Warm winter effects mixed

Warm thaws are common during coastal winters, but the season was unusual not only for record warmth but also for its persistence and being the second very warm winter in a row. 

The extreme temperatures could influence fire risk, erosion and wildlife. Rainfall this spring will be a big factor in determining what happens next.

In hindsight, the weather already has influenced the natural ecology and the human economy.

The dearth of snow caused winter sports enthusiasts and related businesses well-known inconvenience. But their loss was a gain to local governments facing tight budgets.

Carey Meyer, the City of Homer public works director, confirmed that the weather saved the city significant money normally spent on fuel and snow removal. 

“Definitely our over-time budget has been conserved,” he said. “And I’m sure we’re not using as much fuel, because the graders are sitting in the shed.”

Much of the city’s costs are personnel, so the savings are limited. But the weather freed up staff to work proactively on projects that improve efficiency like clearing ditches, housekeeping chores and deferred maintenance. The city, like residents, saved on heating fuel as well with both lower prices and reduced consumption. 

It is too early to quantify the net savings, Meyer said.

For plants and animals outdoors, the weather’s effects are mixed, complex and unpredictable.

Small changes in winter temperature cause big changes in nature because often the peninsula’s temperatures hover near the freezing point, but this is not new.

Winters in the area are variable and native species adapted to erratic freezes, local naturalists said.

Moose, in general, do well. 

“They are probably in a little better shape than usual,” said Thomas McDonough, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who surveys the big herbivores. “But it’s not Shangri-La.” 

Although moose could move more easily and access browse, its food value is poor. Moose tend to lose weight all winter. The warmth may allow more yearlings to survive and pregnant cows to produce healthier calves, especially if green-up comes early. 

But for now, some of last-year’s calves still are starving, he said.

Other wild animals may suffer from the high temperatures. Earlier in the winter, there were reports of bears wandering around instead of denning. Animals that turn white for the season, such as snowshoe hares, ermine and ptarmigan, are vulnerable on the brown landscape.

Some small creatures, such as voles and insects, rely on snow for insulation. John Morton, the supervisory fish and wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said that the mid-March cold snap may have killed many little critters. When temperatures turn frigid, they need about a foot and half of snow for protection, he said.

Wild birds travel widely in reaction to weather conditions. Birders reported unusual sightings this winter: species from afar, summer birds that never went south and avian visitors that usually winter elsewhere. People saw swans and heard unseasonable bird songs, such as the trill of the varied thrush.

“It’s certainly an unusual winter,” said Dave Erikson, a long-time local birder. He reported many robins. In past winters, robins were seen sporadically, but now they winter in Homer by the hundreds. 

Ornamental shrubs, open water and ice-free feeding areas like Mud Bay seem to attract birds, he said. Among the visitors were ducks such as widgeons and shovelers. Many traveled only short distances, coming from regular wintering spots such as the south side of Kachemak Bay or the Gulf of Alaska coast, usually warmer than Homer. “We’re sort of getting Kodiak weather,” Erikson said.

Weather has a huge impact on insects, but we know too little to predict how they will react here, said Matt Bowser, the entomologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He cited a species of mosquito that uses snowmelt puddles for its larval stage in the spring as one that might be scarcer this year. The cold snaps probably killed some insects due to the lack of snow or because they emerged too early. 

“A lot of things have woken up early,” he said.

A subtler problem is what Bowser called “trophic mismatch” — when the seasonal timing of insects and their prey are no longer synched. 

Cues may differ, for example, if warmth makes insects hatch early, but plants they need don’t bud out until later when the days are longer. But he is confident that most native insects will survive due to their genetic variability, rapid reproduction and huge populations. 

“They are very adaptable,” he said.

Plants can’t relocate like animals do, but they have their own ways to cope with unpredictable weather. Native plants are adapted to diverse years, but domesticated ones often are not.

Rita Jo Shoultz, a long-time resident and horticulturist, said that parts of her garden were greening up and friends reporting wild violets blooming. Other plants, such as trees and lilacs, seem to be waiting for a safer time to bud. Some wild plants will sprout and bloom early in mild weather, she said, but also stop blooming and go dormant after a set time span. 

Introduced plants, in contrast, often bloom until frost, and perennials may have trouble building up enough starch reserves to survive the winter. The longer growing season associated with mild winters helps them, and she notices many plants thriving and proliferating in the warmer weather.

Shoultz cultivates and sells peonies, and last year’s warmth created a problem. The plants flourished and bloomed 19 days early. That conflicted with the niche marketing of Alaska peonies, which relies on shipping prime flowers during weeks when they are unavailable elsewhere. Early flowers presented growers with a dilemma: put them in cold storage at risk of deterioration, or ship them early to compete against flowers grown elsewhere at lower cost.

Shoultz expects the same problem this year and is resigned to more storage. 

“I’m nervous, but I’m not scared,” she said. “Last year, I was freaking out.”

Nobody knows what will happen next. But what most worries observers is not peony prices but rather wildlands fire risk. With no snowpack to wet the ground, sunny skies could convert the landscape into a tinderbox.

We could get into extreme fire conditions very early, said Paul Pellegrini, the fire prevention officer at the state forestry office in Soldotna. He explained that no snow means last year’s dead grass is still standing. That grass is spreading on the southern peninsula after the spruce-bark beetle infestation killed off local forests. It dries out quickly and is extremely flammable.

Trees, too, could be at higher risk. Jane Middleton, a retired biologist and long-time resident, noted that lack of snowmelt can dehydrate trees. That makes them more vulnerable to both fires and insect infestations, which thrive in warmer weather. Bowser noted that spruce-bark beetles remain active locally, but at background rather than epidemic levels. 

He reported that peninsula birch trees, also, show signs of stress related to warm, dry weather.

Past wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula occurred north of the Sterling Highway. But in recent decades they came south and now occur even in the Homer area. Fires also start earlier. The earliest documented south peninsula wildfire began March 12, 2003, just north of Anchor Point, Pellegrini said. In 2006, the state changed its annual mobilization of fire-fighting resources from May 1 to April 1 to adapt.

Pellegrini warned that people burning debris cause most peninsula fires. Many people have been burning this winter, and the snowless conditions make it more likely that such fires will escape into surrounding vegetation or hide smoldering ashes that can reignite long after the fire seems out. People need burn permits as of April 1.

The weather anomaly also could increase bluff erosion, said Steve Baird, a research analyst at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. Deep cold would immobilize frozen soil in winter. Whether thawed soil will crumble often depends on how much water seeps through it. The lack of snowmelt, if coupled with dry weather, could slow erosion. But a wet spring, while reducing fire risk, could foster more erosion of the warm ground, he said.

If such mild winters persist, far-reaching changes to the natural system are likely. McDonough confirmed that biologists worry that parasites or diseases could spread into peninsula wildlife with dire consequences, although they have not yet detected any.  Bowser noted that new species from far away already are showing up here. Ecologists such as Morton predict more wildfires, fewer trees and new species.

“Sometimes we have to just wait and see,” said Middleton. “In the long term, I think we’re in for some major changes.”

Shana Loshbaugh is a freelance writer who lives on the southern Kenai Peninsula. Her background includes biology, history and journalism.