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Freak thunderstorm rumbles Barrow, nation's northernmost city

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published July 16, 2012

An unusually warm day in the nation's coldest and northernmost community sparked a freak rumbling of thunder on Sunday, the first such noise heard there in eight years.

Granted, the growling was distant and light, nothing like the thunderclaps directly over Barrow in 2000 that sent dogs scurrying under beds and frightened children who had never seen a thunderstorm. On that day, rain poured heavily for a community that gets little of it, and phones lit up at the local National Weather Service office, with residents wanting to know what was going on.

"It was early, early in the morning," recalled Dave Anderson, head meteorologist in the city of 4,400. "Everyone was in bed, and people got a little concerned."

Barrow's next round of thunder came four years later, on July 3, 2004. The Iñupiat community sees a thunderstorm about every five years, so this latest dry spell of eight years was lengthy, Anderson said.

No big booms

This time around, rain cloaked the lightning so flashes couldn't be seen very well, Anderson said. But lightning strikes were recorded about 30 miles southeast of Barrow over Dease Inlet, according to the Alaska Fire Services Lightning Detection Network.

The noise was faint. "My wife and I were at home," said Anderson. "We could barely hear the thunder."

Despite the low-key theatrics, the phenomenon was rare enough to merit a mention on the agency's web page, which bears a photo of towering cumulus clouds rising above the tundra near Barrow.

The clouds started building Sunday afternoon when an Arctic Ocean cold front met moist, warm air -- the ground temperature had swelled to 65 degrees. That's blistering for Barrow, not quite a record but well above the daily July average of 39 degrees. It was even warmer than Anchorage -- by nine degrees.

The community's cold temperatures – Barrow's average for the entire year is 10 degrees -- keeps thunderstorms away. But thunder and lightning aren't new. In fact, the Iñupiaq word for thunder is kalluk, said Jana Harcharek, longtime director of Iñupiaq education for the North Slope Borough.

'Rather bizarre'

Harcharek didn't hear Saturday's thunder: Her house echoed with the noise of grandchildren and other family. The family headed to fish camp outside Barrow this week, hoping to bring home whitefish for the year.

Harcharek said she's only seen lightning twice from Barrow, where she's lived her entire life. "It's rather bizarre," said Harcharek, who refused to share her age. "Rather than running in, we're running outside to see it."

By Monday, the storm had passed and temperatures were back to normal. "It's registering 37 on my thermometer," she said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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