Alaska’s largest city ended the year 2022 tracking decades-old climate predictions that Anchorage would become more like Juneau and Juneau more like Seattle.
The warm temperatures could be seen as the continuation of a trend or part of the end of one. The years 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 were all warmer with the latter the warmest ever. The Alaska heat wave that year generated national news and a lot of references to “Baked Alaska.”
“Alaska just had the most ridiculous summer. That’s a red flag for the planet,” warned a CNN headline beneath which , CNN chief climate correspondent, warned that “America’s ‘Last Frontier’ feels like the first in line to see, smell and feel the unsettling signs of a climate in crisis.”
Temperatures mellowed in 2020. The statewide annual average temperature fell more than four and a half degrees from the record 32.2 of 2019 to a more Alaska-like 27.5, according to National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) records. Twenty-twenty-one was even colder at 26.5.
Anchorage followed the trend. With an end-of-the-year average temperature only a half degree lower than the then 59-year climate record, 2021 turned out to be an almost perfectly normal year for most Alaskans, about 60 percent of whom live in the Anchorage metro area.
Twenty-twenty-two has proven warmer, but what had come to be viewed as the start of a “new normal” near the beginning of the decade remains in doubt.
From a 24.3-degree average in 2012, statewide temperatures climbed almost steadily toward that 2019 record. Temperatures have slumped since. Twenty-twenty-two could mark a shift back toward the warmer weather of the late 2010s or turn out to be part of a cluster of nearer-normal temperatures to mark the start of the 2020s.
Time will well.
The global climate might be warming, but local weather is never a straight-line affair. Almost everything in nature functions in cycles and weather as much as anything else. Alaska weather history is a chain of peaks and valleys with periods of warmer than normal or colder than normal clustering over spans of five or 10 years on a scale oscillating over periods of decades.
From 1945 to 1975, NOAA records show that Alaska’s annual averages rarely reached today’s mean though the year-by-year variation shifted by as much as six degrees. In the 20 years before that, the norm only briefly fell below the mean while annual variations shifted by more than six degrees.
The biggest shift on record came in 1975 when the annual, statewide average climbed above the mean and largely stayed there. Over the course of the last 47 years, it has dropped below the mean only eight times and never by more than two degrees.
Alaska salmon have been big beneficiaries of this climate shift that began about the time the Vietnam War ended. Average annual commercial harvests have done nothing but go up as Alaska has warmed. They rose from less than 100 million in the 1970s to an average of 122.4 million per year in the 1980s, 157.5 million in the 1990s, 167.4 million in the 2000s, and approximately 181 million in the 2010s.
Pink salmon, the smallest of the species have driven the boom and have in some areas, been accused of suppressing the production of bigger and more valuable Chinook, sockeye and coho, salmon. But overall, salmon have been big beneficiaries of the northern climate shift.
How long this will continue is impossible to say, but the upward creep of global temperature appears here to stay. The scientific consensus is that all or part of the increase is due to human-driven emissions of so-called greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide and methane.
Global efforts to reduce emissions have been hampered by a lack of good energy alternatives, a growing global population despite the pandemic, and politics. Though the production of so-called “green” or “renewable” energy has been growing rapidly, the United Nations Environment Programme in October warned there is “no credible path” toward a hoped-for goal of limiting the global average increase to 1.5 degrees Centigrade (2.7F) above the globe’s pre-industrial temperature.
They projected an increase of 2.4 to 2.6C by the end of the decade. The projection has raised fear of widespread coastal flooding around the globe and deadly heat waves in the middle latitude. The higher latitudes are expected to fare better although projections are all over the place.
ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine contend “incredible growth could await those places soon to enter their prime. Canada, Scandinavia, Iceland and Russia each could see as much as fivefold bursts in their per capita gross domestic products by the end of the century so long as they have enough people to power their economies at that level.”
Meanwhile, the Center for International and Strategic Studies sees Russia’s future sinking into a gooey Siberia plagued by melting permafrost melting “dramatic shifts in global weather patterns, accelerated by warming Arctic waters and a diminishing ice cap, are expected to increase droughts in Russia’s rich southern agricultural “bread basket” regions encompassing Stavropol and Rostov. This could pose food security risks and threaten a primary Russian export: wheat.”
Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian leaders were talking about the need for efforts to slow the emissions of greenhouse gases while acting the opposite. The situation has only grown worse since.
The was has “not only wreaked havoc in oil and gas markets, raising daunting energy and economic challenges for European and other energy-importing economies, but they have also spurred grave environmental and climate-related concerns. These arise in part from the impact of the conflict on import-dependent energy consumers, among whom record natural gas prices and heightened global competition for liquefied natural gas supplies have encouraged a resurgence of coal burning and associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as a renewed policy focus on energy security, potentially at the expense of climate ambitions,” energy experts at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy observed earlier this month.
“But the conflict also raises serious concerns about the emissions trajectory of Russia itself, a top fossil fuel producer and leading GHG emitter. Even before the invasion, Russia counted among the world’s main sources of anthropogenic methane emissions, a greenhouse gas whose short-term warming power is more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide. Since the invasion, the prospect of reducing these emissions has seemed increasingly unlikely.”
Environmental concerns usually take a backset during wars, see the U.S. use of Agent Orange, a powerful and debilitating defoliant, in Vietnam.
Alaska is, luckily, a long way from the latest major war, but it’s climate future paralells that of Russia, Canada and Scandanavia. Alaska could become a popular North American climate refuge or an economic disaster as green-power advocates push for an end to oil and gas prodution and warm water finally catches up with Alaska’s salmon.
Climate scientists have predicted a general reduction in ocean habitat for salmon by 2080, which could bring to an end the decades of salmon bounty. But no one really knows, and none of the predictions are worth much in terms of what happens in the next decade or so anyway.
Weather, especially Alsaka weather, is subject to large, year-to-year variations. Climate smooths the range of the ups and downs over the decades, but that means little in the short term. The 4.5-degree C change between the Alaska average temperatures in 2012 and 2016 is way bigger than the 2.4 to 2.6C global rise expected for the globe in general by 2300.
And then there are the regional differences. Annual temperature changes are not uniform around the globe. Alaska could once claim to be the fastest-warming state in the nation, but New England is now laying claim to that title. National Public Radio (NPR) was this week reporting how warm winters were putting snowplow drivers out of work there while Anchorage residents were still complaining about roads plugged with snow after the snowiest December in decades.
And Atmospheric and Environmental Research’s Noah Cohen, an authority on polar climate, is predicting more could be coming as a pocket of brutally cold Siberian air spills into Alaska. As this was written, the temperature in the Siberian capital of Yakutsk was 55 degrees below zero, a significant warming from the reported minus-80 a couple of days earlier.
Cohen reported record cold air in the stratosphere above Siberia this week and warned that chaos could be about to break loose.
“One thing seems to be coming clearer, another stretched polar vortex that favors a cold pattern east of the Rockies in North America is likely to begin this week, but the cold arrives the last week of January,” he wrote.
Siberia has been impressively cold with temperatures reaching lower than -62°C/-80°F. I stick with my idea cold that starts in Siberia can spread to lower latitudes. We are already observing cold temperatures coupled with snow spread south across China. Snow cover extent is currently well above normal across China (see Figure 19). I saw on Twitter temperatures between -40 and -50°C observed/predicted in China. Cold and snow that starts in China often is a precursor to cold and snow across North America east of the Rockies with stretched PV events (a recent nice example of this was February 2021). Based on the weather models, the cold temperature anomalies and positive anomalous snow cover extent anomalies are most impressive in Asia currently, but that should transfer to North America east of the Rockies by the end of January.”
It’s possible some Anchorage residents could soon be looking at those snow-short, global-warming winters as the good old days. They might be advised to keep the snow-moving equipment handy. The record warm year of 2019 is start to seem long in the past.