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Alaska's Bering Sea storm one of 'most significant' weather events of 2011

Doug O'Harra
NOAA satellite image

That "extra-tropical" cyclone that walloped Alaska's Bering Sea coast with hurricane-force winds and damaging storm surge last November was one of the most astounding weather events of 2011 inside the United States and across the globe, according to a new report posted by the National Climate Data Center.

The annual analysis of the highs, lows, rains and snows during the calendar year found Alaska posting generally average temperatures and precipitation, while parts of the Lower 48 experienced record rainfall, deadly tornado outbreaks and blistering heat.

The map showing the country's 13 most significant climate events of 2011 also included Hurricane Irene, the Texas drought and a tornado season that killed a record 551 people. The global version -- showing the most significant climate whacks to the home planet last year -- listed Alaska's Bering Sea storm and Alaska's exceptionally dry May, which tied with 1974.

This annual analysis of global and national climate, updated early each January, found the multi-decade global warming trend intact, with land and sea generally posting higher than average temperatures.

"This year tied 1997 as the 11th warmest year since records began in 1880," the climate center saidhere. "The annual global combined land and ocean surface temperature was 0.92 degrees F above the 20th century average of 57.0 degrees F.

"This marks the 35th consecutive year, since 1976, that the yearly global temperature was above average," the report added. "The warmest years on record were 2010 and 2005, which were 1.15 degrees F above average."

Overall temperatures in the Lower 48 states averaged 53.8 degrees F during the calendar year -- about 1 degree F above the 20th century average and the 23rd warmest year recorded.

"Since 1895, the (Lower 48 states have) observed a long-term temperature increase of about 0.12 degree F per decade," the report said.

Assisted by a ferocious drought in Texas, the nation's overall precipitation slipped slightly -- about one-third of an inch below the long-term average, bucking the trend of rising about one-fifth of an inch per decade since the 19th century. Still, the Ohio Valley and northeastern states saw one of the wettest years ever, according to a list of cities setting all-time records.

Alaska eased through 2011 just a few clicks above a Goldilocks style mean, posting temperatures neither too hot nor too cold -- the 38th warmest year since record keeping began 94 years ago.

"Alaska temperatures in 2011 were above the 1971-2000 average, continuing the upward trend of the last 20 years," the center explained in its Alaska analysis. "However, there was variation between the seasons. Winter temperatures in 2010-2011 were 0.4 degrees F below average. Spring temperatures were 0.9 degrees F below average, summer temperatures were 0.7 degrees F below average, and fall was 0.4 degrees F warmer than the average.

"For the annual period, Alaskan temperatures were about 0.4 degrees F above average, driven almost entirely by very warm temperatures in December (third warmest December)."

Likewise, the state's overall precipitation didn't rock the climate boat much, delivering the 36th wettest year on record.

"Precipitation in Alaska in 2011 was slightly above average," according to the climate center's Alaska analysis. "The winter season brought near-normal precipitation to Alaska, while the spring was much drier than average. Summer was wetter than average across Alaska and autumn precipitation was slightly below average."

About Alaska's mammoth November storm, the climate center has this to say: "Perhaps the most powerful storm to affect Alaska's Bering Sea coast since the early 1970s -- wind gusts measured at 89 mph, storm surge up to 7 feet with 35 foot waves."

The storm surge in Nome actually peaked at 8.6 feet, according to a separate "severe storms" discussion.

"The surge overtopped a sea wall, washing heavy equipment and cleaning supplies out to sea. Otherwise, damage was generally minor, limited mainly to blown out windows and battered roofs. No injuries were reported."

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com