Good-bye new norm, hello old
Alaska’s largest city was still digging out from under more than three feet of “equal chances” on Monday with still more snowfall in the forecast for the week ahead.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Since summer there has been much talk about a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) brewing in the North Pacific, and as government climate expert Brian Brettsheider summarized the situation in June, “there is a strong inverse relationship between ENSO and winter precipitation in Alaska, meaning El Niños are linked to lower precipitation.”
In July, The Guardian warned that the flow of warm, tropical water along the North American coast north to Alaska could “turbocharge” temperatures already rising due to climate change, which is supposed to mean rain rather than snow in coastal Alaska.
The consensus of meteorologists by fall was that El Niño would bring warmer than normal temperatures to 49th state, but opinions on precipitation were mixed. No one, however, foresaw a snowpocalypse.
When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published its “U.S. Winter Outlook” on Oct. 19, the report said “the greatest odds for warmer-than-average conditions are in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and northern New England.
“Wetter-than-average conditions are most likely in northern (ie. Arctic) Alaska, some areas of the West from parts of California to the south-central Rockies, the southern Plains, Gulf Coast, Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic.”
The “Updated Official 30-Day Forecasts” of North America from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued on Oct. 31 echoed this analysis. It forecast “equal chances” of more or less precipitation for the bulk of the state with “below normal” predicted for the area west of the urban core and “above normal” precipitation for the Arctic region in the far northern third of the state.
And then, boom, Alaska’s urban core – home to more than half the state’s population – was buried under snow with all the consequences common to most highly urbanized areas when this happens.
“Crews are attempting regular service,” the Municipality of Anchorage’s Solid Waste Services reported at 6 a.m. on Monday morning. “Commercial customers please clear a 10 foot path for our drivers, residential customers please ensure your cart is not balanced or buried in a snow berm in order for our trucks to pick up, and please retrieve your carts so snow plows can get through the streets.”
The attempt didn’t last long. Four hours later, the agency admitted to giving up, posting another message on its website announcing that “all curbside services are cancelled, we tried.”
The story was much the same everywhere. Schools closed. State agencies and some businesses shut down. The city continued a snow emergency that had been declared four days earlier when the heavy snows first started falling to topple trees and take out power lines.
Anchorage just wasn’t ready for this. Winter had arrived too fast and with too much snow.
The National Weather Service was reporting 37.9 inches had fallen since the start of the month – 33.3 inches more than the long-term average or what the NWS calls the “normal” for the entire month of November.
The normal is 4.6 inches. Anchorage has already seen more than eight times the normal for November and the month isn’t even half over yet.
The “new normal” that had boosted temperatures, turned the snow to rain and made Anchorage look a little like Seattle-north only a few years ago seems to be gone or has at least retreated.
The new old harkens back to the days when the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, the state’s only major ski area just east along the Seward Highway from Anchorage, traditionally opened over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Citing climate warming, Alyeska years ago pushed opening day back to early December. Alaskans in the mid-2010s were even contemplating the need to move to higher elevations to find snow with which to enjoy the season.
Real Alaskans love snow
“Amid warm, snowless winters, Anchorage skiers ponder long-term future of their sport,” the now defunct online news service Alaska Dispatch headlined in 2016 with reporter Yereth Rosen writing that “after enduring consecutive seasons of record-high temperatures and record-low snows, some Anchorage skiers are eyeing a spot 2,400 feet above the city as a potential refuge.”
Snow had become so sparse, she noted, “that both Iditarod and Fur Rendezvous sled dog races drastically shortened their Anchorage courses, several sports events were canceled, and the high-profile Tour of Anchorage ski race was shortened and altered for the third consecutive time.”
“For most of (that) year, Alaska ‘baked’, with record heat at the local and statewide level,” the National Centers for Environmental Information would later note. “With a statewide record that dates to 1925 (92 years), Alaska had its second warmest winter, warmest spring, second warmest summer and a warmer-than-average fall. The persistent heat led to Alaska’s warmest year on record.
“Each of the three years since 2014 is among the three warmest on record for Alaska, with 2015 tied with 2002 for third warmest.”
Average temperatures in the state’s major cities were three to four and a half degrees above normal. One had to go high into the mountains above Anchorage to find much snow.
The Anchorage area has remained generally warmer than normal ever since but the boundary line for warm enough for rain and cold enough for snow is so fine that warmer doesn’t always mean less snowy.
“With a mean temperature of 39.3 degrees (1.6 degrees above normal), 2022 was the seventh warmest year on record in Anchorage. Anchorage ended on a snowy note, however, with over 41 inches of precipitation over an 11-day period in December, nearly breaking the record set in 1955.”
The planet may be warming, but that doesn’t mean all of the regions on the planet are warming all of the time. What happens on a global scale has a lot to do with how winds move weather around the planet and how the upper atmosphere interacts with space, and for anyone truly interested in that complex subject matter, the blog of research scientist Judah Cohen at Atmospheric and Environmental Research is worth a look.
If you’re not too busy plowing, blowing, shoveling or otherwise dealing with all the snow.