Record highs make 2004 a summer to remember

Posted: Monday, September 13, 2004

Salmon swam up streams they weren't born in.

Southeast Alaska fishermen shrugged off their raincoats and rejoiced in balmy weather.

A mountain on Prince of Wales Island sizzled at 103 degrees.

And glaciers calved and melted away like there was no tomorrow.

For these reasons and more, the summer of 2004 in Southeast Alaska will not soon be forgotten.

"It's the kind of summer where you see bizarre stuff and you wonder what possibly could have happened," said John Burke, general manager of Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association in Ketchikan.

While residents, fishermen and tourists crowed in delight at the record-setting warm weather, the Southeast environment took a hit from unusually hot and dry conditions.

Some are pointing to global climate change as the reason for what has been a 60-year warming trend in Juneau.

"Juneau is definitely warming, whether the cause is natural or man-made," said Michael Mitchell, National Weather Service meteorologist.

From May to August, air temperatures hit record highs throughout Southeast Alaska and many communities, such as Haines, experienced extremely low rainfall.

Burke saw a small stream near a hatchery close to Ketchikan reach 82 degrees - lethal for any fish. He saw salmon lurking at the mouths of such streams, waiting for critical conditions to improve upstream at their spawning beds.

"All of the streams down here went to a trickle," Burke said.

Somehow sensing that their island streams were dry, many salmon turned tail for mainland streams, where water conditions were slightly better.

Typically low-producing streams, such as Sheep Creek in Juneau, got a surprise influx of pink salmon that clearly were not born there.

"It was very unusual to see fish there," said Eric Presteguard, executive director of the DIPAC hatchery.

As a result of the weather, many pink, chum and coho salmon ran to their Southeast streams much later than usual. There, they waited. Fishermen and hatchery owners noted that they lurked in deeper, colder water where nets and hooks could not reach them as easily.

At least one oyster farm in Southeast Alaska is shut down because of an outbreak of the diahhrea-causing bacteria Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

In Prince of Wales Island's Staney Creek, the Alaska Department of Fish of Game recorded a series of temperature-related fish kills totaling 20,000 dead fish. Their surveys also showed stranded coho fry, unable to reach the ocean because of insufficient melt water.

State officials said in spite of the large kills, they do not expect a major impact on major commercial fisheries.

Glaciers melting, rivers roaring

This summer, rain and snow-fed streams suffered from extremely low flows but glacier-fed water bodies such as the Mendenhall River thundered with an unusually high glacial melt water.

"We expect this to be an extraordinary summer for most of the glaciers in Alaska," said Dennis Trabant, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which annually measures the accumulation and loss of ice from glaciers in the Alaska Range. Trabant will measure the ice at the Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers and publish results within weeks.

The Mendenhall Glacier calved extensively all summer long and retreated about 650 feet. About 50 feet of ice melted from the top of the glacier at its terminus.

"The whole Mendenhall is thinning amazingly," said Roman Motyka, a glaciologist with the University of Alaska-Southeast.

Lemon Creek Glacier is in the process of "wasting away to nothing," Motyka said.

He said Juneau's snow line is the highest he's seen in years.

"I would imagine it's up above 1,200 meters (4,000 feet)," he said.

The Mendenhall River benefited from the glacier melt. In May, the Mendenhall flowed 78 percent higher than normal. In June, it flowed 40 percent above normal. In July, it flowed 25 percent above normal.

"That is kind of significant," said Ed Neal, a hydrologist at the Geological Survey's Water Research Station in Juneau.

Local angler Brad Elfers said he had to go looking for fish in new spots this summer. "The trout were not in the riffles, which were about 6 inches deep. They dropped into the holes," he said.

Elfers had better luck finding fish in the glacier-fed streams, but sometimes the flows were so turbulent that those streams were difficult to fish.

But his weirdest experience was fishing the Hasselborg Lake on Admiralty Island. "We had to go to full sinking lines, down 50 feet, to find fish. They were hiding out way down deep."

That day, the lake's surface temperature was in the mid-70s.

"That had to be darn near record temperatures," Elfers said.

Going with the flow

Despite the unusual summer conditions, biologist Scott Kelley isn't worried yet about future harm to area fisheries.

"The overall impact will be insignificant," said Kelley, the regional commercial fisheries management biologist for Southeast Alaska.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists noticed a "higher than normal" level of pre-spawning salmon mortality this summer, he said, but they also noted an unusual effort by salmon to surmount their stream problems - such as waiting for rainfall to fill their streams or traveling to other streams to spawn.

"These animals are very impressive in their ability to respond to whatever nature throws at them," Kelley said.

Every summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Games surveys 718 of Southeast Alaska's 2,500 pink-salmon producing streams. The agency also surveys coho and king salmon-producing streams.

Kelley said he will be watching for possible consequences of the warm temperatures on the 2004 generation of salmon. Negative impacts could include reduced viability of male salmon milt and possible early emergence of salmon before their food sources are available.

Salmon are more prone to diseases when they are born in stressful conditions, biologists said.

But several fishermen contacted by the Empire said they've worried for little reason in previous harsh summers.

Owyhee pink salmon seiner Scott McAllister said he enjoyed the balmy weather.

"I hauled gear without my rain gear," he said. "It was great."

"This isn't the first time we've had an event like this. I think it was 1987 when the country dried up and blew away. Everybody speculated we'd have (a poor salmon harvest) but the progeny year was huge in 1989," he said.

"Mother Nature is a lot more resilient in these situations than we think," McAllister said.

Weather records broken or nearly broken in Juneau and other Southeast communities.

• Juneau's 2004 four-month summer average temperature of 57.1 degrees is the warmest since 1946, when record-keeping began.

• Juneau's summer daily high average temperature of 67 degrees is the highest on record.

• Juneau had a record number of days above 70 degrees - 42. The old record was 32 days in 1948.

• Juneau had a record number of 80-degree days - 12. The previous record was seven days in 1951.

• Annette Island near Ketchikan recorded an all-time daily high record temperature of 93 degrees on June 19.

• A mountain weather station on Prince of Wales Island recorded 103 degrees, which exceeds the official statewide record temperature of 100 degrees at Fort Yukon in 1915.

• Haines had only 2.96 inches of rain in the 2004 summer season.

Source: National Weather Service

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