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The World’s Northernmost Permanent Settlement Set a Record High Temperature

The military installation of Alert on Ellesmere Island, 600 miles from the North Pole, hit 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit last week

Former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson visits Alert on a much cooler day in 2010. (US Embassy Canada)
smithsonian.com

Last week, Environment Canada, the country's national weather agency, confirmed that Alert, Nunavut, the most northerly permanently inhabited spot on Earth, hit 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) on July 14, the highest temperature ever recorded there. The heat was well above the average July high of 44.6 degrees, while average lows hover around the freezing mark. The following day was warm as well, reaching similar temperatures.

“It’s really quite spectacular,” David Phillips, chief climatologist for Environment Canada, tells Bob Weber at the Canadian Press. “This is unprecedented.”

Alert is not a village or town, but rather a Canadian Armed Forces facility at the tip of Ellsemere Island, roughly 600 miles from the North Pole. The outpost is tasked with intercepting radio signals, primarily from Russia. About 100 people are stationed there year round, and a weather station at the base has collected data since 1950.

Tyler Hamilton, a meteorologist at the Weather Network points out that while a nice, 70-degree day would be welcome in most places in North America, it’s an inferno in Alert, far above the Arctic circle at 82 degrees latitude. It’s the equivalent of New York hitting 111 degrees or Miami reaching 118. This month is the first time that a temperature above 68 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded north the 80 degree latitude line. The previous record was also set in Alert in 1956, when temperatures hit 68 degrees. Since 2012, the news agency AFP reports, Alert has seen several days between 66.2 and 68 degrees.

Hamilton explains that the Arctic heat was likely caused by an area of high pressure sitting north of Greenland that has created an atmospheric blocking pattern, preventing cool Arctic air from reaching Nunavut. At the same time, a current of warmer air pushed north into the remote region, creating balmy Arctic days.

While the temperature spike could be a one-off weather event, this year it appears to be part of a trend of concerning changes in the Arctic. “It’s quite phenomenal as a statistic. It’s just one example among hundreds and hundreds of other records established by global warming,” Armel Castellan, a meteorologist at the Canadian environment ministry, tells the AFP.

Alert is not alone in setting records this year. Alaska is seeing unprecedented warm weather, including temperatures 20 degrees Fahrenheit above average in March, and Anchorage topped 90 degrees for the first time ever this month. Over 100 wildfires have burned above the Arctic circle since June, releasing more CO2 so far than all the Arctic wildfires between 2010 and 2018 combined, reports Andrew Freedman at the Washington Post.

The heat is likely to continue for the rest of the summer, and temperature records are likely to continue to be broken by large margins in coming years. “That's what we’re seeing more often,” Phillips at Environment Canada tells Weber. “It’s not just half a degree or a 10th of a millimeter. It’s like hitting a ball out of the ballpark. It is so different than what the previous record was. Our models for the rest of the summer are saying, ‘Get used to it.’”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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