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Is warming making Alaska more extreme? Don't count on it

Craig Medred

Excuse me, but it's once again time to call B.S. on the venerable New York Times. The old, gray lady of journalism, as it has been called, Sunday featured a front-page story apparently written by some 12-year-old claiming mountaineering is getting more dangerous in Alaska because of changes in the weather.

The evidence for this? A random comment from mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth. Here is what he said, according to The Times:

"'The extremes are becoming more extreme,' said Tucker Chenoweth, a mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve. Mr. Chenoweth trains search and rescue teams on McKinley from the ranger station here in Talkeetna, which oversees the mountain and its expeditions about 60 miles from base camp.

"In a strange way, Mr. Chenoweth and other experts said, wild places like McKinley are getting wilder, or at least harder to predict.''

"Mr. Chenoweth and other experts?" Which experts? Experts on what? Chenoweth might be considered an expert on mountaineering techniques, but he's certainly no expert on climatology, which is the basis for The Times' story.

"Sharper seasonal variations of ice and snow and temperature are being repeated all across the world from the Himalayas to the Andes, which scientists say are driven by a higher level of energy in the atmosphere from global warming,'' the story says. "As a result, climbers have to think twice about what they might expect one year to the next, or even one day to the next, in places they might have climbed for decades."

Maybe this is true in the Himalayas and the Andes. I do not know. I do not live there. I live in Alaska and spend a lot of time in the mountains of the 49th state. My home is on the edge of the Chugach Range. I read the story in The Times after a run in those mountains on Sunday. It was a cold, wet and windy day. It felt more like September than July.

Was this uncommon? Yes. 

Was this unusual? No.

I have spent close to four decades in Alaska now. Nearly my entire adult life has passed in the north. I have friends who have been here far longer, a lot of them people who roam the mountains like I do. Here is what we can all agree upon about the 49th state:

The weather, especially the mountain weather, has always been wild and extreme. Always. 

Don't trust the old-timers

I have been snowed on in every month in this state. I have been rained on in every month, too. It has been hot at unexpected times and cold at unexpected times. Talk to old-timers and they'll tell you all about the extremes.

But as someone who has also spent his adult life as a reporter in Alaska, I've also learned not to trust old-timers. Why? Because memories on the weather are often faulty. Ask the old timers and they will tell you every time, it was always colder here except for when it was always hotter. So what does the actual data on climate say?

"The period 1949 to 1975 was substantially colder than the period from 1977 to 2011,'' according to the Alaska Climate Research Center at the prestigious Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, "however since 1977 little additional warming has occurred in Alaska with the exception of Barrow and a few other locations."

In other words, not to pee on the global-warming bandwagon or anything, the fact is Alaska hasn't been warming of late. Average temperatures have basically held steady since the late-1970s in the 49th state. Temperatures in the Mount McKinley jump-off point of Talkeetna, specifically, blipped up in the early 2000s, but since about 2006 they are near smack on where the mean would be for the period 1975 to 2012.

Short-term patterns in the state are even more stark. Fairbanks this year saw the coldest winter in more than a decade in a state that witnessed an especially chill winter. Spring was cold, too. June, thankfully, was near the norm for most of the state, but July has been cold. Anchorage is now headed toward the coldest July since 1920

Fellow Alaskans are already joking about how "I hope you were here for summer, because it's over" -- "summer" being those few days in June when the temperature hit 70 or higher. The number of 70 and above days, it is worth noting, have been falling in both Anchorage and Fairbanks since the summer of 2004.

Don't trust the cheechakos, either

Mount McKinley, for those who don't know their geography well, sits in the Alaska Range between Anchorage, the state's largest city, and Fairbanks, the state's second largest city. It's unlikely, with temperatures going cold instead of warm in both communities, that the 20,320-foot, glacier-shrouded mountain was a geographical hotspot.

"From a freakish storm-driven flood in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee that killed two people this month to an avalanche here on McKinley in June that killed four climbers in a place where avalanches are historically less of a worry, the new norm is increasingly the lack of a norm,'' The Times reported.

Again, I don't know about the Great Smoky Mountains, but I know about Alaska and the norm in the 49th state is that there is no norm. You can get hit by an avalanche in any month on McKinley. Avalanches are, in fact, common year-round on the mountain. The one on Motorcycle Hill this year was unusual, but not unprecedented. The same cannot be said for the deaths of four Japanese mountaineers in that slide. They were victims of a freak accident. The slough of fresh snow off the Hill was not deep, but as it pushed them downhill, they dropped into a crevasse. The snow then came down on top of the climbers and buried them.

That there is often a lot of snow at Motorcycle Hill in June is not something new. Climber Glenn Randall warned of heavy snow in the "Mt. McKinley Climber's Handbook" published in 1984.  Fresh, deep snow plus a hill with slope angles up to about 35 degrees equals the possibility for avalanche no matter how much McKinley's climbers might have come to ignore the risk because the West Buttress route is now heavily traveled.

"On McKinley, the snows this year have been prodigious, and the four avalanche deaths have tied a record last seen in 1987,'' the Times reported. "And conditions have varied widely. This month, a weather station on the mountain recorded a temperature range from 21 degrees above zero to 13 below over two days, with 21 inches of snow falling in the middle, rare for July."

Now there are some nice conclusions based on very thin data.  The weather station referred to in the story was installed in June 2002. A decade of weather isn't much on which to base a long-term standard for what things are like over the long term on McKinley. And so the temperature went from 21 degrees above zero to 13 below over two days. Welcome to Alaska, cheechako.

This is a land of extremes. In January 2009, Fairbanks -- a city in the temperature stable lowlands -- the thermometer jumped from 15 degrees below zero to 44 degrees above zero overnight.

That's way more of a shift than on McKinley this year, and such swings are not uncommon in the 49th state, or at least they are not uncommon in the near term. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says the state's first people's saw this all start about 50 years ago.

The root cause?

Could it be global warming related? Possibly in some places, but the jury is still out. Nobody knows what the verdict will be. But, more than that, there is no evidence of some dramatic shift within the last several years as The Times story would have you believe.

"....While avalanches are a concern everywhere on the mountain, the four Japanese climbers — two men and two women — were killed far below the areas where slopes are steeper and avalanches often have the worst consequences,'' The Times reported. "Last year, an ice fall -- essentially an avalanche, but made of giant ice blocks rather than snow -- surged down the mountain, producing an air blast ahead of it that blew four climbers out of their tents and killed one of them."

Say what?

The sad death on the Ruth Glacier last year came when the Moose's Tooth shed a large serac. That sort of thing has been going on in the Alaska Range for as long as people have been climbing there. The danger of falling seracs is well known. There are big blocks of ice clinging perilously to the sides off mountains. Gravity is constantly tugging at them. It doesn't take much in the way of weather changes to bring down the least stable of the bunch.

That some climbers these days might be unaware of such dangers is indeed a problem, and the only real problem mentioned in The Times story. Near the end it quotes and then paraphrases the observations of Colby Coombs, co-owner of the Alaska Mountaineering School, who says many today "'underestimate the severity of the environment and overestimate their own ability'... Many, he said, are particularly unprepared for the brutal cold that can occur even in July this far north, or the sudden storms that can blow in from the Arctic, driving the windchill factor well below zero."

Yes, indeed, they are. But the brutal cold and the sudden storms have been around a long, long time. Alaska has always been a land of extremes where the "norm'' is an absence of a "norm.''  To suggest it is somehow more extreme now than say, 20 years ago, is well -- based on the evidence -- simply B.S. 

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch staff. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.comContact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com