Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summer Bummers

The summer so far in south-central Alaska has been filled with clear skies and hot temperatures, but our cooling winds have brought more harm than good.  There are always pluses and minuses in each area of Alaska when it comes to choosing a place to live or just to visit. There are mountain ranges, elevation, waterways, fault lines, glaciers, mountain passes and road conditions to consider just for starters. Each area of Alaska offers a unique climate, landscape and hazards. 

I consider south-central Alaska to be one of the best places in the state to enjoy spring and early summer weather during the month of May. Before Memorial Day, skies are usually clear and the weather is warm. This year was no exception, hitting 90° and above, making it one of the hottest months in my memory for the area. Other areas of Alaska experienced more of the same with nine towns reporting record temperatures for the month of May. Our northernmost settlement, Barrow, is usually below 30°, but reported temperatures nearing 50°. Good luck to the polar bears. Elsewhere in the Interior, Delta Junction experienced 90° weather in May, then got a shocking, measurable snowstorm which cut power to 360 residents on June 1. Many other towns around the state added May to the books as their top five hottest May on record. To have temperatures hitting 90° this early in the season seems crazy. The village of Eagle reported 91° on May 23 and a week later it was 28°. 

You also have to understand that with a state as large as Alaska, it is unusual to have settlements from Barrow to Annette experiencing record warm weather at the same time. There are so many factors to consider which influence temperatures across the state. South-central Alaska seems to turn green and experience warmer weather quicker than areas farther south in the state. Coastal areas have to consider Ocean currents which may bring colder weather. If you choose an area like Eagle River, you will experience more snowfall in the winter due to the direction of the mountain passage. If you live in Palmer or surrounding areas, dry, windy weather brings respiratory problems. The blowing silt from the glacial bed of the Matanuska River sends extremely high amounts of granite particles into the air, bringing the air-quality way down. Clear blue skies become hazy and white with the granite particles. Residents of the area around the rivers should be wearing some type of respiratory mask, but I never see anyone doing this. I stayed indoors during the worst periods, but I was still experiencing sinus and respiratory problems.
Blowing silt obstructs clear views of Pioneer Peak and surround areas of the Matanuska
River during dry, windy weather.
On the nicer days I retreated to upper elevations, like nearby Hatcher Pass. The subalpine levels still had a little snow and had Spring had just begun. Wildflowers had begun popping up everywhere and I spent my days photographing these tiny bits of color on the mountain slopes. I'm always amazed at the variety of plant life on these sometimes inhospitable mountainsides. I've heard many visitors to the state say how surprised they were at how many flowers we have. They had assumed that with such a cold state, we would have few wildflowers. In actuality, Alaska's mild temperatures and diverse landscapes offer wildflowers the best growing conditions. From a distance, sub-alpine and alpine tundra may look the same, but upon closer inspection you can see thousands of tiny wildflowers of many colors. I spotted about a dozen different wildflowers in one location at the mid-level elevations of Hatcher Pass during the last week of May. All the people below in the Valley may have been wearing shorts and tank tops, the snowy slopes of upper elevations required more clothing.

Upper elevations in Hatcher Pass, June 1st,
Green has only started to appear,

Baneberry blossoms and background Nootka Lupine
 June 1st in the mid-elevations of Hatcher Pass. Plants
are several feet tall.
On May 17, I made a trip up towards the Matanuska Glacier, the green leaves disappearing as I got closer. Once the glacier came into view, most foliage became brown. Just 30 miles away, the seasons were two weeks apart. Areas like this mean you will have one month less of summer a year. That's pretty significant for a state with 3-4 month summers. In the southwest area of the state, Bristol Bay, it was also still cold and brown. Interior areas of the state tend to have larger settlements in valleys, where growing seasons are longer and weather is more stable. Anchorage sits in a kind of sweet spot, with Cook Inlet on one side and the Chugach Range on the other. One main fault of the city is its unstable soil along the inlet, creating a danger of soil liquification during an earthquake. The other huge fault is a lack of space and housing, especially affordable housing. There is no sales tax in Anchorage, and no state tax, leaving the burden to property owners, which makes owning a home in Anchorage a bad investment. At the end of a 30 year mortgage, the home owner will have paid well over the assessed value of the home between the regular mortgage, property taxes and interest. 
A hike along Pinochle Creek trail near the
Matanuska Glacier May 17.
Trees have only just started turning green.

May 12 walk near Palmer. A lot of early green.
For those of us along the glacial rivers and streams, beside the hazards of blowing silt, we also always have the worries of flooding. Warmer temperatures melt the glaciers faster, causing these rivers to swell to dangerous levels. Houses are swept away and roadways shut down. Roads in Alaska are costly and if it's a main highway, like the Glenn, which runs alongside the Matanuska River, it's also a main artery to many Alaska residents. This past year, the Dalton, which is used by the "Ice Road Truckers" to provide necessary supplies to Prudhoe Bay, was shut down due to unusual flooding and thawing and refreezing of the "Sag" River. The delays were very costly and the state had no choice but to declare it a disaster, to receive federal funding for the damages and delays to truckers. In 2014, the Richardson Highway, once again a main artery and the only road into Valdez, was shut down for a long period due to unusually warm weather which caused massive snow melt and avalanches in the Keystone Canyon and the subsequent flooding of the Lowe River. That section of roadway had just been restored from another recent bout with flooding of the same river. 

Even with all of these "inconveniences", I still prefer Alaska to many other states. I may have a slight worry about earthquakes, but you can choose not to live on top of a fault line. There may be flooding, but you can choose not to live in an area which won't wash away. Avalanches happen, but there are precautionary measures to be taken if you and your government are smart enough. The problem is usually our government. Short term solutions and lack of foresight as well as bad spending cause most problems, not the weather. I'm glad I don't have to worry about droughts, tornadoes and major hurricanes. There's just one worry all U.S. citizens share and it's always watching us, telling us how to make our money, spend it and taking half.  It's no wonder people come here to seek a little cabin deep in the wilderness and live off the land. It sounds like paradise to me.

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