Alaska Heat Wave: Are Record-Shattering Temperatures Another Sign Of 'Arctic Amplification'?

 @rpalmerscience
on June 19 2013 3:56 PM

Baked Alaska is no longer just a tasty dessert. The Land of the Midnight Sun is experiencing a heat wave that’s shattering records and perhaps leading many to rush to the nearest glacier for relief. The unusual heat also highlights the fact that temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than in areas closer to the equator.

On Monday and Tuesday, high-temp records set as many as 85 years ago crumbled in cities and towns across the south-central part of Alaska. Anchorage reached 81 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking a previous record of 80 set in 1926. In Talkeetna, the mercury hit 96 degrees (after already tying the previous record of 91 degrees on Sunday); Cordova and Valdez both sweltered at 90 degrees; and Seward’s 88 degrees broke a 1999 record high.

Officials warned Alaskans to watch for wildfires and said they have a fire-readiness plan in place.

"The persistent heat over Alaska is just waiting for a spark," the U.S. National Weather Service Alaskan division said in a Facebook post on Tuesday. "With very high to extreme fire danger over a large part of the largest state, thunderstorms will be more likely in the coming days."

It’s a strange week when temperatures in Alaska climb higher than the temperatures in the Deep South. And Alaskans are much less accustomed to heat than Louisianans are.

“Remember air conditioning is in extreme short supply there, if not nonexistent,” Scott Sistek, a meteorologist for Seattle’s KOMO News, wrote Monday.

The cause of the temperature spikes is a large dome of high pressure, or “heat dome,” that has settled over Alaska. This heat wave also comes after a fairly cold, wet spring-- the 18th-coldest since 1918. Many see the recent extreme weather swings in Alaska as further proof of the effects of climate change.

“Alaska is one of the fastest-warming states in the U.S., largely because the nearby Arctic region is warming rapidly in response to manmade global warming and natural variability,” Climate Central reporter Andrew Freedman wrote on Tuesday. “In recent years, Alaska has had to contend with large wildfires, melting permafrost, and reduced sea ice, among other climate-related challenges.”

A global temperature analysis from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows that temperatures are indeed rising faster in the Arctic than in areas closer to the equator. The cause of this “Arctic amplification” of warming is thought to be from loss of sea ice; with the loss of the reflective ice, the darker ocean water absorbs more heat from the sun. Places south of the Arctic are also more likely to experience thunderstorms, which draw heat up into the higher part of the atmosphere, where it’s swept towards the poles, further amplifying the warming of the Arctic.

Still, this week’s temperatures have not cracked the all-time high for the entire state of Alaska, which officially stands at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That record was measured at Fort Yukon in June 1915, but Weather Underground meteorologist Christopher Burt points out that some experts question the reliability of this figure.

“All in all, I think it is fair to assume that the heat seen on Monday, June 17, ranks as the warmest day in Alaska since June 15, 1969, and among the top five warmest days in the state’s history,” Burt wrote on Tuesday.

Alaskans may want to invest in an emergency supply of fans and ice cream, though, because things aren’t going to cool off any time soon: The forecast in Fairbanks for the next five days shows temperatures mostly in the mid- to high-80s.

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