Alaska, the great northern frontier of America, is being reshaped by climate change. While rising temperatures are altering its character and landscape, they are also bringing the ravages of wildfires. In the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country, with average temperatures up by nearly 3°F. By 2050,More
The snows are falling again across the East Coast, but up in parts of Alaska, snow has been a virtual no-show this winter thanks to extremely warm temperatures and weather patterns that have kept storms away.
With temperatures expected to stay warm through February, concerns over the potential impact on the coming wildfire season are rising.
Both Anchorage and Fairbanks have had record low snowfalls since Dec. 1, while Juneau saw only its second snowless January on record. (Contrast that to the record setting snows that fell from Washington, D.C., to New York City last month.)
From Dec. 1 to Feb. 1, Fairbanks had only 1.9 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service (though it saw much more in the period from September through November). Normally it would see more than 12 inches in January alone.
Anchorage has fared slightly better, with 3.5 inches of snow falling between Jan. 1 and Feb. 8, compared to the historical average of 14.6, according to Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with Borealis Scientific, in Anchorage. Juneau had only a trace of snow, compared to the nearly 34 inches it would typically see over that same period.
One reason for the lack of snow is the prevailing pattern of air masses over the region.
“The main culprit is the orientation of the jet stream and the tracks of storms,” Brettschneider said in an email. The pattern is keeping an area of warm, high pressure air over much of the mainland, pushing storms away and keeping the area dry, he said.
Because of that setup, January was the fifth warmest on record for the state, with an average temperature 15°F (8°C) above normal. By the end of the month, Fairbanks had yet to see its temperature dip below -30°F (-34°C), only the third time that’s been known to happen, according to the local NWS office.
On Monday, parts of the southeastern portion of the state were at the same temperatures as cities in the Southeast of the Lower 48. That warmth accounts for Juneau’s lack of snow, even though it has had near to above-normal precipitation — it just fell as rain.
On the whole, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. over the past 60 years, according to the National Climate Assessment, in keeping with the rapid temperature rise of the Arctic overall. That warming has not only caused an uptick in extremely hot days, but a decline in very cold ones, a pattern also seen across the U.S.
As greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and trap heat, Alaska could see its average annual temperature rise another 6°F to 12°F (3°C to 7°C) by the end of the century depending on the location. There are considerable concerns over how such a temperature rise could melt glaciers and thaw permafrost, as well as change local ecosystems.
Warming temperatures have also caused an uptick in larger wildfires, a Climate Central research report showed. That threat is a concern with this year’s low snowpack, as less snow leads to a drier landscape, Brettschneider said.
“A low snowpack can lead to an early start to the fire season,” he said.