Looking back at the entire winter of 2018, many in Western Alaska will remember record low sea ice, large amounts of snow in Nome, and damaging winter storms throughout the region. Now, one weather forecaster provides a recap of last year and what could be coming for the rest of this winter season.
“2018 in Nome for the entire year winds up as the fourth warmest year in Nome’s weather history.”
Rick Thoman is a climate specialist for the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP) at UAF, and he’s working from complete weather data going back to the 1920s. In addition, Thoman says most places in Western Alaska had a top-five warmest year on record in 2018.
“A lot of that (was) being driven by the unprecedented record low sea ice during the first half of the year, and that allowed ocean temperatures to warm quite significantly during the summer and into the fall — so really, all the ingredients came together for another warm year.”
For Nome, last winter came with truckloads of snow, but when stacked up against other winters in town, Thoman says it wasn’t as much as you might think.
“95 inches of snow was recorded for Nome in 2018. That’s a lot, well above normal — but it’s nowhere close to record values. It’s actually not even in the top ten. But still it was the snowiest calendar year since 2011.”
So far this winter, Nome has gotten more than 30 inches of snow, but according to Thoman, that is still below normal snowfall amounts. He also points out that it only takes one or two big snow storms to bring that total up above normal range.
Snow accumulation is not the only thing below average levels right now. Thoman says sea ice in the Bering and Chukchi seas also comes up short.
“And this year, we do have much more ice in the Bering Sea than last year, but we’re actually still below the average sea ice extent for this time of year. The ice edge right now (as of Jan. 10) is between St. Lawrence Island and St. Matthew Island. So, there’s open water not that far away from the Seward Peninsula.”
As for the quality of the sea ice currently, Thoman says:
“We are seeing some thicker ice now, starting to be measured by these (weather) instruments in excess of three feet thickness, even on the south side of St. Lawrence Island. It certainly looks like, from the satellite imagery, we have better shore fast ice conditions, so stable ice platforms, much better than we had last year. No surprise, because it couldn’t hardly be worse than last year.”
Based on sea ice extent and weather conditions up until this point, Thoman does not expect a destructive coastal storm with big wave action to hit Western Alaska communities this winter, like the ones that eroded the shore of Diomede and Unalakleet last February.
Though we aren’t to the point of average annual temperatures being above freezing during the long term, according to Thoman, Nome’s has increased nearly three degrees since the 1960s.
As things change during winters in Western Alaska, Thoman says it is always helpful to be vigilant and to make observations. If you’re willing to share that information with Thoman or other weather observers, contact the local environmental network or LEO. There’s also a regional Facebook page.
Image at top: Small patches of sea ice in the Chuckchi Sea, seen from the US Coast Guard cutter Healy, 2011. Image: public domain.