Record-Breaking Heat in Alaska Wreaks Havoc on Communities and Ecosystems

NASA Earth Observatory

Abnormally high temperatures have led to unsafe travel conditions, uncertain ecological futures and even multiple deaths

Smithsonian - May 2019

Alaska in March is supposed to be cold. Along the north and west coasts, the ocean should be frozen farther than the eye can see. In the state’s interior, rivers should be locked in ice so thick that they double as roads for snowmobiles and trucks. And where I live, near Anchorage in south-central Alaska, the snowpack should be deep enough to support skiing for weeks to come. But this year, a record-breaking heatwave upended norms and had us basking in comfortable—but often unsettling—warmth.

Across Alaska, March temperatures averaged 11 degrees Celsius above normal. The deviation was most extreme in the Arctic where, on March 30, thermometers rose almost 22 degrees Celsius above normal—to 3 degrees. That still sounds cold, but it was comparatively hot.

“It’s hard to characterize that anomaly, it’s just pretty darn remarkable for that part of the world,” says Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy in Fairbanks. The state’s wave of warmth was part of a weeks-long weather pattern that shattered temperature records across our immense state, contributing to losses of both property and life. “When you have a slow grind of warming like that, lasting weeks or months, it affects people’s lives,” Thoman says.

On April 15, three people, including an 11-year-old girl, died after their snowmobiles plunged through thin ice on the Noatak River in far northwestern Alaska. Earlier in the winter, 700 kilometers south, on the lower Kuskokwim River, at least five people perished in separate incidents when their snowmobiles or four-wheelers broke through thin ice. There were close calls too, including the rescue of three miners who spent hours hopping between disintegrating ice floes in the Bering Sea near Nome. Farther south, people skating on the popular Portage Lake near Anchorage also fell through thin ice. Varying factors contributed to these and other mishaps, but abnormally thin ice was a common denominator.

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