Alaska is accustomed to being the distant, extended family member of the contiguous 48 states, confined to a side table with its own unique weather patterns as the lower 48 get to share climates with their neighbors.
But after spending its first few decades known as the cold in-law of the United States, Alaska spent its 60th birthday year trying to warm up.
For all of 2019, residents of The Last Frontier can be excused for thinking they might have relocated the Midwest or Northeast. In a state where the average monthly highs range from 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit (in January) to 58.6 F (in July) during a typical year in Nome, some notable anomalies were recorded in 2019.
This year saw single-day highs reach 33 F in January and 83 in July in Nome. A prolonged heat wave gripped Alaska in July, sending temperatures in some places across the state surging above 90 and shattering records that had stood since the 1920s. Both May and June saw daily high temperatures reach the high 70s on numerous occasions in the barren city.
Rick Thoman, an Alaska Climate Specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told AccuWeather that increasing sea-surface temperatures are to blame for the warming trend.
"Very low sea ice near Alaska and persistent above-normal sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) are major contributors to the ongoing warmth," Thoman said. "Atmospherically, ridging in the northeast Pacific has been persistent, so for most of Alaska except the Panhandle, that means lots of southerly wind on the west side of the ridge."
According to recordings taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Anchorage experienced its warmest year to date in the range from January to November. From the first month through the December 11, the state has experienced an average temperature of 34.5 F, the warmest 11-month stretch of average temperature and 6.5 degrees F above the mean.
With records dating back to 1925, the first 11 months of 2019 just barely exceed the warmth of 2016, when average temperatures for the year reached 34.2 F. Five of the past six years - 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 - all rank in the top six for warmest years on record in Alaska.
November was a particularly warm month for Anchorage, Kodiak, Homer, and Cold Bay, all of which experienced the warmest November on record.
For an extended period over the summer, sustained high temperatures resulted in the state's longest heat wave in Anchorage. On July 4, the city topped 90 degrees for the first time ever.
As an Alaskan, Thoman said the changes have created more socioeconomic challenges beyond just causing people to switch their attire to short sleeves.
"Alaska is built for the cold. Anchorage set a December record high on Monday, and schools were closed. Why? Fifty degrees turned roads into skating rinks," Thoman said, referring to the 51-degree high temperature the NWS recorded in Anchorage on, Monday, Dec. 9, a mark that broke the old record of 48 that was set in 1992 and tied in 1999 and 2005.
The warmup caused snow to melt and created hazardous conditions on roadways, which prompted the school district to cancel classes on Monday. "In addition, the mild air that caused the rapid snowmelt triggered freezing fog in the area, which lowered visibility to one-eighth of a mile," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.
"Rapid ecosystem changes in the Bering Sea in 2018-19 have people and fishing industries scrambling," Thoman continued. He added that the warming trend is responsible for a "terrible whaling season at Utqia?vik," the city formerly known as Barrow. He also attributed the warm weather to a wildfire season that "cost the state a lot of money, cost individuals homes and business and untold delays and hardship."
Indeed, the wildfire season in Alaska was more destructive than any other in the state's history. According to state and federal officials, more than $300 million was spent battling the blazes. Burning over 2.68 million acres, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, fire officials said throughout the summer that sustained hot temperatures fueled the blazes.
The Swan Lake Fire, which was 2019's largest wildfire in all of the US, blazed 167,164 acres of central Alaska. What may have been a normal, month-long fire in any other year turned into a six-month battle when warm weather, breezy winds and a drought stunted firefighting efforts.
"Fire continues to be active throughout the day as temperatures climb into the 90s," the Northwest Incident Management Team said about the wildfire in the July 6 update. "Fine fuel moistures have reached critically low levels and fuels normally resistant to fire are becoming more available to burn."
The strain on the fishing and whaling industries has been linked to ocean acidification from an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, according to "Alaska's Changing Environment," a publication by Thoman and the International Arctic Research Center.
In the piece, Thoman explains how higher temperatures have fueled "marine heat waves" in the Bering Sea and have thus removed the 'cold pool' of water that usually serves as a barrier to the migration of certain species.
"As atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase, the ocean absorbs the additional CO2, leading to a decrease in pH," the publication stated. "Ocean acidification poses major risks to marine ecosystems, and the risks are especially high in polar regions, because CO2 dissolves more readily in cold water ... Because ocean acidification threatens commercial fishing and subsistence activities in Alaska, the associated risks were recently mapped."
As the hottest year in state history comes to a close, many climate specialists like Thoman are telling Alaskans that this may be the new normal.
To Alaskans, the changes in temperature have been severe. To Thoman, the changing patterns have even impacted the way he does his job.
"2019 is the sixth year of frequent extremes in and around Alaska," Thoman said. "It's exhausting to work on seemingly nothing but extreme, high-impact events and keep putting them in context of how unusual it all is."
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