Bethel's coldest November in 80 years causes issues for residents
November 2021 was brutally cold. The kind of cold that slaps you across the face and doesn’t stop there. It also freezes barges in their tracks and makes pipes burst open. But besides what you felt on your face, and the anecdotes you hear around town about frozen septic tanks, there’s hard evidence too. At an average of just 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit, last month was the second coldest November on record.
“So for Bethel, November is the coldest month of the year so far. The only time that Bethel had a colder November than this, you have to go all the way back to 1939,” said Rick Thoman.
Thoman is a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has been working with Alaska weather and climate for 30 years. Thoman said that the record dates back nearly 100 years to 1923.
So it’s not just you, it’s not just your imagination, it’s been really, really cold. And that’s causing and exacerbating problems around town.
Kyle Roberson is a public defense attorney who moved to Bethel from California a little over a year ago. Last month was literally the coldest month he has ever experienced in his entire life. Roberson bought a house in Blueberry Subdivision this year, and some of that problematic extreme weather has come right into his home.
First, his boiler broke. His heat was out for two days.
“It didn't take long to get cold. I think my thermostat read 39 [degrees Fahrenheit] by the second day. So just above freezing inside,” said Roberson.
He and his dogs slept next to the only warm spot they could find.
“The dogs and I moved to the couch in front of the wood stove. We had pretty much all the blankets in the house,” said Roberson.
Roberson was able to get his boiler working again, but a few weeks later, on the eve of the Thanksgiving dinner he was slated to host, his pipes froze after being exposed to the extreme cold.
“My pipes are all in my garage. And I went into the office for like, two hours. And I left the garage door open, and so everything froze up,” said Roberson.
Roberson was able to get his water running quickly by heating his garage with a Toyostove. But once the water was moving again, he realized one of his pipes had burst. He ended up replacing all his old copper pipes with new ones, which cost the new homeowner around $1,000 and took just a few hours. In the end, Roberson was able to host his friends for Thanksgiving dinner.
Over across town on Wildlife Lane, a group of six recent college graduates living together in a four-bedroom, one-bathroom house, experienced a similar problem. Their toilet stopped working. When one of the roommates, Angel Yi, called their landlord’s handyman, he came by and told her their pipes were frozen.
“So we didn't have water, I think for the next two days,” said Yi.
Several of the roommates had other places to stay for the duration. But the ones that didn’t?
“Our landlord let us use an office that was nearby the house. And she gave access to the office and then we used the bathroom, but we couldn't shower,” said Yi.
Yi is new to Bethel and it was her first time experiencing frozen pipes.
Yi and Roberson are just a couple of those who have experienced frozen pipes this winter. And for those with pipes prone to freezing, be warned. Thoman said that this whole winter could pan out to be a cold one. That’s in part because of the early sea ice that this cold snap has caused.
“We've got a jump start compared to, say, the last six or seven years on having that ice in the Bering Sea, which is a thumb on the scale to tell us to tilt us to colder winters, at least compared to recent years, maybe not so much compared to historical times. And the Climate Prediction Center, operated by the National Weather Service, is forecasting increased chances for significantly below normal temperatures for this upcoming winter,” said Thoman.
Thoman said that last month was a bit of an anomaly. Southwestern Alaska has actually been trending toward warmer autumns and winters.
Thoman said that that as the climate continues to warm, Southwest Alaska will still continue to see deviations from the higher median temperatures.
“Just because it's warming doesn't mean it still doesn't get cold. It's still Southwest Alaska,” said Thoman.