Winter's open water raising concerns

Where's the ice?

Posted: Friday, March 02, 2001

Add this to the list of outdoor oddities caused by this year's ultra-mild winter: the big lakes and rivers of the Kenai Peninsula are still open.

Kenai, Tustumena and Skilak lakes, normally thoroughfares for snowmachiners and ice fishers this time of year, are open to hardy boaters and kayakers instead.

"This is the most unusual winter I can remember," said George Pollard, who has lived in Kasilof near Tustumena Lake for 65 years.

This is the first time that lake has stayed open that he can remember.

How rare an occurrence it is remains an open question, because it seems no one is keeping track scientifically of when the major waterways freeze or breakup. The U.S. Geological Survey maintains stream flow gauges along the Kenai River, but they do not indicate ice conditions.

Referring to the lack of information on this basic point, Robert Ruffner, of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said, "It is not surprising. In terms of long-term monitoring of the [Kenai] River, it is just not happening."

Steve Frenzel of the U.S.G.S. Anchorage office agreed.

"One of the problems is we only keep track of things other people pay us to keep track of," he said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this winter is as weird as it seems.

Chugach Electric, which has a hydroelectric plant on Kenai Lake, reported that this is the first time in at least a decade the lake has stayed open.

Matt Cooper, fisheries biologist at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, said he heard a rumor that the lake stayed open in 1979, but was unable to confirm it.

Cooper Landing native David Rhode, who has lived on the lake shore for four decades, said he remembers one winter when the ice didn't set in until March.

"But I can't recall a winter when it didn't freeze at all," he said.

When he was a child in the 1960s, it was traditional for residents to gather ice chunks during spring breakup to use in making homemade ice cream. In the 1970s, the lake usually was frozen by Thanksgiving, he recalled.

"Clearly, there has been a change going on," he said.

The lake is on the verge of freezing. Whenever there is a cold snap, it skims over with ice. But so far, the wind and sun always come up and sweep away the ice. Sometimes the interaction makes for unusual sound effects. Rhode described the wind shattering the ice after one cold night recently.

"It made a sound like a thousand wind chimes. It was like a symphony. It was so beautiful," he said.

Whether the open water will affect the area's legendary salmon stocks is also an open question.

Last week, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists were able to do plankton tows on lakes and collect rare winter data.

"When the lakes are frozen, we really don't know what goes on under there, so we don't have anything to compare it to," said sport fisheries biologist Jeff Breakfield.

Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said the warm winter could be good for fish.

"In general, it is a good thing," he said, noting that warmer temperatures would prompt earlier crops of plankton and insects for fish to eat.

Ruffner pointed out another factor working in the favor of fish this year. The ice usually cuts off new oxygen supplies and, as winters progress, organisms under ice have less and less oxygen. Without ice, the wind mixes the upper layers and the cold water absorbs new oxygen, he said.

The interaction of light with ice and liquid water is also a factor and may work for the benefit or detriment of fish and other freshwater critters.

Rhode reported that Kenai Lake, which in summers looks like turquoise cream because of glacial silt, is extraordinarily clear this time of year.

John Edmundson, another fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Soldotna, said the clear water helps photosynthesizing plankton grow. Lack of ice makes it easier for light to penetrate deeper in the water. Overall, an early spring should be good for salmon fry, he said.

"But if the warming causes more glacial melting, you could have the opposite effect," he warned.

Summer weather, the number of fish fry and other factors quickly complicate the analysis. The situation involves so many little-understood variables that what -- if anything -- will happen is anyone's guess.

Cooper discussed the implications of the ice-free winter with a variety of scientists, he said.

"Really, what they said is we have a lot of ideas what may happen. But the fact is we won't know the effects on salmon production until three to five years have passed."

He, too, lamented the lack of studies.

"This would be a real good year to get some of that information," he said.

West agreed.

"There are all kinds of interesting long-term questions to ask," he said.

The refuge is studying climate trends in the area. The scientists don't know if the open water is a fluke or a sign of things to come for the 21st century.

"Ask me again in 25 years, and I'll have a definitive answer," West said.

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