Tale of Three ‘Winters That Weren’t’

Once again the incredible power of Mother Nature is on display in ‘The Great Land’ as we are now seeing a bit over fourteen and a half hours of direct sunlight each day and that is increasing by six minutes with each 24 hour cycle.  This amazing land truly amplifies seasonal shifts to the point they become almost mind boggling.  Just eleven weeks in the past we were struggling to get a mere five hours of sunlight yet now the sun doesn’t set until 21:18 AKDST after rising at 06:47 AKDST!  By the time we make the summer solstice on June 20th we’ll see 19 hours and 55 minutes of direct sunlight with the sun rising at 04:05 AKDST and setting at 00:00 AKDST yet this is just ten weeks from now.  It is indeed a wild roller-coaster ride in terms of light and dark but one which folks living in the higher latitudes are all too familiar.

Talkeetna is easily three weeks ahead of past ‘norms’ for weather conditions as we’re already into break up with open water appearing on lakes, ponds and streams.  The gravel back roads are almost completely free of snow and ice and some are even dried to the point vehicular traffic generates dust.  We have wildly varying snow cover based mostly on the extreme amount of ice generated last November into December; ice just does not melt as quickly as snow.  Currently I’m estimating 80% snow cover but that figure involves the boreal forest which surrounds this area; any surface which is relatively free of tree cover is almost bare regarding snow and ice.  And this trend models the past winter which was probably the mildest in terms of temperatures in Alaska’s history.  In addition the precipitation was also extremely low making this winter and subsequent ‘early spring’ almost a carbon copy of the previous period.

In fact, the past three winters have been the mildest on record for the state thanks largely to the huge blob of warm water apparently anchored in the Gulf of Alaska – it is running 1.5° C to 2° C above normal – and the record sized El Nino of the past two years.  I suspect this could well be further evidence for a warming climate although I also know that three warm winters does not a trend make..!!  Because I am a ‘weather weenie’ with a bit of a scientific bent I collect daily meteorological data from my Davis Vantage PRO 2 weather station and often review this data.  In so doing I created the following analysis of the past three winters:

3 Winters

I chose the five month period from November through March as that has covered the main ‘winter’ months although five or more years back I would have also added April.  This fact by itself speaks to the warming and subsequent shortening of the recent Alaskan winters.  The small amount of data I reviewed has suggested a number of trends.  The average mean temp across the aforementioned five months by year shows a slow increase (+3.4° F) while the number of days with temps below 0° F shows a slow decrease (11 fewer days) across the same period.  Interestingly, February shows up as the coldest month based on my data yet historical records show January is normally the coldest month in this area with December a close second.  The chart showing the monthly mean temps shows amazing variation; only the line for the winter of 2014-2015 shows anything close to what one would expect.  The trace for 2013-2014 does show cooler temps in December and February but January is extraordinarily warm beating January 2016’s mean temp by 7.1° F and January 2014’s mean temp by a whopping 15.2° F!  Meanwhile, the line for 2015-2016 shows December was the coolest month – as predicted by the historical data and averaged across the previous roughly 70 years to be 11.3° F* – but then the temperatures just continued to warm across January, February and March.  None of these years showed an average January temperature equal to the historical 9.9° F monthly average.  Maybe most telling is the historical mean temp for March is 21.6° F yet the mean temp for March of 2014 was 23.4° F (+1.8° F) while that for March of 2015 was 25.0° F (+3.4° F) with last month’s figure even warmer at 28.5° F (+6.9° F).

All of this information serves mainly to suggest that Alaska has seen a dramatic warming of its winters since 2013 and to this point I do not see anything indicative of a change to this trend.  The recent El Nino should subside, it is already showing some weakening, and that will help allow for cooler winter temps but until the warm waters of the northern Pacific Ocean either equalize or move away from the Gulf of Alaska I suspect we will continue to see much above normal winter temperatures.  The real question in my mind is how much of the Pacific warming is due to climate change?  Without question much more study and analyses are required before this question can be answered.  As someone who loves snow and cold I’m not at all optimistic regarding our near term winter conditions.  If there is a silver lining to this pattern it could be such warm and dry winters bring about an early thaw and snow melt.  This, in turn, allows the water from the snow melt to sink into the floor of the boreal forest or evaporate before it can form the small, shallow pools the mosquitoes use for breeding.  I suppose if I cannot see those much sought after -30° F air temps or that four foot snow pack at least I can enjoy a spring, summer and fall sans those nasty little blood suckers…

*Historical weather data courtesy of NWS and ‘climate-zone.com’

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