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Alaska Is Hot and on Fire

Earther logo Earther 7/2/2019 Maddie Stone
a close up of a hill: Smoky haze from a wildfire on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula obscures the view from an Anchorage golf course. © Photo: AP Smoky haze from a wildfire on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula obscures the view from an Anchorage golf course.

Europe isn’t the only part of the world that’s been roasting and burning of late. So is Alaska.

Record and near-record heat swept the Last Frontier over the weekend, with stations across the state’s interior recording daily highs of close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday. On Sunday, temperatures rose to 92 degrees in Northway near the state’s Yukon border, smashing the all-time heat record set in 1942. Temperatures in Anchorage peaked at a comparably balmy 82, which still marked the city’s hottest day in three years.

The heat helped wildfires explode over the weekend, and their smoke is spreading far and wide. Saturday saw Anchorage’s first-ever dense smoke advisory as the Swan Lake Fire ballooned in size on the Kenai peninsula to the south.

The balmy weather caps a month that saw record or near-record heat across much of the state, including the hottest June on record for Anchorage, Rick Thoman, a climate scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, told Earther. And the hot June came on the heels of a hot May, which followed a hot April, which followed a record-smashingly hot March, and well, you get the idea. It’s been hot in Alaska.

“It’s the same story, and it’s not even much of a different tune,” Thoman told Earther.

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The persistently hot weather is drying landscapes out. This creates conditions that make it easier for fires to spread, which is exactly what’s happening. The Swan Lake Fire, which began with a lightning strike on June 5, blew up last week, jumping from 30,000 acres on June 21 to more than 70,000 as of Sunday night. More than 450 personnel have been dispatched to deal with the blaze, which remains just 15 percent contained, as of Monday.

Further north near Fairbanks, firefighters are battling another lightning-sparked conflagration: the Shovel Creek Fire, which grew rapidly on Sunday to more than 10,000 acres in size, prompting evacuation alerts for several neighborhoods. That fire is currently zero percent contained.

Alaska is vast and sparsely populated, and wildfires are relatively common. As Thoman noted, the more than 443,000 acres that had burned statewide as of Sunday only placed this year 18 percent above the long-term average for the year so far. But if the hot, dry weather continues, Thoman said, Alaska could easily see a million acres burned this year, maybe even two million. That wouldn’t be record territory—2004 saw a whopping 6.2 million acres burned statewide—but it would still be a big fire season of the sort that’s become increasingly common in Alaska’s fast-warming climate.

a close up of a map: Fine particles from wildfire smoke are spreading across Alaska’s interior and south-central region. © GIF: UAF Smoke Fine particles from wildfire smoke are spreading across Alaska’s interior and south-central region.

And unfortunately, more heat records could be broken this coming weekend. While the state saw a brief reprieve over the last 24 hours as a weather front swept across the Bering Sea, Thoman said weather models show a “massive high pressure” system building over Alaska by the end of the week, bringing temperatures in the mid to upper 80s and perhaps higher from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

Ironically, some places where heat records aren’t being broken might have wildfires to thank, as thick smoke helps keep daytime temperatures down.

“Fairbanks only got to 89 the other day, and that was surely because of the smoke,” Thoman said.

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