Scientists say Fairbanks is getting wetter

A graph demonstrating the recent increase in average precipitation in the Alaskan interior....
A graph demonstrating the recent increase in average precipitation in the Alaskan interior. (James White/UAF) (KTVF)
Published: Dec. 5, 2019 at 3:33 PM AKST
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Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center (IARC) have determined that since 2014, the Alaskan interior including Fairbanks has been seeing between 35-40% more yearly precipitation than its long term average.

Dr. John Walsh, research professor and chief scientist at IARC, says that an increase of this magnitude is unusual for precipitation data. “Precipitation is one of these variables that has a lot of what we call ‘scatter’ in it,” said Walsh. “It’s high one year, low the next year, high in one location, low in another location,” he added, indicating that this variability keeps precipitation data over a period of decades fairly consistent.

Ironically, this makes the consistency of the precipitation increase in the last five years inconsistent with the interior’s average precipitation.

James White, a graduate student working under Walsh, has been examining precipitation trends throughout Alaska from as early as the 1920’s. According to White, spikes in precipitation are not uncommon, but they have historically not been extreme enough to alter the overall trend. Pointing to a graph demonstrating average precipitation in the interior, White notes an uptick beginning in the 2010’s that shows an increase in precipitation significantly larger than any other point on the graph. “The models that we have would imply that the change we’ve seen in the interior is almost certainly connected to climate change in some way,” said White.

However, White cautions that a trend in one area of the state will not mirror the trend in another. Each trend must be examined in context of its geography, as well as a host of other factors which affect precipitation in a given area. Still, White insists, even data from other areas indicate effects of climate change. “We actually have higher confidence of [climate change] in other places,” said White. “For example, changes on the North Slope of Alaska are very consistent with models of climate change.”

Walsh notes that this trend of increased precipitation has been a missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to climate change signifiers. However, he also adds that this data does not come as a total surprise. He says that climate models have cautioned scientists about this very phenomenon. “One of the […] predictions for the future is that the high latitudes will get wetter,” said Walsh about the climate models he uses in his work. “That includes Alaska and the rest of the Arctic.”

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