Alaska climate divisions

A set of 13 new Alaska climate divisions and their associated data sets created by Dr. Peter Bieniek as part of his doctoral thesis recently were accepted for use by the National Climatic Data Center and integrated into the center’s website. 

FAIRBANKS — The world has a new way of looking at Alaska’s climate data, thanks to a University of Alaska post-doctoral fellow and a handful of other like-minded scientists.

A set of 13 new Alaska climate divisions and their associated data sets created by Dr. Peter Bieniek as part of his doctoral thesis recently were accepted for use by the National Climatic Data Center and integrated into the center’s website. 

Climate divisions are important because they are used to identify long-term climate trends, predict weather, determine crop cycles and monitor precipitation and drought, among other things.

The Lower 48 has about 300 such climate divisions, but up until recently, Alaska relied on a set of loosely defined and not particularly accurate climate boundaries based on data first gathered in the 1920s. Bieniek, with the help of thesis advisor Uma Bhatt, of the UAF Geophysical Institute, and Richard Thoman, of the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, applied statistical analysis to data from weather stations around the state and grouped them according to similar climate variability. 

“Now we have similar data across the board and you can compare us to other states. That’s a nice feature of this data. It’s really cool for that purpose,” Bieniek said.

The inclusion of the Alaska climate divisions is important because Alaska was the only state other than Hawaii not accurately represented in the NCDC data.

“Basically, Alaska wasn’t even considered a state compared to the continental United States. They didn’t have anything; they had those earlier maps but they didn’t use them for anything,” Bieniek said. 

Bieniek and his team found it wasn’t easy “taking our university science and then bringing it over to something the government will use in its operational world,” Bieniek said.

“The big challenge, besides doing all the research and writing the papers, was getting the stuff that we did translated over into the government — convincing those guys in the bureaucracy,” Bieniek said. “We published that paper in 2012 and we just got it done in March. It was a long road. We had to use all of the contacts we possibly could to convince science councils and others to use it.”

Bieniek credits James Partain of the NCDC’s National Centers for Environmental Information as being instrumental to the project’s acceptance.

According to Bieniek’s paper, the divisions were determined by analyzing “monthly average temperature data from 1977 to 2010 at a robust set of weather stations to develop climate divisions for the state ... divisional boundary lines were drawn that encompass the grouped stations by following major surrounding topographic boundaries.” 

Bieniek and his team collaborated with a varied group of government researchers to complete the project, including “a lot of people” from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offices throughout Alaska, according to Bieniek.

Fairbanks, which until the new climate divisions were drawn was included in a large zone taking up a central block of the state, now is considered part of the Southeast Interior division. According to the project webpages on the UAF website, “Climate divisions in Alaska were found to be heavily influenced by topography and proximity to coasts.”

Bieniek is excited to see how the data will be used in the future.

“We’re testing other research ideas. Can we use them to understand extreme climate events? If there’s a really hot summer, or a really warm month, or really wet month, can the divisions help tell us something about that? If a month is above or below normal — really far above normal — are we going to get a lot of wildfires?” Bieniek said.

The new divisions can be seen at sites.google.com/a/alaska.edu/climatedivisions

Contact Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.

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