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Arctic sees temporary return to colder temperatures

February 2nd 2:47 pm | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Plummeting temperatures meant a return to the old normal for many residents across the North Slope and Northwest Arctic last week.

Kotzebue marked its coldest days of the month on Jan. 24-25 with the thermometer reading 35 below.

In Utqiaġvik, Jan. 22 was the chilliest day with a low of 28 below.

"Basically, what you had was just some consistently clear conditions on those days," said National Weather Service Meteorologist Ryan Metzger. "So, it was just like a cold air mass that dropped down from the north. With clear skies, it just allowed things to cool down pretty good."

People around the region pulled out their maklaks, stuffed in the felt insoles and wrapped up tight.

The weather was a noticeable shift away from the unseasonably warm temperatures that had marked the winter thus far. Some even called out the cold as being "unusually normal," in that the strange warm weather has become commonplace, while the frigid winters of old have fallen away.

"Northern Alaska is usually under kind of an Arctic air mass anyway, so you can think of it to some degree like a blanket. If you have the low clouds, it keeps things insulated a little bit," Metzger explained. "On the surface, every object radiates energy. As it radiates energy, it cools. The clouds kind of prevent it from radiating as much energy, so the clouds help to keep the ground warmer. If it's clear, that energy escapes out into space and things just cool. So, we call it radiative cooling."

The lack of cloud cover compounded the already cold temperatures and allowed for a sustained frigid period.

"I would say it was just under an area of high pressure which helps to keep the clouds out of the area. That particular week it was just in an extended period of being cleared out with the colder temperatures that were present," he said.

The warm temperatures that have marked many of the recent winters have been accentuated by other environmental factors that can make it harder to see these deep drops into the negatives.

"In kind of a broader sense, in the past, the sea ice coverage was greater and it got to a larger extent earlier in the season," said Metzger. "When you have more open leads in terms of the sea ice, that tends to help increase the cloud cover some."

The warmer it is, the greater the chance of open leads. The more open leads, the greater the chance of cloud cover, which leads back to warmer temperatures.

Unlike in the Lower 48, where temperature is mostly driven by the sun, temperature in the Arctic winter is much more heavily dependent on other influences, namely clouds. That's why the warmest time of a 24-hour cycle could come at midnight with the coldest time being in the middle of the day.

Over the last week, the clouds have returned and the temperatures have risen back up to just below freezing and in some cases, just above.

So, while the deep cold wasn't around for very long, it could return should the clouds disappear once again. For now, though, many residents will just relish the few days of what some have called an old-school Arctic winter they were able to have.


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