Temperate AK

Warm zones in red/AER graphic

Here we go again.

Snows looks to be coming early to Siberia, so those living in Alaska’s urban core might want to prepare for another wet, windy winter.

If environmental scientist Judah Cohen is right in his theory that the Siberian fall is the tail that shakes the seasonal dog all across the northern hemisphere, the 380,000 residents of the Anchorage metro area would be advised to invest in good rain gear.

Cohen is warning of  “an extensive snowfall across Siberia in the month of October (which) has implications for NH (northern hemisphere) winter weather with extensive snow cover favoring a relatively cold winter across the NH mid-latitude continents.”

What this classically means for Alaska, however, is the opposite.

When the polar vortex, the circular flow of air around the North Pole, shifts to set up an Arctic Oscillation pushing cold air south from the Arctic along the track of the ancient Wisconsin Ice Sheet into the center of North America, warm air gets pulled north across the Gulf of Alaska.

Can you say “Pineapple Express?”

Last year it brought October snow to Chicago only to see Alaska blamed.

“A buckled jet stream weather pattern known as the Pineapple Express has sent warm weather from closer to the equator north to Alaska, setting records there, even as it’s forced below-normal temperatures south from closer to the Arctic and into the Chicago area.”

Why Hawaii didn’t get tagged for this is unclear, but then in Cohen’s analysis, Siberia might be the ultimate culprit.

Chaos theory

If this all reminds you of that old suggestion that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can trigger a chain of events leading to a tornado in Texas, you’ve got the essence of the hypothesis.

That butterfly is the foundation of “chaos theory,” the idea that unpredictable events in one place – in this case the snow in Siberia – can serve to trigger even bigger events elsewhere.

The late meteorologist, mathematician and MIT professor Edward Lorenz is credited with formulating the chaos theory.

He “was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere–or a model of the atmosphere–could trigger vast and often unsuspected results,” his obituary records.

“These observations ultimately led him to formulate what became known as the butterfly effect–a term that grew out of an academic paper he presented in 1972 entitled: ‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?’

“Lorenz’s early insights marked the beginning of a new field of study that impacted not just the field of mathematics but virtually every branch of science – biological, physical and social. In meteorology, it led to the conclusion that it may be fundamentally impossible to predict weather beyond two or three weeks with a reasonable degree of accuracy.”

Cohen is in some ways challenging fundamental chaos theory to the extent that he believes there could be unpredictable events of such significance that they do make it possible to predict weather over the longer term, at least on a broad scale.

At the moment, this is all tied up in a block of high-pressure air over the Ural Mountains stopping the normal west to east flow of weather around the globe.

That block “is expected to extend north towards the North Pole and displace the tropospheric polar vortex (TPV) into Siberia,” Cohen wrote in his blog last week. “The dropping down of the TPV from near the North Pole into Siberia should bring an extended period of cold and snow….At least in my opinion, an extensive snowfall across Siberia in the month of October has implications for NH winter weather with extensive snow cover favoring a relatively cold winter across the NH mid-latitude continents.”

Cohen concedes there are no guarantees of this outcome, but as a weather analyst for Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), a company that advises big business on weather risk management, he has often proved prescient.

Complicated system

And his ponderings of how the atmosphere acts while the planet spins around inside its protective envelope and space pulls at the envelopes outer edges are always interesting.

If that block of high-pressure air over the Urals is still around in “four to six weeks and beyond, I would have a hard time containing myself in the blog and on Twitter,” Cohen wrote. “This pattern is not only favorable for active winter weather in Western Europe and the Eastern US, but I believe is a strong precursor to weakening of the stratospheric polar vortex (SPV). But it is very early in the season and how much impact it ultimately has on the winter season is an open question.

“To use a baseball analogy, you would rather see your team get hot in September and October than May. I doubt you will be making plans to attend the World Series just because your team had a strong May. Still you would rather see your team do better than worse in May and a strong May could create enough momentum to lead to a strong o lead to a strong overall season.  Same with this pattern, it is not going to have an impact on our winter weather by itself, but the pattern could create momentum that eventually has a strong influence on the winter.”

Short version: Cohen, like everyone else, is a long way from finding any fully predictable patterns here, but to continue with that baseball analogy, there might be enough to help the odds makers calculate who will make it to the World Series.

You wouldn’t want to bet the house on early snow in Siberia meaning a mild winter for Alaska, but if you’ve got some expendable income that it safe to gamble, this might be a better bet than picking your favorite football team to make it to the Super Bowl. (Unless, of course, you favorite football team is the Kansas City Chiefs.)

Meanwhile, in the short term, all weather predictions – including those of Cohen – are more accurate. And here are his for Alaska:

  • Monday through Friday, “widespread normal to above normal temperatures.”
  • Oct. 10 through the middle of the month, “widespread normal to above normal temperatures.”
  • And for the rest of October, a pattern favoring “relatively warm temperatures” for all of Western North America.

He expects above-normal precipitation for the Alaska Panhandle. How much of that might creep north of the Panhandle is not discussed. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is not as hot on October in Alaska, but it’s not that much different either.

“Long-term positive temperature trends enhance odds for above-normal temperatures for parts of the CONUS (Continental U.S.),” it says. “Strong negative trends in sea ice coverage and thickness and so warmer than normal ocean surface temperatures in waters surrounding Alaska also favors higher odds for above-normal temperatures for parts of Western and Northern Alaska.

“La Nina conditions tend to favor near to below-normal temperatures in parts of the Pacific Nothwest, Southeast Alaska and the Alaska Panhandle (sic), but with positive long term trends in some of these areas counteracting this generally weak La Nina signal, equal chances is forecast for these areas.”

The warmer, human-friendlier Alaska, it would appear, is becoming the new normal. At this time a little over three decades ago, ice was rapidly covering the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas along the northern edge of Alaska. And by Oct. 7 – less than a week from now – three gray whales would be trapped in the ice off Barrow, now Utqiaġvik, but still the northernmost city in Alaska and the nation.

The whales sparked a “rescue” effort that became an international news story. This year, as was the case last year, there is no danger of any whales getting caught.

If you click on the Utqiaġvik sea ice webcam now, you will see nothing but water. There is no ice anywhere in sight. The National Snow & Ice Data Center shows the ice still far to the east of Utqiaġvik.

Russia’s Northern Sea Route to Asia remains ice free and wide open, and yet there is that expectation of snow in Siberia. As the planet warms, it’s hard to avoid pondering whether the climate zones are shifting as well they did during the Ice Age.

By early November of last year, it was 11 degrees below zero in International Falls, Minn. – 30 degrees colder than normal for that city along the U.S.-Canada border – while a 32-degree Anchorage looked out across an ice-free Cook Inlet. 

Could there be a replay this year?











7 replies »

  1. The only real downside to our warming is less snow at lower elevations thus less good skiing and snowmobiling. However even these activities can still be sustained at higher elevations. Oh, and people going through the ice on rivers in western alaska is another bad outcome.

    • I presume the change in albedo of the arctic ocean (less ice reflectivity and more heat absorption by water) is the main reason we do not get the super cold arctic high pressure systems clashing with the north pacific much here in southcentral.

    • Chris,
      Trees and shrubs are on the move! North on the mainland, south on Kodiak Is.
      Inch by inch.Numerous research articles documenting the invasion of immigrents,well transients perhaps.
      Not being computer model literate,l think its pretty hard to get a real world working- close to Vegas odds- long distance accurate weather model by projecting from a point west of Ak.
      Since with the discovery of the world being round, theres always a point further west than where you are currently.I have no idea what goes on climate wise in say the arctic north of Norway/western Russia,but I suspect its similar to what we are seeing here on the Arctic coast.
      My feeling beyond a week or two, is that the great expanse of the pacific is really the ultimate force multiplier.Like a radiator it absorbs a large amount of heat and then gives some of it off seasonally, always working to the east with the spin of the globe.
      The eastward Japanese/aleutian current, and the great swirling vortexes in the pacific are what drive the long temp cycles(in my mind).
      You have to see the Pacific to understand how big it really is,and as a footnote, when you see a myriad of sealife (mammals, fish,sharks,avian)slowly strangling with the old plastic 6pack can holders,you’ll
      understand why they are gone.

  2. 15 years ago it used to get below freezing at the end of August in Willow…
    Then is slowly started extending into September until we saw our first night below freezing.
    Now it does not consistently get below freezing until well into the middle of October?
    Seems like this warming trend in our northern climate is here to stay.

  3. Glad you didn’t use “Global Warming” to describe the naturally occurring phenomenon, La Nina.
    Guess we will see how strong it is:
    “Alaska: This might be the year to splurge and book that Alaskan-heli trip you’ve been saving for. While snow is typically reliable in Alaska, a La Niña system bodes well for the area. We should expect to see colder than normal temps, and more snowfall like the Canadian Rockies.
    Alaska and the Pacific Northwest: The weather is generally cooler with above-average rainfall.”

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