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Cold snapped: Record warm Alaska winter weather out of nowhere

Alex DeMarban
Photo courtesy Kate Herring

What's up with this winter? Fresh off the heels of record cold and snow, an Arctic heat wave is melting Alaska’s icebox while producing record warmth.

The wild swing follows a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that contrasts Alaska's frigid January and the Lower 48's mild month.

This week, Alaska weather forecasters on Facebook noted the state's suddenly see-sawing temperatures.

Few locations have swung as widely as the Interior community of McGrath.  On Thursday, the town of 350 set a Feb. 9 record high of 43 degrees, said Michael Lawson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. Just five days earlier, McGrath's temperature was 85 degrees lower, when the mercury dipped to minus-42.  

It was even colder during some January days, said Phil Graham, acting city clerk. The weather service says on Jan. 28 the low was minus-54. That's a 97-degree swing in a dozen days. 

"Anybody who's been here a while said no one has seen anything like it before," Graham said.

The change is welcome in McGrath. Residents weren't wearing shorts on Thursday, but "they were walking around with smiles on their faces."

Juneau also set a record high of 48 degrees yesterday, beating the old 1968 record by one degree, said Lawson.

Delivering the heat are warm Pacific Ocean storms blowing in from the southwest. Those winds were blocked in November and January by massive low-pressure systems that squatted in the Gulf of Alaska -- locking Arctic cold over the mainland and keeping it from flowing south to the Lower 48.

In January, that meteorological mass produced the stark contrast between Alaska temperatures and those in the Lower 48. In the contiguous U.S., last month was the fourth-warmest January since 1901. The daily average was 36.3 degrees, 5.5 degrees above normal, according to the report and a NOAA media statement.

On the flip side, we have Alaska's January that produced record-low monthly averages in several communities:  

  • Bettles (-35.6 degrees F)
  • McGrath (-28.5 degrees F)
  • Bethel (-17.3 degrees F)
  • Nome (-16.6 degrees F)

For many Interior communities, it was the coldest January since 1989, said Peter Olsson, state climatologist.

The NOAA report doesn't include Alaska's statewide average temperature for the month, which wasn't available by the time the report was published.

"Preliminary data indicate that Alaska was colder than normal in January 2012, although not enough data has arrived to precisely determine how this fits into history," it notes.

The chilly weather also caused Bering Sea ice to blossom, the report notes. It grew some 10 miles a day, about four times faster than normal, creating problems for crabbers.

As for snowfall, that was also below-normal in the Lower 48. The Northern Plains, Midwest, and Northeast were especially dry, contributing to the third smallest January snow cover in the contiguous U.S. since that sort of record-keeping began 46 years ago.

The report lacks statewide snowfall data as well, but we Alaskans know it's been above average.  

The report does note:

Valdez smashed its season-to-date snowfall by Jan. 8, reaching 290 inches, or 24 feet. The previous Jan. 8 record was less than half that, just 143 inches of snow. January in Valdez also saw three days of record snow, including 19.2 inches on Jan. 5, 19.3 inches on Jan. 6 and 15.2 inches on Jan. 8.

"Cordova, Alaska also received heavy, above-average snowfall and declared a state of emergency due to many building collapses and extreme avalanche hazard," the report recalled.

How long will the warmth continue? At least through the coming week, Lawson said, with Anchorage seeing highs in the 30s and occasional bursts of light snow. 

Contact Alex at alex@alaskadispatch.com