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The cold, hard facts: New century frigid for Alaska

Alex DeMarban
Fire season started late this year thanks to a frigid, record-breaking April -- cold temperature records were broken statewide, and snow blanketed Alaska through April and into May. Anchorage’s cyclists were hammered with snow on Bike to Work Day, May 17. Normally, late May sees warmer air from the Gulf of Alaska pulled north across the state, but this year, much of Alaska remained in a winter weather pattern.
Loren Holmes photo
A biker braves heavy snow in midtown Anchorage for bike to work day, May 17, 2013.
Loren Holmes photo
A biker braves heavy snow in midtown Anchorage for bike to work day, May 17, 2013.
Loren Holmes photo

With cyclists hammering through snow-showers on Bike to Work Day and greening lawns now blanketed in slushy white, it should come as no surprise that the longtime cooling spell that put the chill on global warming in Alaska shows no signs of letting up.

The state's overall temperature dipped 2.4 degrees during the first decade of the new century, a notable shift from the previous 100 years, which had generally trended warmer, according to a study published last summer by the Alaska Climate Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The authors suggested that growing winter ice in the Bering Sea -- the result of cooler surface temperatures -- led to lower temperatures across nearly all of Alaska. Meanwhile, thinning ice in the Arctic Ocean led to warming in one slice of the state: the North Slope atop Alaska.

Those trends are continuing, according to follow-up papers released by Wendler, Blake Moore and Kevin Galloway.

The Climate of Alaska for 2012 reports that:

Alaska in 2012 was 2.9 degrees colder than normal. Normal is defined as a 30-year stretch starting in 1981 when Alaska temperatures averaged 32.9 degrees. "Especially remarkable" was January, when the state shivered through record cold, with 20 National Weather Service stations across Alaska were collectively 14 degrees below normal. "For one station it would be a very large deviation, however for the mean value of twenty stations, fairly well distributed over such a large area as Alaska, it is astounding," the paper said.

The Climate of Alaska for 2011 found that:

Average temperatures in 2011 tip-toed four-tenths of a degree below normal. Notably, things were relatively hot at the Barrow station atop the state. In February the mercury in Barrow averaged minus-6.1 degrees, which was 8.3 degrees hotter than normal. On Feb. 24, it was 29 degrees in Barrow, "a balmy temperature for the northernmost town in the USA," the study says. "The old record of 1982 was smashed by 8°F. To surpass the old record by such an amount is remarkable, especially as the observation length is close to a century."

As for 2013, things started out warm. But the chill returned with a vengeance.

April was "much too cold" by 6.9 degrees, and it felt especially brittle in Fairbanks where Wendler lives. The Golden Heart City saw its third-coldest April in more than 100 years. "It was quite unique in that sense and I strongly disliked it, personally," said Wendler, in his thick German accent.   

Overall, the first four months of 2013 were .65 degrees chillier than normal, nippiness that seems to have redoubled its efforts this month, throwing off seasonal rituals across the state.

Rand Rosencrans, the chef at the boarding school in the Interior village of Galena, said he planned to move a graduation barbecue, planned to follow Friday's ceremony, back indoors after temperatures sunk to 22 degrees.

"We're tough Alaskans and all that good stuff, but I don’t like serving cold food," he said.

Because the nearby Yukon River is frozen, efforts to collect driftwood are on hold, he said. That wood is swept off banks as the rising river cracks free of ice and rages past the village each spring, providing a free supply of firewood for many homes. 

Students at the Galena Interior Learning Academy also use the driftwood for smoking fish. To snag logs, they've built a massive crossbow on a stand that can launch a grappling hook some 20 yards.

"It's basically a modified medieval weapon," said Rosencrans.

But breakup is roughly two weeks behind schedule. So the device, dubbed ZEWAD by the students -- that's short for Zero Emissions Wood Acquisition Device -- is in cold storage.

Also on hold is gardening the school usually does this time of year, because the ground is too frosty. "We have well over a ton of banana peels, apple cores, and onion skins in our compost pile. It's frozen solid," he said.

In Nome near the Bering Strait -- where Friday's temperature hovered around 20 -- winter king crabbers were coming off a spectacular fishing season, said Jim Menard, area manager.

That's in part because in this commercial fishery, snowmachines are used instead of boats. The shore ice in northern Norton Sound was solidly frozen for the season, providing steady access for more than two dozen permit-holders who haul their gear -- ice augurs, power saws and crab pots -- behind snowmachines to ice-crabbing grounds.

"People are usually pulling up in late April," he said, but the crabbing went to the end of the season May 15.

Some 20,000 king crabs weighing roughly 50,000 pounds were landed, doubling the previous winter record set in 1977-78, Menard said. The price was also a record high at $6.67 per pound, inspiring some to put out extra pots. 

"It's been a great season," he said.

But there's a downside to the cold. Last year, excessive sea ice in Norton Sound led to the cancellation of the herring sac roe fishery, the first time sea ice had called the season since 1992. The ice isn't as densely frozen this time, but there's still plenty of it, said Scott Kent, assistant area management biologist in Nome.

"Unless the weather changes soon, it's not looking real good," said Kent. "We're having periods of prolonged Arctic air at a time when things should start moving."

Without commercial herring fishing, some 30 permit-holders would lose a total of about $300,000, a key source of money that helps subsidize other hunting and fishing.

"It's not a lot, but it's money for subsistence activities that helps people make a few boat payments or pay off a fuel bills for the winter," he said.

Meanwhile, the Unalakleet and Shaktoolik rivers in Norton Sound are still frozen with very little overflow, allowing safe travel and belated trout fishing through the ice.

"There's no trouble navigating the Unalakleet with snowmachines at this time, which is unheard of," he said. "It's just crazy."

And across the entire Bering Sea, the ice is slowly growing at a time when it should be breaking up, said Kathleen Cole, lead ice forecaster in Alaska for the National Weather Service.

"We're actually making ice rather than having it dissipate," she said.

But once the weather warms back up, sea ice in the Bering should vanish more quickly than it did last year because it's not as dense. She's predicting an ice-free Bering Sea starting July 1.

"All I want is 60-degree days," said Cole, from her office in Anchorage. "I really, really want 60 degrees."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com