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Record Cold in Western U.S., Record Warmth in Alaska’s Arctic

By: Christopher C. Burt, 9:05 PM GMT on December 09, 2013

Record Cold in Western U.S., Record Warmth in Alaska’s Arctic

While a cold wave has gripped much of the contiguous U.S., including at least one all-time record in Oregon, unusual warmth has affected far northern Alaska. The topsy-turvy temperature regime is the result of a pronounced ridge and trough over western North America. Here is a summary of the temperatures.

As Jeff Masters noted in his blog today an unusually pronounced kink in the jet stream has allowed frigid air to pour into the western U.S. while at the same time drawing warm air well to the north over Alaska.

500 mb level height and temperature anomaly for 12z on December 8th (about 3 a.m. in Alaska and 4 a.m. PT).

Surface (2 meter) temperature anomaly in C° at 12Z December 8 for North America. This was about the same time the amazing 39°F (3.9°C) was being measured at Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse), Alaska on the shores of the Arctic Ocean while a record -27°F (-32.8°C) was being reported at Lakeview in south-central Oregon. At one point Saturday evening it was colder in Brownsville, Texas and Bakersfield, California than Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Arctic Alaska Warmth

Although the cold temperatures in the central and western contiguous U.S. have been remarkable this past week, the coldest since December 1990 for portions of California and Oregon, they are not as anomalous as the amazing warmth that briefly affected the Arctic region of Alaska. At around 9 p.m. local time on December 7th the temperature reached 39°F with rain falling at Deadhorse, the airport that serves Prudhoe Bay on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. This was the warmest December temperature ever measured at the site since it was established in 1968 (actually there have been three sites in the Prudhoe Bay area since 1968: Prudhoe Bay ARCO site 1968-1986, Prudhoe Bay WRCC/GHCN site 1986-1999, and the Deadhorse Airport site 1999-current). Prior to the 39° on Saturday night, the warmest temperature measured during December at any of the three sites was 35°F (1.7°C) on December 31, 1973 at the ARCO site. All-time December warmth records were also set or tied at Barter Island AFB (Kaktovik) which reached 37°F (2.8°C), tying its record for the month last set also on December 31, 1973 (POR 1949-current) and Wainright (POR since 1949) with a 32°C (0°C) reading (previous record 30°F on Dec. 1 and 2, 2006 and December 9, 1963). Barrow, which has the longest POR (since 1921) of any site on Alaska’s Arctic Ocean shore, reached 30°, short of their December record of 34° set on December 9, 1932. Checking the December data for ALL of the Arctic shore sites in Alaska (Barrow, Kuparuk, Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse), Barter Island, Colville Village, Nuiqsut, Wainwright, and Point Lay) it appears the 39°F reading at Deadhorse was the warmest December temperature ever observed at any site along the shores of Alaska’s Arctic Ocean. Some RAWS sites along the Dalton Highway south of Prudhoe Bay measured temperatures into the 40°s according to Rick Thoman of NWS-Fairbanks.

Western U.S. Cold

Meanwhile frigid air encompassed the western two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. especially the Pacific Northwest where Lakeview, Oregon reportedly measured their coldest temperature on record Sunday morning (December 8th) with a -27°F reading (previous record -24°F on January 15, 1888). Burns, Oregon hit -30°F (-34.4°C) on Monday morning December 9th, its coldest temperature in modern records although a different site in the town hit -32°F (-35.6°C) on February 10, 1933. Alturas, in northeast California reached -22°F on December 8th (short of its all-time record of -34° on December 9, 1972). Below is a list of the coldest temperatures observed by state since the arctic outbreak began on December 5th:

MONTANA: -43° at Chinook (Dec. 8)

OREGON: -38° at Silver Lake (Dec. 8). Unofficial -39° at Christmas Valley AGRIMET MESONET site (Dec. 8)

WYOMNIG: -37° at Old Faithful and Daniel Fish Hatchery (Dec. 6)

MINNESOTA: -35° at Hibbing (Dec. 8)

COLORADO: -32° at Walden (Dec. 5)

WISCONSIN: -30° at Minong (Dec. 8)

NORTH DAKOTA: -29° at Hettinger (Dec. 7)

UTAH: -29° at Panguitch (Dec. 6). Peter Sinks RAWS reached -45° on Dec. 6

SOUTH DAKOTA: -27° at Aberdeen (Dec. 7)

NEBRASKA: -26° at Valentine and Gordon (Dec. 7)

NEVADA: -23° at Ely (Dec. 5) and Winnemucca (Dec. 8)

CALIFORNIA: -22° at Alturas (Dec. 8). Unofficial -26° at RAWS Ash Valley.

IDAHO: -21° at Stanley on Dec. 6)

IOWA: -17° at Sheldon (Dec. 7)

Anecdotally, it is interesting to compare the current situation to that of early December 1972 when Barrow had a December ‘heat wave’ with daily record highs occurring on Dec. 6 (32°) and Dec. 11 (29°). This happens to be when the Pacific NW and the Rocky Mountain states were experiencing one of their worst cold waves on record (like now but considerably colder). It was –40° in Butte, Montana and 21° at Eureka, California where 1.9” of snow fell, and 9” of snow fell at Redding, California (where they had 5” last Friday). Other cold temperatures in 1972 included 6° at Astoria, OR, -23° at Boise, ID. So we can see a connection here (between record Alaskan Arctic warmth and record Pacific Northwest and Rockies/Plains U.S. cold. And guess what, in Charleston, SC it hit 83° that same week in 1972 (a December monthly record), similar to the 83° measured at Savannah, Georgia last week which tied their all-time December record. In both years (1972 and 2013) a severe ice storm also affected the Texas to Kentucky region.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.