After record-hot July, Alaskans see profound changes
Alaska has been America’s canary in the coal mine for climate warming, and the yellow bird is swooning.
July was Alaska’s warmest month ever, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sea ice melted. Bering Sea fish swam in abovenormal temperatures. So did children in the coastal town of Nome. Wildfire season started early and stayed late. Thousands of walruses thronged to shore.
Unusual weather events like this could become more common with climate warming, said Brian Brettschneider, an associate climate researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center. Alaska has seen “multiple decades-long increases” in temperature, he said.
“It becomes easier to have these unusual sets of conditions that now lead to records,” Brettschneider said.
Alaska’s average temperature in July was 58.1 degrees. That’s 5.4 degrees above average and 0.8 degrees higher than the previous warmest month of July 2004, NOAA said.
The effects were felt from the Arctic Ocean to the world’s largest temperate rainforest on Alaska’s Panhandle.
Anchorage, the state’s largest city, on July 4 for the first time hit 90 degrees at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, 5 degrees higher than the city’s previous recorded high of 85 degrees.
Sea ice off Alaska’s north and northwest shore and other Arctic regions retreated to the lowest level ever recorded for July, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado.
Arctic sea ice for July set a record low of 2.9 million square miles. That was a South Carolina-size loss of 30,900 square miles below the previous record low July in 2012.
Sea ice is the main habitat for polar bears and a resting platform for female walruses and their young. Several thousand walruses came to shore July 30, the first time they’ve been spotted in such large numbers before August.
Effects were less obvious in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast. Lyle Britt, a NOAA Fisheries biologist who oversees the agency’s annual Bering Sea groundfish survey, was on a trawler east of the island of Saint Matthew during the first week of July.
“The temperature out there for us was in the high 70s,” Britt said. “On those boats, everything up there is designed to conserve heat, not vent heat. It was unbearably warm inside the boat.”
On the ocean bottom, Britt’s crew for the second consecutive year found scant evidence of a “cold pool,” the east-west barrier of extremely cold, salty water that traditionally concentrates fish.