PLACER RIVER – The wind blew hard and cold from the north on Tuesday, and the new normal urban Alaska has come to expect seemed a long time gone.
The snow was creeping quickly down the Chugach and Kenai mountains bordering Turnagain Arm, and friends to the north in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley were already reporting the white stuff piled inches deep in Hatcher Pass.
The National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a freeze warning for nearly all of the state’s urban core, and by morning Wednesday a dog dish of water left out overnight would be frozen over with a half-inch of ice.
Weather vs climate
Though NWS records now reflect a 50.5 degree average temperature for the month, a perfect “normal” by long-term climate standards, the mid-month cold snap feels almost like the coming of new Ice Age against the backdrop of a September 2019 nearly three and a half degrees above normal and a September 2018 more than five and a half degrees above normal.
Alaska, some will remember, was big news in 2019 when the 49th state set a record for warmth with a statewide, average temperature for the year that was 6.2 degrees above the long-term average.
The story noted that from 2014 to 2018, the record high temperatures set in the 49th state greatly outnumbered the record lows, and quoted author John McPhee’s observations on the pristine wilderness of the far north in the iconic Alaska book “coming into the country.”
“…While human beings have hunted, fished, and gathered wild food in this valley in small groups for centuries, they have not yet begun to change it,” McPhee wrote.
To which Climate.gov’s John Dos Passos Coggin added the observation that “whether McPhee knew it or not, though, Alaska was poised for profound change.”
McPhee, of course, wasn’t writing about climate or geography. He was writing about industrialization – the roads and cities, the factories and shopping centers, the farms and the mines that have transformed the face of the planet.
Most scientists now believe that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the transformative works of the species homo sapien have also reached into the skies, that the ever-rising volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2) filling the atmosphere are due to ever-increasing human uses of fossil fuels.
Increasing volumes of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere are believed to be creating a greenhouse-like effect that slows the rate at which the solar radiation that naturally warms the planet escapes back into space.
The result is a slow but steadily increasing global temperature, which has sparked fears of melting glaciers, rising oceans and increasing odds of deadly heat in the planet’s mid-latitudes where most of the human population is clustered.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called for global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to try to limit the warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) or less over the course of the next 30 years.
“At 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, about 14 percent of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least once every five years, while at 2 degrees warming that number jumps to 37 percent,” the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has warned.
“At Earth’s mid-latitudes, the hottest days will be up to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming and up to 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer at 2 degrees Celsius warming….Longer warm spells will affect many densely populated regions. At warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius, twice as many megacities as today are likely to become heat stressed, potentially exposing 350 million more people by 2050.”
A global media that now specializes in fear-mongering rather then reasoned explanation was this summer hyping this connection to the weather of the U.S. West to leverage internet clicks.
“Northwest heat wave swamped the vulnerable, was a harsh climate wake-up call,” the Los Angeles Times reported, echoing the 2019 reports of climate-change disasters already ravaging Alaska.
The Alaska heat-wave of 2019 no doubt played some part in the jump in the number of wildland fires, but there were other factors at play, fire being a very natural part of many Alaska ecosystems and federal agencies, in recogition of the former fact, having a let-burn policy for large parts of the vast wilderness.
But in an agenda-driven media, the focus was on climate change right up until the weather shifted away from warming.
The pendulum swings
Climate change, unfortunately, is not a direct line from where temperatures are today to where they will be decades in the future. Climate is an average of the wildly variable year-to-year swings in weather.
January 2020’s cold and snowy slap in the face after “five years of dramatic climate change” marked the beginning of a return to something near normal.
“Alaska was noticeably cooler in 2020 than in the previous seven years, with a mean temperature of 0.4 degree Fahrenheit above the 1981 to 2010 average,” the Alaska Climate Research Center reported at the end of 2020.
The trend has continued into 2021.
The new year started off warmer than normal, but quickly took a turn toward the dark side. February 2021 ended up 6 degrees below normal, according to NWS records, March, 7.4 degrees colder; April, 2 degrees colder; and May, 0.1 degree colder.
Summer temperatures were near normal with June slightly above and July and August slightly below and then came September with its snow, cold and hints of an early winter.
If the heavy down on the breasts of the mallards shot here Tuesday were any indication, it might be a cold one. Or a cold one compared to the “new normal” the majority of the state’s population huddled in the urban core around Anchorage was starting to embrace after the mini-warming from 2014 to 2018.
This isn’t that.
The average yearly temperature to date for Anchorage 2021 hanging near the long-term climate normal, but as this is written it is snowing in midtown Anchorage, and on the hillsides above, and the temperature is 36 degrees – four degrees below the average minimum for the day and a full 16 degrees below the average maximum of 52.
It is looking like another fairly normal winter in the north, which is something sure not to make national news.
While most eyes were focused on the heat in the U.S. Northwest, there were equally odd shifts in weather far to the north.
“…Aa we approach the Arctic sea ice annual minimum in the coming week or so, the slow sea ice melt continues to be impressive,” MIT’s Judah Cohen, the guru of the arctic oscillation wrote at the start of the month. “Sea ice extent continues to be greater than any year since 2014 and there is a good chance that will hold. Sea ice is near normal on the North Pacific side of the Arctic and well below normal on the Eurasian to North Atlantic side of the Arctic. I think this is an interesting anomaly pattern that is conducive to perturb the polar vortex but we shall see as it is very, very early.”
Nonetheless, it might be a good idea to take a hint from the waterfowl now quickly fleeing the state for warmer climes and stock up on down.