By Jenny Neyman
Depending on your perspective, the recent stretch of April-in-January weather in Alaska is a dark cloud or a silver lining. Dog mushers, skiers, ice fishermen and snowmachiners are missing out on their activities, while those not fond of snow and cold are enjoying the midwinter reprieve. Side roads are slick with ice from melting and refreezing snow, but shoveling hasn’t been required for a while. There have been reports of bears finding their winter naps disrupted, but moose, at least, are enjoying easy travel and a bounty of browse.
On whichever side one falls, both can agree to one thing — January has been the weird winter that wasn’t.
“If it weren’t for the low sun angle you’d think it was late April,” said Dave Snider, TV Desk lead meteorologist with the Anchorage National Weather Service Forecast Office in a forecast recording Jan. 24.
Using Anchorage as an example, the average high temperature usually stops hitting 40 degrees after Nov. 17 and doesn’t reach 40 again until April 4. The average low remains below 32 degrees after Nov. 12 and stays that way until April 22. Not so this January, which has become the warmest period from Jan. 1 to Jan. 23 on record since 1985. According to the NWS, Monday temperatures busted records across the state — Seward hit 61 degrees (previous record was 55 degrees in 2005), Homer reached 57 degrees (51 in 1994), Alyeska Resort in Girdwood also recorded 57 degrees (50 in 1995), Denali National Park hit 52 (51 in 1961), Nome reached 51 (46 in 1942), Talkeetna spiked at 47 (46 in 2004) and Soldotna recorded 50 degrees (40 in 1972). It was 7 degrees in Barrow on Monday, and minus 4 in Green Bay, Wis.
While the state has seen some high precipitation amounts — particularly in Southeast and Valdez, it’s mostly been coming down as rain. Snowpack has been rapidly decreasing across the state with as much as 2 feet of snow melting away in the last week in some parts of Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, according to the NWS.
Don’t expect that to change on the peninsula in the next week, with the NWS forecasting chances of rain or mixed rain and snow and continued above-freezing temperatures.
While Alaska has fast-forwarded to spring this month it seems to have exported winter weather to the Lower 48, with snowstorms and severe cold plaguing the Midwest on down to the Gulf Coast.
This weather pattern is called an Arctic Oscillation. The fast-moving winds of the jet stream steer the weather we experience at the surface, Snider said.
“The south-to-north orientation that flow, at the upper levels of the atmosphere, latches onto some tropical moisture and heat across the Pacific and produces the weather we’ve experienced,” he said.
Cooler air from the north is being ferried on down south. A ridge of high pressure extending from the western Lower 48 up through British Columbia and Alaska is holding the inverted temperatures in place.
“Convection, which is upward-moving air, has been going full tilt across the tropical Pacific Ocean, so much so that the area involved would cover twice the size of the Lower 48 United States. That’s the source of the moisture making it to Alaska. And if that continues, the ridge of high pressure over Alaska could remain intact,” Snider said.
The latest forecast model predicts that the high-pressure ridge will most likely hold into February, although Snider said the NWS has low confidence in that model at this time. The silver lining for winter enthusiasts in Alaska is the possibility that as this North America high-pressure ridge breaks down the North Pacific jet stream could shift to the west.
“Which could lead to more of a northerly flow across Alaska. That means it’s going to get colder, more like late January or early February-type weather,” Snider said.