Category Archives: Alaska

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.

Environmental Group Sues to Protect Seals

Wednesday ( September 12, 2012), the Anchorage Daily News ran a story titled Environmental group sues to protect ice seals.  The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the US Government because they have not listed the Ring Seal as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

I know nearly nothing about the Ring Seal…but I’m confident of one thing…the lawsuit will have absolutely no impact on the seals longevity.     Two reasons, science and China.

My experience has taught me that Environmental groups frequently make wild claims.   There are  many many individual environmental groups.  Each has it’s own agenda.  It is difficult to build anything without offending one or more of the groups  and too many use the courts to air their complaints.   They sue to stop roads, mines, bridges, and oil drilling.   They sued San Antonio to reduce water use.  Sometimes the lawsuits have merit, but too many are a giant waste of time.  An unnecessary expense for both the environmental group and the government.

The third paragraph of the article emphasizes my point.

  “Without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the ice seals don’t stand a chance in the long term,” said attorney Rebecca Noblin in the announcement of the lawsuit. “The plight of Arctic species like these seals demands immediate action to break our fossil fuel addiction.”

They have assumed that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the seals plight.    Maybe, maybe not.    Maybe the ice is melting for a whole host of reasons (natural climate variation or perhaps air pollution or soot), not just the one they have identified.   Maybe the seal can survive with much less ice than they think it can.
Let’s set the science aside and do a little simple environmental arithmetic.   We’ll start by assuming carbon emissions are impacting global climate and that coal use is the biggest driver of that emission total.   Let’s look at some coal use data courtesy of BP.
Coal Use By Country  (millions of tons oil equiv.)
Country            1970        1980         1990        2000       2010        2011     %of Total
USA                          309           389            483           569          526           502        13.5%
China                       163            305           507           710      1,676       1,839        49.4%
Germany               152            140            130              85             77             78           2.1%
UK                              96              71               65              37             37             31            0.8%
Russia                     n/a             n/a            181            105            90              91           2.4%
India                         38              57               96            144          271           296          7.9%
Japan                       60              58               76               99          123           117           3.2%
Total                   1,499       1,804        2,207        2,372     3,520       3,724         100%
Yep we in the good ole USA use lots of coal, 13.5% of the total.  Coal use in the world has increased by 2225 million tons of oil equiv. since 1970 and China is responsible for 75% of that total.   So far in 2012, the USA total is down about 17% below 2011 levels…and China and India continue to grow rapidly.
The Endangered Species Act will always only impact the USA.  The USA is no longer the big player in the coal/carbon dioxide game, China is.     So why sue the USA?    If the Center for Biological Diversity is right about the science (which is not a given), then they need to get China to change their ways or they will fail.
The lawsuit…from the seals point of view…is a waste of time.

Polar Bear SWAG goes and goes

The Polar Bear has long been the poster child for global warming…and an excellent example of wild ass guessing.

We know very little about Polar Bears, but that has not stopped environmental groups from making claim after claim about the health of the species.  Polar Bears have been declared as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act because of predicted changes in the environment.  It is assumed that Polar Bear survival is directly tied to the size of the Arctic Ice Cap and that the ice cap is shrinking because of man caused events.

Good Arctic Ice Sheet Data is only 30 years old….we are all witness to wild extrapolation of that data. We are making policy decisions based on scientific wild ass guesses….or perhaps just wild ass guesses.

Today my local newspaper had a story about Polar Bear longevity.   Last March the conventional wisdom was that Polar Bears became a distinct species about 150,000 years ago.  In April that number was adjusted to 600,000 years and now (just 3 months later) it has been adjusted again to 4.5 million years.  I think it’s safe to say the first guess (150,000) was more than a little bit speculative. More WAG than SWAG.

If the Polar Bear has been around for 4.5 million years what does that mean?   Well for starters it means he is much more adaptable than previously thought.  We currently live in an Ice Age cycle that is 2.5 million years old….and it was warmer ….not colder before that cycle started.

Maybe it’s time to stop making wild ass guesses sound like statistical certainties.

Shell Drilling Delays

Shell Oil, the British/Dutch oil conglomerate is going to drill in the Arctic this August.  It is big news up north. Today, July 27, 2012,  The Anchorage Daily News lead story was all about their project.

Shell leased the lands in the waning days of the Bush presidency and has spent 4 years and 4 billion dollars getting ready to drill in the Arctic off Alaska.   It was big news up here when the Obama administration allowed the project.  The Sierra Club and various environmental groups are understandably disappointed with Mr. Obama.

Every Shell misstep has made the news…and now the project is threatened by lingering ice along the coast in the Arctic.   Hmmm.   Don’t tell Al Gore…he predicted the Arctic would be ice free in Summer by 2015.

I’m not a big fan of Arctic offshore drilling…but I am pretty confident the feds and Shell are going to do a good job.  I’d rather see the onshore areas developed first…which, of course, means the third rail of environmental politics,  ANWR.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an area of Northeast Alaska that is so large it is difficult to comprehend.   The picture above and the map below are both from the US Fish and Wildlife Site.

That’s a lot of wilderness.  The road shown on the western edge of the map is the only road from Fairbanks to the North Slope.   It is over 500 miles from Fairbanks to the coastal plane of the Refuge…and there is only one road….and it stops at Deadhorse (who said oil guys have no sense of humor), the town that supports the oil industry on the slope.

There is one North- South road and there are no East West roads that cross Alaska….the entire state with a few exceptions is wilderness.  The area that the oil interests would disturb is about the size of Manhattan Island….an island of development in all that wilderness.

I would prefer for ANWR to be developed now and the offshore properties later. I think the environmental risks are lower and the potential for success is higher when the drilling is done from an onshore location.  Unfortunately, that is a political impossibility…so I guess I’ll look and watch Shell drill…and hope they find something big.