Bethel just recorded its coldest November in 80 years

A blue bill in the snow.
A notice in Bethel for a frozen septic tank dated Nov. 29, 2021. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

This November was brutally cold in many parts of Alaska, including in Bethel.

The Southwest Alaska hub, in fact, recorded its second coldest November on record, at an average 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

“So for Bethel, November is the coldest month of the year so far,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The only time that Bethel had a colder November than this, you have to go all the way back to 1939.”

The deep cold is causing and exacerbating problems around town. It’s the kind of cold that feels like it slaps you across the face. It freezes barges in their tracks. It makes pipes burst open.

For Bethel resident Kyle Roberson, last month was literally the coldest month he’s ever experienced. Roberson is a public defense attorney who moved to Bethel from California a little over a year ago. He recently bought a house in Blueberry Subdivision, and some of the problematic extreme weather has come right into his home.

First, his boiler broke. His heat was out for two days.

“It didn’t take long to get cold. I think my thermostat read 39 [degrees Fahrenheit] by the second day. So just above freezing inside,” said Roberson.

He and his dogs slept next to the only warm spot they could find.

“The dogs and I moved to the couch in front of the wood stove. We had pretty much all the blankets in the house,” he said.

Roberson was able to get his boiler working again. But a few weeks later, on the eve of the Thanksgiving dinner he was slated to host, his pipes froze.

“My pipes are all in my garage,” he said. “And I went into the office for like two hours. And I left the garage door open, and so everything froze up.”

Roberson was able to get his water running quickly by heating his garage with a Toyostove. But once the water was moving again, he realized one of his pipes had burst. He ended up replacing all his old copper pipes with new ones, which cost the new homeowner around $1,000 and took just a few hours. In the end, Roberson was able to host his friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

Across town on Wildlife Lane, a group of six recent college graduates living together in a four-bedroom, one-bathroom house experienced a similar problem. Their toilet stopped working. When one of the roommates, Angel Yi, called their landlord’s handyman, he came by and told her their pipes were frozen.

“So we didn’t have water, I think, for the next two days,” said Yi.

Several of the roommates had other places to stay. But the ones who didn’t?

“Our landlord let us use an office that was nearby the house,” said Yi. “And she gave access to the office and then we used the bathroom, but we couldn’t shower.”

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Yi is new to Bethel and it was her first time dealing with frozen pipes.

Yi and Roberson are just a couple of the Bethel residents who have experienced frozen pipes this winter. And for those with pipes prone to freezing, be warned: Thoman said that this whole winter could pan out to be a cold one. That’s in part because the cold snap led to early sea ice.

“We’ve got a jump start compared to, say, the last six or seven years on having that ice in the Bering Sea, which is a thumb on the scale to tell us to tilt us to colder winters, at least compared to recent years, maybe not so much compared to historical times,” said Thoman. “And the Climate Prediction Center, operated by the National Weather Service, is forecasting increased chances for significantly below normal temperatures for this upcoming winter.”

Thoman said when looking at trends, the last month was a bit of an anomaly. Southwestern Alaska has actually been trending toward warmer autumns and winters.

As the climate continues to warm, Thoman said, Southwest Alaska will still continue to see deviations from the higher median temperatures.

“Just because it’s warming doesn’t mean it still doesn’t get cold,” he said. “It’s still Southwest Alaska.”

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