Granted, over the course of a year, in any given location, Alaska’s weather can be extreme and unpredictable. Because of the harshness of the winters, comfortable travel to many popular destinations is difficult early October–late April.
Contrary to popular perception, however, the weather can also be quite pleasant. Alaska’s spring, summer, and fall are not unlike these seasons in Minnesota. It’s cool, it’s warm; it’s wet and dry; sometimes it’s windy, sometimes it’s muggy, sometimes it’s foggy. For the latest outdoor forecast, visit the National Weather Service’s Alaska website (www.arh.noaa.gov).
Extremes and Trends
It hit 100°F in the state once, in Fort Yukon in 1915. Fairbanks regularly breaks 90°F in July. It gets cold in Fort Yukon too, dropping as low as -78°F (Alaska’s record low is -82°F, recorded in aptly named Coldfoot in 1989). Any wind at all at that temperature would make you feel even colder, if that’s possible.
Thompson Pass near Valdez gets quite a bit of snow, holding the records for the most in 24 hours (5 feet), a month (25 feet), and a year (81 feet). But Barrow, at the tip of the proverbial “frozen wasteland,” got just three inches of snow in 1936–1937. An average of almost 13 feet of rain falls in Ketchikan every year—they call it “liquid sunshine.” But again, one year Barrow squeaked by with only an inch.
Though Alaska retains the reputation of the Great Frozen North, a distinct warming trend has had a noticeable effect on the state. Temperatures warmed abruptly in the summer of 1977 and have remained unusually warm ever since, throughout all the seasons. For example, meteorologists report that in the Interior, only on rare occasions over the past 20 years has the mercury dropped much below -40°F. Also, the temperature of the permafrost has risen several degrees.
It’s possible to generalize about Alaskan weather and distinguish three climatic zones: coastal maritime, interior, and Arctic. The main factor affecting the southern coasts is the warm Japanese Current, which causes temperatures to be much milder than the norm at those latitudes. This current also brings continuous rain as humid Pacific air is forced up over the coastal mountains. For example, it rains in Juneau two out of three days.
However, these mountains shield the Interior plateaus from the maritime air streams, so yearly precipitation there is low—a mere 15 inches. The Interior experiences great temperature extremes, from biting cold in winter to summer heat waves. The mountains also protect the coastal areas from cold—and hot—Interior air masses.
The Arctic zone is characterized by cool, cloudy, and windy summers (averaging 50°F) and cold, windy winters—though not as cold as in the Interior.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition