Although Anchorage welcomed the pitter-patter of rain Thursday, it’s so far been a dry summer. Really dry.
For the period of April through July, considered the first months of fire season, Anchorage has so far had its driest season on record. It was the third-driest June on record at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where Anchorage’s official climate site is located.
A severe drought currently spans from the northern Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage and into the Mat-Su.
While that’s not a large swath in terms of area, it covers where more than half the state’s population resides.
And although it’s not unheard of, drought like this in Southcentral Alaska is rare, said Rick Thoman, climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He called the conditions “very, very unusual.”
Thursday’s rain in the Anchorage area by the afternoon amounted to 0.18 inches of precipitation, said Eric Drewitz, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Anchorage. While that’s likely to keep the drought from worsening, it won’t seriously lessen it.
“A single wetting rain event will not necessarily end a drought in its entirety,” Drewitz said. “And usually, it’s unlikely to end a drought in its entirety, because a drought is a prolonged event.”
It would instead take a series of rainfalls to really end the drought, he said.
Thoman said the drought is a result of extremely low rainfall since the snow melted, and that has different implications in Alaska than it might in other places.
“Drought in Alaska doesn’t look like, you know, a dried-up Kansas cornfield,” he said. And Anchorage’s water supply isn’t really affected by a short-term drought, since water comes from glacial Eklutna Lake.
“So for many folks in Southcentral, the big issue is that increased wildfire risk,” he said.
Southcentral is an area where most wildfires are ignited by humans. If a firework catches or a power line goes down, there’s high wildfire potential, Thoman said.
One of the most distinguishing aspects of Alaska’s dry conditions right now is that it’s dry almost everywhere in the state. Most places have had significantly below-normal precipitation.
In addition to severe drought in Southcentral, a large area north and west of the Alaska Range is in moderate drought, and the upper Kuskokwim, where wildfires are raging, is also in a severe drought due to lack of rain since the snow melted, Thoman said.
Alaska has seen heavy smoke and evacuations as fire has swept across several parts of the state this summer. As of Thursday, the state had seen 457 fires this year, with more than 2 million acres burned.
Almost 18% of the state is in some level of drought.
“Alaska is a big state, so yeah, it’s a lot of drought,” said Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Pugh put together a map that shows drought intensity statewide for the U.S. Drought Monitor, which publishes weekly information about drought across the country.
About 45% of the state is experiencing some level of drought or is considered abnormally dry, which is what occurs when an area is heading into a drought. If that persists, an area is considered in moderate or severe drought.
According to the map, about 1.27% of Alaska is in a severe drought, almost double what it was the previous week. That includes much of Southcentral.
However, it’s “not our first rodeo with drought,” Thoman said.
Dry and wet periods are part of Alaska’s climate record. From 2017 to 2019 there was a drought in Southeast Alaska. The last time Southcentral was in a period of severe drought was in the summer of 2019.
But a warming environment means that rainfall evaporates faster than it did previously. Even if precipitation stayed the same, Alaska’s upward-trending temperatures will spur a drier environment.
“The effective amount of moisture is lower in a warming environment even given the same amount of rain. One inch goes less far today than it did 50 years ago,” Thoman said.
Looking ahead, Drewitz with the weather service in Anchorage said the best chance for rain across Southcentral is from Sunday evening to Monday, but it’s not totally clear where that rain will fall.