<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>
Earlier this winter, Monica Zappa packed up her crew of Alaskan sled dogs and headed south, in search of snow. “We haven’t been able to train where we live for two months,” she told me.
Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, which Zappa calls home, has been practically tropical this winter. Rick Thoman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Alaska, has been dumbfounded. “Homer, Alaska, keeps setting record after record, and I keep looking at the data like, Has the temperature sensor gone out or something?“
Something does seem to be going on in Alaska. Last fall, a skipjack tuna, which is more likely to be found in the Galápagos than near a glacier, was caught about 150 miles southeast of Anchorage, not far from the Kenai. This past weekend, race organizers had to truck in snow to the ceremonial Iditarod start line in Anchorage. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska tweeted a photo of one of the piles of snow with the hashtag #wemakeitwork.
But it’s unclear how long that will be possible. Alaska is heating up at twice the rate of the rest of the country—a canary in our climate coal mine. A new report shows that warming in Alaska, along with the rest of the Arctic, is accelerating as the loss of snow and ice cover begins to set off a feedback loop of further warming. Warming in wintertime has been the most dramatic—more than 6 degrees in the past 50 years. And this is just a fraction of the warming that’s expected to come over just the next few decades.
Of course, it’s not just Alaska. Last month was the most extreme February on record in the Lower 48, and it marked the first time that two large sections of territory (more than 30 percent of the country each) experienced both exceptional cold and exceptional warmth in the same month, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All-time records were set for the coldest month in dozens of Eastern cities, with Boston racking up more snow than the peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada. A single January snowstorm in Boston produced more snow than Anchorage has seen all winter. The discrepancy set off some friendly banter recently between the Anchorage, Boston, and San Francisco offices of the National Weather Service.
The terminus of Bear Glacier in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park in 2002 (above) and 2007 (below). USGS
Alaska is at the front lines of climate change. This year’s Iditarod has been rerouted—twice—due to the warm weather. The race traditionally starts in Anchorage, which has had near-record low snowfall so far this winter. The city was without a single significant snowstorm between October and late January, so race organizers decided to move the start from the Anchorage area 360 miles north to Fairbanks. But when the Chena River, which was supposed to be part of the new route’s first few miles, failed to sufficiently freeze, the starting point had to move again, to another location in Fairbanks.
On Monday, Zappa and her dogs set out on the 1,000-mile race across Alaska as one of 78 mushers in this year’s Iditarod. A burst of cold and snow are in the forecast this week, but for most of the winter, the weather across the interior of the state has also been abnormally warm. To train, many teams of dogs and their owners had to travel, often “outside”—away from Alaska. Zappa ended up going to the mountains of Wyoming.