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March records for warm weather across Alaska were ‘obliterated’ this year

Pussy willow catkins are beginning to bloom near the Anchorage small-boat launch on Monday, April 1, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Alaska smashed heat records in March and will likely eclipse a 54-year mark to post the state’s hottest March ever recorded, climatologists say.

Many Alaskans have reveled in the warm wave, but others are wary, saying the unprecedented heat has put lives at risk on melting rivers and created challenges for hunters trying to get food.

Statewide temperatures for March are expected to average 27 degrees, 4 degrees higher than the 1965 high mark, said Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We’re not just eking past records. This is obliterating records,” he said.

That’s according to preliminary data that might change slightly once the federal government issues a final report, perhaps next week. Records go back to 1949.

Not that there was ever much doubt, but March came in at 1st place for the warmest March on record (since 1949). A full 4°F warmer than the next warmest March. Areas in red on the map indicate 1st place.

Posted by Alaska Climate Info on Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Among the highlights:

• Deadhorse in northern Alaska averaged 8 degrees for the month, 23 degrees above normal. That’s a record deviation for March in the U.S., and surpassed the 21-degree mark set by Circle Hot Springs in 1965. For many days the temperature in the industrial settlement near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields was 30 to 40 degrees above normal.

• Klawock in Southeast hit 70 degrees on March 19, the earliest any Alaska community reached that temperature. Klawock set the previous record on March 31, 2016.

• An upriver portion of the Kuskowkim River in Southwest, near the village of Nikolai, broke up March 31. That’s 10 days earlier than the previous record in 1998, and three weeks ahead of when the ice normally flushes out.

The river opening there precedes the start of breakup down the Kuskokwim, a major river lined with villages.

“Most rivers are ahead of schedule,” said Celine Van Breukelen with the National Weather Service’s River Forecast Center in Anchorage.

Mark Leary, a volunteer with Bethel Search and Rescue, partly blamed the deaths of two people on the lower Kuskokwim on Sunday to early melting. They were part of a group traveling on two four-wheelers that crashed through ice. Three others were rescued.

“This is super thin ice at a time of the year when it shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

The March heat followed the warmest February in the region in nearly a century, he said.

“This year is extreme,” said Leary, who plays a lead role in maintaining the river each winter as a frozen highway.

Now, the ice is “rotting out” so quickly the rescue group has issued dire warnings that people stay off it.

Earl Samuelson, a small-plane pilot who often volunteers to help Bethel Search and Rescue, illustrates how soft the Kuskowkim River is near the village of Napaskiak, even as travelers on snowmachines and four-wheelers ignore warnings to stay off it.

“It’s scary," Leary said.

He fears for people who don’t heed warnings to stay off the river.

“It took me a long time to buy into climate change, but yeah, things are warming up," Leary said. “I believe it now. Every fall I think this is the winter we will go back to normal. But it doesn’t happen.”

Ptarmigan are usually hunted this time of year because they typically gather in large flocks for mating, Leary said.

“The ptarmigan aren’t around because there’s no snow,” he said.

“The tundra is all brown out here," said Earl Samuelson, a longtime pilot who lives in a village near Bethel and also helps the rescue group.

Samuelson said gobs of people would normally be hitting frozen rivers now to manaq. That’s ice fishing in Yup’ik, the region’s traditional language. But the rivers and lakes are too dangerous, hurting access to a vital food source, he said.

Most people are now flying between villages, such as for school events, instead of driving on the river. That’s boosting family expenses, he said.

Statewide, there has been little relief from March’s heat, Brettschneider said.

On Monday, temperatures at Juneau International Airport hit 59 and the Southeast community marked eight straight days of tying or exceeding record high temperatures.

“That’s hard to do,” he said.

Overall in March, Juneau met or exceeded daily record highs 10 times. Gulkana in the Interior did so nine times, Kotzebue in Northwest eight times, and Anchorage seven times, Brettschneider said.

Brettschneider said lots of people tell him the warm weather beats traditional cold well below zero.

But it’s changing life here, sometimes profoundly, he said.

Several sled dog races were canceled or shortened this year, affecting a key recreational pastime, and there’s less skiing and ice skating. With limited snow on the ground, the fire season this year could be bad , he said.

The snowpack at Denali National Park headquarters melted away on March 31, beating the 2003 record by two weeks, said Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at UAF. The melt-off is more than a month ahead of schedule.

The high temperatures are part of a one-two punch, Thoman said.

A high-pressure system over many areas brought clear skies and warmth. That came atop the overall warming trend from climate change, including the massive melting of ice in the Bering Sea, he said.

Open water could be seen near the northern shoreline of Norton Sound during a flight on March 11, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Sea ice extent in the Bering for March was the lowest on record for that month, helping warm Western Alaska and affecting weather statewide, Thoman said.

Communities once protected by coastal sea ice now face increased flooding and erosion from storm-triggered waves.

“I would be completely stunned if this was not the warmest March on record for the state,” Thoman said, based on the extreme temperatures at most long-term climate sites in Alaska.

Many locations were more than 15 degrees higher than normal.

Official records from the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of NOAA, should be available in the coming days, he said.

A few days ago, rain fell in the Northwest Alaska village of Point Lay, said Robert Lisbourne, a subsistence hunter from that village.

That’s not supposed to happen until summer, he said.

But unexpected warmth is increasingly common there, he said. Melting permafrost has caused street poles to lean, threatening houses until the poles are cut down.

Village residents are adapting, still hunting for bowhead whales that migrate past the village earlier than they used to. He’d been busy chopping trails through coastal sea ice to reach leads of open water where whales surface.

Walrus in recent summers have herded along the beach near Point Lay by the tens of thousands, since the sea ice they once used melts earlier.

The village residents are careful not to hunt walrus when they gather on the beach. Tourists and reporters are kept away, for fear they’ll spook adult walrus that can stampede and kill pups. Their deaths would further put a vital food supply at risk, he said.

“The people are adapting, but the animals are confused,” Lisbourne said.

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