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Blizzard and historic April cold hit Alaska, with temperatures 50 degrees below normal

Some of the coldest April weather on record is gripping the 49th state.

Temperature anomalies in Alaska on Friday morning as simulated by the American GFS model. (WeatherBell)

Springtime in the Last Frontier doesn’t always mean April showers. Blizzard conditions, wind chills of minus-70, and temperatures more than 40 degrees below zero are gripping the nation’s 49th state, beneath a record-cold air mass in the lower atmosphere.

Alaskans have endured abnormally cold weather since February, and the intensity has set records in recent days.

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Temperatures on Tuesday morning fell to minus-24 degrees in Fairbanks and minus-33 in Bettles, both record lows for the date. Livengood, about 60 miles north-northwest of Fairbanks, plummeted to minus-31. A number of other locales dropped down to minus-25 to minus-30.

On Thursday, the temperature fell as low as minus-45 in Alaska’s North Slope region.

Bettles fell to minus-38 early Friday, a record for the month of April, with temperatures areawide as much as 50 degrees below average.

The record freeze came after Fairbanks started the week with a late-season 13-inch snowstorm, which brought its total snow depth to 40 inches. Friday could be the latest spring day on record to have a single-digit high in Fairbanks. The afternoon may not climb above 8 degrees.

“Last weekend we had a very, very abnormal winter storm that went from the West Coast into the interior,” said Alex Young, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. “We had a strong and cold air mass come down from the high Arctic, and right now it’s centered right over Fairbanks. That’s why we’re seeing this ridiculously cold outbreak for this time of year.”

Weather balloon measurements over Fairbanks on Friday revealed the most frigid air mass ever recorded in April, according to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Saturday morning could dip to near minus-30, challenging an all-time monthly record low for April in Fairbanks, which stands at minus-32.

“Tomorrow morning we’ll be trying to see if we can find a minus-50 observation in the state,” said Young. “That would break the all-time lowest reading for the month of April in Alaska.”

Anchorage is still holding on to a snowpack two feet deep, the latest on record with so much snow, while temperatures were 17 degrees below average Thursday as just over an inch and a half fell. The city set a record Thursday morning at just 9 degrees and again early Friday when the low fell to 6 degrees. Saturday’s forecast of 2 degrees should snag a record, as well, before a gradual warm-up into early next week.

Moderate to heavy snow is also expected in the coming days across the Yukon Delta and upper Aleutian chain, where a widespread 3 to 7 inches of snow with localized 18-inch amounts in the higher elevations are possible. The snow should begin in western areas Saturday before increasing in areal coverage and intensity Sunday.

The same areas could see blizzard conditions with wind gusts of 30 mph to 45 mph and 50 mph to 65 mph in the western Alaska Range and Kuskokwim Mountains. Winter storm watches are already in effect.

The cold and strong winds are courtesy of two adjacent weather systems embroiled in a chaotic clash. Arctic high pressure parked over western Alaska brought northwesterly flow and bitter cold temperatures, funneled southeastward in tandem with a counterclockwise spinning low to the east.

The pair will be replaced by another approaching low from the west over the weekend. The change in air pressure between the two systems will spark strong winds to combine with the increasingly stormy conditions. The low will bring a warm-up during the first half of the workweek, with temperatures rising into the 40s Monday and Tuesday.

Young says the only other years that featured comparable springtime cold-air outbreaks were 1944 and 1911.

The extreme cold fits into a broader pattern of below-average temperatures that has dominated much of Alaska this winter. The longevity of the cold in Fairbanks has been record-setting; on Tuesday, the city failed to hit 40 degrees for the 177th day in a row. Fairbanks hadn’t nicked 40 since Oct. 11, beating out a 176-day streak from the winter of 1965-66.

“Whenever we get southerly flow, we get a Chinook,” explained Young, referring to a downhill wind that brings mild temperatures into the Fairbanks valley. “This year we haven’t had many of those type of events this winter.”

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Some relief is around the corner, however.

Signals point to a dramatic temperature reversal that could feature unusually mild weather by next Tuesday into Wednesday, with temperatures climbing more than 50 degrees in spots.

Despite the bone-chilling cold in recent weeks, Alaska is one of the fastest-warming areas in North America. Some places have warmed 5 degrees to 7 degrees compared with temperatures a century ago, with abrupt ecosystem shifts that are forcing changes in daily life. Melting permafrost and ice, as well as an uptick in Alaskan wildfire activity, are accelerating human-induced climate warming.