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Last Month Was the Hottest May on Record in Alaska

Temperatures for the month were over seven degrees warmer than the 20th-century average — the latest in a two-year streak of broken temperature and precipitation records.
Photo by Laura Rauch/AP

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The United States' snowiest wilderness just keeps getting warmer.

Temperatures in Alaska averaged 44.9 degrees Fahrenheit this May, making it the warmest May in the 91-year temperature record of the state, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data released today.

And that's a remarkable 7.1 degrees higher than the 20th-century average.


"Really since June of 2013, it's been very persistently warm with lots of records," Rick Thoman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Alaska, told VICE News. "So this is kind of just another one in this two-year streak."

The last record-breaking May was in 2005, when the average temperature climbed to 43.7 degrees.

Temperature records are usually broken by fractions of a degree, Thoman said, making this May's level even more extreme.

"They tend to be, when you have a warmest, they only just barely exceed the previous warmest," Thoman told VICE News. "But that's not the case in Alaska. This is by far, by over a degree, the warmest May, and that is a huge amount to have a warmest."

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Alaska's persistent warm weather has broken several records in recent years, and not just for temperatures, said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with NOAA who authored the report.

The first five months of this year were the second-warmest on record, just slightly under 2014, which was Alaska's warmest year ever recorded.

Across the state, 2015 saw the lowest May snow-cover extent on record, dropping 161,000 square miles below average, about the size of California. In Anchorage, a record-low 25.1 inches of snow fell from September 2014 through May 2015. The 30-year average is nearly three times that high.


"That's significant," Crouch told VICE News. "[The] lack of snowfall is also causing worsening drought conditions, which could be a problem going into summer with wildfires. The impacts extend beyond it just being really warm in Alaska."

One of those impacts became clear in February, when the start of the famous Iditarod sled-dog race had to be moved 300 miles north of Anchorage to Fairbanks due to lack of snow on the trail, for only the second time in the race's history.

But the warm weather is also creating a dangerous feedback loop with sea ice, which has been disappearing from the Arctic at astonishing rates.

This May saw the third-smallest sea ice extent for the month, Crouch said, with below-average ice coverage in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, which border Alaska to the west and north. Warmer air can contribute to melting ice, while smaller ice extent means less ice around to keep the air cool.

"If the atmosphere is warmer, that will tend to cause sea ice to be less," Crouch told VICE News. "If sea ice is less, that will cause the atmosphere to be warmer. It's kind of a chicken and egg problem."

Related: Alaska's Iditarod sled dog race has been re-routed because there's not enough snow

The warm weather isn't expected to go away anytime soon. High sea surface temperatures in the Pacific are a big driver of the warm, dry weather in the state, and those temperatures change very slowly, Crouch said.


NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is forecasting above-average temperatures for Alaska through the entire summer.

Spring temperatures have consistently been warmer than what was normal in the middle and late 20th century, Thoman said, making them another signal of global climate change. Five of the 10 warmest Mays have occurred since 2000, while October 2013 became the warmest Alaskan October on record.

It was 8.5 degrees warmer than average.

"How many ways can we say 'warm'?" Thoman told VICE News. "That's become our mantra in Alaska climate services."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro