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for people who care about the West

This just happened: Alaska’s warm winter


It might seem like the big weather story this winter was the spate of snow and cold that hit the East Coast. But a more prolonged and sobering story was all the snow and cold that did not hit large parts of the West, and especially Alaska.

Today, the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack hovers at around a dismal 25 percent, guaranteeing yet more California drought. In the Cascades and coastal British Columbia, the snowpack varies from 13 to 50 percent of normal. Shuttered ski resorts are just one visible consequence in a region where snowmelt supports recreation, agriculture, fish and much more.

Meanwhile, in south-coastal Alaska, we’re hundreds of inches shy of normal snowfall, following months of warmth and some very un-Alaskan scenes. Instead of blowing snow, we experienced blowing dust and a grass fire north of Anchorage in November. Throughout December, we saw open ponds and rivers, instead of pick-up hockey and kids on skates. The holidays, ordinarily brightened by snow, were brown and drab.

January brought some snow, then a lot of rain, including to high elevations where withering glaciers need every snowflake they can get. Meanwhile, “under 40” became the new definition of cold for doleful skiers, as a procession of would-be winter storms arrived as rain.

In February, Anchorage trucked snow into downtown to kick off the 2,000-mile Iron Dog Snow Machine Race. The temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with rain instead of snow. But even sadder was seeing the racers on TV the next day, tearing across 30-mile stretches of snowless tundra heading for Nome.

In March, a challenging mushing season culminated with the Iditarod. Open rivers and scant snow hampered trainings and qualifying races, while the food drops that are traditionally left frozen outdoors required artificial refrigeration. Eventually, organizers moved the race 300 miles north to Fairbanks, for the second time in 12 years.

Perhaps most jarring, temperatures in Anchorage did not go below zero a single time in 2014. Because this new record covers an entire calendar year, it also reflects last winter’s abnormal warmth.

Naturally, people are grumbling about the weather, but with little mention of climate. While our newscasts steadily report warm-weather records, they only rarely or ambiguously mention climate change. It’s also not often heard at dinner parties or even aboard chairlifts whisking skiers past grassy ski runs. When the odd conversation does go to climate, it’s often to dispel any connection between global warming and current conditions.

To some extent, this may be accurate. The primary cause of our weird weather is a persistent storm track pulling warm Pacific moisture northward to Alaska. Like a Pineapple Express pattern, this “Hawaiian punch” commonly delivers rain.

Another factor is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a long-term weather pattern associated with seawater temperatures. Similar to El Niño, it shifts between warm and cool spells. Today, after some cool years, the PDO is strongly warm.

Yet, these facts don’t tell the whole story. First, climate change is not something that’s in the offing; it is already well underway. Today’s atmosphere is on average warmer and moister due to fossil fuel emissions and deforestation. It can supercharge existing patterns such as the Pineapple Express and PDO. Inevitably, it will cause extreme weather events entirely consistent with this year’s lack of winter.

Next, discussing whether climate change “caused” this particular bad winter misses the point, which is that this winter’s warmth is now part of the climate record. If we accept the basic science behind global warming, we should expect this winter’s numbers to edge our average temperatures upward over time. In other words, it’s not whether climate change caused this winter, it’s that this winter is climate change.

Finally, this winter provides a stark view of what scientists say Alaskan winters will increasingly look like, within our lifetimes. Shortened winters will cause bare ground and open water during holiday seasons, making white Christmases irregular occurrences. The snow line will migrate higher in elevation and farther north, disrupting traditions such as the Iditarod. Robins and thrushes will be increasingly common winter sights, as they were this year.

The resultant changes already permeate life in Alaska, arguably the nation’s most climate-affected state. The permafrost defining Northern tundra and keeping mountainsides intact is dissolving, releasing vast stores of climate-changing methane. The sea ice supporting diverse wildlife and sheltering coastal lands from erosion is vanishing, devastating indigenous communities. The glacial systems feeding salmon and tourism are collapsing, flooding rising seas with fresh water.

Surrounded by such landscape level signs of rapid heating, no one should be surprised by a warm Alaskan winter. Over time, and as we continue burning fossil fuel, it’s what we should increasingly expect.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Girdwood, Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].