Temperatures have been above average across Alaska every day since April 25. None of the nearly 300 weather stations scattered about Alaska have recorded a temperature below freezing since June 28, the longest such streak in at least 100 years.
On Independence Day, the temperature at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport hit 90 degrees for the first time on record. It comes as no surprise that the Last Frontier is just a day away from rounding out not only its warmest July but its warmest month on record.
“Usually if you were to break this sort of record, you’d do it by a sliver of a degree,” said Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist and research associate at the International Arctic Research Center. He said the state is on course to shatter the record by more than a degree.
Brettschneider said the combination of relentless high pressure, extremely warm sea surface temperatures related to early sea ice melt and high humidity are “basically off the charts.”
“Most homes in Alaska are built to trap heat inside,” said Rick Thoman, an Alaska climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center. Thoman also referenced the more than 2 million acres burning in an outbreak of wildfires across the state. “So you get the choice between it being super hot and stuffy inside, or very warm and smoky outside,” he said. The far-reaching wildfire smoke has brought visibility to as low as a mile in Anchorage, Thoman said, a city of nearly 300,000.
The month also looks to be Alaska’s most humid on record. The high moisture levels stem from unusually hot ocean waters that surround the state and extend into the Pacific side of the Arctic. Ice coverage for this time of year in the Beaufort and Chukchi is, by far, at its lowest on record. The same region, considered ground zero for climate change, has seen a 30 percent reduction in average ice coverage in just a generation.
“Even the dew points are in record territory,” explained Brettschneider. “Anchorage hit their all-time highest dew point at 65 degrees.” At that level, the air begins to feel humid, like it would during an early summer day in New York City or D.C.
The anomalously warm waters have also been helping keep temperatures from falling at night, causing most locations to bottom out at unusually mild nighttime lows. “When you have 20 hours of sunlight a day and then don’t get down to freezing overnight, there’s nothing to slow down [the melting],” said Brettschneider.
Much of northern and central Alaska is covered by permanently frozen soil known as permafrost. When this icy soil melts, the organic matter within it decomposes and releases long-buried stores of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. This, in turn, speeds up global warming, and the pace and extent of permafrost melt is an increased focus for scientists as they witness rapid climate change underway in Alaska and other parts of the Arctic.
Bruce Wylie, a physical research scientist with the United States Geological Survey, said melting permafrost can also interfere with underground aquifers, shift wetlands, create bogs, and even drain lakes. It has a major role in altering the landscape, he said.
Atop the permafrost sits an insulating layer of moss and lichen a few inches thick. In the summer, unusually warm temperatures and scant rainfall have been a breeding ground for lighting these plants ablaze. Such fires can increase temperatures within the permafrost below, possibly leading to melting.
“When the mass dries out, it burns and smolders,” Wylie said.
“The weather has been impacting fire behavior a lot,” said Alan Hickford, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. “The fires start easier and spread easier.”
The recent spate of record warmth has been impacting marine life. “In Nome, Pacific cod have been showing up in crab nets. They used to be extremely rare in the North Bering Sea,” said Thoman. “Meanwhile, salmon have been reportedly dying, suffocating as water temperatures climb and less dissolved oxygen remains in the water.” Thoman also cited a number of other multispecies die-offs in recent years that has marine biologists and the general public alike concerned.
According to NOAA, Alaska produces more than 50 percent of the fish caught in U.S. waters, with an average wholesale value of nearly $4.5 billion a year.
“More people are employed there than in any other industry,” said Brettschneider, who fears that the changing conditions may continue to impact Alaskans in the years ahead. Speaking about the state’s shifting climate, Brettschneider said, “It affects fish and wildlife, causes coastal erosion, affects roads, and even tourism. There are folks coming up here to see the glaciers before they’ve melted to the point of being inaccessible."
“The climate of Alaska has warmed without question,” Brettschneider said. “The warm pattern has been stacked on top of a warmer climate. That pushes things over the edge into record territory.”
Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.