Alaska News

Anchorage's persistent warm weather so far this winter may be record setting

Know that squeaky sound snow makes on cold days when you walk on it? That sound has not been heard much in Anchorage this winter.

That's because the sound only occurs when the temperature is lower than 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

How about the sensation of ice forming in your nostrils when breathing in cold air? That happens when the temperature is approximately 5 degrees or colder.

But so far this winter, the lowest temperature at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage came Saturday morning when the mercury briefly dipped to 13 degrees. While warm winters are nothing new to Anchorage, even warm winters have cold spells. Not this year. Never before have we gone this late in the season without at least a brief period of significantly colder weather. Since 1916, every year has seen a temperature of 7 degrees or colder by Dec. 15. In fact, Anchorage normally has eight sub-zero days by this date.

Lowest high temp just 24

As for high temperatures, the picture again is one of unprecedented and unremitting warm weather. The lowest high temperature this season was 24 degrees, which occurred on three different days. Every prior winter saw at least one day with a high temperature of 21 or colder by Dec. 15. Overall this is the third warmest winter through mid-December when all days are averaged together. The winter of 2002 was far and away the warmest on record but even that season saw an intense, albeit brief, cold snap in early to mid-December. Nonetheless, the first 45 days of the 2002-2003 winter were an amazing 5 degrees warmer than this year through Sunday.

Many Alaskans take pride in living and functioning in weather that causes our Lower 48 friends to cringe. But this year, Anchorage residents must relinquish our claim of enduring a harsh environment. Places like Lubbock, Texas; Lexington, Kentucky; Sante Fe, New Mexico; and Fayetteville, Arkansas already have endured temperatures colder than Anchorage this winter. Even some of our fellow Alaskans in Southeast towns such as Juneau and Skagway have seen colder temperatures than any observed in Alaska's largest city.

On top of all that warm weather, Anchorage is already 18 inches behind the average amount of snow due by mid-December.

And Anchorage isn't the only Alaska locale with below-normal snowfall. Fairbanks, McGrath, Kotzebue, St. Paul, King Salmon, and many other places are more that 10 inches beneath what is typical.

In fact, the folks in Dutch Harbor haven't recorded any measurable snow at all this season – the latest they have ever gone.

In the Lower 48, most areas are also well below normal for snowfall but some are running ahead of Anchorage. Places like Cleveland, Ohio; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Billings, Montana; and Duluth, Minnesota; have been snowier than Anchorage this winter.

Nothing frigid in sight

As of this writing, the National Weather Service's long-range forecast and computer models all suggest above-normal to well-above-normal temperatures through the end of the year. Perhaps, this will be one of those years without any extreme cold temperatures at all. Just once, the winter of 2000-2001, has Anchorage's cold season come and gone without a sub-zero day. Could it happen again? Don't bet on it, but don't bet against it either.

Some may wonder if the warm winter is a result of global warming. The answer is a little bit yes but mostly no. Global warming is like background noise. It is always there but you don't notice it day to day -- every year the noise gets a little louder.

The main reason for this year's warm winter is the persistent flow of southerly winds at all levels of the atmosphere bringing relatively warm air from the sub-tropics. It is as if Alaska really is located between California and Hawaii, just like most maps of the United States place us.

Brian Brettschneider is an Anchorage-based environmental planner and climatologist who writes an Alaska weather blog.

Brian Brettschneider

Brian Brettschneider is Anchorage-based environmental planner and climatologist who writes an Alaska weather blog.