It’s hot in Homer

Sunday’s solstice officially marked the end of spring and beginning of summer. But for practical purposes, summer arrived early on the southern Kenai Peninsula, continuing the trend of record warm temperature anomalies.

Average Homer temperatures ran about 5 degrees Fahrenheit above long-term normal for the months of March through May, and June has been unusually warm, too.

The National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that Alaska will experience abnormally high temperatures at least through the summer.

On June 15, the thermometer at the official National Weather Service station at the Homer Airport hit 83 degrees, only one degree shy of the record high set on July 22, 2011. Since July is usually about 5 degrees warmer than June, this could be the year for a new record.

For area farmers, the warm weather is generally good news but not off the charts.

“We’ve had this type of weather in the past,” said Dave Schroer, who has grown gardens and an orchard in Kachemak City for about 40 years.

Paul Castellani of WillGrow Farm between Homer and Anchor Point said that despite the warm winter he ended up planting a bit later this year than last. The wet fall and hard freeze on snowless ground left the ground too cold and wet for an early start. Still, this growing season is balmy compared to the dank ones several years ago. In 2013, for example, he had to plant late.

Both Schroer and Castellani noted that the south peninsula’s weather is extremely variable and linked to natural cycles. 

Those cycles influence sea-surface temperatures, which in turn have a big impact on coastal communities. This is an El Nino year, with Pacific Ocean waters warm along the equator and off the west coast of North America from Mexico to Kodiak. Another cycle, called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, has been shown to alter the distribution and population of marine life.

The maritime climate makes Homer very different from places even a bit more landlocked, such as Sterling, which rates as the Siberia of the Kenai Peninsula for its temperature swings. Schroer said he lived and attempted to garden there during the 1950s. He saw temperatures in the 90s and frost in July.

Temperatures around Homer are relatively even and mild, but in recent decades the area has experienced cycles with far-reaching effects. The early 1990s saw the spruce-bark beetle epidemic ravage the spruce forests during a string of warm, dry summers.  Cool, damp weather followed. 

In a recent presentation to the Homer Garden Club, Schroer noted that the summer of 2008 was so cold that many perennial plants didn’t build up enough reserves to survive the hard winter that followed.

Castellani said that, with the warmer weather of the past two years, he is seeing more caterpillars. 

“The alders have really been suffering from some geometer moth,” he said.

The warmer weather is a boon for domesticated plants that are marginal in this climate, such as some of Schroer’s fruit trees. He takes notes on plant growth and weather over the years and finds that when his fruit trees bloom varies over 30 days depending on the weather. He has some cherries that flourished for a couple years about a decade ago when warm weather extended the growing season. Most years since, they haven’t gotten ripe. Although he’s reluctant to make predictions, he has high hopes for a bumper cherry crop again this year.

Although spring is usually the dry season around here, this May and June have had barely any rain. Schroer described the weather so far this growing season as “very, very dry” and noted that city water has been hauled in to keep the nearby golf course green.

The Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy reports several recent weather landmarks for Homer. At the official weather station at the Homer Airport, a new high for the month of March, 54 degrees, was recorded on the 18th. Then April set a new record for that month’s warmest average temperature (41.9 degrees) since records began in the 1930s. The center, at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, collects information on weather and climate impacts around the state.

The local weather aberrations take place in the wider context of natural cycles and unnatural trends. 

This spring, sensors and satellites show unusually low ice extent for the Arctic Ocean. 

Deadhorse, on the North Slope adjacent to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, saw its highest ever documented temperature, 82, on Sunday. Records there only date back 20 years, and the new high exceeded the previous high for that date by 14 degrees.

World news reports floods in Texas and lethal heat waves in India and Pakistan. Worldwide, it looks like this May was the warmest on record, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information website.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer who lives on the southern Kenai Peninsula.