Close-up view of pond or puddle during rainfall, with drops rippling on the surface of the water

If this summer is any indication of what winter will look like in Western Alaska, it’s going to be a wet and cold one. Communities across the Bering Strait like Nome, Savoonga and Wales had above average rainfall.

“It didn’t rain every day in Western Alaska, it only seemed that way,” climatologist Rick Thoman said.

Thoman, who works for the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, or ACCAP, shared this information during a Strait Science presentation last week on Oct. 28. Consistent low pressure and specific winds created this long, gray, cloudy period for three summer months.

“We had more southwest wind than average across our region. …So this explains a lot of the persistent clouds and rain that we had. Very significant departures here from the normal winds,” Thoman explained.

Summer 2021 ended up being the ninth wettest summer in local history, since climate record began for Nome 114 years ago, according to Thoman. Diomede, Wales, and down the Strait into Brevig Mission saw even more rain over the same time frame.

This summer also featured variable temperatures with record heat in some communities in August, high water levels causing coastal erosion and even snow in early June. Thoman emphasized that snow during early summer in Western Alaska is historically common, but not in recent years due to a warming climate.
Partly due to that summer snow, Nome overall experienced its coolest summer during June through August since 2011.

That may indicate a colder and more variable winter to come for the region, as 2021 into 2022 is also a La Nina year. Thoman explains the potential impacts La Nina could have for Western Alaska.

“We often get very large variability during these winters. So those of you that remember 1989, remember the 54 degrees below, the all-time record low in Nome. It was a super cold January. … Fewer people remember that was followed by a super warm February; really just an incredible swing and we’ve had these swings multiple times during these La Nina winters,” Thoman said.

Most La Nina winters on record have featured colder than average temperatures for Western Alaska, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

A graph showing all of the La Nina winters experienced in Nome over the last 70 years. Graphic provided by Rick Thoman of ACCAP, used with permission. (2021)

With estimated above average snowfall this winter and near normal sea surface temperatures in the Chukchi and Bering Seas, sea ice extent is expected to be larger than it has been in recent years. As of Nov. 3, sea ice has already formed along the Southern Norton Sound and on coastlines across the Seward Peninsula.

“I still think this is an aggressive forecast for Norton Sound. I would be mildly surprised if we had this much ice, say from Nome to Stebbins and St. Michael and everywhere east was not open water by the middle of November. That may be a little bit quick, but it might not be off by very much,” Thoman said.

Sea ice could begin forming near Diomede in the Bering Strait by the end of this month if current forecast models hold, Thoman said. This would bring an earlier freeze-up than the region has seen in the last few years.

Image at top: Rain drops falling on a pond. Public domain photo, via Pixabay.