Chilly, dry spring sets local record

High-pressure ridge behind unusual weather

Posted: Monday, May 06, 2002

Joan Heidersdorf usually can start to plant some early vegetable crops and flowers in her Mendenhall Valley garden in early May.

Not this year.

"I'm in a warm spot here and can plant earlier, but I've been waiting and waiting," she said. "Those frosts are pretty heavy at night. They just won't take it."

Heidersdorf isn't objecting to the sun, but wouldn't mind a little rain, she said.

"I can remember a lot of good weather, but not so long without rain," she said. "We'd always have a break with rain and we're not getting any of those nice rain breaks."

Her dilemma is the norm this spring. Juneau has seen unusually cold temperatures and the driest March and April on record, according to the National Weather Service.

"There's a ridge of high pressure that's been over us for the past month," said Jerry Painter, a meteorological technician with the National Weather Service's Juneau office.

Generally, this time of year, low pressure over the Gulf of Alaska would bring clouds and precipitation, Painter said. Instead, the high pressure system is keeping the airflow and the rain to the west.

"It keeps the airflow off shore, moving east to west, and it brings the Taku (winds) and the cold mornings," he said. "That's why it's so cold. We're getting Whitehorse air."

The average temperature in Juneau in March and April was 32 degrees, making it the sixth coldest spring on record, according to the National Weather Service. From March 1 to April 29, the Juneau Airport reported 1.8 inches of precipitation, an all-time low. The previous record was set in 1989 with 2.2 inches of precipitation.

Normally, Juneau would have received 7 inches of precipitation between March 1 and May 5. This year, the weather service measured just 1.93 inches. Since Jan. 1, Juneau has received 10.86 inches of precipitation. That's 5 fewer inches than normal.

"A lot of people are trying to tie it to El Niño," Painter said. "It's an El Niño year, which usually means it's drier and cooler here, but maybe not to this extreme."

Ed Buyarski, who owns Ed's Edible Landscaping and is a member of the Southeast Alaska Master Gardeners, is urging people to water their rhododendrons, evergreens and ornamental shrubs. From birds to skunk cabbage, everything seems to be two to three weeks behind, he said.

"We need rain," he said. "I hate to say that; we've gotten so much sunshine. I hope we haven't used up our quota for the summer. Still, it's really nice not wearing rain gear and boots everyday."

Buyarski said he's noticed some windburn and dry needles on local hemlock trees, but drumstick primula denticulata a common spring flower usually called pompom primroses don't seem to be harmed, he said.

Low water levels prompted Alaska Electric Light & Power to shut off surplus electricity to some customers last month. And Capitol City Fire & Rescue, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies have been dealing with an unusual number of brush and grass fires, said Dave Carr, a fire control officer with the Juneau Ranger District. He noticed humidity at a "very low" 13 percent at the district office weather station this weekend.

"Those grasses change rapidly in response to the humidity. When it dries out, it dries out really fast," he said. "The second thing is we haven't gotten any green up. We're starting to get some, but normally the dry grass is replaced with green grass."

Carr urges people to extinguish camp fires fully.

"It's a disaster waiting to happen," he said. "Put some water on, stir it up, put some more water on and stir it up."

As for local fish, low creeks could leave some stocks more susceptible to predators, said Juneau area sport fish management biologist Mark Schwan.

"We do have concerns about continued cold, dry weather affecting the opportunity for juvenile (salmon) to out-migrate and the steelhead to get in," he said.

Jack Marshall, a Mendenhall Valley retiree and sport angler, echoed his concerns.

"I enjoy the weather, but I'm a little worried about it," he said. "We need the rain in order to have the good fishing, but on the other side of it, it's always nice to have this sunshine. There's positive and negative benefits to all this."

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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