Scientists Thought an Alaskan Weather Station Was Broken, But It Was Just Climate Change

Photo: AP

That climate change is rapidly warming the Arctic is a given, but apparently the news hasn’t reached our algorithmic overlords.

Scientists monitoring U.S. weather stations received an alert in early December that something was wrong with the weather station in Utqiaġvik, Alaska (formerly Barrow), the northernmost town in the U.S. It was returning readings that seemed too hot to be accurate. But no, they sadly were accurate, showing that climate change could even require us to alter the computer codes we use to monitor it.


Deke Arndt, the monitoring branch chief at NCEI, told Earther these notifications about a station being messed up happen from time to time, but this is the first time climate change has been to blame.

“I believe this is a first for an American station,” Arndt told Earther via email. “There have been a handful of such occurrences in the last 5-10 years or so in the Canadian Arctic, and the Eurasian Arctic.”

Arndt and his colleagues use a set of algorithms to help them deal with the massive amounts of data they receive each month. The U.S. weather station network was built to monitor, well, weather, and not necessarily climate. But as climate change has become a bigger issue, it’s become by far the best way to monitor how much carbon dioxide is warming our planet.

To help with quality control on the terabytes of data coming in each month, scientists use algorithms to collate it. They then take that data and use it create a U.S. monthly average temperature analysis as well as one for the globe. Arndt explained why they put the process place to maintain the integrity of the data and those analyses in a highly informative post on

“It would be great if we just had 4000+ weather station gnomes whose families are bound to tend a given station’s climate record for generations, who knew every detail of a station’s quirks, and who always write down all the station’s data including margin...But instead, data ingest is an automated process, which means the handwritten margin notes sometimes get overlooked. So we need an automated process that flags problems and tells scientists, ‘hey, check out Barrow, there’s something odd there.’”


There is indeed something odd going on at Utqiaġvik. It’s warmed 4°F since the station began reliably returning data in 1925 with almost all of that rise coming since the 1960s. But the change comparing the 21st century to the last 20 years of the 20th century is where things get really crazy.

I honestly had to do a double take looking at the graph below.


No, your eyes are not deceiving you: Utqiaġvik warmed an average of 6.5°F from October-December, including an astounding 7.8°F in October alone, when comparing the 20 years before 2000 to the 17 years since.

That’s thawed out permafrost, shrunk sea ice extent, and caused a host of other changes that are endangering people’s lives and livelihoods in the region, particularly for Alaska Natives. This year has been particularly brutal for sea ice, which has failed to grow back this winter.


An analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) shows that the Chukchi Sea, which sits north of Utqiaġvik, had large ice-free areas and was up to 11°F warmer than normal in November.

“It is the lowest we’ve seen in the satellite record for that region, and it’s likely because the ice retreated early this year in that region which leads to more warming of the upper mixed layer temperatures,” Julienne Stroeve, a scientist at NSIDC, told Earther.


That warmth can help reinforce warmth on land around Utqiaġvik, and Arndt said that late return of winter sea ice could be what’s ratcheting up temperatures from October-December.

No word yet on when Arctic sea ice’s disappearance will start to mess up our algorithms for monitoring it.


Managing editor, Earther

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