UPDATED 12/27/2019:The National Weather Service is now reporting a minus-65 temperature reported this morning from near the Tanana River in the center of the state “is the coldest official temperature in Alaska since Jan 2012, when a cooperative observer in Ft. Yukon observed 66 degrees below zero.”
At 1 p.m. on the day after Christmas, the temperature on the digital thermometer at Jack Reakoff’s home 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Wiseman, AK, read 50.1-degrees-below zero.
By then, Reakoff had spent days watching the numbers click backward on the face of the electronic thermometer of the 21st Century in the same way the old-timers once watched mercury plummet in a glass thermometer. Wiseman was in those days a small mining community destined to become famous in conservationist Bob Marshall’s iconic “Arctic Village.” an account of life on the edge of the wilderness so successful it is still available in print today.
Marshall was in Wiseman in the early 1930s when Alaska was cold. It has warmed since but was witnessing a taste of the old on Thursday.
“Global warming just had a reset,” Reakoff messaged. “The wind blew for a week at 5 to 10 mph with temperatures from minus-25 to minus-40 – windchill to minus-45 to minus-60. The last three hours the wind stopped and it is cooling down steady. This (minus 50.1) is current on the National Weather Service thermometer I take readings with.”
A long-time resident of the Brooks Range, Reakoff knows how dangerous these sorts of temperatures.
“The old-timers in Alaska have a saying that ‘travelling at 50 degrees below is all right as long as it’s all right,’…but there is always more or less chance in travelling at low temperatures, because a very small thing may necessitate a stop, and a stop may turn into a serious thing. Archdeacon Hudson Stuck observed in his 1916 memoir, “Ten Thousand Miles With a Dog Sled: A narrative of winter travel in Interior Alaska.”
“At such temperatures one must keep going,” Stuck wrote. “No amount of clothing that it is possible to wear on the trail will keep one warm while standing still. For dogs and men alike, constant brisk motion is necessary; for dogs as well as men—even though dogs will sleep outdoors in such cold without harm—for they cannot take as good care of themselves in the harness as they can when loose. A trace that needs mending, a broken buckle, a snow-shoe string that must be replaced, may chill one so that it is impossible to recover one’s warmth again. The bare hand cannot be exposed for many seconds without beginning to freeze; it is dangerous to breathe the air into the lungs for any length of time without a muffler over the mouth.”
About a decade before Stuck’s book was published, esteemed American author Jack London had penned “To Build a Fire,” a short story that was to become one of his most famous tales about life in the north. It focused on a man who ignored the warnings against traveling along on the trail in extreme cold and froze to death.
London’s fiction was tragically repeated in real life only two years ago when 27-year-old Travis Loughridge died along a little-used trail from Shungnak to Huslia in north-central Alaska after his snowmachine got stuck in deep snow with temperatures at 50- to 60-degrees below zero.
With the return of such temperatures, the National Weather Service (NWS) was cautioning rural Alaskans to travel with care and seek shelter where necessary.
The foremost authority on the polar vortex – the swirl of air around the North Pole that exerts a significant amount of control over Northern Hemisphere weather – Cohen had expected Alaska weather to stay generally warm under the influence of an oscillating pattern of upper-atmosphere wind that pulls warm air north from the central Pacific Ocean and pushes it over Alaska into the Arctic where it chills before rippling south and east through the middle of the North American continent.
It is now looking like that pattern – which has become something of a new normal in Alaska winters of late – has changed.
“I have said many times the first thing that you learn as a seasonal forecaster is humility and these are one of those times,” Cohen wrote on his blog the day before Christmas. “What is humbling me at the moment is that I have expected a weakening of the stratospheric polar vortex (PV) based on fall Arctic predictors – extensive Siberian snow cover, more limited Arctic sea ice extent and a relatively warm Arctic. Following (that) PV weakening or disruption, severe winter weather would be more frequent at least regionally across the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.”
The mid-latitudes are obviously of more interest to international weather forecasters because they are home to much of the northern hemisphere population. It’s invariably big news when the polar vortex spins an Arctic chill into the Midwest or onto the Atlantic seaboard.
Most Alaskans are also now aware that the oscillation of the vortex that causes that Lower 48 cooling pulls that warm air north out of the central Pacific Ocean into the 49th state.
The good news (for Alaskans who hate climate change)/bad news (for Alaskans who like mild winters) is that the current pattern might now linger for a while.
More to come?
“The biggest challenge that I see right now is the center of low, mid-tropospheric (pressure) heights is currently just north of Alaska and is expected to expand in breadth over the next two weeks – enough so to fill the entire Arctic basin,” Cohen wrote. “This is a fairly classic pattern of low heights in the Arctic and high heights in the mid-latitudes resulting in a cold Arctic/warm continents pattern, all consistent with a positive Arctic oscillation.
“It seems a bit ironic (at least to me) that with the record low sea ice in the Chukchi-Bering seas this fall, the incredibly warm year Alaska just experienced both in part due to persistent ridging in the region, this same region is predicted to now experience an extended period of low heights and below normal temperatures.”
Can you say “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”?
“As an aside, this is something that I had a hard time anticipating even just a few weeks ago,” Cohen admitted. “Another example where it is easy to become overconfident in outcomes based on recent trends. By itself this is not necessarily a threat to the veracity of the forecast but coupled with a strong stratospheric PV this pattern could become persistent and even dominate the winter….”
A Gulf of Alaska still filled with unusually warm water could help moderate the cold a bit for Southcoastal Alaska, but the weather service is now forecasting temperatures that recent residents of the Anchorage Metro areas might think unusual. Parts of the state’s largest city could hit 10 below on Friday night.
North of the Alaska Range, which arcs through the state to split it north to south before meeting the Aleutian Range to split it east to west, it was already bitterly cold on Thursday – 44-degrees-below zero at Galena on the Yukon River, 38-degrees-below-zero at McGrath on the upper Kuskokwim River, a comparatively warm minus-15 in Fairbanks but with the temperature falling toward a forecast 29-degrees-below-zero overnight with the Friday high predicted to stay “near -29.”
The story below went on to report that “the statewide average temperature for Alaska in 2019 is on pace to break a record set just three years earlier. That is, if a cold snap doesn’t change things.
“But according to University of Alaska Fairbanks climatologist Brian Brettschneider, even with temperatures dipping for much of the state, it’s looking like 2019 will still go down as the warmest calendar year ever in Alaska.”
Given a record warm summer, Alaska still might set a new annual high, but even if it doesn’t, it will join the long run of warmer years primarily driven by milder winters. Nine of the state’s 10 warmest years since 1900 have come in the last 39 years.
This seasonal pendulum of weather is not expected to swing back the temperatures of old in these times of general global warming, but even within the range of normal in a warmer world, deadly cold winters can be expected to continue in Alaska for decades and decades into the future.
Reakoff said the weather impressed some Chinese tourists visiting Wiseman. Fortunately, they were being guided, given that minus-50 weather must be taken seriously. In extreme cold and/or wind chill, “frostbite can occur quickly and even hypothermia or death if precautions are not taken,” the NWS warns.