Numbers tell weird winter weather story: It’s really warm

Friday was the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. That calendar convention never reflects Alaska realities, but it provides a convenient excuse to indulge in the time-honored tradition of complaining about the weather. 

For the second year in a row, Homer residents despair of getting anything like winters of yore.

The National Weather Service reported that 2014 was the warmest on record both for Homer and for the state as whole. And now the new year is off to a toasty start, too.

The Alaska Climate Research Center (at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks) reported that last year the official regional stations in the state all had above-normal readings, and that the biggest deviations were at Kotzebue, King Salmon and Homer, which was 5 degrees Fahrenheit above the 30-year average. The previous record-warm year in Alaska was 1926, before Homer records were kept.

Looking at Homer annual averages, the five warmest years on record (in order) are 2014, 2005, 1993, 2003 and 2013. The five coldest are 1956, 1971, 1972, 1948 and 1975.

So far 2015 is like 2014. January and February temperatures averaged 6 degrees above normal. This mild January fell short of the record-breaking one last winter, but February was warmer than in 2014.

March isn’t done, but despite the mid-month cold snap, by press time the month already had seven days of record warmth.

Winter precipitation levels have been unremarkable, but nearly all of it fell as rain rather than snow.

Record temperatures are one way to look at Homer climate trends. For any date, the weather service notes both high and low extremes. The official all-time high for Homer was 81, set in July 1993, and the all-time low was -24 in January 1989.

Some years were zingers for record winter temperatures. During the five wintry months (January through March and then November and December), 1975 claimed the frozen crown on 18 days, 1956 set cold records on 15 days, and many other record lows date from the 1960s and early 1970s. 

 

Starting in the mid 1980s, multiple years racked up record-highs during those winter months. But of years setting warmth records, the tops were 2014 with 26 days and 2002 with 15. Now, 2015 looks sure to surpass at least 2002.

No winter date’s low record has been set in Homer since March 26, 2013.  Since the beginning of 2000, there have only been three winter record lows, compared to 60 record highs in those five months.

The weather station of record for Homer is at the airport, and data from it go back 75 years to the beginning of 1940, with spotty readings extending to 1932. The exact measurements of temperature and precipitation from it and other recognized stations are available free online from the National Climatic Data Center.

Like most things in the real world, the details of the temperature records are complicated. Trends differ somewhat depending on whether you look at averages or extremes; group them by days, months or years; and depending on the chosen starting and end points. Some readings might be excluded because they were incomplete or the thermometers were moved, changed or not calibrated.

The weather service only accepts readings from authorized stations, placed to avoid distortions and where instruments are calibrated and observers trained in standardized methods, according to Michael Couch, the regional cooperative program manager for the Alaska Regional Headquarters of the National Weather Service in Anchorage. Home weather stations and commercial readings that show up on the Internet and mobile phone apps are not reliable, he said.

When the weather service refers to “normal” temperatures, it uses as reference a recent 30-year period and updates that baseline once a decade. 

At present, the reference time frame is from 1981 through 2010. That excludes the big shift in 1976, attributed to the cyclic regional climate phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the temperature readings before it, which tended to be noticeably colder than more recent weather.

The weather service’s current prediction for spring is for normal precipitation, but that temperatures, in general, will remain above normal for Alaska’s southcentral coast, including the Kenai Peninsula. 

The Homer airport is the best documented, but there are other weather station sites nearby. Over time, many have come and gone. The longest continuous, official weather record on the Kenai Peninsula is from the Seward airport and dates to 1931.

In the Homer area, the other current stations collecting data are located at the Islands and Oceans Visitors Center, out North Fork Road and at the Seldovia airport. Ten stations are active on the Kenai Peninsula.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer who lives on the southern KenaiPeninsula.

Workshop to discuss local climate change


A free public workshop, titled “Climate Change in Our Backyard,” will be held March 28 at the Kenai Peninsula College Kenai River Campus near Soldotna. It offers a forum for learning, asking questions and discussing local resilience.

The main topics will be flooding frequency, stress to salmon, coastal erosion and wildfire risk. The keynote speaker will be Homer author Nancy Lord, whose books include “Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North.”

An array of scientists and resource managers will present their findings on local impacts. They include researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, Cook Inletkeeper and the Kenai Watershed Forum.

Mayors and staffers from area municipalities and the borough will participate in a panel discussion about adaptation and mitigation ideas.

The workshop runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the campus. The address is 156 College Road, Soldotna, reached via Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Sponsors are the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters and the Kenai Peninsula College KRC Student Union. 

They will provide a light lunch, but ask those attending to bring their own beverage containers. They also offer childcare for ages 3 to 10, but ask families to bring the children’s food and to sign up for childcare in advance by leaving a message at kenaichange.org/contact-us/.


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