion of the Siberian high and ridging/blocking in the mid-troposphere in the Urals/Scandinavian region.”

This causes a serious ripple in the flow of the winds around the planet. The ripple creates pressure ridges in the atmosphere which push cold air south toward the Persian Gulf and then warm air north toward Alaska. Imagine what happens when you shake a blanket, and you’ll get the picture of how these ridges develop.

As a pressure ridge forms along the West Coast of North America to guide warm, Pacific Ocean air north to warm Alaska, a pressure gully develops at mid-continent to pull cold air down into the region of the country that no longer likes being called the Midwest – “a catchall for the state’s leftover after the all the other region’s of the country had been established,” as Eric Dayton, the son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has complained. 

The younger Dayton has led the push for rebranding Minnesota “The North.” If you don’t recognize the name Dayton, you should. The Dayton family in 1902 founded a department store chain known as Dayton’s in Minneapolis, and it grew and grew and grew,  and in 1962 it opened a discount store version of Dayton’s known as Target. 

Yes, that Target. The one with more than 1,800 stores across the country and the ranking as the eighth-largest retailer in the U.S.

“We’re the northernmost state in the contiguous U.S. Period,” the younger Dayton says. “That’s not branding. That’s just geography.

“Yes, the North sounds cold, but Minnesota is cold….So let’s own it.”


Twenty-thousand years ago, Minnesota seriously owned it, and Alaska was, in the words of University of Alaska science writer Ned Rozell, “green.”

“Canada looked like Antarctica but with no protruding mountains,” he writes. “When the last glacial maximum peaked…most of the continent — from the Arctic Ocean to the Missouri River — slept under a blanket of white.

“Alaska was different. Anchorage and the rest of Southcentral, Southeast, and the Alaska Peninsula were under ice, but interior Alaska was green.”

At that time, sea levels were 400 feet lower than they are today, and the Bering Land Bridge connected Alaska to Siberia.

“…A vast, grassy plain rich with wildlife extended clear across the north – a climate cold, but too dry for glaciers to form. Known as Beringia, this was home to now-extinct wooly mammoths, giant short-faced bears and scimitar cats, as well as animals that survive today such as wolverines and Alaska marmots,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Riley Woodford has observed.

How could this be?

The answer is in those shifts of oceanic and atmospheric circulations of water and air. Geologists, for instance, have concluded weather moved east to west across the North American continent during the last Ice Age – the opposite of today’s west to east pattern.

Dartmouth College scientist Xiahong Feng and colleagues, who studied tree-ring cellulose, say they found “direct evidence for an expansion of the polar easterlies to latitudes as low as 40 degrees north (latitude) as the “northern circumpolar vortex intensified and enlarged (and) a glacial anticyclone developed over the Laurentide Ice Sheet, and the position of the jet stream was shifted southward.”

The 40th parallel today defines the boundary between Kansas and Nebraska. To the east, the line passes through Philadelphia. To the west, it runs through Boulder, Colo., and just north of Eureka, Calif. 

Circumpolar vortex

A variation of the phenomenon that fueled the Ice Age is now bringing the chill to the Lower 48 states. The polar vortex still spins west to east, but there are those problematic southward shifts that chill the Heartland.

Last winter, while the country’s true northland was experiencing another warm winter. the polar vortex was big news Outside, as Alaskans call the rest of the continental U.S.

“Over 20 dead in U.S. polar vortex, frostbite amputations feared,” Reuters headlined above a January 2019 story that said “tens of millions of Americans braved Arctic-like temperatures on Thursday as low as minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 49 Celsius) that paralyzed the U.S. Midwest and were blamed for at least 21 deaths.

“Polar vortex 2019: Temperatures plunge to ‘historic’ lows not seen in decades,” NBC headlined. 

An expert on the polar vortex, Cohen says he can’t at this point predict whether the warm Alaska-cold Midwest pattern of the moment portends a replay of 2018-19 this winter.

“I do believe that a significant PV (polar vortex) disruption is becoming more and more likely but is not guaranteed,” he writes. “As I have discussed over the past year there is vertical energy transfer that can result in a ‘reflective’ PV disruption and alternatively vertical energy transfer that can result in an absorptive PV disruption.”

The reflective events are what push cold air into the middle of North America.  Cohen writes that a reflective disruption “is at least partially responsible for the cold air outbreaks of last week and this week.”

But he’s hedging his bets on the rest of the winter.

“These events are much easier to diagnose in hindsight, so I am not committing to one type of event or another,” he wrote. Short term he is expecting atmospheric ridging along the West Coast to shift warm, North Pacific air toward Alaska until sometime after midmonth when the weather could begin to cool for the state.

Climate is dictated by an incredibly complicated mix of air swirling up and down in the atmosphere as it swirls around the planet and water doing the same in the oceans. If one studies its many shifts – and focuses on the continuing build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide almost surely linked to humans transforming into gas huge volumes of carbon pulled from beneath the ground and burned to provide energy – it’s easy to start to worry about a “climate crisis.”

And it is almost equally as easy to become something of a climate-change skeptic. The planet endured huge climate changes before human influences began and humans – who date back a couple hundred thousand years – and humankind managed to survive even when much of the Northern Hemisphere was uninhabitable because it was buried under ice. 

There are those who’ve theorized that could happen again, too, with global warming triggering a new Ice Age.

Some might suggest this only adds to the reasons the global-warming warriors and the climate-change skeptics should join in an effort to wean the world from hydrocarbon energy.

That’s no easy task, but it’s going to have to happen someday because hydrocarbons are a finite resource.

Here and now

Weather, for better or worse, is generally easier to forecast than climate because with today’s technology it can be monitored as it moves across the surface of the globe.

So in case you haven’t already heard, the weather for Alaska’s largest metro area is about to experience a significant change. The National Weather Service Tuesday posted a “Winter Storm Watch” for the region, but the ice storm in the forecast is not exactly the sort of “winter” weather northerners expect in November.

From Wednesday evening through late Wednesday night, the agency says the Anchorage Metro area will be hit with freezing rain as warm, low-pressure air moves north out of the Gulf of Alaska to collide with colder, high-pressure air anchored over Central Alaska.

“Total ice accumulations of one-tenth to three-tenths of an inch (are) possible,” the agency warns.

The warning says travel could be hazardous through Thursday morning in the Anchorage Metro area. North into the Talkeetna Mountains and east toward the Copper Basin, the forecast changes to snow with six to 10 inches expected from Eureka to McCarthy.

Fairbanks and the rest of Central Alaska are expected to get a real winter storm with three to five inches of snow and unusually strong winds for the region gusting to 25 mph in the city and rising to 40 to 50 mph along the Steese, Elliott and Dalton highways to the north.

After the storm, the Weather Service is calling for Anchorage to warm again with temperatures rising to 42 degrees by Thursday. That’s 15 degrees above normal for the date.















6 replies »

  1. Up here in Barrow, we are often experiencing unusual warmth at precisely the same time people in the northern parts of the lower 48 are complaining about unusually cold temperatures.

  2. Americans are so self-centered they think the lower 48 is a good indicator of climate trends when in reality it is only 2 percent of the total globe.
    If you really want to see how “hot” things are you must look at the total picture that includes the other 98 percent of the earth’s surface.

  3. Can’t imagine what would be happening today politically if the Bering Land Bridge was submerging under out watch, but I suspect we would be throwing virgins and political opponents into the volcano…probably just around the corner with the GND!

  4. That’s a nice Craig Medred header-image at the top, from the same area (outing?) as another recently of his two buddies resting. Anything Alaska – hello! – wallops the stuffing outa stock images.

    Multiple pics/views/times/conditions of the same Subjects are several great gimmes for the local & single-proprietor photog/webmaster, which big-time providers & Graphics Depts have a tough time emulating/exploiting.

    Unfortunately (not really) I have an outdoors money-day I’ll be off to soon, but this Post offers several morsels I won’t want to ignore. I’m especially keen to see how the ‘warming is cooling’ ploy works.

    Good to see the shout-out for Ned Rozell and the GI Fairbanks. What a trooper. Tonight!

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