With the snow squeaky cold and the temperature pushing toward 20 degrees below zero on the Tour of Anchorage Trail late Sunday night, the “new normal” with which some in Alaska’s largest city had become comfortable seemed far, far away.
This was the old Alaska, not the new one of a globally warming planet.
Lars could feel it in his Labrador retriever feet. Born with stiff, oily fur, his hot-blooded feet are not prone to ice balls. But at temperatures down past 10 degrees below zero those feet, depending on the dew point, melt snow that almost instantly freezes and ice grows between his toes.
Dog booties were invented for these sorts of conditions long, long ago. I’m old enough to remember the late Idiatod dog driver Herbie Nayokpuk, the Shishmaref Cannonball, showing off some made of sealskin in the way his ancestors had made them for generations.
Whether he ever used them, I don’t know. When seen on the trail when conditions demanded booties in the 1980s, his dogs invariably sported the same cheap and expendable nylon or pile boots as everyone else’s dogs.
Lars could have used some booties of any sort, but I hadn’t thought to bring them. It seemed a long time since they’d been needed, but then again it wasn’t that long.
Credit the adaptability and the fallibility of the human brain. We’re quick to adjust to what was recent as if it always was.
Whether one accepted Seattle-like winters in Anchorage as the new normal or not, the expectation becomes for the new winter to be like the winter of the year before.
And there’s no denying Alaska has gone through a balmy period of late.
The year 2019 was the warmest in Alaska history, and it stretched into the start of 2020. It was 45 degrees and raining downtown in the city on New Year’s Eve of 2019, and though the temperatures started falling fast the next day, the year 2020 was still relatively mild.
The Alaska Climate Center reported the average temperature for the year was 0.4 degrees above the 1981 to 2010 average but noted that the state “was noticeably cooler in 2020 than in the previous seven years.”
Little could anyone know it was the start of a trend. The National Weather Service is reporting that at this time Anchorage is tracking 1.1 degrees below that average for the year, and forecasts don’t call for much warming any time soon.
Whether this is a blip in global-warming time – the planet is in general is warming up – or the start of a prolonged shift back to the old Alaska no one can say.
But there are some signs the old normal might be back to stay for a while. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a well-documented pulsation in the temperatures of the Gulf of Alaska, has gone cold.
“The one feature related to the negative PDO that concerns me most is the disappearance of the ‘warm blob’ in the Gulf of Alaska or maybe more accurately its migration to the central North Pacific,” Judah Cohen, an authority on the polar vortex and the Arctic oscillation, wrote on his blog last week. “I do think that it probably contributed to ridging just offshore or along the west coast of North America that sustained troughing in eastern North America for most of the past decade. But this idea that extratropical sea surface temperatures can force the phase and amplitude of mid-tropospheric waves is far from settled.”
These troughs and waves – ripples in the atmosphere, in effect – disrupted the normal west to east flow of air around the planet as it spun its way through space.
There were regular pulses of wind from southwest to northeast that picked up warm, tropical air in the Pacific Ocean and delivered it north to Alaska courtesy of what has come to be known as the “pineapple express.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes this phenomenon as an “atmospheric river.” This river has regularly rained on Alaska in recent winters.
Cohen, who has proven better than most at predicting what this all means, was last week hedging his bet. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center is saying it is likely the temperatures in Alaska’s urban core will be below normal for December, January and February.
Anchorage snow-lovers – of which there are many – might look at this as a good thing, but the Climate Center is also predicting below-normal snowfall south of the Talkeetna Range and down onto the Kenai Peninsula.
Still, precipitation is forecast to be closer to normal within a day’s driving distance north from the Anchorage metro area, as if anything was ever normal in Alaska.