Mar 18 2015

Research helps climate monitoring and predictions in Alaska

Is it going to be a busy fire season, or will it be wet in Alaska this summer? New geographic climate divisions for Alaska can help answer these questions.

With support from the Alaska Climate Science Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers and collaborators created the divisions, which describe zones that have broadly similar climate variations over time. Governmental agencies use such divisions to monitor climate and analyze temperature, precipitation and drought. The private sector also uses them for agricultural and hydrological applications.

The Lower-48 has had climate divisions for decades. Alaska's vast size, high-latitude location, proximity to oceans and complex topography create a wide range of climates, and so the state has never had objectively constructed divisions. As a consequence, Alaska was out of the picture, while the rest of the country was receiving benefits such as drought forecasts.

Peter Bieniek, an Alaska Climate Science Center fellow at the UAF International Arctic Research Center, calculated climate divisions for Alaska as part of his Ph.D. thesis in atmospheric sciences with his advisor, Uma Bhatt of the UAF Geophysical Institute. Rick Thoman, of the National Weather Service (NWS) in Fairbanks, provided the forecasters’ perspective from the start.

The research team looked at weather stations across Alaska and applied statistical analysis to group them according to similar climate variability, resulting in 13 climate divisions. Later, they developed data for each zone, which allows the federal agencies such as the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) and the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) to use climate divisions to diagnose climate variations in Alaska.

Once the science was finished, James Partain of the NCDC navigated the process needed to receive official recognition from NWS and NCDC's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With collaboration between the many university scientists and NOAA meteorologists, the project was a successful example of transforming scientific research into a practical application.

During the past five years, Bieniek has continued to refine climate division ideas. He hopes the divisions will generate more refinements that will improve climate monitoring and predictions in Alaska. “For me, what’s important about this project is that it will start the discussion,” he said.

The NCDC is rolling out the official climate divisions for Alaska. The divisions will allow the CPC to produce more accurate climate outlooks for Alaska.

The collaboration resulted in a paper, "Climate Divisions for Alaska Based on Objective Methods," published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. More information about the project is also available on the project website.