Rural Alaska

Utqiaġvik experiences its wettest day on record

Utqiaġvik, the northernmost city in the United States, set a single-day rainfall record on Tuesday as a sprawling storm blasted Alaska — yet another recent precipitation record in a region uniquely gripped by climate change. The storm also sent powerful winds gusting across Interior Alaska, with widespread tree damage in Fairbanks.

Utqiaġvik, a city of 5,000, saw 1.42 inches of rain on Tuesday, more than any other day in more than 100 years of record keeping, surpassing 1.28 inches from a rainstorm in July 1987.

At 71 degrees north latitude, the community, on a peninsula that juts into the Arctic Ocean, is among the northernmost permanently inhabited places in the world.

The significance of the record was noted by meteorologists and climatologists in Fairbanks. “Utqiaġvik has only recorded over 1.00 inch of rain two other times since records began there in 1920,” the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks wrote in a statement.

The record is especially remarkable considering Utqiaġvik’s typically dry climate; its annual precipitation is just 5.39 inches.

Rick Thoman, a climate expert at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center, wrote in an email that the Utqiaġvik record was yet another example of intensified precipitation in the state amid a warming climate; he said another top-10 rainfall day occurred in Utqiaġvik just last September.

In Southeast, Juneau recently saw both the wettest January and February on record, while the town of Talkeetna in the Mat-Su saw the third-most precipitation of any summertime two-day period on record earlier this month. And in Fairbanks, the most populous city in the Interior, an unprecedented December deluge in 2021 made for what was by far the wettest cold-season day on record.

According to Thoman, Alaska’s North Slope — a swath of the northernmost land in the United States — has seen a significant increase in precipitation over the past 50 years. The trend “is surely tied to dramatic decrease in late summer and autumn sea ice,” he wrote. The decrease in sea ice is a well-known symptom of global warming that increases the amount of moisture available to storms in the region.

The same storm that dropped record-setting rain on Utqiaġvik also slammed Fairbanks with damaging wind gusts on Monday. The city saw winds gust as high as 44 mph, while nearby Fort Greely and Delta Junction experienced gusts to 56 and 63 mph, respectively.

In Fairbanks, a city unaccustomed to winds that would generally cause little damage elsewhere in the United States, the gusts felled hundreds of trees.

As many as 30,000 power outages were reported in Fairbanks at the peak of the wind event, according to the Golden Valley Electric Association.

Damage to the power grid was so widespread that, for around an hour on Monday night, a 911 outage affected the Fairbanks-North Star Borough, Denali Borough and Delta Junction area.

The effect of the wind was intensified since trees were still fully leafed, increasing the surface area that wind could push against.

In Alaska, the record-setting Utqiaġvik deluge and damaging Fairbanks windstorm joined a summer, and year, of unusual weather extremes. It occurred toward the conclusion of one of the state’s worst fire seasons on record, with more than 3 million acres burned so far.

Much of the seemingly disjointed array of impactful weather is joined by a common thread: The state is warming far faster than anywhere else in the United States.