After a chilly winter in 2011-12, this winter could be remarkably average for the southern portions of Alaska, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's latest seasonal outlook. Northern Alaskans, on the other hand, may have reason to rejoice as predictions suggest warmer than usual temperatures from the Interior to the North Slope.
All that may change, however, as NOAA acknowledges that a predicted El Niño -- a warming of Pacific waters near the equator -- has yet to arrive, leading to uncertainty in the forecast. There's still time for that El Niño to arrive, the agency reported.
"This is one of the most challenging outlooks we've produced in recent years because El Niño decided not to show up as expected," said Mike Halpert, a climate prediction expert with NOAA. "In fact, it stalled out last month, leaving neutral conditions in place in the tropical Pacific."
The common-sense thinking goes that with that warmer Pacific air, warmer weather should follow. But even when El Niño does show up, various other weather systems can make long-term predictions difficult to nail down. Other El Niño years have proven to be occasionally warmer -- and occasionally colder -- than usual, as Alaska Dispatch reported last month.
But enough with the pessimism; what about that warmer weather up north? Northern Alaska joins much of the Western United States in its positive outlook for a warmer winter, while the southern portions of Alaska are similar to the eastern half of the country, where there are equal chances for a warmer, cooler or even completely average winter.
In the Far North, spanning from about Point Hope to the east of Barrow, forecasters say there is a 50 percent chance that winter will be warmer than usual. The likelihood decreases from there as you travel south, down to 40 percent on the upper half of the Seward Peninsula stretching to near the Canadian border.
The Interior has a 33 percent chance for an above-average winter, with the Fairbanks area right on the southern border of that optimistic outlook.
South of that, including Southcentral, Southeast and the Aleutians, could go either way, whether warmer or cooler than normal. Click here for a map illustrating the winter forecast.
A warmer winter in the Barrow region would continue a trend that has carried through the spring, summer and into fall. According to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, Barrow was an average of 3.7 degrees warmer than usual from June through August. In August, the community saw temperatures 6.3 degrees above average.
That trend continued into September, when Barrow was 2.6 degrees warmer than normal, according to the Alaska Climate Research Center. Barrow was one of only a few communities in the state that saw higher-than-average temperatures over the summer. Most locations around Alaska were 1-2 degrees cooler overall during the summer. Homer was 3.1 degrees below average.
Other Alaskans further south -- who were hoping for some respite following last year's brutal winter with see-sawing temperature swings and record snowfalls -- will just have to wait and see what Mother Nature has in store.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com