America's Northernmost Town Won't See the Sun Until January, But It's On Pace For a Record Warm Year

Brian Donegan and Jonathan Erdman
Published: November 19, 2019

Residents of America's northernmost town, Utqiaġvik, Alaska – formerly known as Barrow – watched the sun dip below the horizon for the final time in 2019 Monday, marking the beginning of its polar night, 65 consecutive days of near-darkness in this city north of the Arctic Circle.

The sun set Monday at 1:50 p.m. local time, and won't rise again in this town along the Arctic coast 500 miles northwest of Fairbanks until Jan. 23. Alaska Standard Time is four hours behind Eastern Standard Time.

The farther north of the Arctic Circle, the longer the polar night, which ranges 27 days in Arctic Village to 65 days in Utqiaġvik.

That doesn't mean Utqiaġvik and areas north of the Arctic Circle are now plunged into complete darkness.

"Civil twilight," defined as the point when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon, allows sufficient light to see objects outside. Civil twilight is about 6 hours long near the beginning and end of polar night, but shrinks to about 3 hours in the heart of the polar night just before Christmas.

During the Northern Hemisphere's fall and winter, the sun's most direct rays shine over areas between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, about 23.5 degrees south latitude.

From mid-November through late January, the sun doesn't rise north of the Arctic Circle due to the tilt of the Earth away from the sun's most direct radiation.

Because the Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the sun in the fall and winter, areas north of the Arctic Circle – within 23.5 degrees of the North Pole – experience more than two months when the sun never pops above the horizon.

The opposite occurs from mid-May through early August, when the sun doesn't set for more than two months north of the Arctic Circle. Next year, this will occur from the last sunrise May 10 until the first sunset Aug. 1 in Utqiaġvik.

(MORE: How Alaskans Cope with Two Months of All-Day Daylight

A Record Warm Year

It may be 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but record warmth has been the story this year on Alaska's North Slope.

Through Nov. 17, it has been the warmest year to date on record in Utqiaġvik, over 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the same period three years ago, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

The persistence of the warmth has been remarkable.

Through Nov. 18, Utqiaġvik has had 147 straight days warmer than average, according to data from the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, an extraordinarily long warm or cold streak. Its last cooler than average day was June 24.

Utqiaġvik had a record warm March, its record earliest in season high in the 70s (73 degrees on June 20), a record warm July and September. It had a high temperature reaching the freezing mark as late as Veterans Day, a time during which the average high is in the single digits.

This is representative of much of Alaska, which had its second warmest January-October period on record, according to NOAA.

The lack of sea ice contributed to the warmth this fall. That means more of the sun's energy is absorbed by the ocean, rather than reflected from ice cover. That, in turn, keeps the air above the sea warmer than it would be over ice.

Over the past several days, sea ice has finally begun to form closer to the North Slope coast from Utqiaġvik westward.

However, a large expanse of the Chukchi Sea northwest of Utqiaġvik remained ice-free, as of Nov. 18. That's the least mid-November ice extent in 40 years of records.

The Beaufort Sea northeast of Utqiaġvik almost fully iced over just a week ago. That's now occurring almost a month later than it did in the 1980s, according to Rick Thoman, a meteorologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

While temperatures along the North Slope have finally cooled toward some sense of November normalcy, it appears likely 2019 will be the warmest year on record in Utqiaġvik. The three warmest years are 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.


The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.