City Wilds

Bill Sherwonit





It wasn’t so long ago, only a few weeks in fact, that Anchorage residents were talking about the beautiful summer weather, the lovely mid-60s warmth and bright blue skies. But by the last week of June, perspectives had shifted considerably as we entered a record-breaking heat wave. Instead of gorgeous days, people began complaining about the sweltering heat, made worse by smoke from the Kenai Peninsula’s Swan Lake fire. Then, on July 4, Anchorage experienced its hottest day on record, one that shattered a 50-year-old record: 90 degrees at the airport. Ninety degrees!

The current heat wave—expected to ease some by the end of this week—got me thinking about what an odd streak of weather we’ve had this year, both in Anchorage and around the state.

Since March, we’ve experienced five straight months of unusual—and sometimes unprecedented—weather “events.” It began with March’s record-setting heat. In Anchorage we set daily record highs seven times, but that was nothing compared to other places. Deadhorse, for example, averaged 8 degrees above zero for the month—or 23 degrees above normal—and on several days the industrial community next to Prudhoe Bay’s oilfields was 30 to 40 degrees above normal. Statewide temperatures averaged about 27 degrees, 4 degrees above the previous record, set in 1953. As climatologist Brian Brettschneider commented, “We’re not just eking past records, this is obliterating records.”

More inside

Here in Anchorage, we also experienced the fourth earliest “snowmelt” on record, when on March 30, meteorologists measured less than one inch of snow at Anchorage’s international airport.

That record didn’t last long, though, because in April our community officially received more than twice the “normal” amount of snow, 8.6 inches (the average being 3.9 inches). Not a record, but way above normal. That same month, the Nenana Ice Classic ended on the earliest date in its 102-year history, April 14 (the old record being April 20).

Then May arrived, bringing unexpected rainfall—and the start of an abnormal series of thunderstorms. By the end of month, Anchorage had received a 2.17 inches of rain. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it beat the old record of 1.93 inches, set in 1989. And it was significantly higher than normal: on average, our city receives only 0.7 inches of precipitation in May.

The city’s first thunderstorm of the season occurred on May 16, unusually early. By June 11, four had passed through town. Again, highly unusual. Only once in the past 60 years has Anchorage experienced more (six, in 2005); the average is one or two, according to Brettschneider. And the thunderstorm season still has weeks to go.

Paradoxically, June also brought dry weather and the start of our current heat wave, culminating in July Fourth’s 90-degree scorcher. Despite the thunderstorms that boomed above Anchorage and the neighboring Chugach Mountains, by the end of June, only 0.06 inches of rain had officially fallen on Anchorage; that’s right, six one-hundredths of an inch, barely a sprinkle, at least at the west end of town where weather records are recorded.

Much of the rest of the state—and its offshore waters—were sweltering, too. Among the more ominous readings: sea-surface temperatures along Alaska’s northern coasts were up to 9 degrees above the 1981-2010 average. As climatologist Rich Thoman put it, “The northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas are baking.”

Anyone who follows the news is also aware of other extraordinary occurrences in Alaska’s offshore waters, including “unusual mortality events” involving whales, seals, seabirds, mussels, and krill (tiny shrimplike organisms). As Mike Brubaker, director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Center for Climate and Health has commented, “An ecosystem scale event seems to be playing out.”

In other words, what’s happening is huge—and scary in its implications.

All of this is disconcerting to anyone who cares about the world we inhabit—and also the lives and lifestyles of many Alaskans, particularly those who live along, or near, our Arctic coastline. But it’s not surprising. In fact, all of these unusual events are, in some sense, predictable, based on scientific models that forecast the effects of climate change, namely an increase in unusual—and ever more extreme—“events.”

Here’s where I’ll transition from unusual weather events to even stranger politics—and strangest of all, what you might call the current “politics of place.”

Many knowledgeable people who’ve been paying attention to extreme weather events across our state and country and around the world warn that we’ve already moved from climate change to climate crisis. Sadly—and outrageously—neither our president nor our governor are among them. In fact both of them remain climate change “deniers.”

Among his earliest actions as governor, Dunleavy abolished the state’s “Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team” and removed its website. He also infamously said, “I think we have a lot of issues that, in my opinion, are quite frankly and bluntly more important than the climate task force.”

For instance, $3,000 PFDs, governor?

Perhaps we Alaskans shouldn’t have been shocked when Dunleavy slashed some $444 million from the legislature’s proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year, in order to pay for those dividend checks while “balancing the budget.” He’s made his priorities clear: no new taxes; big PFD payments using the state’s outdated—and potentially ruinous—formula; and little or no apparent concern for education, public safety in our state’s rural (and mostly Alaska Native) communities, or social programs that benefit the least powerful and most needy among us.

In short, state services will be sacrificed for large PFD payments that many of our state’s residents don’t really need to balance their own personal budgets. Oh, and by the way, the “shared” sacrifice does not include the oil and gas industry, which continues to benefit from tax breaks that might be called bribes of a sort, to keep those companies here.

That, of course, is in keeping with our governor’s motto that “Alaska is open for business.” Old-fashioned, resource-extraction business, one might add.

Our governor’s cozy relationship with corporate interests also helps explain his veto of a program that requires no state funding at all, the state’s Ocean Ranger monitoring of cruise ships, paid by the industry. All that veto does is make it easier for cruise ships to ignore pollution-control regulations.

I might add here that cuts to the University of Alaska’s budget will almost certainly curtail work done at the Alaska Center Climate Assessment and Policy, which climatologist Thoman has called the “primary academic center in the United States doing Arctic research . . . No other institution in Alaska can do this work.”

To call Dunleavy’s budget vetoes draconian, shortsighted, and wrong-headed is to go easy on our governor. In my view they are mean-spirited, heartless, even immoral. They show a man who — like our president — is stuck in his thinking, incapable of considering other, more compassionate, possibilities.

Dunleavy’s hard-line and hard-headed stance reminds me of the William Blake quote, “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”

I’m encouraged that many Alaskans, covering most of our state’s political spectrum, including fiscal conservatives and business owners, have pointedly and loudly resisted our governor’s vetoes—and the limited, harmful vision he’s shown.

This is a governor who seems to care nothing about the greater good, but would rather appease his core faithful and their sense of entitlement to big PFD paydays. I’ve long supported PFD payments, especially when a progressive income tax is something our state’s so-called political leaders won’t even consider, but not at any cost.

As I write this, it remains to be seen whether the Alaska Legislature includes enough regressive thinkers and narrow-minded, hard-hearted politicians to prevent veto overrides.

Whether or not Dunleavy’s vetoes are overridden, this much is sure: he has shown us his vision for Alaska and it is callous and it is bleak.

Some have suggested that the best recourse is to recall Gov. Dunleavy before he does more damage.

If there is such a recall effort, it would be a longshot, but stranger things have been happening in the land of the Midnight Sun.

So count me in.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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