Last year’s winter had a promising start in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: temperatures were closer to the normal cold that residents expect. That changed in February and March.
Climatologist Rick Thoman first started to notice a shift early in the year:
"[In] January, the pattern change started," Thoman said.
Then February got really warm. The trend continued in March, and both months broke records for being the warmest in almost 100 years of record keeping in Bethel.
February was the most dramatic. The average temperature was 3 degrees higher than the previous record. The new record is 29.4. Before that, 2000 and 1989 tied for the warmest February on record for Bethel, which was 26.1. The new record average temperature in March was 30.5 degrees, one degree higher than the previous record, which was in 1981.
Those warm temperatures have already been deadly. People have died driving into open water or falling through the ice. It also makes subsistence harder. For instance, hunters no longer can travel on the ice to hunt. Residents have to make the choice to stay at home or pay expensive airfare just to travel in the region. Some Y-K Delta communities have experienced flooding in February, a new phenomenon.
Thoman says that there could be other consequences down the road, like an earlier wildfire season for communities in the Upper Kuskokwim area. As for the Bering Sea?
"Who knows what we'll see in the Bering Sea this year? The expectation is with the low sea ice in the northern Bering Sea, that just like last year, big changes to fisheries and stuff as the southern Bering Sea fish go north because they can," Thoman said.
Thoman says that this trend is likely to continue. 2018 was the second warmest year on record for Bethel and 2016 was the warmest.