Part of an alarming trend in recent years, temperatures have been scarily above normal this month at the northernmost point of the United States.
Through the first 12 days of February, Utqiaġvik (previously known as Barrow) is running 21 degrees warmer than normal. On Friday, readings soared as high as 30 to 50 degrees above normal for the date across Alaska’s North Slope, a region north of the Arctic Circle.
Temperatures even ticked above freezing in Utqiaġvik, which is something that has only happened in winter a handful of times since the early 1900s. The 33-degree high on Feb. 8 is one of the top 10 warmest readings so early in the year, and the third-warmest for this point in February.
Persistently mild conditions have been enough for a “balmy” average temperature of 6.8 degrees in Utqiaġvik, which is the third-warmest on record for the month, to date. The average February temperature is minus-14.2 degrees.
In addition, ice coverage on the Bering Sea has recently dropped to near-record lows, per a plot by Zack Labe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Irvine.
2018 ice coverage was an exceptional outlier that was hard to comprehend based on the historical record, and it isn’t much better in 2019. Ocean temperatures in this region have exhibited unheard of increases in recent years, leading to questions on what happens going forward with marine life and those who rely on it.
“We have open water in front of Utqiaġvik. It’s 30F out at 11:20 at night. Strange days indeed,” wrote Anne Jensen, an archaeologist based in the region. Ice has since rebuilt near the shore, but any open water is weird at this time of year.
This unusual warmth also fits into recent history during February.
Rick Thoman, a climatologist based in Alaska, has found that the northern Alaska region has seen average temperatures rise more than 11 degrees during the month. Although the increase in temperature has been less pronounced as one heads south or southeast in the state, it’s a troublesome trend.
“Late winter isn’t what it used to be,” Thoman said in a tweet.
This is on the heels of a 2018 that was the third-warmest on record in the region and the second-warmest year for the state. Temperature trends in Alaska are exhibiting rises not seen before, with four of the past five years warmer than any year on record before 2014.
Although this spell of midwinter warmth has hit the northern reaches of Alaska hardest, it’s not just the north experiencing bizarre winter conditions.
Alaska is arguably a ground zero for climate change. Unprecedented warmth, late first freezes, drought and extended periods of high pressure have been increasingly common in recent years, some in a runaway fashion.
There was a late start to winter in much of the state, while relatively dry conditions from 2018 have persisted in many places.
In the southeast, where rain forests fill much of the land, an extensive and significant drought has been occurring for well over a year. Although it has been somewhat minimized recently, it continues with no end in sight.
Through last week, snow-water equivalents in the southeast region were largely 60 to 70 percent of normal. This follows 2018′s 30 to 50 percent of normal.
Although precipitation has been more abundant lately in parts of this region, the Weather Service office in Juneau notes that “well above normal temperatures ... allowed most precipitation to fall as rain.” And, it says, “despite a few snow events the snow pack is still well below normal.”
Although much of Alaska is seeing a brief stint of temperatures near or below normal, readings well above normal are expected to return in short order. Another surge of readings about 20 to 40 degrees above normal seems likely this weekend. The outlook deeper into the future also keeps the above-normal temperatures coming into spring.