Alaskans already knew what the latest report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., revealed last week: It's cold up here. The "spring from hell," or perhaps "the spring that never came," has now faded as warmer temperatures arrived around much of the state in late May. But in the waters off Alaska, ice has remained stubbornly persistent, much as it did last year.
"Slack winds over central Alaska allowed cold air to stay in place and made much of the month (of May) unusually cold," the NSIDC wrote in its report titled "Un-Baked Alaska."
That makes it sound mild: Anchorage experienced the final days of its longest-ever snow season, while the Interior continued to see below-freezing temps, well into May. The NSIDC noted that things got substantially warmer at the tail end of the month. Just check out this time-lapse video shot by Eric Muehling in Fairbanks May 25-27, when the trees go from tiny buds to leafy fullness in 24 hours:
"Temperatures over central Alaska ... were 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) colder than usual, making this one of the coldest springs on record for cities like Fairbanks," the NSIDC reported. "These low temperatures can be linked to slack winds over central Alaska that resulted in very little mixing to get rid of the cold air. However, the end of the month saw much higher temperatures, reaching more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks."
Subsequently, Alaska's Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas have remained largely locked in ice. On the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean, the ice has thawed at a faster-than normal rate so far in 2013, while on the Pacific side, including the waters of eastern Siberia, things are a little behind schedule.
That means overall ice extent is about on pace with, or a little lower than, the 1979-2000 average. According to Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the NSIDC, the frostier-than-usual Bering and Chukchi seas are a recent development. Scambos said that in recent years, the Chukchi in particular had frequently retreated earlier than normal. But last spring and this spring, ice has held fast later than usual. That's something that Royal Dutch Shell encountered when hoping to move its Arctic drilling equipment northward in 2012, slowing the company's production schedule and shortening its drilling window.
Once it warms up, though, Scambos said, Alaska ice tends to catch up with the rest of the Arctic.
"For a period of time in the last two years during spring, ice on the Bering Sea has been higher than average," Scambos said. "But as the summer wears on … ice north of Alaska has retreated to a lower extent than normal."
Such extensive melt made Alaska's ice -- or lack thereof -- part of last year's record-low Arctic ice extent. And with less time for ice to freeze in the winter, it becomes a vicious cycle that means more thin "first year" ice is present than ever before by the time the melt begins again the next spring.
Over the last decade, Alaska's temperatures on the whole have dipped by an average of about 2.4 degrees. In 2012, Alaska was 2.9 degrees cooler than normal, bucking a nearly-worldwide warming trend. The northernmost portions of Alaska were a notable exception: Barrow was 3.1 degrees warmer than usual in the first decade of the new millennium.
And the continued unusual weather in Alaska and its surroundings seas might not be ending anytime soon.
"The thing that really does bear watching," Scambos said, "is that the Bering Sea may continue to show this springtime lag for a while that has an impact on sea life and fishing in the area."
He added that thanks to that thinner ice cover, the interaction between oceans abutting the Arctic is on the rise and "a little more variable" than it used to be, influencing weather patterns and leading to continued unpredictable weather.
"In a more-general sense," Scambos said, "the discussion going on is whether or not the climate in the Far North as a whole is becoming more variable because of generally-reduced sea ice cover and a warmer Arctic, particularly in the winter."
The NSIDC also released a May snow-coverage map for the northern hemisphere, where Alaska remained what Scambos called a "bluish bullseye" thanks to its continued chilly temperatures. And though he added that it's "still a debate," it appears Alaskans mourning the long winters won't have much to celebrate in the foreseeable future. Those stagnant Arctic air masses hanging over the state may become the new normal as thinning ice continues to impact weather patterns at the top of the world.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com