Despite holiday cold snap, 2019 is ‘virtually certain’ to be warmest year on record for Alaska

Sea ice on the Kotzebue Sound on Dec. 27, 2019. (Photo by Wesley Early / KOTZ)

Much of Alaska had been frigid this holiday week as temperatures across the state dipped as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s in stark contrast to a year with record high temperatures and major disruptions of traditionally solid sea ice across the Arctic.

Temperatures in the Northwest Arctic villages of Ambler and Buckland reached 42 degrees below zero on the morning of Dec. 26. The Interior village of Allakaket had the coldest temperature in the state on Dec. 26 at minus 56 degrees. Friday, Dec. 27, saw a low of minus 65 degrees in Manley Hot Springs near Eureka, one of the lowest temperatures for anywhere in Alaska in years.

Simply put, the state was cold this week.

Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, says though it’s a dramatic drop from this winter’s balmy start, the weather pattern is normal for this time of year.

“We’ve just gotten so accustomed to these persistent runs of above normal weather that even somewhat below normal for more than a day or two really seems outstanding,” Thoman said.

Despite the drop in temperatures, Thoman says this last-minute cold snap likely won’t change Alaska’s record-breaking climate forecast for the year.

“2019 is, at this point, virtually certain to be the warmest year of record for Northwest Alaska, and the state as a whole,” Thoman said.

While not making much of a dent in the average temperatures for the year, Thoman says the cold snap is helping create sturdy sea ice — which saw record-low growth during this warmer winter.

“The cold weather has helped to finally pretty much freeze over the Chukchi Sea — very late freeze-up — and now starting to work on the Bering Sea,” he said. “So that’s all good news for moving forward as we move into spring.”

That’s good news for a lot of Arctic communities who rely on sea ice for travel and subsistence hunting.

Claude Wilson is on the board of directors for the Iron Dog Snowmachine Race and puts on local races in Kotzebue. He says he regularly checks on the ice.

“You know, trying to keep track of the thickness because we don’t want people taking their vehicles out on the ice unless it’s safe,” Wilson said.

For Wilson, safe for racing means thicker than a foot of sea ice.

“[In] years past it was always a go because we always had more than two feet of ice,” Wilson said.

This spring, Wilson saw ice as thin as five inches, which made him and other organizers nervous. He says the recent cold snap has made him more hopeful that the ice will be thick enough to race this winter. Ice readings earlier this month were 14 inches near shore, and thicker towards the ocean.

Wilson says he wants to continue to see temperatures below zero.

“I think every ten days, it adds an inch to the thickness,” Wilson said. “So we’re hoping it’ll be a little thicker than it was just nine days ago.”

If the ice remains solid, Wilson will be able to put on the annual Knight Rider Snowmachine race in Kotzebue on New Years.

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