Love it or hate it, Alaska's warm winter is predicted to last until breakup

Arctic sea ice extent is flirting with a new record-low maximum. Wide expanses of dry grass exposed on snowless ground are raising concerns about early wildfires. Ski races are being canceled or converted into contests of repeated circuits on a loop of manmade snow.

So far, this winter in Alaska and much of the rest of the far north resembles a rerun of last winter, a season marked by record-high temperatures and record-low snow and ice measurements.

"It seems like we've heard this story before," said Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service in Alaska.

In Anchorage, for example, average temperatures for last month were 9.9 degrees above normal and those for the first half of this month were 8.4 degrees above normal. January snow depth was only 10 percent of normal, according to National Weather Service statistics.

Expect warmer-than-normal conditions to persist in all of Alaska through May, especially in the southern part of the state, the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center advises in its latest forecast, issued on Thursday.

"Every tool in our toolbox is pointing in the same direction, toward a warm spring," Thoman said.

Blame, or credit, goes to a variety of factors, he said. The powerful El Nino pattern, though losing its strength at its point of origin in the tropics of the western Pacific, is still funneling heat to North and South America. The big "blob" of warm water in the North Pacific has been breaking up and morphing into a more traditional positive -- and warming -- Pacific decadal oscillation pattern, he said. Ice extent in the Bering Sea is much lower than normal for this time of year, affecting Western Alaska, he said.

Even though there was early snow that created a base for several areas of Alaska, warm weather in and around Anchorage brought rains that washed that base away, Thoman said.

There are forces bringing warmth elsewhere to the circumpolar Arctic, he said. Ice is unusually sparse on the Atlantic side near Norway's Svalbard Island, he said. And even in the High Arctic, above the Canadian archipelago where there is solid ice cover, temperatures have been well above normal, he said.

As was widely reported in December, temperatures near the North Pole were pushed 50 degrees warmer than normal and even above freezing briefly. That was no mere one-time event this winter, Thoman said.

"That was actually just one of a series of pulses of this very warm air on the Atlantic side pumping into the Arctic," he said.

The low level of ice in the Svalbard region is much of what's driving a now record-low Arctic ice extent for this time of year, said Mark Serreze, director of the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center. That regional ice scarcity appears to be related to a flow of warm water in the ocean, Serreze said.

Arctic-wide, several factors are conspiring to keep conditions warm, he said. Those include El Nino, which affects global weather patterns even though it originates in the Pacific, he said.

"It's much more than coincidence that we're having this crazy weather at the same time there's a big El Nino," Serreze said.

When short-term forces like El Nino and warm-water blobs are superimposed on a long-term but more gradual pattern of warming, the result can be dramatic, he said. "If they're additive, it can get crazy warm," he said.

For now, the focus in many parts of Alaska is on how to cope in the short term.

As was the case last year, Anchorage's hallmark long-distance cross-country ski race, the Tour of Anchorage, has been forced onto Kincaid Park's "SML," or snow-making loop. Groomers have been able to extend that loop of artificial snow to about 4 kilometers, but that is a far cry from the 50-kilometer distance normally used in the race. Exact race distances are yet to be determined, and "organizers will work with the conditions available," the race website advises.

Sled dog races in Anchorage's upcoming Fur Rendezvous winter carnival, though not canceled as they were in 2015, will be conducted on a shortened course.

Wildfire fears prompted organizers of a March event that would have sent lighted lanterns aloft on balloons at the state fairgrounds in Palmer to reschedule for September. "Safety is our number one concern," Eric Brooks, event director of Lantern Fest, said in a news release Wednesday.

Like last year, wildfire managers are bracing for an early fire season, at least in Southcentral Alaska, said Tim Mowry, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

"Conditions are eerily similar to last year," he said.

A pattern appears to be emerging, Mowry added. "Five of the 10 biggest fire seasons have been in the 21st century, and we're only 16 years in," he said. "There's definitely a trend for earlier and bigger fire seasons."

Still, Thoman said, this winter is not an exact replica of the warm and nearly snowless winter of 2015. Snow is far more plentiful in Interior Alaska than it was last year, for example, he said. And even Anchorage has a shot at covering up its bare ground before winter is over, he said.

"It is only February," he said. "It still could snow. It could snow heavily in Anchorage. It's not doomed yet."

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.