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Rick Lader
,
Allison Bidlack
,
John E. Walsh
,
Uma S. Bhatt
, and
Peter A. Bieniek

Abstract

Warming temperatures across southeast Alaska are affecting the region’s energy and transportation sectors, marine ecosystems, and forest health. More frequent above-freezing temperatures lead a transition from snow- to rain-dominant precipitation regimes, accelerating glacial mass balance loss and a leading to a greater risk for warm-season drought. Southeast Alaska has steep topographical gradients, which necessitate the use of downscaled climate information to study historical and projected periods. This study used regional dynamical downscaling at 4-km spatial resolution with the Weather Research and Forecasting Model to assess historical (1981–2010) and projected (2031–60) climate states for southeast Alaska. These simulations were driven by one reanalysis (i.e., the Climate Forecast System Reanalysis) and two climate models (i.e., the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Climate Model, version 3, and the NCAR Community Climate System Model, version 4), which each included a historical simulation and a projected simulation. The future simulations used the representative concentration pathway 8.5 emissions scenario. Bias-corrected projections (2031–60 minus 1981–2010) indicated seasonal warming of 1°–3°C, increased precipitation during autumn (4%–12%) and winter (7%–12%), and decreased snowfall in all seasons (up to 60% in autumn). The average number of days annually with a minimum temperature below freezing dropped by more than 30. The average annual maximum consecutive 3-day precipitation amounts increased by 11%–16%, but analogous extreme snowfall amounts dropped by 5%–11%. The most substantial snow losses occurred at low-elevation and coastal locations; at many high elevations (e.g., above 1000 m), extreme snowfall amounts increased.

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Rick Lader
,
John E. Walsh
,
Uma S. Bhatt
, and
Peter A. Bieniek

Abstract

Climate change is expected to alter the frequencies and intensities of at least some types of extreme events. Although Alaska is already experiencing an amplified response to climate change, studies of extreme event occurrences have lagged those for other regions. Forced migration due to coastal erosion, failing infrastructure on thawing permafrost, more severe wildfire seasons, altered ocean chemistry, and an ever-shrinking season for snow and ice are among the most devastating effects, many of which are related to extreme climate events. This study uses regional dynamical downscaling with the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model to investigate projected twenty-first-century changes of daily maximum temperature, minimum temperature, and precipitation over Alaska. The forcing data used for the downscaling simulations include the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) interim reanalysis (ERA-Interim; 1981–2010), Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Climate Model, version 3 (GFDL CM3), historical (1976–2005), and GFDL CM3 representative concentration pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5; 2006–2100). Observed trends of temperature and sea ice coverage in the Arctic are large, and the present trajectory of global emissions makes a continuation of these trends plausible. The future scenario is bias adjusted using a quantile-mapping procedure. Results indicate an asymmetric warming of climate extremes; namely, cold extremes rise fastest, and the greatest changes occur in winter. Maximum 1- and 5-day precipitation amounts are projected to increase by 53% and 50%, which is larger than the corresponding increases for the contiguous United States. When compared with the historical period, the shifts in temperature and precipitation indicate unprecedented heat and rainfall across Alaska during this century.

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John E. Walsh
,
Peter A. Bieniek
,
Brian Brettschneider
,
Eugénie S. Euskirchen
,
Rick Lader
, and
Richard L. Thoman

Abstract

Alaska experienced record-setting warmth during the 2015/16 cold season (October–April). Statewide average temperatures exceeded the period-of-record mean by more than 4°C over the 7-month cold season and by more than 6°C over the 4-month late-winter period, January–April. The record warmth raises two questions: 1) Why was Alaska so warm during the 2015/16 cold season? 2) At what point in the future might this warmth become typical if greenhouse warming continues? On the basis of circulation analogs computed from sea level pressure and 850-hPa geopotential height fields, the atmospheric circulation explains less than half of the anomalous warmth. The warming signal forced by greenhouse gases in climate models accounts for about 1°C of the anomalous warmth. A factor that is consistent with the seasonal and spatial patterns of the warmth is the anomalous surface state. The surface anomalies include 1) above-normal ocean surface temperatures and below-normal sea ice coverage in the surrounding seas from which air advects into Alaska and 2) the deficient snowpack over Alaska itself. The location of the maximum of anomalous warmth over Alaska and the late-winter–early-spring increase of the anomalous warmth unexplained by the atmospheric circulation implicates snow cover and its albedo effect, which is supported by observational measurements in the boreal forest and tundra biomes. Climate model simulations indicate that warmth of this magnitude will become the norm by the 2050s if greenhouse gas emissions follow their present scenario.

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Rick Lader
,
Uma S. Bhatt
,
John E. Walsh
, and
Peter A. Bieniek

Abstract

Parts of southeast Alaska experienced record drought in 2019, followed by record daily precipitation in late 2020 with substantial impacts to human health and safety, energy resources, and fisheries. To help ascertain whether these types of events can be expected more frequently, this study investigated observed trends and projected changes of hydroclimatic extremes indices across southeast Alaska, including measures of precipitation variability, seasonality, magnitude, and type. Observations indicated mixed tendencies of interannual precipitation variability, but there were consistent trends toward warmer and wetter conditions. Projected changes were assessed using dynamically downscaled climate model simulations at 4-km spatial resolution from 2031 to 2060 that were compared with a historical period from 1981 to 2010 using two models—NCAR CCSM4 and GFDL CM3. Consistent directional changes were found for five of the analyzed indices. The CCSM indicated increased maximum 1-day precipitation (RX1; 12.6%), increased maximum consecutive 5-day precipitation (RX5; 7.4%), longer periods of consecutive dry days (CDD; 11.9%), fewer snow cover days (SNC; −21.4%) and lower snow fraction (SNF; −24.4%); for GFDL these changes were 19.8% for RX1, 16.0% for RX5, 20.1% for CDD, −21.9% for SNC, and −26.5% for SNF. Although both models indicated substantial snow losses, they also projected annual snowfall increases at high elevations; this occurred above 1500 m for CCSM and above 2500 m for GFDL. Significance testing was assessed at the 95% confidence level using Theil–Sen’s slope estimates for the observed time series and the Wilcoxon–Mann–Whitney U test for projected changes of the hydroclimatic extremes indices relative to their historical distributions.

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Rick Lader
,
Uma S. Bhatt
,
John E. Walsh
,
T. Scott Rupp
, and
Peter A. Bieniek

Abstract

Alaska is experiencing effects of global climate change that are due, in large part, to the positive feedback mechanisms associated with polar amplification. The major risk factors include loss of sea ice and glaciers, thawing permafrost, increased wildfires, and ocean acidification. Reanalyses, integral to understanding mechanisms of Alaska’s past climate and to helping to calibrate modeling efforts, are based on the output of weather forecast models that assimilate observations. This study evaluates temperature and precipitation from five reanalyses at monthly and daily time scales for the period 1979–2009. Monthly data are evaluated spatially at grid points and for six climate zones in Alaska. In addition, daily maximum temperature, minimum temperature, and precipitation from reanalyses are compared with meteorological-station data at six locations. The reanalyses evaluated in this study include the NCEP–NCAR reanalysis (R1), North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR), Climate Forecast System Reanalysis (CFSR), ERA-Interim, and the Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA). Maps of seasonal bias and standard deviation, constructed from monthly data, show how the reanalyses agree with observations spatially. Cross correlations between the monthly gridded and daily station time series are computed to provide a measure of confidence that data users can assume when selecting reanalysis data in a region without many surface observations. A review of natural hazards in Alaska indicates that MERRA is the top reanalysis for wildfire and interior-flooding applications. CFSR is the recommended reanalysis for North Slope coastal erosion issues and, along with ERA-Interim, for heavy precipitation in southeastern Alaska.

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Rick Lader
,
John E. Walsh
,
Uma S. Bhatt
, and
Peter A. Bieniek

Abstract

Climate warming is expected to disproportionately affect crop yields in the southern United States due to excessive heat stress, while presenting new farming opportunities through a longer growing season farther north. Few studies have investigated the impact of this warming on agro-climate indices that link meteorological data with important field dates in northern regions. This study employs regional dynamical downscaling using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model to assess changes in growing season length (GSL), spring planting dates, and occurrences of plant heat stress (PHS) for five regions in Alaska. Differences between future representative concentration pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5; 2011–40, 2041–70, 2071–2100) and historical (1981–2010) periods are obtained using boundary forcing from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Climate Model, version 3, and the NCAR Community Climate System Model, version 4. The model output is bias corrected using ERA-Interim. Median GSL shows increases of 48–87 days by 2071–2100, with the largest changes in northern Alaska. Similarly, by 2071–2100, planting dates advance 2–4 weeks, and PHS days increase from near 0 to 5–10 instances per summer in the hottest areas. The largest GSL changes occur in the mid- (2041–70) and late century (2071–2100), when a warming signal emerges from the historical interannual variability. These periods coincide with the greatest divergence of the RCPs, suggesting that near-term decision-making may affect substantial future changes. Early-century (2011–40) projections show median GSL increases of 8–27 days, which is close to the historical standard deviation of GSL. Thus, internal variability will remain an important source of uncertainty into the midcentury, despite a trend for longer growing seasons.

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Peter A. Bieniek
,
John E. Walsh
,
Nancy Fresco
,
Cameron Tauxe
, and
Kyle Redilla

Abstract

Flooding from extreme precipitation can have major impacts on society in Alaska. Understanding how these extremes may change in the future is needed for better planning under climate change. Data on future changes in extreme precipitation over Alaska from dynamically downscaled output of two global climate models (GFDL and CCSM) were employed in this study. Threshold amounts for duration of the precipitation event (1 h, 1 day, and 30 days) and return intervals (2, 10, and 50 years) are evaluated and further downscaled onto NOAA Atlas 14. For each duration and return interval, the models’ fractional changes of threshold amounts are applied to the Atlas 14 estimates to remove the model bias. The threshold amounts for nearly all event durations and return intervals are projected to increase from present (1979–2005) amounts to higher values in later decadal periods (2020–49, 2050–79, and 2080–99), and the percentage increases generally exceed the changes in the mean amounts. The percentage increases are comparable in the various geographical regions of Alaska, but the increases in the actual amounts are greatest in the wetter southeast. Although the downscaled GFDL model shows larger increases than the CCSM model in amounts for nearly all durations and return intervals, both models indicate that convective precipitation will become an increasingly greater fraction of the total precipitation during the warm season. The increase in the proportion of convective precipitation is consistent with the more rapid increase in extreme amounts than in mean amounts.

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Peter A. Bieniek
,
John E. Walsh
,
Richard L. Thoman
, and
Uma S. Bhatt

Abstract

By extending the record of Alaskan divisional temperature and precipitation back in time, regional variations and trends of temperature and precipitation over 1920–2012 are documented. The use of the divisional framework highlights the greater spatial coherence of temperature variations relative to precipitation variations.

The divisional time series of temperature are characterized by large interannual variability superimposed upon low-frequency variability, as well as by an underlying trend. Low-frequency variability corresponding to the Pacific decadal oscillation (PDO) includes Alaska’s generally warm period of the 1920s and 1930s, a cold period from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, a warm period from the late 1970s through the early 2000s, and a cooler period in the most recent decade. An exception to the cooling of the past decade is the North Slope climate division, which has continued to warm. There has been a gradual upward trend of Alaskan temperatures relative to the PDO since 1920, resulting in a statewide average warming of about 1°C.

In contrast to temperature, variations of precipitation are less consistent across climate divisions and have much less multidecadal character. Thirty-year trends of both variables are highly sensitive to the choice of the subperiod within the overall 93-yr period. The trends also vary seasonally, with winter and spring contributing the most to the annual trends.

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Peter A. Bieniek
,
Uma S. Bhatt
,
Larry A. Rundquist
,
Scott D. Lindsey
,
Xiangdong Zhang
, and
Richard L. Thoman

Abstract

Frozen rivers in the Arctic serve as critical highways because of the lack of roads; therefore, it is important to understand the key mechanisms that control the timing of river ice breakup. The relationships between springtime Interior Alaska river ice breakup date and the large-scale climate are investigated for the Yukon, Tanana, Kuskokwim, and Chena Rivers for the 1949–2008 period. The most important climate factor that determines breakup is April–May surface air temperatures (SATs). Breakup tends to occur earlier when Alaska April–May SATs and river flow are above normal. Spring SATs are influenced by storms approaching the state from the Gulf of Alaska, which are part of large-scale climate anomalies that compare favorably with ENSO. During the warm phase of ENSO fewer storms travel into the Gulf of Alaska during the spring, resulting in a decrease of cloud cover over Alaska, which increases surface solar insolation. This results in warmer-than-average springtime SATs and an earlier breakup date. The opposite holds true for the cold phase of ENSO. Increased wintertime precipitation over Alaska has a secondary impact on earlier breakup by increasing spring river discharge. Improved springtime Alaska temperature predictions would enhance the ability to forecast the timing of river ice breakup.

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Peter A. Bieniek
,
Uma S. Bhatt
,
John E. Walsh
,
Rick Lader
,
Brad Griffith
,
Jennifer K. Roach
, and
Richard L. Thoman

Abstract

The ice formed by cold-season rainfall or rain on snow (ROS) has striking impacts on the economy and ecology of Alaska. An understanding of the atmospheric drivers of ROS events is required to better predict them and plan for environmental change. The spatially/temporally sparse network of stations in Alaska makes studying such events challenging, and gridded reanalysis or remote sensing products are necessary to fill the gaps. Recently developed dynamically downscaled climate data provide a new suite of high-resolution variables for investigating historical and projected ROS events across all of Alaska from 1979 to 2100. The dynamically downscaled reanalysis data of ERA-Interim replicated the seasonal patterns of ROS events but tended to produce more rain events than in station observations. However, dynamical downscaling reduced the bias toward more rain events in the coarse reanalysis. ROS occurred most frequently over southwestern and southern coastal regions. Extreme events with the heaviest rainfall generally coincided with anomalous high pressure centered to the south/southeast of the locations receiving the event and warm-air advection from the resulting southwesterly wind flow. ROS events were projected to increase in frequency overall and for extremes across most of the region but were expected to decline over southwestern/southern Alaska. Increases in frequency were projected as a result of more frequent winter rainfall, but the number of ROS events may ultimately decline in some areas as a result of temperatures rising above the freezing threshold. These projected changes in ROS can significantly affect wildlife, vegetation, and human activities across the Alaska landscape.

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