This year’s weird Alaska winter should make us very, very nervous.

It’s time to think of winters like the past three as glimpses into the future.

 

In January, strong storms swept over 8,000 dead seabirds ashore in the Prince William Sound port town of Whittier, Alaska, with thousands more in other locations. In February, an impressive seven feet of rain battered the shrinking face of the nearby Portage Glacier. March brought two small wildfires to normally snowbound areas, reminders of last summer’s record burns. 

Maybe the weirdest scene of all came in March, when the Alaska Railroad delivered a trainload of snow from Fairbanks 350 miles south to the snowless streets of Anchorage. It was the only way Anchorage thought it could pull off its annual ceremonial start of the Iditarod, Alaska’s legendary sled-dog race.

Huskies train for the 2016 Iditarod, which started in a nearly snow-free Anchorage.

These are just a few scenes from another jarringly warm winter in Alaska, the third in a row. Official tallies are still coming in, but new records are being set: This has been the warmest winter ever recorded at 18 statewide weather stations, including in the Far North. For the first time, Anchorage reported no snow coverage in February. Arctic Sea ice was at its lowest-recorded winter maximum, something that one official attributed to an “absurdly warm” Arctic.

An obvious question is how much climate change is to blame. No doubt Alaska has rapidly warmed in recent decades, and experts agree that climate change influences the ongoing weirdness. But more immediate forces are also at play. For instance, a persistent northward surge in the jetstream keeps pulling warm air masses into Alaska, with rain soaking normally snowy landscapes. Another factor is the strong El Niño that has affected weather globally, a pattern that favors warmth in Alaska.

Yet another potent force is The Blob, which is what weather experts are calling the enormous patch of exceptionally warm water that has sat in the Gulf of Alaska for over two years. Though The Blob now appears to be dissipating, perhaps knocked-out as a side effect of El Niño, both its origin and future are still being debated. As you might guess from its name, The Blob is a strange new phenomenon, with little precedent for experts to work with. 

In Alaska, most of us hope the weakening of El Niño and the breakup of The Blob will allow a return to normal winters. But unfortunately, “normal” now means increasing warmth and more rain instead of snow. The reality of climate change is that Northern latitudes experience warming first and fastest.

In that light, we should read these weird Alaskan winters as a warning. Even if research eventually shows they are anomalies, they still mirror conditions that the experts predict for Alaska’s future, including more snowless winters at low elevations, record warmth, bigger fires, and threats to traditional cultural and economic activities, such as the Iditarod.

None of that is good news for the global climate. Warm Northern winters mean faster melting of glaciers not just in Alaska but in much icier Greenland, accelerating sea-level rise. Less snow across the North contributes to greater fires, like Alaska’s 2015 record-setters. Those fires pour heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere and simultaneously diminish forests that can moderate the climate. On an even larger scale, warming melts vast tracts of permafrost, which scientists call a “climate time bomb” owing to its potential for methane release.

The phenomena highlight a dangerous risk not widely discussed about our ongoing climate experiment: As long as we continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the natural systems that moderate carbon pollution — forests, permafrost, oceans — will function at lower levels than they do today, accelerating change even as we struggle to limit emissions.

Meanwhile, researchers are finding alarming effects of warmth on marine food webs, which brings us back to all those dead seabirds. Scientists are still investigating, but many suspect The Blob upset their food resources, perhaps through diminished phytoplankton or the spread of toxic algae blooms. More conclusive evidence implicates warm water in California’s recent auklet die-off and the spectacular demise of millions of sea stars from California to Alaska. 

Scientists are particularly concerned about the spread of toxic algae blooms to unusually Northern latitudes, enabled in part by decreasing sea ice. This has the potential to disrupt all levels of the marine food chain.

Today, we talk a lot about adaptation. Aquaculture can save our fish, we hope; ski areas will open higher terrain, and sea walls will protect low-lying cities. In Alaska, the federal government will help us relocate eroding coastal villages to safer locations.

Adaptation is important, but it should not distract us from the immediate need to sharply decrease our greenhouse gas emissions, and to elect officials who do not deny the undeniable. Look no further than Alaska’s recent weird winters to glimpse a future we need to avoid.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion 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].

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