By Jenny Neyman
2008 in Alaska could officially be termed “The Summer the Sun Forgot.” The average temperature from May through August was 52.5 degrees, making it the coolest summer on record since 1982. Overall, 2008 was Alaska’s coolest year since 1999, according to the National Weather Service.
2009 is shaping up to be a little better. Perhaps, “The Summer the Sun at Least Had the Courtesy to Stop By for a Brief Visit?”
Nate Hardin, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast office in Anchorage, said Alaska is in the midst of another La Nina year, which has a cooling effect on the state.
“We’re in a slight La Nina, which we were in last year, but not nearly as intense. So, generally, you expect a higher probability of some cool weather condition,” Hardin said.
In a La Nina, cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific cause a semipermanent, low-pressure system in Alaska, mainly along the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, to intensify, which results in cooler conditions, Hardin said. Last year’s La Nina effect was stronger than this year’s is expected to be, so Alaska should be in for only a slightly cooler than usual summer.
“There’s pretty much a usual chance of precipitation. Should be slightly lower-than-normal average temperatures,” Hardin said. “By below average, you’re maybe talking, if you average out the whole summer, talking a quarter to a half degree below the normal average, so not real perceptible. Even with that, we will still have periods where temperatures are higher than average and couple days lower than average.”
On the bright (although not literally) side of a cooler summer is lower fire danger. For most places in Alaska, that is. For the Kenai Peninsula? Not so much.
The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center just released its Alaska Seasonal Fire Weather/Fire Danger Outlook for 2009. In it is a map of Alaska, covered almost entirely in a friendly green shade indicating below-normal fire danger, due to below-average forecast temperatures, above-average forecast precipitation and normal to above-normal snowpack. The one area of the state that stands out in red as having a hazardous fuels warning is Southcentral Alaska, mainly the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, the Anchorage Hillside, and the western portion of the Kenai Peninsula.
Hans Rinke, fresh on the job from Colorado as Kenai-Kodiak area forester for the Division of Forestry, said the Kenai Peninsula’s hazard comes from its abundance of dangerous fuels.
“With the effects of the spruce bark beetle epidemic and just dealing with dead and down trees, along with a much heavier grass component than usual. The combination of both of those have resulted in a recent evolution in the fuel type,” Rinke said.
“(The western peninsula) is probably not more careless than anywhere else, but definitely those fuels combined with a high recreation area. There’s just a lot of people in the woods, basically, and very flashy fuels.”
If the summer does end up being a light duty one for local fire crews, that will give them an opportunity to do wildfire prevention work, like putting in fire breaks and defensible spaces, Rinke said. But crews may be called to fires elsewhere in the state or nation.
Rinke said burn permits have been required since April 1, and it’s well past time to start being particularly cautious of wildfires.
“You should be worrying now,” Rinke said. “The caveat to that grassy fuel type is it only takes a day or two of just windy conditions to dry that top grass layer out. If you have exposed dead grass, there’s potential for fire and fire spread.”
In 2008, there had already been 12 significant wildfires by April 1 in Alaska. Although the most overall acres burned in the state in any one month last year was in July, with just over 45,000 acres, May had the greatest number of fires, with more than 120. One of those was the Homestead Fire outside Ninilchik, which burned from May 19 to May 28 and scorched 260 acres. Lightning activity also typically begins in May, which could keep Forestry crews hopping.
“It will be what it will be, and we’ll be ready,” Rinke said.
A slightly cooler than average summer won’t have much effect on spruce bark beetles, Rinke said. Even if it’s a slow fire season, crews may get ahead of some of the damage already caused by the beetles, but won’t get a respite from further infestations.
Mosquitoes, black flies and other bugs also aren’t expected to be impacted by this year’s weather, said Dr. David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.
“I suspect it probably won’t have much of an effect at all. If it is a wetter year, you might get more places where mosquitoes could complete their life cycle, other than that, probably nothing that would cause any change,” Wartinbee said.
Temperature and light are the cues organisms use to time their life cycles, and significantly warmer or cooler seasons could affect activity. On the North Slope, dragonflies have been known to take two years to complete their life cycle, due to the cold, Wartinbee said. And in warm years, insects may reproduce more than once, like midges can do on the Kenai, he said.
But a slightly cooler, wetter summer shouldn’t have an impact on insects. If nothing else, residents can stock up on long sleeves and bug repellent with all the money saved from shorts and sunscreen.