It’s unusually warm in The Last Frontier.
Large swaths of Alaska have seen record or near-record warmth this March said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. And the trend isn’t quitting.
Well above-average temperatures are expected to continue this week. Daily temperature records have broken around the state, and toppled all-time March records in the greater Arctic region. Last week, Alaska saw its earliest ever 70-degree Fahrenheit temperature.
This exceptional warmth has been stoked by a mix of weather events and a rapidly warming climate.
“The magnitude and persistence of the warmth is particularly striking to me this winter in parts of Alaska,” Zack Labe, a climate scientist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Irvine, said over email.
On the weather side of things, there’s a dominant mass of high pressure in the atmosphere — known as an upper-level ridge — that has kept a region of warm air stuck under that ridge which has warmed Southeast Alaska and the Yukon, explained Thoman.
But this transient weather isn’t acting alone.
“While this type of weather pattern favors warmer temperatures in Alaska, the region is also undergoing rising temperatures due to Arctic climate change,” noted Labe. “The rapid warming of the Arctic has reduced the extent of sea ice and increased ocean temperatures, which can further contribute to the warming trend.”
“It’s warming so rapidly in the Arctic,” added Thoman, noting that the recent warming spate in even more frigid north Alaska is partially due to less sea ice. When it’s there, sea ice both cools the region and also reflects sunlight. Without ice, the open ocean is dark and absorbent, soaking up even more heat. It’s a well-understood, vicious feedback cycle unfolding all over the Arctic.
In interior Alaska, where Thoman lives, the unusually warm temperatures are making for a noticeably disappointing March. That’s because March — when daylight is finally increasing but temperatures are usually cold enough to preserve quality snow and ice — is when Alaskans can get outside and embrace the joys of winter. “That’s the time to get out,” said Thoman.
But not in interior Fairbanks this March, where temperatures have hit 50 degrees or higher for four days in a row.
“It’s melting. The snow is crappy,” said Thoman. “In a large part of urban Alaska people talk about how they’ve been robbed of March,” he added.
The enduring warming trend will likely bring more profound warmth, melting, and changes to Alaskan sea ice and snowmelt in the coming months.
“We’re going to have more stories to talk about,” said Thoman.