Category Archives: Alaska

An Alaska Welcome — Snow

Last Thursday I had images of Spring in my head.  My three weeks in Hawaii had come to an end and the snow in Anchorage was disappearing rapidly.   Friday was a glorious wonderful warm sunny March day….and then it snowed.  I was sitting in my breakfast room eating dinner when it started.   Overnight we got 20 inches of snow.  Snow that had not been predicted.  Alaska was welcoming me home.

Alaska is a tough place to predict weather.   Anchorage has mountains to the East, and sea water to the west.   This part of the world has few weather stations so the only data available is courtesy of satellites.   Weather men get fooled all the time.  This was the second snow storm the weather guru’s had missed in a month.

My daughter lives in New York City.   She grew up in Alaska, which gives her a different perspective.  We have had more than a few discussions on the regional differences in the good ole USA.   New Yorkers appear to have forgotten how to deal with Winter.   They have become weather wimps.   A little snow and it’s panic city.  Everything shuts down.

Allow me to use last Saturday as an example.   When I awoke to 20 inches of snow in my driveway, I did make a change in plans.   I ate breakfast at home.  When the sun came up, I fired up my snow blower and plowed my driveway.   At about 11, I drove over to my daughters house (about 2 miles away), shoveled snow off her car and brought her car back to my house where I parked it in the garage.   I thought a warm car would be a nice surprise for her.

At about 2:45 PM we went to the airport and picked up my daughter and her family.   They were returning from a week in Florida.   The 11 mile each way drive was uneventful.  The plane arrived a few minutes early.   Later in the day, my wife and I went out for a nice dinner.   The next morning, my street had been plowed and most of the major roads in the city were clear.  Life returned to normal.

The Airport did close for a few hours  late Friday night due to poor visibility, but only a few flights were cancelled.   A United flight from Chicago was diverted to Kenai and a few flights to Fairbanks got cancelled.   UPS and FedEx both have hubs in Anchorage and they operated with only a slight hick-up.

I can’t begin to imagine NYC functioning at anything approaching normal for several days after 20 inches of unanticipated snow.  Let’s hope that global warming really is here to stay, because I don’t think New Yorkers are ready for a return to the colder weather of just 40 years ago.

Balmy weather in Alaska

Today, Thursday January 23rd was a noteworthy day for South-central Alaska.  It was 48 degrees F at my house in the Hillside area of Anchorage, and we had 7 hours of daylight.  The Sun is getting a bit higher in the sky and the extraordinarily flat light that is early January is beginning to fade.  On December 21st, we had only 5 hours, 27 minutes and 41 second of daylight.  Today we had 7 hours, 2 minutes and 31 seconds.  And the Sun is 4 degrees higher in the sky than it was just a month ago.

And that 4 degrees is a big change.  As we near the Winter Solstice, the Sun almost disappears, rising to about 5.5 degrees above the horizon.  Such is life at 61 degrees North Latitude.   On January 20th, we were all treated to a spectacular sunrise.   The sun rises at a flat angle, which allowed for viewing like this that lasted half an hour as the Sun struggled to come up above the Chugach Mountains:

We are having a Chinook, which means we have a warm wind blowing down from the mountains east of Anchorage.  The warm wind makes it’s quite a bit warmer near the mountains, and cooler down in the flat-lands.  Also,  there’s a funny bend in the Jet Stream causing most of the State to feel a warm wet Southerly flow of air.  The same bend is making it super cold in the Midwest.

The result. It’s almost 30 degrees F warmer than the average Anchorage January Day.  Yesterday, the Weather Channel, AP and ABC News  all ran the same Alaska  weather story.  Alaska was on average 2 degrees F warmer the lower 48 states.  Yep, the calculated average for the State of Alaska was 24 degrees F and the lower 48 US States were a whopping 22.

It was a fun story to read, but was it true?   Let me use today as an example.  Today my car thermometer said 37 degrees in a midtown parking lot.   I immediately drove the 10 miles to my house where the same thermometer said 48.  I have no idea what the temperature was 10 miles east of my house.  Nobody knows.   It’s in the middle of an uninhabited mountain range.   Alaska is a really big place with not very many weather stations.

Today my house was 10 degrees warmer than the official weather station.   In cold clear weather, I am 5 to 10 degrees cooler…and I’m only 10 miles away.  The trip from Anchorage to Barrow is 800 miles long and crosses two mountain ranges…including the tallest Mountain in North America.

Any single number temperature for the entire state at any given time must be a guess.  A Scientific Wild Ass Guess.   It has been a warm January.   No doubt about it.  One for the record books.  But, we really don’t know  how warm, exactly.  Nobody knows.  But we can give a pretty good educated guess….and it is just that, a guess!

400 years is young for a Glacier

Three posts ago I discussed some plants emerging from 400 year old glaciers in the Canadian Arctic.  I expressed surprise, how could the Canadian Arctic glaciers be so young?

As I thought about the subject it occurred to me that most people do not have the local perspective I have when discussing glaciers.  If you haven’t seen glaciers up close, perhaps it’s difficult to grasp how time and temperature impact these spectacular pieces of moving ice.

Alaskans live with stories of Glaciers.  When one suddenly advances or retreats…it makes the news.   My history of living with and exploring glaciers is relatively small for a 40 year Alaska resident.

I have walked on 3 glaciers (Worthington, Matanuska and Columbia).  I have made repeated visits to two well known glaciers near my home, Exit Glacier and Portage Glacier.  Both Exit Glacier and Portage Glacier have, I believe, aided me in my understanding of time….climatically.

Exit Glacier is in Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward.

The 12 mile drive from Seward includes an 8 mile section up a wide valley.  The last mile and  a half cuts across the valley, following a stream to the visitor center.  A sign at the visitor center (1961) lets you know where the glacier was some 52 years ago.

Inside the visitor center, you learn that some 10,000 years ago the Glacier filled the valley you just entered.  A valley over a mile wide and almost 7 miles long.  That’s a lot of melting.

Portage Glacier offers a similar lesson.

When I first visited Alaska, Portage Glacier was a fresh water marine glacier.  The lake that fronted the glacier ended at a parking lot near where the Portage Glacier Visitor Center sits today.   Large icebergs piled up  in the lake near the parking lot…and in the winter you could walk on the lake and get a good look at these mountains of ice that had broken off the glacier.   That was in 1972.

Today the glacier no longer sits in the lake and is no longer receding.  The lake made the glacier unstable which aided in it’s rapid recession as the following graphic demonstrates:

Much of this area was discovered by Captain Cook on his third voyage in 1778.  Anchorage sits along Cook Inlet that was named for the famous explorer.   Portage Glacier sits near the end of Turnagain Arm.  Captain Cook was looking for a northerly passage back to the Atlantic.  When he got to the end of the arm he had too turn again….or so the legend goes.

It is said, he could see Portage Glacier from his boat in Turnagain Arm.   The Portage Glacier Visitor Center is some 7 miles inland.  That glacier must have been much bigger then than it is today…or was in 1911 when it first became a fresh water marine glacier.

Both Exit Glacier and Portage Glacier have been receding for thousands of years.   The thought of a 400 year old glacier in the Canadian Arctic seemed odd to me.

I suppose the lesson learned must have something to do with regional climate variations in the Arctic.  Still I am a bit surprised that a glacier that formed in the Arctic only 400 years ago required 250 years of warming to melt!?

Cold Alaska Spring – Part 2 – The Nenana Ice Classic

The Nenana Ice Classic is an Alaska tradition.   Each year thousands of us guess when the ice will melt on the Tanana River at Nenana in central Alaska.  This year somebody won $318,500.

The ice was late this year, really late.  It set a record.  The contest began in 1917, and the latest date had been May 20th in 1964.   We beat it this year….by 2 hours.   2013 now has the dubious distinction of being the new cold standard for the classic.   The following Snow and Ice Data Center chart illustrates the dramatic nature of this years cold.

1964 really stands out!  And 1992 in more recent times.  The date shown in the chart is the Julian date.   The chart was last updated in 1998.  Data since then has been well within the average range of the chart with all dates falling between 114 (2004) and 127 (2002)   The average winning date is Julian 125 or May 5 (or May 4th on a leap year).   This year we were late….16 days late.

I’d be the first to admit that the data really doesn’t mean much, but it is interesting.   1992 (the Pinatubo volcano year) was a very late year and the time around the record setting El Nino in 1998 was unusually early.   And look at 1940.  I wonder what happened that year.

A New Cooler Alaska, I wonder if the IPCC noticed

The last few weeks have been chock full of climate change and environmental news.

Tuesday,  May 1  –  Earth’s greenhouse gas approaches milestone levels.  Carbon dioxide in the environment officially passed 400 ppm.  This story was nothing more than an excuse to drag out all the old gloom and doom climate stuff that we all have been witness to for the last 30 years.

Carbon dioxide has been steadily rising for 200 years and man is probably responsible for most of it, but if there ever was a predictable event this one was it.

Tuesday, May 14 –  A Washington Post story noted that the Obama administration allows wind farms to kill eagles, birds despite federal laws.    Mr. Obama has decided that global climate change is more important than the Endangered Species Act.  This should be interesting to watch.

Friday, May 17 –  The Guardian posted Obama’s climate strategy sets off climate a time bomb.  The article is critical of the compromises the administration has made in the Arctic.

Friday, May 17 –  Weather.com posted an article detailing the record cold in Alaska titled Where Winter Won’t End.  My favorite part of that article was a map showing how cold it has been in Alaska for the last 44 days.  Here it is:

Map of temperature anomalies from April 1 through May 14, 2013. Strongest cold anomalies (4-5 degrees C or more) indicated by deep purple contours. (Image: NOAA/ESRL Physical Science Division)

Saturday, May 18th – Anchorage sets new records for snow and cold as documented in the Anchorage Daily News article titled Late-May snow sets multiple records.

Sunday May 19 – At 7:00 AM this morning it was 21 degrees F at my house.      The high yesterday was new record low temperature for a daily high by a whopping 7 degrees.   Today will be the 46th consecutive day it has been colder than average in Fairbanks.

Record high carbon dioxide, record low temperatures, and lots of environmental news.   Alaska was supposed to be one of the places most impacted by global warming as this chart prepared by the IPCC in 2007 shows:

Most of the  lawsuits relating to the Arctic environment  in the US revolve around the shrinking Arctic ice pack.  And the Arctic is melting in the summer despite the cold in Alaska.  But here’s an interesting sidebar.   It’s melting more off Asia and Europe than off Alaska as this map of the current Arctic Ice condition demonstrates:

US lawsuits about the disappearing Arctic Ice will abound and will be largely ineffective because they are regional in nature and the problem being addressed in international in nature.  It matters not what the USA does, if Russia, Norway, Denmark and Canada don’t go along.  Recent history would indicate that actions off the coast of Alaska have had very little to do with the current Arctic Ice disappearance.

Such is the nature of climate science and environmental law as it sits today.   The subject is  very complex and does not fit well into 30 second time bites.   Carbon dioxide is steadily rising, the world is not warming and all the IPCC projections to date have proven to be wrong.  We are running well below the temperatures the IPCC predicted just 6 years ago as this recent IPCC chart demonstrates:

AR4 (orange) was prepared in 2005 and published in 2007.  Virtually every year since has been colder (the black bars) than their predicted range and 2012 continued the trend.  So far 2013 has been a bit colder than 2012.  So what’s going on?

I don’t know.

It does emphasize something I think I have been right about since day one of this blog.  Where climate is concerned everybody with a strong opinion on the subject is guessing.  I see  guesses here, guesses there, guesses everywhere whenever climate science is discussed.

Snow in Anchorage

Each morning I walk to the end of my driveway and collect the morning paper while coffee brews in the kitchen.  Today, May 16th, I dodged snowflakes.  Yep, it’s 35 degrees F and snowing right now at my house in South Anchorage.

Two posts ago I complained that global warming had left Alaska, at least for April.   Well May is cold too.   Really cold.   There’s still some winter snow in my yard and our normal summer planting weekend is only a bit over a week away.

The weather man is predicting more snow and a low of 27 on Saturday.   I’ve lived in Alaska since 1972 and this is by far the coldest spring I have ever seen.  No wonder I’m a global warming skeptic.

Juneau Snow Record

I am ever amazed by my local papers efforts to fill space with local news.   Today I found this little gem on page A-4 column 1 of the Anchorage Daily News:

Snowfall break record by 3.3 inches

A Spring storm has brought record snowfall to parts of Juneau.  The National Weather Service said a snowfall record for the day was broken at the airport, where forecaster Richard Lam said 3.5 inches of snow had been reported as of 10 a.m. Friday.  Lam said the prior record for the day at the airport was 0.2 inches, in 1964.

The article goes on to say that parts of town got rain instead of snow and it was expected to stay wet in Juneau through the weekend.

Why is any of this newsworthy?  Parts of the city got a little wet snow and it set a record.  Give me a break.  Juneau is a very wet place.  Sure it rains more than it snows and snow this late in April is a bit unusual, but the surprise is not that a record was set, but that the old record was so low.

Weather records seem to be broken all the time.   It didn’t used to be that way.   A record snowfall had to be the biggest ever or at least the biggest in the month involved, but not anymore.  Today we have daily records, which give us lots of opportunity to set new records.

30 snowfall records for April alone.  Juneau began as a mining town in about 1880.  Record keeping began some time after that so  the probability that Juneau will have a daily snow record in April is 25% (30/120).  And we have records for high and low temperature, rain and wind.

We keep so many records, that it is virtually impossible not to break old records with regularity.  Juneau’s old record was a trace of snow and now the record is 3.5 inches or about a quarter inch of rainfall equivalent.  By Juneau standards both are low numbers.

Juneau had managed to not have any snow for over 100 years on April 26th, and then it snowed on that day in 2013.   Where is global warming when it’s needed?

And while I’m grousing about weather silliness….what’s going on at the weather channel.   Who gave them permission to start naming winter storms….and who picked the names?  When I was a kid only hurricanes got names, now the Weather Service names all tropical systems.  Storm names are here, there, everywhere.

So many records broken, so many named storms; it’s easy to conclude that the world’s weather must to be getting worse.  Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the way we talk about the weather.  Today we are better at making “much ado about nothing”.

Winter Temperature in Anchorage?

What is the temperature in Anchorage right now?  The official weather service reading in 28 degrees F as I write this Blog.  I live about 12 miles from the weather service office.  It’s 42 degrees F at my house.

A few minutes ago I drove from my house toward Service High School, a distance of about 4 miles.  The temperature varied  between 39 and 42 for the first 3.5 miles of the trip and then ….in the last half mile it dropped to 29 degrees F.

On the afternoon of December 26th I drove from my house to the sleepy ski town of Girdwood.  The 31 mile trip was witness to a similarly odd temperature swing.  I glanced at the thermometer as I left my house, it read 22 degrees F and it was cloudy.  By the time I got to Indian (about half way) it was 35 and raining.   Rain continued and the temperature slowly warmed to about 38 degrees F in Girdwood.   When I drove back to Anchorage 2 hours later… it was still 22 degrees at my house, and still cloudy.  The rain ended a bit north of Indian, and the temperature quickly dropped from 34 into the high 20’s.

Our official Anchorage temperature for December 26th…cloudy with a high of 28 and a low of 17.  No precipitation.

The next morning I drove friends to the Airport.  It was 35 and raining at my house and 22 and cloudy at the airport.   The weather had completely reversed at my house in only 14 hours.   The official weather service temperature is very near the airport.

Anchorage is a hard place to predict weather.   We have very few official weather sites nearby to use as a reference.  We have mountains to the east, ocean to the west and some variation in elevation.   When there is low pressure on one side of the mountains and relatively high pressure on the other side it gets windy and warm at higher elevations.  Shift the pressure gradient a bit and it gets windy at sea level.

When it’s calm, which is most of the time, it can be colder at altitude or warmer, depending on whether or not there is a temperature inversion.   Whenever it’s clear and cold….which happens a lot in winter, the temperature varies with location.    The NE corner of the city can get very cold…compared to where I live.

We in Alaska are used to the weather service being wrong.  We are used to wild temperature swings…and it doesn’t surprise us when the official temperature is nothing like our own experience.   So what’s the temperature in the middle of the Chugach Mountains 5 miles East of my house.   I don’t know.  Nobody knows.  Surface measurements are not available.  There’s nobody there.

Wild temperature variation and poor data sets help add perspective to the debate about climate.  I think  most Americans have too much trust in the statistics provided.  We in Alaska have a better appreciation of the difficult task at hand.   Yes the world is warmer than it was a while ago; but how much warmer?  Precise calculation is a difficult task, very difficult.

Alaska is not alone.  Canada and Siberia have relatively few data sets.  Many parts of the developing world are poorly represented.  The deep oceans that cover 70% of the earths surface are poorly represented too.  So……how warm is the world right now?

NOT an easy question to answer.

Alaska Cooler Since 2000

Yesterday, the Anchorage Daily News ran a feature story in the
Alaska section of the paper titled Study shows Alaska got colder from 2000 to 2010. The article confirmed something I already knew….it’s been cold in the 21st century in Alaska.

I liked the article because it had lots of interesting information about my local region. Unlike so many articles in the local press, no effort was made to draw conclusions about global warming  from what clearly was  a regional study.

Each year I see many articles about the summer ice melt in the Arctic….and each article invariably draws conclusions about climate from what must be short term regional activity.  This article noted something that is easy to forget when thinking climate….regional variation is not unusual and not particularly helpful when evaluating long range worldwide climate trends.

Most of us draw too many conclusions about global climate from our local experience.  The contiguous 48 states of the USA was warm in 2012….regional data…and a short time period.  That experience really doesn’t mean much, when the global view is taken.   A warm USA, a cold Alaska….neither tell us much about global climate.

The article quoted a study that said it was 3.04 degrees F warmer in Barrow and 2.34 degrees  F cooler in for all of Alaska in the first 10 years of the 21st century.  The study used 20 first order meteorological stations.  20 Sites….all of Alaska…. I see a problem.   Alaska is just too big.  20 sites won’t do.   I suspect wild extrapolation of data between test sites (SWAG).

Last month (during a long stretch of cold clear weather) I drove by brother and mother from Providence Hospital to my house in South Anchorage.  The 9 mile trip took about 20 minutes.  My brother (who lives in Hawaii) was fascinated by the changing data displayed by the external thermometer in the car.   The temperature was -1 degree F as we left the Hospital, and quickly got down to -6 F and just as quickly got up to +6F before settling at -2 at my house.  Such swings are normal in Anchorage on clear cold winter nights.

Alaska is 663,267 square miles.   20 sites?  That’s one site for every 33,000 square miles.  South Carolina is a bit over 32,000 square miles.  On a cold winter day it is frequently 40 degrees F cooler in Fairbanks than in Anchorage. They and about 300 miles apart.  Southeast Alaska has weather similar to coastal British Columbia or Washington and the area along the Arctic north of the Brooks Range is similar to the Arctic parts of Siberia.

20 sites…2.34 degrees F…I don’t think so.   Sure it’s been cold…but not 2.34 degrees.  The data cannot possibly be that precise.   The .34 implies a precision that is not supportable by the data.   California is approximately one quarter the size of Alaska.  Imagine predicting temperature for the entire state of California by using data from just 5 sites.

Yep, it’s been cold in Alaska, but not 2.34 degrees F colder.   Alaska has every climate imaginable from a rain forest in Southeast to the frozen tundra of the Arctic.   Any study using only 20 sites must be doing a lot of guessing.   Yes it’s been cold and it’s probably somewhere near 2.4 degrees colder, plus or minus a half a degree or so.

Perhaps I’m overreacting a bit…after all the article did explain that the study used 20 sites, and guessing was clearly in order.   But that is the purpose of this blog….to point out the guessing that is here…there….everywhere in climate science.

Arctic Ice Sheet Growing Rapidly

I have been traveling around Europe since late October.  Alaska greeted me with bone chilling cold as I exited the airport terminal on Sunday.  As I write this blog, the temperature at my house sits at a balmy -7 F (-21 C for everybody but the USA).  It has been cold most of the time I was gone.

This got me wondering about the Arctic Ice Sheet.   So I wondered over to the National Snow and Ice Data Center and took a look.  The Ice sheet is growing at a surprisingly rapid rate.  The site has lots of information about the Polar Ice Cap.

When looking at this data it is helpful if you ignore the 1979-2000 average data presented in grey.  Virtually all summer data in recent years is outside the grey area which is supposed to cover 95% of all data.  The grey data set is an object lessen of poor statistical analysis.   The aforementioned website has an interactive chart with better data that displays averages and standard deviations for the entire data set, but it doesn’t transfer well, so I used this one.

2012 was a big year for summer melt….and so far it has been a big winter for ice building.   Summer data appears to vary wildly, while the winter data is much more stable.  This is likely to continue due the the nature of sea ice.  First year sea ice has a higher salt content than ice that has been in the Arctic for a while.  This higher salt content makes it melt more rapidly than ice that is older. And there’s been lots of first year ice in the data set since 2007.

People searching for benefits of global warming talk about the shorter shipping routes the Arctic represents.   Environmentalist worry about Polar Bear habitat and excess rain and snow in Europe.   Yep, they are going to happen….but you better be quick.  Summer is an extremely short season and winter seems to last forever.

So far at least, the changes seen for most of the year have been relatively small when compared to the wild variation seen in summer.    If and when the Arctic gets a cold summer following a cold winter, then we will have more second year ice…and the ice will become more stable.  But until then the ice will continue to show wild swings in summer.  It really is more a measurement of past warming, and less so a warning flag of future warming.

But is it?  Recent studies argue that yes the ice melts faster when it is warm, but it also is impacted by pollution.  Air pollution discolors the ice, making is slightly less white, which helps it absorb sunlight in summer.   So maybe it’s a marker for air pollution.  Either way first year sea ice is more a marker of past woes and less a predictor of future woes.

If the trend of a warmer more polluted world continues then the summer ice free area will probably expand.   This is not a new experience for the Arctic.   130,000 years ago the Arctic was much warmer than it is today and it is widely believed that there was  less ice then than we have now.    And 20,000 years later it was much colder.

But this analysis is probably too simplistic too.  If the ice free period expands, then snowfall in the Arctic will likely increase too, which could bring on a new ice age cold period.  Or maybe not.

The current climate cycle for the earth is 2.5 million years old.   Any effort to predict long term trends using a 35 year data base is more than a bit speculative.   Talk about wild extrapolation.  It is virtually impossible to identify a trend in a 2.5 million year system using a 35 year data base that is more reactive than predictive.

Well.   What happens next?  I don’t know.   Time will tell.