Monday, June 24, 2019

Utqiaġvik Temperature Records

Exceptional warmth occurred last week over much of northern Alaska, and a significant new record high temperature was set at Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), where the 73°F on Thursday was the highest on record for the month of June; the previous record was 72°F in 1996.  June therefore joins May, October, and January as having set or tied calendar-month high temperature records in the last few years.

There are some interesting aspects to the distribution of Utqiaġvik's calendar-month records over the decades, but first I'll state the obvious: average temperatures have increased very dramatically in the 100+ years of climate observations, and daily record high temperatures have been broken or tied with high frequency in recent years.  The second chart below shows a running 10-year total number of high temperature records, both for daily maximum temperature and for high daily minimum temperature.  Very nearly half of all of the calendar-day high temperature records have been set or tied since 1990.  Note that I'm only using the Weather Bureau/NWS era of 1930-present for the analysis of records.

The distribution of daily low temperature records is even more striking, because the frequency has dropped to just about zero in recent years.  In fact, the last time a calendar-day record was broken (not tied) for daily minimum temperature was in February 2009, and if we allow data from the 1920s, we have to go back to 2006 to find a new low temperature record.

In light of this, the much smaller sample of calendar-month records is interesting; see the chart below.  The red columns show the number of calendar-month high temperature records for non-overlapping decades since 1930; these are the monthly records (set or tied) for daily maximum temperature, of which four have been reached in the past few years.  The blue columns show the high records for daily minimum temperature, and a few of these have also been broken or tied in recent years (January, July, and November).

The obviously interesting aspect of this is how many of Utqiaġvik's calendar-month records were set in the 1930s and are still standing; in fact the largest number of warm records (daily max and daily min) from a single decade is from the 1930s.  This is really quite surprising, given the ramp-up in mean temperatures and daily warm records.  Of course the calendar-month records represent a very small and rather arbitrary sample of the most extreme events, and a more rigorous statistical analysis would be needed to make a definitive statement; but this does seem to suggest that the very extreme warm tails of the temperature distribution have not shifted as much as the less extreme parts of the distribution.  In other words, it appears that the modern warmer climate is not producing very-rare warm extremes of the same amplitude (relative to the mean) as the climate of the 1930s.  I've noted before on this blog that the 1930s was a time of wild extremes in Alaska climate, and this is another piece of evidence in that direction.

Here's the distribution of calendar-month cold records in Utqiaġvik.  The 1970s really stand out, and this is fairly consistent with the mean temperature and the daily records from that decade, although the monthly records suggest that extreme anomalies on the cold side were particularly concentrated in that decade, just as warm extremes were concentrated in the 1930s.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Permafrost Update

Back in September I posted some brief analysis of soil temperature profiles at one of the Fairbanks monitoring sites run by UAF's Permafrost Laboratory.  Not surprisingly (in view of the remarkable warmth of recent years) the data showed a dramatic warming trend, and so it's of interest to do an update now that another year of data is available.

The charts below are the same as before, but with 2017's annual values appended with the dashed black lines.  2017's mean temperature was slightly lower than 2016 in most of the column, and the annual minimum was lower than for 2016 at each level between about 0.25m and 1.5m depth.  We know why this is: winter 2016-2017 was cooler than the other winters since 2013-14, and March 2017 in particular was unusually cold, so this provided a slight recovery in the condition of the permafrost.

Readers will note that the warming trend apparently continued unabated at the top layers just below the surface, but this appears to be at least partly related to some rather substantial ground subsidence relative to the temperature instrument in recent years.  From 2007 through 2016, the second level below ground was reported as 12cm, but in 2016-17 this changed to 8cm, and in the most recent year (2017-2018) it was reported as only 4cm.  The top-level sensor started at 2.5cm below ground but is apparently now 6cm above ground!  I haven't made the vertical adjustment on the chart, but obviously this could make a rather big difference at the top levels.

It's worth looking again at the temperature trace from the sensor at 0.525m (now 0.44m) - see below.  The effect of March 2017 is obvious, but I think what is more striking is the fact that this level almost failed to re-freeze in the subsequent winter (2017-2018); the temperature didn't drop below freezing until March 14, the minimum was -0.24°C on April 11, and it was back up to -0.09°C by the end of the data series on June 1.

Of course winter 2017-2018 was very warm in Fairbanks (13°F above normal in December), but the unusually deep snow cover probably also contributed to the lack of a subsurface cold wave in late winter; the ground was well insulated from the cold above, and there wasn't much cold to diffuse downward.

These results are all taken from just one location; what about others?  I did similar analysis with data from two sensors at the Bonanza Creek ecological research site, which is about half way between Fairbanks and Nenana.  At the first sensor, the trends since 2010 are similar to those at Smith Lake, but 2017 produced very similar temperatures to 2016 instead of seeing a small recovery towards colder conditions.  (Note that the sensor depths have trended in the opposite direction at this location, with the top sensor dropping from 7cm in 2010 to 11cm in 2017-18.)

The temperature time series at 52cm depth is quite remarkable when we look at the late winter minima; there has been a stair-step pattern of 2°C increases at two-year intervals (2014, 2016, 2018).  And just like at Smith Lake, the last winter in the series shows no hard freeze at this level about 20 inches below the surface; the winter's minimum was only -0.1°C.

The same thing is evident closer to the surface; even at the shallow level of 22cm (now 26cm), the 2017-2018 winter minimum was only -0.7°C.

And for comparison, here's a quick look at the same levels from the second permafrost site at Bonanza Creek.  It's essentially the same story, although winter 2015-2016 also saw very minimal re-freeze at the half-meter depth.

In conclusion, it's striking to see the rapid pace of change at these permafrost sites in interior Alaska.  Not only has warming occurred throughout, and the active layer deepened (i.e. seasonal thaw extends deeper), but we're seeing layers that were formally permafrost now almost fail to refreeze in winter (e.g. 0.5m level at Smith Lake).

In last September's post I said that "Smith Lake #1 may soon see seasonal ice atop permanent thaw", but I wasn't imagining that something like this would appear in the very next year of data.  What will the next annual update reveal?

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Peak Rainfall Rates

Intrigued by the extreme rainfall rate that was reported last Sunday at Fairbanks airport, I procured the history of 1-minute precipitation observations from the Fairbanks ASOS; this data goes back to 2000 and now provides a nearly two-decade history of high-resolution rainfall data in the warm season.  I had to pick out about 40 obviously erroneous data points, and it's likely I didn't find all the problems, but I checked the most extreme events of each year in the remaining data and they all look fine.

There is a lot of interesting analysis that could be done on the data, but the charts below provide the perspective for last week's rain.  The greatest 5-minute rainfall amount was 0.36" on July 4, 2005, and the top 10-minute and 15-minute totals occurred on July 21, 2010.  Both of these events saw peak 1-minute rates of 0.09", or 5.4"/hour, and that's also the highest observed for a 1-minute total.

The 1-minute data is only updated once a month, so we won't know for a few more weeks whether the recent event broke these records, but the realtime data from the ASOS does suggest so: 0.55" in 8 minutes is greater than the 10-minute record of 0.53".

What's perhaps even more striking is that the 10-minute record for June is only 0.22"; it's much more common (relatively) for extremely heavy rain to fall in July.  There have been only 6 events in total with at least 0.25" in 10 minutes, and of these 5 were in July and 1 was in August (August 17, 2008).

It's also curious to note something of a discrepancy with the NOAA precipitation atlas: the NOAA frequency estimates indicate a recurrence interval of about 20 years for 0.25" in 5 minutes, but it appears Fairbanks has now seen this happen 4 times in 20 years.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Early Morning Storms Up North

I saw this posted today by the NWS in Fairbanks and thought it was neat:

5am AKDT is of course 4am standard time, but Allakaket is more than an hour west of the true time zone center, so the picture was taken before 3am local solar time.  Tomorrow is the last day with a sunset in Allakaket until July 7th.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Intense Thunderstorm in Fairbanks

Yesterday evening the Fairbanks area experienced a very strong thunderstorm system that prompted a rare severe thunderstorm warning from the National Weather Service.  Here's the NWS public information statement from shortly after the event:

"Public Information Statement National Weather Service Fairbanks AK 802 PM AKDT Sun Jun 2 2019 ...Strong Thunderstorm Hits Fairbanks... Fairbanks had a thunderstorm move west across the city between 6pm and 7pm this evening. An NWS Weather Spotter in Hamilton Acres reported half inch size hail, and radar indicated hail of up to one inch diameter. There were numerous reports of pea size hail and frequent lightning in the Fairbanks area. The Fairbanks International Airport had 65 hundredths (0.65) of an inch of rain in a period of 21 minutes, which is one of the highest rainfall rates in recent memory in Fairbanks. There have been about 200 lightning strikes in the Fairbanks North Star Borough since the thunderstorms began around 3pm. As of 745 pm this evening, thunderstorms had moved south and west of Fairbanks and North Pole."

As luck would have it, a very intense part of the storm complex occurred over the international airport, and the ASOS instruments reported extremely heavy rain as well as hail of 3/8" diameter.  I have only been able to find a few instances of hail being reported from the Fairbanks ASOS (May 15, 2012, August 9, 2002, and June 9, 1997), and only the 2002 report included a hailstone size observation (1/4").

The ASOS precipitation data also show that 0.65" of rain fell in 21 minutes, and of that 0.55" fell in 8 minutes, which equates to a rate of 4.1" per hour.  This is a truly remarkable rainfall rate for such a high latitude, and I suspect it may contend for an all-time record for Fairbanks; more investigation would be justified.

According to the NOAA precipitation atlas, the estimated recurrence interval for a 0.55" rain amount is near 200 years for a 10-minute interval and over 500 years for a 5-minute interval, so this event lay somewhere in between.  In the graphics below, the black lines represent the recurrence interval estimates, and the green and red lines show the limits of the 90% confidence interval.

Here's a sequence of radar images showing the evolution of the storm system; its development was really explosive.  It's remarkable to see radar reflectivities of well over 60 dBZ, which is strongly indicative of hail.  This would be more typical of, say, the western Plains in Kansas or Nebraska at this time of year.

Looking at the balloon sounding from Fairbanks just a couple of hours earlier, the standard metrics don't show a particularly notable amount of instability (see below).   However, the northerly winds aloft produced a modest amount of wind shear (favorable for organized thunderstorms), and it was a moist environment.  Moreover, yesterday afternoon the NWS forecasters noted an upper-level wave that was expected to kick off some storm activity:

"Central and Eastern Interior: A shortwave moving to the south over the area will bring some scattered showers this afternoon and evening. The shortwave will be moving over an area with decent instability thanks to relatively moist antecedent conditions. The current GFS is showing surface based CAPE values of 300-500 J/kg across much of the Interior south of Livengood with weakly negative LI values. This swill be sufficient for some isolated thunderstorms across the area. Some thunderstorms may produce small hail or gusty winds."

Finally, here's a simple animation of the radar imagery.  An impressive event, indeed!