Experts: Not to fear, early fall won’t mean long, cold season

Winter worries

Posted: Friday, August 19, 2005


  Fireweed tops out in Old Town Kenai Thursday afternoon. Fading foliage has some people preparing for winter but not everyone is convinced snow is on the way. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Fireweed tops out in Old Town Kenai Thursday afternoon. Fading foliage has some people preparing for winter but not everyone is convinced snow is on the way.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Flowers are blooming early, fireweed is going to seed and in some places trees are starting to change color — and it’s only mid-August.

But don’t worry. These signs are not a prediction that we’re about to be hit by an early winter, say experts.

“From the plants I’m seeing, I’d say they bloomed out because we’ve had such a fabulous summer,” said longtime Homer gardener and gardening columnist Rosemary Fitzpatrick. “Plants here are adapted to those damp, drizzly, cool summers we don’t get anymore. It’s been a great growing season and they’ve just gone as far as they can go. All we are seeing is that they’ve reached the end of their growing season. They’ve reached their potential.”

Alaskan gardeners don’t plant late bloomers like chrysanthemums and asters, which often grace East Coast gardens with blooms as late as October and November, she said.

“We haven’t picked up on trying to make that happen for us,” Fitzpatrick said, recommending that Alaskans should start thinking about doing so now that climate change appears to be dictating warmer, drier summers.

As for trees, some are starting to change color due to the stress of too little rain, she said.

Her own native spruce and larch trees are sprouting new growth late in the season, something she said she has never seen before. That new growth could fall victim to winter’s first chills, but that won’t harm the trees.

Alaska’s unusually warm summers the past few years are no illusion.

Mike Halpert, head of forecast operations at the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., said Alaska’s winters have been running warm lately.

The planet currently is not experiencing what meteorologists call “strong climate-forcing signals” like an El Nino or La Nina, conditions that affect the temperature of ocean water, which in turn has a large-scale influence over the atmosphere.

“Absent that, our forecasts generally reflect long-term trends,” Halpert said. “The forecast for the better part of Alaska (for the coming winter) is a tilt toward above normal temperatures.”

That doesn’t mean we won’t get cold snaps or even big dumps of snow. It does mean that, on average, temperatures will be a few degrees warmer, making for a generally mild Alaska winter in 2005-06, he said.

Halpert wasn’t surprised that gardeners like Fitzpatrick were seeing the effects of Alaska’s warmer summers on their plants. And like Fitzpatrick, he doesn’t see any reason to see that phenomenon as a portent of an early or particularly hard winter.

Plants, he said, “are reacting to what has already happened, not what is going to happen.”

For the Kenai Peninsula, especially the lower peninsula, proximity to the ocean will, as usual, tend to moderate winter temperatures. Ocean temperatures are well above normal now, which has contributed to the hot summer. As long as ocean temperatures remain elevated they should continue to send relatively warm air blowing toward shore.

The warmer winter trend has generally been felt over much of North America, but regional ups and downs are occurring, Halpert noted.

“There are no areas in the continental U.S. or Alaska that show a negative trend,” he said.

The climate oscillates on numerous cycles, he noted.

The Climate Prediction Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a Web site showing predictions for various regions that go out a year. Go to www.cpc.ncep.noaa. gov.

A map of Alaska that is found there shows that a wide swath of territory from Homer to Barrow can expect above-normal temperatures over the period covering December, January and February.

At no time is there a prediction for below normal temperatures associated with the Kenai Peninsula or Southcentral Alaska.

Longer range still, the center predicts another long, hot summer for Alaska next year.

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