An unusually warm winter in Alaska has delivered daytime temperatures well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius) and torrential rains at a time of year when bitter cold and fluffy snow are expected.
According to scientist Rick Thoman of the Alaska Centre for Climate Assessment and Policy, the air temperature at a tidal gauge in the island community of Kodiak reached 67 F (19.4°C) on Sunday, the highest December reading ever recorded in Alaska.
According to Thoman, the new record high came amid a string of warm December extremes, including 65 degrees at Kodiak Airport, a record 62 degrees at Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, and at least eight December days above 50 degrees at Unalaska in the Aleutians, including a 56-degree reading that was Alaska’s warmest Christmas Day on record.
The vast amounts of precipitation dumped on inner Alaska, where the Fairbanks area was struck by its worst mid-winter storm since 1937, are likely to have the most catastrophic immediate implications for humanity, according to Thoman.
December is typically a dry month in interior Alaska due to the freezing air’s inability to store much moisture. Because the air is lovely and cold, whatever moisture does get in tends to be “the more fluffy powder because the air is nice and cold,” according to Thoman, who lives in Fairbanks.
This hasn’t been the case in recent days.
So much snow fell on Sunday that the roof of Delta Junction’s only grocery store caved down. Delta Junction is 95 miles (153 kilometers) southeast of Fairbanks. Worse, the heavy snows were followed by torrents of rain that froze cities in the region, causing extensive power outages, closing of key roads and buildings, and earning the region the moniker “Icemageddon.”
Because of the cement-like ice coating that has formed on the roadways, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has cautioned that they will remain dangerous for a long time.
“Once ice has bonded to the road surface, it is extremely difficult to remove. Despite the fact that air temperatures were mild during #icemageddon2021, roads were sub-zero, causing ice to stick to the surface “On Twitter, the department stated.
Warm and wet mid-winter weather has been more common in Alaska over the last two decades than in previous years, an indicator of climate change, according to Thoman. “This is exactly what we expect in a warming world,” he said.
The situation is similar elsewhere in the far north, where winter rains have wreaked havoc on people and grazing animals such as caribou and musk oxen, who struggle to find food when the ground is covered in ice. Such difficulties are common.
Starting around 2060 or 2070, a research published last month in the journal Nature Communications predicted an Arctic climate with more winter rain than snow.
Alaska will still be chilly this winter, with temperatures in Fairbanks projected to drop below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius) this weekend, but warm, wet events are expected to become more common in the future, according to Thoman.
“A warming, moistening world has put our thumbs on the scale to make this more likely,” he continued.