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Return of El Niño suggests a warm summer may await Alaskans

Alex DeMarban
With El Nino returning, Alaskans may be in for another stretch of warm weather this summer -- though National Weather Service forecasters suggest it may be wetter than normal, too. Loren Holmes photo

Is Alaska due for a repeat of last year’s glorious, sun-drenched summer thanks to an assist from the globe’s tropical underside?

Who knows, but the chance of a warmer-than-usual summer is on the rise as scientists increasingly see signs that El Niño might return later this year after a four-year hiatus. If that happens, it could also mean an increasing risk that next winter is warmer than usual, too, making life tougher for fans of snow and ice already bummed by this winter’s meltdowns.

Of course, meteorologists with the National Weather Service guarantee nothing.

But they’re increasingly tuned in to the Climate Prediction Center in North Carolina. The center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently issued a warning that conditions are ripe for an El Niño event developing this summer or fall.  

That generally means warmer -- but not necessarily drier -- weather across the state.

Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager with NOAA in Alaska, said he’s about two-thirds certain El Niño will return this year. There’s an upwelling of warm equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean. And the atmosphere is responding as expected before an El Niño event, with an increasing amount of westerly winds raking the western Pacific, he said.

If El Niño develops, the effect on Alaska will be most noticeable in winter.

Remember the winter of 2002-03? The Tour of Anchorage ski race was canceled for the first and only time, and the Iditarod restart moved north to Fairbanks as winter temperatures averaged 25.5 degrees in Anchorage.

That’s far warmer than the 20.9 degrees seen so far this winter, Thoman said.

And the mother of all warm winters -- at least since reliable observations began in Anchorage some 75 years ago -- occurred in the 1976-77 winter when the mercury averaged 29.3 degrees, said Thoman.

An El Niño year doesn’t necessarily mean serious heat, though. The last El Niño winter was 2009-2010, when temperatures were only slightly warmer than this year.

If El Niño occurs, one major concern will be an increased risk of wildfires, said Dave Snider, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. But it could also mean an increased chance of happiness from Alaskans thrilled with warmer summers.

Snider wasn’t willing to make firm predictions, but he’d bet that warmer and possibly drier temperatures are on the way. Said Thoman: “The ingredients are coming together, but there are no guarantees it will happen.”

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com.