John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
This new NASA visualization shows just how unusually warm Alaska was in January.
The miserable polar weather that blasted the lower U.S. this January no doubt had many folks dreaming of Hawaii. But maybe they should've been considering Alaska, instead, where an unusual and potent heat wave raised temperatures to 40 degrees above average.
The abnormal spate of warmness – which far as I can tell has not been addressed by weatherperson Sarah Palin – forced the cancellation of skiing events, with one organizer saying, "We just don't have the snow and way too much water in the hills to put together a quality race." It also led to the 2014 Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race being launched in downtown Fairbanks, rather than its historical starting line on a frozen river, because the river ice was so thin spectators would've fallen through it. Then there were the large avalanches that swamped roadways, such as the one hiding under a snowy Slurpee in the above photo. But more on that in a minute.
To give people an idea how freaky an event this was for the 49th State, NASA has put together a visualization of phenomenal temperatures from January 23 to the 30th. Based on satellite readings, the map shows warm-weather abnormalities spreading in red all across the region. Areas of white were about average, meanwhile, and blue spots show cooler-than-normal temps:
The inflow of balmy air had a blow-dryer effect on driveways, as seen in these photos that Nate Atwood shot near Anchorage and shared with the National Weather Service:
What was to blame for this jolt of warmth, which followed another record-setting heat wave in 2013 that broiled the life out of local salmon? NASA has the answer:
A persistent ridge of high pressure off the Pacific Coast fueled the warm spell, shunting warm air and rainstorms to Alaska instead of California, where they normally end up. The last half of January was one of the warmest winter periods in Alaska’s history, with temperatures as much as 40°F (22°C) above normal on some days in the central and western portions of the state, according to Weather Underground’s Christopher Bart. The all-time warmest January temperature ever observed in Alaska was tied on January 27 when the temperature peaked at 62°F (16.7°C) at Port Alsworth. Numerous other locations – including Nome, Denali Park Headquarters, Palmer, Homer, Alyseka, Seward, Talkeetna, and Kotzebue – all set January records.
The heat was so persistent that it caused changes in Alaska's appearance that popped out from space. Warm-weather rainstorms flooded rivers and sent plumes of sediment curling into the Gulf of Alaska, a spectacle more typically seen in spring and summer. Here's the view on January 25 from NASA's Aqua satellite (larger version):
One of the most jarring things about this weather has been its effect on the snowpack. Widespread melting triggered a number of January avalanches, with one of the worst flinging a 100-foot-high pile of snow onto the Richardson Highway. The blockage stretched for hundreds of feet and completely sealed off land access to Valdez, a fishing port of about 4,000 people. You can get an idea of the jaw-dropping magnitude of the avalanche in this helicopter footage from late in the month. Paul Bunyan, please report for shoveling duty:
Top image: The Richardson Highway on January 25 after being covered by a major avalanche. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Utilities / Reuters)