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Alaska to plummet to minus-50 degrees but is still a ‘near lock’ to see its warmest year on record

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/24/2019 Matthew Cappucci
a close up of a map: Friday morning's low temperature forecast from the American GFS model. (WeatherBell.com) Friday morning's low temperature forecast from the American GFS model. (WeatherBell.com)

2019 is likely to go down in the books as the warmest year on record in Alaska. Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time on record. The city also measured its highest humidity. Arctic permafrost and sea ice are melting at alarming rates. The North Slope’s landscape is changing before inhabitants’ eyes. But to round out 2019, the weather will take an auspiciously timed abrupt turn — switching gears from record highs to extreme cold.  

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The frigid blast may linger for seven to 10 days before easing by the first weekend of the new year.

The cold en route

a screenshot of a cell phone: European model forecast for Beetles, Alaska. (WeatherBell.com) European model forecast for Beetles, Alaska. (WeatherBell.com)

Fairbanks, Alaska, hasn’t climbed above zero since noontime last Wednesday. Having dropped to minus-30 Sunday night, the city is solidly in “bone chilling” category. Its average December low is minus-13 degrees. It’s looking as though the city of roughly 32,000 won’t make it to zero through at least the end of 2019. In fact, it might not rise above minus-10.

Temperatures between Friday and Sunday are forecast to hover between minus-30 and minus-40. It doesn’t help that the exceptional cold coincides with some of Alaska’s shortest days of the year; Fairbanks will see less than four hours of daylight on Dec. 31, the sun never peaking more than 2 degrees above the horizon.

It’s not just Fairbanks, though. Most of the Last Frontier is set to endure brutal cold. Utqiagvik, the northernmost community in the United States, looks to remain well below zero for weeks. Nome will see lows around minus-20 on Christmas Day and again Thursday.

Regions primarily north of the Denali range are in the crosshairs of Mother Nature’s icy grasp. South of there, the cold is unlikely to be as brutal, although the high in Anchorage is forecast to be only around zero Friday through Sunday, with lows around minus-10.

How unusual is this?

Believe it or not, minus-40 or minus-50 lows in parts of Alaska are not as rare as you might think. But they are becoming less frequent.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Fairbanks would get more than a dozen days a year that hit minus-40 degrees. Nowadays, that number has been more than sliced in half, likely thanks to climate change.

“Alaska needs several -40°F to -60°F outbreak to have a normal winter — not one outbreak every few years,” tweeted Brian Brettschneider, an atmospheric scientist studying the effects of climate change in Alaska.

In 1961, Fairbanks bottomed out below minus-50 on each of nine consecutive nights beginning on Dec. 22. Believe it or not, Fairbanks could drop to minus-30 every night from now to February and not set a single daily record low. The record for New Year’s? Minus-60 degrees, set in 1969. (So next time you hear someone complaining about it being chilly for the annual New York City ball drop, remember that it could be worse.)

In Utqiagvik, the annual occurrence of minus-40-degree lows has dwindled from eight or nine days per year in the 1930s to two or three.

In Bettles, which is forecast to endure a low near minus-50 degrees on Friday, the trend of dwindling ultracold days is evident as well. In the 1950s, the city averaged around 38 days of sub-minus-40 lows per year. Now about a third of those days have vanished.

While it’s somewhat early in the season for cold this severe in Alaska, it’s possible that few if any record lows are set in the upcoming cold spell.

A year of extreme warmth

2019 has been a year of extreme warmth in the nation’s 49th state. In fact, 2019 has been the warmest year on record thus far in Alaska, narrowly beating out 2016.

From 1952 to 2000, Anchorage recorded 12 nights with an overnight temperature that didn’t dip below 60 degrees. This year alone featured nine. Anchorage had never seen more than four days hit 80 degrees in a year. This year there were eight.

July was the state’s hottest month on record, shattering the former record by an entire degree.

Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice is shrinking rapidly. According to Rick Thoman of the International Arctic Research Center, ice coverage in the Bering Sea currently stands at about a third of the average from 1981 to 2010.

Alaska’s rate of climate-driven warming is twice that of the global average. Much of Alaska’s North Slope has surged close to 6 degrees in temperature within just the past 50 years.

This upcoming stagnant cold pattern is a curious bookend to a poster year for accelerated climate warming.

Why opposites don’t mean “balance”

Inevitably, any bout of anomalous cold elicits droves of individuals who claim that any brief Arctic outbreak disproves the unshakable reality of our warming climate. That simply is not the case.

In a stable climate system without human intervention, warm and cold anomalies would occur in relative balance. Nowadays, that balance has been tossed out the window. Warming is favored, and as described above, the frequency of next-level cold events is in steady decline. Earth’s temperatures are skewed warm.

With the upcoming cold soon to settle in, Brettschneider has a telling message that sums up the state of Alaska’s climate:

“Even with this cold snap, Alaska is a near lock to have their warmest year on record."

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