Weather system off Alaska driving wild winter in Lower 48
This winter has been one for the record books for a large portion of the U.S., as historic weather events continue to break records.
Even right here in Alaska, record-breaking temperatures have occurred across the North Slope, with historic snowfall amounts along the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula and a severe drought that is still gripping parts of Southeast Alaska.
So what's driving the wild weather?
Before we dive into the explanation, it's always important to remember that weather does not equal climate. Think of climate as an entire baseball season for your favorite Major League Baseball team, and weather as the pitches that make up every single game within that season. Doing so allows you to see how weather is nothing more than just a snapshot of something that is significantly larger.
If you look at it that way, the weather the U.S. has been experiencing so far in 2019 is nothing more than a series of pitches that will make up the seasonal averages by the end of the year.
Those averages typically include new records, which reflect some of what the Lower 48 has experienced this winter. According to NOAA climate records, just within the month of February several records have already been broken:
- Numerous snowstorms in the Pacific Northwest have brought Seattle the snowiest February in nearly 50 years.
- Flagstaff, Arizona, set a new single-day snowfall record of 31.6 inches, which broke a 100-plus-year-old record. This also led to flooding in an arid region that typically doesn't see flooding from melting snow.
- Las Vegas, Nevada, reported measurable snowfall at the airport for the first time in a decade.
- Palm Springs, California, saw record-breaking rain that led to serious flooding in the Coachella Valley.
- Numerous states have experienced record-breaking lows this winter, accompanied by wind chills that pushed to 60 degrees below zero in many parts of the country.
The reason? A rather impressive and unusually strong high-pressure system that has anchored itself in the Gulf of Alaska for a large portion of the month. It's the main reason Southcentral and Southeast Alaska have experienced numerous days with plenty of sunshine and pleasant afternoons. This occurs because high pressure itself causes air to diverge away from its center keeping fair weather in the forecast. While that has been the case as of late, it's also the main driver for weather patterns that have been occurring in the Lower 48.
With the high in place across the Gulf, warmer air has been surging northward across the state. This creates a spilling effect in the Arctic region, as cold air is displaced into the Lower 48 due to the buckling of the jet stream, which has lead to numerous winter storms and record-breaking cold.
Even here in Alaska we are experiencing side effects from the pleasant weather, as high pressure is keeping any storms well away from the region. This is ultimately leading to an ongoing drought problem across Southeast, which is currently affecting nearly 2 percent of the state and 50,000 residents. Ketchikan, which is still recovering from a significant drought last year, will unfortunately close out this month as one of the driest on record for the city — at just 1.83 inches, according to NOAA climate records. It's not good news for an areas that typically receives well over 100 inches of rainfall annually.
There is some good news though, as the aforementioned high is set to break down later this week with a wetter pattern to return back to Southcentral and Southeast, but not before bringing the Lower 48 another bitter cold snap.
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