Ask a Climatologist: Alaska’s “relentless” streak of warm temperatures

Weather stations in Alaska have logged an “unprecedented” run of above-normal temperatures, says climatologist Brian Brettschneider. (Graphic courtesy of Brian Brettschneider)
Weather stations in Alaska have logged an “unprecedented” run of above-normal temperatures, says climatologist Brian Brettschneider. (Graphic courtesy of Brian Brettschneider)

According to an announcement this week from the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 is on track to be the warmest year ever. If current trends continue, it would be the third straight year of record-breaking heat.

That trend has been particularly noticeable in Alaska, where two thirds of major weather stations have logged above normal temperatures every single month of 2016.

Brian Brettschneider is a climatologist in Anchorage who closely tracks Alaska climate data and trends. Alaska’s Energy Desk is checking in with him regularly as part of the segment, Ask A Climatologist.

Brettschneider said what we’re seeing this year is unprecedented.

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Interview transcript:

Brian: Well, first of all, it’s been warm everywhere. From Barrow down to Juneau, over to Bethel, Fairbanks, everyone’s been way above normal. But if you had to pick out one spot, it would be the areas that are closest to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Those are areas that have been far above normal. For example, Homer has been more than 1.5 standard deviations above normal every month of 2016. There’s only six stations globally that can say that. Places like Dutch Harbor have been above normal for over three consecutive years, every single month. Cold Bay, St. Paul, very similar. Fairbanks, Anchorage, over 12 consecutive months. So the [closer] you get to the Gulf of Alaska, to the Bering Sea, the more dramatic the warmth has been.

Rachel: And what is causing these relentless warm temperatures?

Brian: You’ve got a couple things going on. One is, globally, temperatures have been increasing for a number of decades, so we’re starting with this higher baseline. And then we’re coming off a near-record El Nino, which really supercharged the atmosphere, added a lot of warmth from the oceans into the atmosphere. So that really enhanced things. Although now we’re in a La Nina, officially delcared a few days ago, and we’re still experiencing this unrelenting heat.

Rachel: Is this the new normal? Is this what climate projections say we should be seeing right now with global warming, or is this a blip?

Brian: Probably some of both. There are really no long-term global climate models that said, hey, this was going to be happening this quick. This was more 30, 40, 50 years down the line. That said, these kind of warm episodes are going to be more likely with the increase in the baseline temperatures globally.

Rachel: Anything else people should know about this relentless above-normal streak we’ve been on?

Brian: Well, there’s really no end in sight. It should be added that we’re still tracking at record low sea ice. So a lot of the warmth that’s in the Arctic Ocean that typically is locked away due to ice cover, isn’t. So that warmth is still being released out into the atmosphere. Over the entire Arctic basin, there has been 20, 30, 35 degree above normal temperatures for weeks on end, and the rate of sea ice growth has dropped dramatically.

Do you have a climate question for Brian? Email

Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets.
rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel

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