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Alaska hits 67 degrees, setting new December record

Kodiak smashed its previous monthly record by 20 degrees, meanwhile other towns are experiencing anomalous rain.

Ice melts on tundra and thawing permafrost in Newtok, Alaska, this fall. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Imagine running a 5K and winning the race by 10 minutes. That’s analogous to what is transpiring in Alaska at the moment. An exceptional slew of records has tumbled in the wake of extreme warmth, with highs up to 45 degrees above average.

The anomalous warmth has also brought record moisture, with top-tier rainfall totals thanks to the air’s capacity to transport more humidity.

The ongoing spate of warmth is tied to a sprawling dome of stagnant high pressure banked southeast of the Aleutians in the northeastern Pacific. Reinforced by unusually warm ocean waters north of Hawaii, that high-pressure “heat dome” is inducing sinking air. That brings about additional warming.

Historic U.S. weather events in 2021, by the numbers

This latest bout of record-shattering warmth caps off a year that has brought a number of high-end climate extremes to North America, including a withering late June heat wave that heated Seattle up to 108 degrees.

Record warmth

On Sunday, the Kodiak tide gauge station hit 67 degrees at 2:17 p.m. In addition to being a local record, it set a monthly record for the entire state for December.

Nearby, Kodiak Airport recorded 65 degrees and beat its previous daily record by 20 degrees, surpassing the 45-degree record reading last set on Dec. 26, 1984, by leaps and bounds.

Even more remarkable is that the same 65-degree reading would have set a record for November, January, February and March, too; those months haven’t seen readings above 59, 54, 56 and 57 degrees, respectively. The previous December record was 56 degrees, set on Dec. 22, 1984.

Sunday also brought records in Cold Bay, Alaska, where the community hit a high of 62 degrees. The previous record, set in 1990, was 44. St. Paul tied its record at 42 degrees.

Unalaska, Alaska, spiked to 57.3 degrees by noon Monday after bottoming out at 50 degrees overnight. According to Rick Thoman, an Alaska-based climatologist, that morning low was warmer than the average low at any point in the year — even the heart of summer.

Record rain

For every degree the air warms, it can hold about 4 percent more water. That is also lending to high-end rainfall extremes.

In Fairbanks, north of the heat dome but still affected by moisture slung north along its periphery, Sunday delivered 1.93 inches of liquid-equivalent precipitation. That was the city’s wettest December day ever observed, and it marked the third-wettest day on record year round. Records in Fairbanks date to 1929.

Fairbanks saw its wettest December on record, too. The city, which has seen a substantial uptick in development and boom in population, has experienced about nine degrees of warming during December since record-keeping began.

The Arctic could become dominated by rain rather than snow

Winter rain in the Interior region of Alaska is becoming increasingly commonplace, but that doesn’t mean it’s welcome.

The unusually warm temperatures and rainfall wrought havoc on roadways in Alaska. The mild weather melted snow and ice, which then quickly refroze upon roads thanks to surface temperatures well below freezing. The Alaska Department of Transportation described the ice as “cement atop pavement.”

“I’d rather have coal,” Brue Miller wrote on social media, a day after Christmas.

He’d spent the morning scraping at least an inch of ice from his deck in Fairbanks. Miller, 54, was born and raised in Fairbanks. He said by Monday, the local cross-country ski trails had been crusted over with ice. Photos posted online show the trails at the popular Birch Hill ski area looking less like snow and more like a thick layer of hardened meringue.

Some 95 miles southeast of Fairbanks, the community of Delta Junction has found itself in dire straits. The only local grocery store there is closed indefinitely, after a partial collapse of the building’s roof from the weight of snow and ice. Hours later, one of the town’s two gas stations also saw its roof collapse under the weight of snow and ice. While gas pumps remain open, the convenience store is closed.

The largest electric utility in the Interior region, Golden Valley Electric Association, reported widespread outages affecting more than 13,000 homes in the Fairbanks area on Sunday. By Tuesday, roughly 2,000 customers were still without power.

Winter is the fastest warming season in the United States

With temperatures forecast to dip to 30 degrees below zero by the end of the week, the race is on for the utility to restore power so that residents can reheat their homes and keep their pipes from freezing.

Nome, on the Seward Peninsula, picked up 0.43 inches of rain on Sunday, which was also a daily record.

In Nome, where people aren’t shy about winter storms that include blowing snow, fierce winds and white-out conditions, residents woke up to photos over the weekend of a police vehicle in a ditch. It had apparently slid off an icy road in the coastal community at the edge of the Bering Sea.

“That was weird,” said Kristine McRae. She said things have been strange all month. “We’ve been having this freezing rain on and off for a couple of weeks and then we get these blizzards, back to back, followed by [more] freezing rain.”

McRae, who owns Bering Tea and Coffee in Nome said she closed her coffee shop early Tuesday because of the weather. She had to chip ice from her car doors to get to work Tuesday morning. She also had to heave on the doors to her house to get out. They had frozen shut due to freezing rain and strong winds.

The winter rain comes a month after portions of the state also experienced extreme doses of rainfall. A “prodigious” rainstorm dumped nearly 30 inches of rain on the Portage Glacier in late October and early November. The historic storm yielded one of the heaviest four-day rainfall totals observed in the state.

Parts of Alaska have warmed more than 2.5 degrees since the 1970s, outpacing the remainder of the Lower 48 by about two-thirds. Alaska’s North Slope is experiencing the greatest human-induced climate warming, with entire ecosystems at risk amid the abrupt biome and environmental shifts.

Emily Schwing is a freelance journalist based in Alaska. Matthew Cappucci reported from Washington.

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