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It’s not just you, January has been unusually warm and windy

Bethel in Jan
Sunni Bean
Bethel in January 2024.

For residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta, the unseasonably warm weather this January has been hard to miss. It resulted in the postponement of the Bogus Creek 150 sled dog race, and Bethel Search and Rescue recommended trucks not drive on the river. University of Alaska Fairbanks Climate Specialist Rick Thoman confirmed that it has been the warmest start to the new year in three decades. He said that it’s also been unusually windy, with average winds over 17 miles per hour for the first 17 days of the month.

“For Bethel, we saw significantly colder than normal December, including the lowest temperature on Christmas in 60 years,” Thoman said. “But as seems like happening so often, we flip the calendar and the weather changes. And, of course, the first 17 days of January have been exceptionally mild. The average temperature at Bethel, the first 17 days of the month, is the highest start to January in more than 30 years. You have to go back to 1993.”

Thoman described this as a yo-yo kind of winter. It came after a cold summer, but that’s not why it’s a mild winter. The region had an even colder summer in 2021. Thoman said that people like to blame the warm weather on El Niño, a warming climate phenomenon that causes irregular patterns of wind and sea surface temperatures. But it’s not uncommon for the Y-K Delta to see big swings in weather, even though this winter seems to be more pronounced than usual.

“This looks like it's just pretty much the standard of variability that we see in the storm track. Maybe just enhanced in just how sudden those flips have been,” Thoman said. “And then we slip into a stable pattern, and then that lasts for two or three weeks. So I guess at this point, we'll just chalk it up to the random variability of the weather.”

Thoman said that the warm January has melted sea ice in Bristol Bay and the Kuskokwim areas, which was advancing well during the cold December, causing open water. And while summer weather doesn’t affect winter weather, winters can influence the rest of the year if there’s not a lot of snow or if it melts early, drying out the land. On Jan. 18, the National Weather Service released the new outlook for the state of Alaska, including the Y-K Delta.

“And indeed, all of Alaska, the odds for February favor significantly warmer than normal temperatures. For the Y-K Delta area, the outlook for February does not favor above or below normal precipitation. So that would be snow, the melted water in the snow plus any rain. Doesn't mean near normal is likely, rather the experts say they don't have any basis to say to tilt the odds to favor one or the other,” Thoman said.

Thoman said that makes February the most consistent response to El Niño, as during El Niño winters February is warmer than usual in the region. But Thoman said that through the weekend and into next, the region will see a turn to colder weather. Not as cold as it was over Christmas, but definitely a change from the beginning of January.

This article has been updated to clarify the Bogus Creek 150 dog sled race was postponed, not canceled.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.