Sunday, February 23, 2020
Feb. 23, 2020

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Amid warm year, Alaska to plummet to minus-50 degrees

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2019 is likely to go down in the books as the warmest year on record in Alaska. Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time on record. It also measured its highest humidity. Arctic permafrost and sea ice are melting at alarming rates. The North Slope’s landscape is changing before inhabitants’ eyes. But to round out 2019, the weather will take an auspiciously timed abrupt turn — switching gears from record highs to extreme cold.

The frigid blast may linger for seven to 10 days before easing by the first weekend of the new year.

Fairbanks, Alaska, hasn’t climbed above zero since noontime Wednesday. Having dropped to minus-30 Sunday night, the city is solidly in “bone chilling” category. Its average December low is minus-13 degrees. It’s looking as though the city of roughly 32,000 won’t make it to zero through at least the end of 2019. In fact, it might not rise above minus-10.

Temperatures between Friday and Sunday are forecast to hover between minus-30 and minus-40. It doesn’t help that the exceptional cold coincides with some of Alaska’s shortest days of the year; Fairbanks will see less than four hours of daylight on Dec. 31, the sun never peaking more than 2 degrees above the horizon.

It’s not just Fairbanks, though. Most of the Last Frontier is set to endure brutal cold. Utqiagvik, the northernmost community in the United States, looks to remain well below zero for weeks. Nome will see lows around minus-20 on Christmas Day and again Thursday.

Regions primarily north of the Denali range are in the crosshairs of Mother Nature’s icy grasp. South of there, the cold is unlikely to be as brutal, although the high in Anchorage is forecast to be only around zero Friday through Sunday, with lows around minus-10.

Believe it or not, minus-40 or minus-50 lows in parts of Alaska are not as rare as you might think. But they are becoming less frequent.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Fairbanks would get more than a dozen days a year that hit minus-40 degrees. Nowadays, that number has been more than sliced in half, likely thanks to climate change.

“Alaska needs several -40?F to -60?F outbreak to have a normal winter — not one outbreak every few years,” tweeted Brian Brettschneider, an atmospheric scientist studying the effects of climate change in Alaska.

In 1961, Fairbanks bottomed out below minus-50 on each of nine consecutive nights beginning on Dec. 22. Believe it or not, even if Fairbanks dropped to minus-30 every night from now to February, it would not set a single daily record low. The record for New Year’s? Minus-60 degrees, set in 1969.

In Bettles, which is forecast to endure a low near minus-50 degrees on Friday, the trend of dwindling ultracold days is evident as well. In the 1950s, the city averaged around 38 days of sub-minus-40 lows per year. Now about a third of those days have vanished.

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