Hot and dry conditions in Alaska have been toppling records over the past few months — many of which have been held for decades. And now, with two million acres burned already, 2015 appears well on its way to becoming the worst fire season on record for the state.
In May, Alaska saw a 90-degree day earlier in the season than ever recorded, when the small town of Eagle, 200 miles east of Fairbanks, soared to 91 degrees. In May. In Alaska. The month also went down in the annals of weather history as the warmest May on record for the entire state, as well as nine of Alaska’s major climate reporting stations. That list includes Barrow — the northernmost city in the entire United States, bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean.
Surely things turned the corner in June, right? Wrong. Anchorage saw its warmest day on record on June 17, with a high of 83 degrees, breaking the previous all-time record of 82 set in 1969. It was the warmest June on record in Anchorage and Barrow.
And then on Tuesday, Anchorage officially ended its least snowy year on record. Snow years are measured from July 1 to June 30 in order to ensure that all flakes are accounted for — but this year there wasn’t much to account for in Anchorage.
Just 25.1 inches of snow fell in Anchorage between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015. It beat out the previous record from the 1950s by more than 5 inches, and came in 49.4 inches under par (not a good thing in this situation). Weather records in Anchorage officially date back to 1952, though unofficial observations have been logged since 1916.
Now much of Alaska is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, conditions which have fueled over 700 wildfires that have ignited — many as result of dry thunderstorm lightning — since the beginning of the season. To-date, fires have burned over two million acres this year. 2004 was previously the worst wildfire season on record, when 6.5 million acres burned across the state. But 2015 is blowing that year out of the water, setting a new record for the month of June by an astonishing 700,00 acres.
What’s doubly concerning about this situation is that fire season tends to pick up in July, as it did in 2004.
Post Environment reporter Chris Mooney spoke with the World Wildlife Fund’s Nicky Sundt, who used to fight fires in Alaska. “The extraordinary magnitude of what already has unfolded in Alaska is by itself alarming,” Sundt said by email. “Far more worrisome is the fact that less than 15% of the fires are staffed. The other fires will keep burning up millions of additional acres between now and the end of the fire season, which could extend well into August.”