Ask a Climatologist: Warm early winter topples century-old records

With each day that passes without snow at the official recording site, so grows the record for Fairbanks’s most snowless start to winter.

It’s the first time in more than a century with no recorded snow — not even a trace — this late in October, as of Tuesday the 16th. On top of that, warm weather across the state is setting marks for the latest freeze date on record.

We thought this called for an emergency installment of Ask a Climatologist and called our resident climatologist, UAF’s Brian Brettschneider. He talked to Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove.

Listen now

BRETTSCHNEIDER: Not even a passing flake of snow has landed at the Fairbanks International Airport. So it’s really noteworthy. I mean, this time of year, the sun angle is getting lower, the temperature really drops, and we expect snow to be flying for the northern half of the state by this date. And it’s just not happening this year. Plenty of rain around Fairbanks and the entire interior, it just hasn’t been cold enough to snow.

It’s been a couple of days where got down to say 20 degrees. But that was clear-sky, ideal radiational cooling. Now the looking at the forecast, it looks like it’s going to snow a little bit maybe Friday night or into Saturday morning. If that happens, it would obviously end the streak. We’re talking right now about a trace or more of snow. When we talk about measurable snow, Fairbanks has actually gone as late as Halloween — October 31st — without any measurable snow.

GROVE: You mentioned Halloween. And, I don’t have the hundred years plus records that the the Weather Service has, but I grew up in Fairbanks, and — I don’t remember it ever not being snowy and pretty cold on Halloween, out trick-or-treating.

BRETTSCHNEIDER: Well, you know, the climate is warming every year, every decade. But there’s a lot of day-to-day, season-to-season variability, so over the last century Alaska has warmed 3 or 4 degrees, but we can still on any given Halloween, especially in Fairbanks, have a 50- or 60-degree range Fairbanks has a perfect record.

You know, we talk about a white Christmas. They have a perfect record of having a white Halloween (in Fairbanks) and even Anchorage has a greater than 50 percent chance historically.

GROVE: And after all, you said that it may snow here in a couple days in Fairbanks, right? And Halloween’s a couple weeks off. But I think you had also mentioned that there were other significantly mild early winters happening in the state.

BRETTSCHNEIDER: So to some degree the lack of snow in Fairbanks is almost an oddity. What’s really significant has been the lack of cold around the state, particularly western Alaska, and Southcentral. I mean Anchorage now has moved past their record for the latest freeze on record, and there’s no freezes expected for at least the next week.

Bethel has blown past their record for their latest first freeze, they’re already 10 days past it, and they may have one in four or five days. Kotzebue just had their first freeze of the season two days ago. They had a little bit of snow yesterday. It’s the persistence and the extreme persistence of these above normal temperatures and it’s really been this kind of perfect confluence of things.

In September we had this massive Bering Sea area of high pressure that cleared the skies out, let us get some solar energy. If that had happened in the winter, that’s actually a cold setup. So that actually kind of been moved out and now we’ve got a low pressure in the Bering Sea, and now it’s pumping massive amounts of warm air in from the subtropics.

So it’s been this from one setup that promotes warmth in September to another that promotes warmth in October. And looking forward, there’s really is no end in sight. People that are kind of waiting for cold and snow, you know, they’re more likely to be disappointed than not.

Snow and precipitation is harder to characterize on a seasonal scale than temperatures. But again these events are becoming more and more frequent. We look at our list of warmest winters or our list of least snowiest winters for most places, they’re in the last few years. We can still have the the odd cold winter, and we can have the odd big snow winter, but the scale is tipping more toward warmer and toward less snow.

GROVE: Our skier friends would say “bummer dude.”

Well, Brian, thanks as always for being here.