2016 record warm year globally, in Alaska

Published: Jan. 18, 2017 at 2:40 PM AKST
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For the third year in a row, global average temperatures in 2016 reached the warmest levels on record. In a report released Wednesday morning from NASA and NOAA, the global average temperature was 0.2°C warmer than the previous record set in 2015.

While that doesn’t seem like much, Brian Bretthschneider, a researcher with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center says, it’s a bigger jump than it looks.

“That's 20 percent higher than any other year,” says Brettschneider. “In terms of the magnitude, it seems small but it's a large step up from 2015.”

Looking at the global map, many locations didn’t experience record warmth.

“While many places were not the warmest on the global scale,” says Rick Thoman, Climate Sciences and Service Manager for the National Weather Service Alaska Region. “Hardly anywhere was even a little bit cooler than the long term average and that’s what helps boost that global record.”

Alaska was one of the places to see its warmest year on record with an average temperature 4.5°F warmer than normal.

Arctic sea ice hit its lowest maximum during the year and second lowest minimum during the satellite era. The Global Analysis shows that even without hitting a record low minimum, 2016 had the smallest average Arctic sea ice extent on record.

Snow coverage and sea ice are important because they reflect solar energy back into space.

“When we lose that snow and ice cover, that solar energy is absorbed by the land, absorbed by the water, and that heats up the ground and the atmosphere,” says Brettschneider. “So when we lose that, it's called a positive feedback cycle. It makes it warmer, which then melts more snow and more ice which then allows even more heat to accumulate.”

Temperatures Wednesday hit 50 below in parts of the state so it might be difficult to talk about record global warmth on a day like today.

“Even in a warming environment you're still going to have cold spells,” says Brettschneider. “It's still winter and we're still in Alaska. The issue becomes the frequency that these occur. Normally we would expect a day here in Anchorage at minus 15 to occur two or three times a year. Well, it's been five years and before that it was another four years."

"So that gap between these cold events is getting wider and wider. It doesn’t mean it can never happen. It’s just harder for the atmosphere for everything to come together for these cold temperatures," says Brettschneider.

2017 is expected to be another warm year though most experts aren’t looking at another record.

“It is not likely to be as warm as 2016,” says Thoman. “But will 2017 be significantly warmer than the 20th century average? Virtually certain.”