Alaska Gets Too Hot

by | January 7, 2015

By Maria L. La Ganga

The biggest state in America, home to more ocean coastline than all others combined, has just set another record. This one, however, is nothing to cheer.

For the first time in recorded history, temperatures in Anchorage did not drop below zero once in an entire calendar year. In comparison, Alaska's largest city had 14 days below zero in the 2013 calendar year and 32 days in 2012. The average is 29 days.

At midnight Dec. 31, Anchorage closed the book on its warmest year since 1926, according to the National Weather Service. The lowest temperature recorded in 2014 was zero degrees Fahrenheit on Feb. 11.

Sea ice has been disappearing. Polar bear populations have dropped. The state's storied dog race was a musher's mess, spurring headlines that fretted: "Warm weather, treacherous conditions _ is the Iditarod in trouble?" The Bering Sea saw its warmest summer on record.

"I didn't put my downhill skis on at all last winter, and at the moment I'm still hoping for this winter, but the prospects are not good so far," said Henry Huntington, who lives in an Anchorage suburb and serves as senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts' international Arctic program.

The Last Frontier didn't exactly sweat through Death Valley-style temperatures. Anchorage's 2014 annual average was a chilly 40.6 degrees or so Fahrenheit, said Richard Thoman, climate science and services manager with the weather service in Fairbanks. Still, that was well above last year's annual average temperature of 37 degrees.

Environmentalists, policymakers and weather watchers are viewing the thermometer with concern.

"To me, the fact that Anchorage won't dip below zero degrees in calendar year 2014 is just one more signal _ as if we needed another one _ of a rapidly changing climate," said Andrew Hartsig, director of the Ocean Conservancy's Arctic program.

Hartsig said Anchorage's comparatively balmy weather is consistent with other long-term trends, including diminishing summer sea ice and increasing sea surface temperatures.

"These are definitely red flags that are very consistent with climate change," said Chris Krenz, senior scientist at Oceana, an international conservation group. "These are anomalies ... that show our climate system is off-kilter."

James E. Overland, a research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would agree with the off-kilter part. But he would add mysterious to the mix, too.

Overland argues that Alaska's very cool heat wave is not evidence of climate change but rather the next stage in a long-term weather pattern that began with six years of warming in the Bering Sea and southern Alaska, followed by six cold years.

"This year, then, was the breakdown of the string of cold years," Overland said. "What all the scientists are wondering now (is): Is this just one warm year? Could we flip back to a cold sequence again, or is this the start of a warm sequence? ... We don't know, and it makes a big difference."

Especially to the Alaska pollock, which NOAA's FishWatch website describes as "one of the largest, most valuable fisheries in the world." Pollock don't like really warm or really cold temperature extremes, and their food source, small shrimp, do not fare well in heat.

"We really don't understand how these sequences occur, but they appear to be random and part of the chaotic climate system, rather than part of the global warming signal," said Overland, co-author of NOAA's 2014 Arctic Report Card. "We've had one warm year here. Is this a sucker punch or not?"

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times