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2019 Annual Report


Highlights

January: Fairbanks was just one of a number of communities that recorded the coldest temperatures in 2 years during the cold snap at the beginning of the month. While temperatures of -40°F and below are common in many parts of Alaska during winter, prolonged periods of deep cold have become rarer in recent years. As temperatures rose to exceptionally high values later in the month, organizers were forced to cancel 2 sled dog races due to rain. A portion of the 1000km Yukon Quest race was also cut due to lack of snow.

After 2-5 feet of new snow fell in the area, a special avalanche advisory was issued for Turna-gain Pass for the weekend of January 25th-27th and the advisories for Hatcher Pass also warned backcountry travelers about the dangers associated with significant amounts of new snow and wind.

February: Persistent high pressure characterized the weather for much of February in the Interior and Eastern parts of the state. The ridging pattern associated with this was part of a large-scale omega-type block between centers of low pressure over eastern Siberia and eastern Canada. Influx of cold air from Siberia favored cyclogenesis in the northern Pacific and multiple storms embedded in the polar front moved South to North, roughly tracking the Alaskan coast from the Aleutians to Utqiaġvik. This led to advection of warm air from the south and very stormy conditions on the Arctic and Subarctic coast. This in turn led to a dramatic reduction in sea ice in the Bering Sea. The warm, south to southeasterly storms erode existing ice and prevent new ice from forming. Open water is visible in locations such as Unalakleet and Shishmaref, which is very unusual for this time of year and cause for concern due to the possibility of severe coastal flooding. The 2019 Iditarod sled dog race will not follow the normal race course across Norton Sound due to unstable ice conditions and instead take an overland route.

March: A number of sporting events were affected by the unusually warm temperatures and lack of snow and ice: Mushers of the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to deal with stretches of wet and soggy trail and adjusted their rest schedules to deal with the warm weather. The course of the race was moved overland between Elim and Golovin because of a lack of sea ice.

Due to the thin ice associated with the recent high temperatures, the Sonot Kkaazoot Nor-dic Ski Race, held in Fairbanks on Saturday March 23rd, was moved from its usual course on the Chena River to Birch Hill. The 40 and 50 km events were combined and shortened to 30 km and the 20 km event was shortened to 9.5 km.

Unexpectedly high temperatures, together with heavy rainfall events and strong wind, raised avalanche risk in mountainous areas. The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood (Chugach State Park) shut down mountain operations for few days due to high avalanche risk. On March 9th an avalanche on Madson Mountain close to Moose Pass (Kenai Fjords National Park) killed a 33-year-old Anchorage resident. A second fatality was reported in the same week: a 34-year-old was buried by an avalanche on Takshanuk Mountain near Haines. Both incidents were related to weak layers in the snow pack associated with the unusual weather.

April: In 2019, the Tanana River broke up on April 14 at 12:21 am, allowing the large tripod to move downstream. The 2019 break-up date, the earliest in 103 years of record, was 6 days earlier than the prior record for earliest breakup which was April 20 in both 1940 and 1998. The Kuskokwim River at Bethel set a record as well. The ice breakup occurred on April 12, 8 days before the previous record of April 20 in 2016.

Thin river ice and early breakup is strongly affecting Alaska, sled-dog races have been can-celled, hunters cannot ride safely to spring camps, connections to rural villages are not safely accessible. Travelling on frozen rivers has become dangerous or impossible very early this spring, leading to casualties and huge expenses for remote communities. On April 15, three family members were killed after breaking through ice with their snowmobiles on their way to the small village of Noatak, northeast Alaska.

May: Drought conditions in Southeast Alaska were the most significant observed in the nearly 20-year history of the drought monitor. However, the National Weather Service in Juneau confirmed that during the late 80s into the early 90s there have been significantly drier years where droughts lasted longer. Abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions impacted local communities, especially due to their reliance on hydroelectric power. Due to low reservoirs level, some communities had to use supplement generators fueled by expensive diesel and implement water restrictions. Because of the drought, damages to trees from insects, especially Salal and Hemlock, were widespread.

Very low sea ice extent, associated with the unprecedented warm temperatures experienced in Alaska during last months, affected the arctic ecosystem and local communities. A mass die-off of thousands of seabirds in the Bering Sea was linked to lack of nutritional sources, most likely due to declining sea ice and warmer sea surface and atmospheric temperature

June: Extremely low arctic sea ice extent is heavily impacting the arctic ecosystem and con-sequently local communities. Hunters report that seals and walrus usually found close to the coast at this time of the year, moved further north chased by melting sea ice.

Local communities report large numbers of dead seals along the western and northern coasts of Alaska. At least 60 dead seals have been reported in early June on the coast of the Bering and Chukchi seas from NOAA Fisheries. This could be partially related to substantially above normal sea surface temperatures, reaching 60 °F, observed in the Arctic, especially in Kotzebue and Nome sounds. Likewise, warmer than normal sea surface temperatures, recorded off Alaska’s southern coasts, could be associated to the unusually high number of dead grey whales.

July: Due to very low sea ice extent, several thousand Pacific walruses moved to a barrier island off the coast of Point Lay in the Chukchi Sea, about 1100 km northwest of Anchorage. Usually walruses move on shore when there is not enough sea ice for the youngest to rest. This is the earliest such a large number of walruses gathered ashore since 2007.

August: Due to the prolonged and intense drought, the rainforest in southeast Alaska was weakened and under the threat of spruce bark beetles and hemlock saw flies. In some areas of the Panhandle, cuts in hydropower production were forced, pushing local communities to switch to more expensive diesel power generation.

Anchorage experienced the worst air quality conditions ever recorded, ranking as the city with poorest air quality in the United States this summer. The Anchorage School District cancelled after school activities and Anchorage citizens were strongly advised to avoid strenuous out-door activities.

September: A massive seabird die-off was observed in Alaska this summer, for the fifth straight year. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the death of more than 9000 seabirds along the west coast is associated to starvation. At the basis of the seabird starvation, researchers indicate changes in zooplankton and fish populations, which might be linked to high sea surface temperatures and decline in sea ice extent.

October: Heavy rainfall of 4-6 inches over a 24- to 36- hour period near Juneau during the first weekend of October caused flooding, mudslides an, and a road to collapse in one Doug-las Island neighborhood. The heavy rainfall was caused by a strong weather system that en-tered Southeast Alaska from the west and southwest.

November: The decline in Arctic sea ice has been linked to the emergence of a deadly virus threatening mammals in the North Pacific. According to a study from the University of California, low sea ice extent observed in the Arctic in the last years might have opened pathways for contact between Arctic and sub-Arctic seals, allowing the introduction of the virus. The virus debilitates the immune system of seals which become more susceptible to pneumonia.

On November 16, Anchorage set both a daily snowfall and an hourly high temperature record with 8.4 inches of snowfall, 0.1 more than the previous record of 1958 and 45°F recorded at 2.33 am.

December: Ice jammed at the Deneki bridge in Matanuska-Susitna Borough on the evening of December 21st, restricting normal water flow and causing Willow Creek to flood. Six homes were immediately flooded and at least 13 households were evacuated in Willow. While the area has seen flooding in the past, the director of the borough’s emergency ser-vices said that flooding this late in the year is not normal.

The annual Christmas in Ice sculpture park in North Pole was canceled for the first time in its 14-year history because of a lack of ice on ponds to harvest for ice carving. The lack of ice on lakes and ponds followed a warm October. It was further exacerbated by snowfall, which hampers the formation of ice.