Experts say 2016 smashed previous records for Alaska’s hottest year on record

2016 was the warmest year on record statewide and in several communities, including Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and Kotzebue. The warmth contributed to several other records around the state, including the earliest breakup of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers in Circle and Bethel, respectively, and the earliest greenup, in Fairbanks.
(Image courtesy of NOAA)

2016 was the warmest year in Alaska since the National Weather Service began keeping records in the state more than a century ago. Two weather-service climate specialists say that’s mainly because of extraordinarily warm ocean water, which in turn helped generate above-normal precipitation – especially in the Interior.

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The sun hasn’t risen in Utqiagvik since mid-November, but that didn’t keep the temperature from rising on New Year’s Day to above freezing.

The high temperature in Alaska’s northernmost city, formerly known as Barrow, hit 36 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 1, reflecting in a way the extraordinarily warm year that had just ended.

“2016, over much of Alaska, goes down as the warmest year of record,” Rick Thoman said. Thoman is the climate science and services manager at the Fairbanks National Weather Service office. “Equally impressive – or maybe more impressive, to me – is the persistence of the warmth.”

Warm-temperature records fell on most days in communities around the state dueing 2016. In the Pribilof Island community of St. Paul, warm-temperature records were set on 333 days last year.
(Image courtesy of NOAA)

That’s a reference to the frequent above-normal temperatures that were recorded by weather stations around the state throughout the year.

“Virtually everywhere in Alaska, 70 percent or more of the days during the year were warmer than normal,” Thoman said. “And in coastal Alaska, in general, 80 percent or more of the days were normal than normal. That’s really just phenomenal persistence of mild weather.”

Anchorage climatologist Brian Brettschneider said the warm days just kept coming, day after day, with no appreciable cold snap during the winter, and relatively few days of what until recently would be considered normal, chilly winter weather.

“At one point statewide, we were above-normal for 218 consecutive days,” Brettschneider said. “I mean, that’s just unheard of.”

Brettschneider said 2016 blew past the previous record-setting warm year of 2015, which held the title for only a year after it had surpassed 2014.

“The last three years have been the three warmest on record in Alaska,” Brettschneider said. “And 2016 was far and away warmer than either of the last two years … It’s the overarching story of 2016 – the unrelenting warmth.”

2016 was the warmest year on record for several Alaskan communities; for others, it was the second- or third-warmest year. Around Utqiagvik/Barrow, high temperatures were more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1981-2010 average. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

The National Weather Service said the warmth last winter was fueled largely by warm ocean water generated by El Nino and boosted by a separate phenomenon called The Blob, a term scientists used to describe an amorphous area of unusually warm water in the northern Pacific. Thoman said those two factors likely were the main reasons for numerous record-warm days along the coast.

“In coastal Alaska, in general, 80 percent or more of the days were above normal,” Thoman said. “That’s really just phenomenal persistence of mild weather.”

Brettscheider said a lack of any appreciable sea ice contributed to the warm temperatures. The weather service recorded a record high in Klawock near the end of March of 71 degrees. It said the unusually warm winter was followed by a warm spring, which contributed to a very early snow melt, river break-up and greenup. Warm air can carry more moisture than cool air.

Brettscheider said that’s demonstrated by the amount of precipitation that fell around the state in 2016, especially in the Interior.

“Fairbanks had 150 percent of their normal annual precipitation. It was an extremely wet year in Fairbanks,” Brettschneider said. “The normal precipitation is about 10 inches.”

That made 2016 the second-wettest year on record for Fairbanks. But Brettschneider said some areas, like the eastern Gulf of Alaska around Yakutat and parts of the southeastern panhandle were relatively dry. Statewide, the weather service said it was the 10th wettest year on record. Brettscheider predicted 2017 won’t be quite as warm nor wet. But he expected it will be, once again, a warmer and wetter-than-normal year.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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