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Winter? What winter? Barrow's October, November downright balmy

Alex DeMarban
Even as Arctic air leaves much of Alaska shivering, the far-north community of Barrow is once again registering above-average temperatures, part of a long-term trend in the North Slope region. Denali National Park photo

The vicious bite of winter has swept across much of Alaska, but Barrow, a community that's typically one of the nation's coldest locales, continues to experience unusual springtime warmth with temperatures some 20 degrees above normal.

About noon Monday, Barrow -- located at the tippy-top of Alaska -- posted a relatively balmy 14 degrees. But it's supposed to be 5 below zero, based on historical averages for Dec. 2. That's 19 degrees above normal. Meanwhile temperatures in Anchorage, in the more southern reaches of the state, remained around zero for the weekend.

The wacky weather reversal was much the same last year, with Barrow slogging through relative warmth while the rest of Alaska shuddered from cold.

The unseasonable warmth in the coastal community is part of a long-term trend for the North Slope region that some have attributed to melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, leading to more stretches of open water and warmer air temperatures. That warming on the North Slope is in stark contrast to the cooling that the rest of the state experienced in the first decade of the new century.

The ice certainly isn't what it used to be in the Iñupiaq community of 5,200, said Glenn Sheehan, director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. In recent years, it's gotten much thinner, with less of the thick, blue sea ice that had survived for years.

"There used to be ridges of ice that piled up like mountains offshore," he said. "But you don't see that anymore because the multi-year ice is mostly gone. Now, you often look out and it's flat."

But that's flat rubble, and not good for snowmachine traveling. The ridges that formed in the past protected the near-shore area, allowing smooth ice to form along the coast.

"If you wanted to go to Wainwright in times past, it'd be like a superhighway for snowmachines and dogsleds," Sheehan said of visitors traveling to the Arctic village 90 miles southwest of Barrow.  

"Now it's broken up in chunks."

Whalers have also complained about the thinner ice, saying the lack of stability out on the ice has made spring whaling more dangerous. This year's spring whaling in the community extended all the way into July, more than a month later than normal. 

As for October in Barrow, it was 7.5 degrees above the historical average, with the monthly average temperature at 25 degrees, said Don Aycock, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

The Fairbanks office still did not have all the data from November to come up with a final average for the monthly temperature in Barrow. But preliminary data shows that the month is also expected to be much warmer than usual. The average temperature in November based on the available data wound up at 6 degrees, compared to a historical average of 1 degree.

The warmth is a mixed bag, Sheehan said. It's easier to start cars in the frigid community. But the downside hurts whalers and marine mammal hunters who need stable ice conditions.

"To the extent you don't have to warm up your vehicle for as long, I guess that's convenient," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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