In Bethel, 2019 was the warmest year on record

Open holes puncture the Kuskokwim River near Bethel in early December 2019. (Krysti Shallenberger/KYUK)

Temperatures in Bethel and the surrounding villages plunged below zero at the end of December and have stayed there, freezing pipes and backing up sewage. Despite the cold stretch that brought the year to an end, 2019 is the warmest year on record for Bethel. 

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Alaska climatologist Rick Thoman says record-breaking temperatures toward the end of the previous winter tipped the scale.

“March was impossibly warm across Southwest Alaska, and that was a significant contributor,” Thoman said.

February and March broke records for warm temperatures. In March, two men died falling through thin ice while driving on the frozen Kuskowkim River.

Tempertures became more extreme as the months continued. In July a heat wave that swept through Alaska. Hundreds of salmon perished in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and tributaries, with the largest die-off in the Koyukuk River. Scientists attribute the deaths to heat stress. 

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The average temperature for Bethel in 2019 was 36.8 degrees Farenheit. That broke the previous record set in 2016 by one-tenth of a degree. In 2016, the average temperature was 36.7 Farenheit. 

“Those two years are really in a class by themselves. There’s no other year that has really a temperature within a degree of those two years,” Thoman said.

At least five years in the past decade have been the hottest in Bethel, according to nearly 100 years of record keeping.

So far, the start of the current winter has seen a freeze-up and a first frost closer to normal, with a long stretch of below-zero temperatures. But Thoman says to expect the trend of warmer winters to continue.

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