Alaskans working to sign people up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act say they’re seeing a big increase in enrollments this month. Groups like the United Way and Enroll Alaska made the announcement at a press conference today in Anchorage. The boost comes as the March 31st open enrollment deadline approaches. Anyone who doesn’t have health insurance by that date will pay a penalty unless they qualify for an exemption.Download AudioIn all of February, Enroll Alaska signed up a little more than 200 people for health insurance. In just the first week of March, they enrolled nearly that same number. Chief Operating Officer Tyann Boling is excited to see the pace picking up:“We couldn’t be happier with how things have gone this month. It has been an incredible busy month for us and we see we’re going to have our largest enrollment month yet.”Boling says the six month open enrollment period has not been easy. The healthcare.gov website was barely functional the first two months it was live. Boling says groups like hers lost momentum in those months that they may never recover. But she says it’s human nature to procrastinate and Enroll Alaska has the resources to help anyone who still wants to sign up:“You know people will say, ‘I can wait another couple of weeks.’ And then they’re like, ‘oh my gosh, I need to make this happen.’ So some people were right there at October 1st and standing at our door at 7am and then there’s people waiting until right now to get through the door. However they get there… we just want them to get enrolled.”And not everyone signing up this month is procrastinating. Susan Johnson is regional Director of the Health and Human Services Department. She says some people are still finding out about the benefits of the law. Johnson met a woman in Spokane recently who donated a kidney to her brother three decades ago and assumed she would be permanently excluded from health insurance because of her pre-existing condition:“If you’ve been locked out, kept out, the door closed to you for over 30 years because you gave life to a family member, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that suddenly that door is open. It’s unbelievable. And that’s the power of this law.”By the end of February, more than 6,500 Alaskans had signed up for health insurance on healthcare.gov. Johnson is pleased with those numbers. She says Alaska is not an easy place to do outreach work on a complicated new law:“Using an Olympic metaphor, you’re doing a triple salchow with a wind of 70 miles per hour and the lights just went off and you’re still hoping to land that. So you have a huge degree of difficulty, we know that- no roads, often no electricity, no easy communication, off the grid with the computer.”The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been doing Affordable Care Act outreach events in rural areas of the state. Alaska Natives can file for an exemption from the individual mandate to buy insurance, because they qualify for healthcare from the Indian Health Service. But ANTHC’s Valerie Davidson says the organization is hoping some Alaska Natives will see the benefit to having insurance too, and may qualify for a substantial subsidy to help pay for it. She wants everyone to feel welcome asking questions about the law:“Maybe English isn’t your first language-canrituq-it’s OK! Come on over anyway, we have people who will speak to you in any language you’re comfortable with so come on-taringan- we’ll understand.”Open Enrollment closes for most Americans on March 31st and will reopen again on November 15th. But Alaska Natives and American Indians can continue signing up for insurance on the exchange all year long.This story is part of a partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
Moller Field re-opened in 2012 after a $2.6-million renovation. (KCAW photo)The Sitka School District has reached a settlement in a gender equity dispute over the community’s new ball field.Download AudioThe resolution means that high school baseball and softball will have to arrive at an equitable practice and game schedule at the city-owned field — a goal which has been difficult to achieve so far.Superintendent Mary Wegner informed the school board Tuesday night (11-4-14) that an agreement had been signed with the individual who filed the complaint under a federal anti-discrimination statute commonly known as Title IX.“The settlement proposed by the complainant was something that was very realistic, and something that will help us move our initiative forward in sharing Moller Field.”The agreement was drafted by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under the “Early Complaint Resolution” process. The agreement averts further investigation into gender equity in Sitka’s schools. District officials feared that a full-blown Title IX investigation would put several relatively recent programs at risk, such as football and soccer.The agreement itself is only three paragraphs. It requires the district to develop a plan this fall for scheduling varsity baseball and softball teams for the 2015 season. The district must reaffirm its responsibility to ensure that both genders receive “equivalent benefits with respect to practice and game facilities,” and finally, the agreement does not constitute an admission of any violation of Title IX by the district, and the complaint is officially withdrawn.“You know I’m really excited to see this,” says softball coach Bob Potrzuski. “Practice facilities, times of practice. Where one team is using the facility, it’s going to be on an equal basis with the other, and I think that’s exactly what we wanted.”Moller Field opened in 2012 after a $2.6-million dollar renovation, including artificial turf and lights. Baseball, which historically played there, claimed the new field, though accommodations — such as a removeable pitcher’s mound and temporary outfield fence — were provided for softball games.And a final twist: Moller Field doesn’t belong to the district. It’s owned by the city. Potrzuski says that created a grey area of scheduling that the Office of Civil Rights resolution has fixed.“What it’s done is asserted the school district’s authority to assign Moller Field to high school teams.”The OCR resolution specifies that the city’s Parks and Recreation participate — if needed — in the scheduling process developed for the spring season.Sitka’s municipal government has already weighed in on the problem: It’s proposed asking the legislature for $1.5-million in renovations to the Frank Vilandre Field at Blatchley Middle School, so that it can be used for softball and Little League.Superintendent Mary Wegner said the softball funding request was still on the table. And coach Potrzuski — though perfectly content with the OCR settlement — wouldn’t say no to a new field either.“If the community can bear it, if the state can bear it, if this is something that certainly people bigger than me think that they can provide for our kids — I’m all for it.”Potrzuski has consistently advocated for equity for his team, but did not file the Title IX complaint. That individual’s name will remain confidential. However, had the parties not arrived at an early resolution, the complainant would have been required to come forward in the public process associated with a Title IX investigation.
House Democrats plan to use their increase in numbers as leverage when pushing for Medicaid expansion.Download AudioWith the last election, the House Minority caucus grew from ten to 13, making support from at least some of their members necessary for any action that requires a three-fourths vote. The most significant of these actions is a vote to allow the Legislature to cover a shortfall through the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a hard-to-tap rainy day account that is worth $11 billion.At a press availability on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Chris Tuck said that requirement could help his caucus push for Medicaid expansion. While the federal government would pay the added costs of Medicaid expansion through 2016, the Legislature must accept the money through a line in its budget.“We do know that that’s going to be a bargaining strength for our side,” said Tuck. “We’re going to use that vote very cautiously. We want to make sure that we’re doing the best for Alaska, making those lasting opportunities not just in health care, but in education.”Expanding Medicaid to include Alaskans with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level has been a priority for Democrats in the Legislature and for unaffiliated governor Bill Walker. According to a report commissioned by the state in 2013, Medicaid expansion could bring more than $2 billion in federal funding to the state over the next six years. But opponents of expansion — including former Gov. Sean Parnell and some Republican lawmakers — note that same report concludes the state would be obligated to pay over $200 million over that same time period.With a projected deficit of over $3 billion, the Legislature’s financial analysts have determined that it will be necessary to access the Constitutional Budget Reserves. The withdrawal could be structured in such a way that education funding is tied to a vote, making opposition to use of the reserves more difficult.
Dr. Allia Carter and author Omar Tyree speak about helping young men of color succeed. Hillman/KSKAData from the state’s Department of Education and Early Development show that students of color drop out of high school at higher rates than white students. Anchorage’s chapter of the NAACP is trying to change that. They hosted a community meeting on Wednesday night where a crowd the Anchorage School District Boardroom to start a dialogue about helping young men of color succeed. Community members asked questions of two experts who have led programs to help young black men in the United States.When the moderator asked what the community should do if they find the district is resistant to change or says there isn’t a problem, a murmur of recognition ran through the crowd. Parent Chrystel Bankhead-Scott nodded, wanting solutions. She says she feels like her son is being tracked and given fewer educational choices, though she says she doesn’t know if it’s linked to race.“That’s why I’m here today,” she said after the meeting. “I’m so disappointed. In fact it’s mind blowing. I was shocked about what we were going through.”Bankhead-Scott says she’s worried that other students are also being impacted.Dr. Allia Carter is the interim vice president of student affairs at Darton State College in Georgia and was one of the speakers. She says schools are so institutionalized that it’s hard for teachers and administrators to form authentic relationships with the students. She says the solution starts with meeting the kids where they’re at as individuals.“It’s all really about building that relationship. So the moment you connect with that child and you can truly see that they’re learning and inspired and want to learn, keep that going and stay motivated with that.”But the solution needs to go beyond traditional teacher-parent-student relationships. Carter says it needs to involve the whole community.The schools “need to reach out to the advocates for those children. Some times they’re not parents. They might be people who are affiliated with faith-based organizations, their youth organizations, their parks and rec departments. Those kind of people. And I think it’s time for all of us to step up and respond to our community’s needs.”Community member and parent Adrienne Reed says it’s time to stop talking and start reaching out.The conversation “needs to go to the junior highs and the high schools. The counselors, the community leaders, go into the classrooms, pull these young men out and ask them, ‘What is the disconnect? Why are you out here doing things that we shouldn’t be doing when you have so many other opportunities? What are we, as adults, as your community doing to fail you?’ Don’t just shove money down their throats, don’t just shove education down their throats. See what it is that they need.”Reed says she’s ready to start knocking on doors and helping the young men of Anchorage.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today defended the federal government’s land management and brushed off calls from legislators in Alaska, and other states, to seize federal lands.Download AudioJewell spoke at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, to a standing room only crowd, many from a nearby conference of the outdoor recreation industry. It was a room strongly in favor of preserving federal land. Jewell urged them to make their views known at every level of government.“These are lands that belong to all American people. Just because they’re in the boundary of a state does not mean they belong to the residents of that state. They belong to all American people,” she said.The Alaska House last week passed a bill demanding the federal government turn over its lands in Alaska to the state. Similar measures have passed in other western states. Speaker of the Alaska House Mike Chenault, like other Republican legislators, says it’s a just cause.“I’m not afraid of a fight, and I’m not afraid of doing what I think is right,” he said, in supporting the bill in Juneau.Jewell doesn’t sound too worried.“While there has been a fair amount of rhetoric and even some laws passed in state legislatures, there’s none of them that have been found to be constitutional with regard to a takeover of federal public lands by states,’ she said. “So there’s a lot of talk but there hasn’t been a lot of action.”The talk in Alaska grew louder this winter, when the Obama Administration announced a series of anti-development measures in the state. They include withdrawing areas of the off-shore Arctic from oil and gas lease sales, and recommending Congress protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. Alaska’s top officials blew a gasket. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the Obama administration was trying to keep Alaska as a pretty snow globe no one can touch.Jewell, after her speech, bristled at the suggestion she’s locking up Alaska.“I think if you look at our actions in Alaska, you will see that we are actually facilitating safe and responsible development, recognizing that in a place like the Arctic, nobody wants to screw that up,” she said.Jewell says much of the mining in Alaska in on federal land. She pointed to her department’s work with Shell on permits to drill in the Chukchi Sea. Plus, she says they’ve allowed oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve, although with conditions some Alaskans say are onerous. Jewell says she’s sympathetic to Alaska’s budget woes, but she says it’s wrong to blame the federal government. The problem is oil prices, the secretary says, and Alaska’s dependence on that one commodity.“I do think if I was in Gov. Walker’s situation, I’d be looking to diversify my sources of revenue for the state,” she said.With the Alaska Legislature scheduled to adjourn Sunday, that doesn’t look likely.
50 foot, 60,000 pound spin drier sits at the center of the new Trident fishmeal plant in NaknekCredit Matt MartinThe newest processing plant in Bristol Bay is about to go online this month. Trident Seafood’s multi-million dollar fishmeal plant should get a test run with Togiak herring. Trident agreed to build the plant as part of a 2011 settlement over alleged EPA Clean Water Act violations, and now the company, and residents, should get to see (and smell) it if works as intended.“Download Audio”Construction workers hammer and weld to the twang of country music as they wrap up construction on fishmeal plant in Naknek. The walls are still unfinished drywall and wooden stairs stand in for a future elevator.Project Manager Bob Bates stood in front of the largest piece of machinery in the plant, a 50 foot long and 60,000 pound dryer.“We actually set this unit here when this was still all mud and dirt. We build this building around this dryer,” said Bates.The dryer looked like a giant rolling pin as it spun in the center of the warehouse.“The inside of this thing looks like something out of a sci-fi movie with all the teeth and the blades and everything in it to mix it, and turn it, and churn it through,” added Bates.Tubing runs up the hill and takes the raw fish guts from the processing plant to the new fishmeal plant.Credit Matt MartinAbout a quarter mile of tubing move all the leftover parts after a fish is filleted or canned – that’s the head, guts, fins, and bones – they’ll come from Trident’s processing plant to the new 15 million dollar plus fishmeal plant.After being ground up and dried, the byproduct of salmon can become animal feed and even those fish oil pills you can buy at Costco. Trident also owns separate business that produces fishmeal products. Along with helping their business model, Trident agreed to build this plant as part of a 2011 settlement with the EPA, which had tallied a number alleged Clean Water Act violations against the company’s Alaska operations.Officials at Trident said they weren’t required to build a fishmeal plant in Naknek, but they think this is where the Bristol Bay fishing industry is probably heading anyway. The EPA and Alaska’s DEC are tightening down on how processors handle the millions of pounds of fish waste that is traditionally ground up and put back in the water, hopefully washed out with the tides.Inside this metal silo are thousands of tiny round scrubbers that help to clean the fish odor out of the air.Credit Matt MartinBut some Naknek residents were, and still are, leery about having a fishmeal plant in town. They have a reputation of being …smelly.Jay King runs an aviation service in Naknek and is among those still not convinced that plant won’t stink up the town. King’s not opposed to the plant so much as he’s opposed to its location.“Being next to the Post Office, the school, the clinic, my brother’s apartment building. “I just didn’t think it was such a good idea to have a potential odor issue with all of these entities,” said King.Others say with or without the new fishmeal plant, summertime odor is a common issue and comes with the territory. Russell Phelps is a commercial fisherman and said Naknek is a fishing town. He thinks taking waste out of the water might actually help the smell.“So the beaches in late July and August stink considerable already, so if we could avoid that I’d be very happy,” said Phelps, who is also a member of the Borough Assembly.Before the Borough gave its consent to Trident to build, a few members traveled to Newport, Oregon to tour a 20-year-old fishmeal plant that has been upgraded with modern technology similar to what’s being used in Naknek. They came back less skeptical. The Assembly heard from plenty of concerned residents, but in the end voted to approve the fishmeal plant. Some supporters think fishmeal may be the future of the fishery, and others appreciate what will be added tax revenue to the Borough. Phelps was among the yes votes.“We shouldn’t stop a project just because we think it’s going to stink,” argued Phelps.Trident has a favorable reputation in the town, and the seafood giant says it puts near a million dollars in taxes annually to the Borough, and tens of thousands more in charitable donations. Project Manager Bob Bates says Trident will do it what it takes to stay good neighbors with the community.“From day one, the goal was to keep the odor down, clean up the river, and basically produce some meal,” said Bates.And at the heart of its effort to keep the odor down is a new air filtration system.Standing at the base of a three story metal tube with ducting that snakes around the entire warehouse, Bates describes how it will keep the smell of drying fish waste out of the breezy bayside town of Naknek.“So basically what we are doing is we’re drawing fresh air down below and we are sucking everything up to insure that we capture all the odors and everything that comes through this facility and gets pushed through these scrubbers,” explained Bates.Inside are thousands of scrubbing balls that look like whiffle balls, water is sprayed down as the air raises. The odor molecules stick to the water.“By the time the air come back out of here, we’ve pulled the majority of all the odor out with this system,” added Bates.Some residents like Jay King say they’ll just have to wait and see, or rather smell, what happens.“Well, it’s here. I am just honestly hoping it is as advertised by Trident,” said King.They’re going to get their chance soon. Trident plans to run final tests of the system with water in a few days, but as far as a true test with fish heads and guts. Bob Bates said he can build factories but he can’t control fish. They’ll test it for real when the Togiak herring arrive, probably before the month is out.
Salmon sharks are closely related to mako and great white sharks, and one of the few warm-blooded fish species. Photo: Kristine Sowl, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceWhile studying Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea, researchers have found themselves in the wake of an unlikely killer.Andrew Seitz is a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who has spent the past several years studying Chinook salmon. He said the first sign of foul play came from satellite tags used in his research this winter. The tags gather behavior and migration data for the salmon, taking temperature and depth readings every two minutes — then relaying them to researchers by satellite later on.Seitz said those temperature readings were what alerted him to the fact that something was, well, fishy.“[The] temperature went from between 45 to 55 F, and it jumped up to 65 to 80 degrees in a matter of a couple minutes. And there’s no water temperature that warm in the Bering Sea,” he said.Seitz suspected immediately what had happened — his tags, and the salmon they accompanied, were in the belly of a warm-blooded predator.But, he explained, the mystery didn’t end there. Marine mammals, much like humans, have a body temperature between 98 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit — meaning the salmon weren’t the victims of an arctic seal or sea lion.“Which leaves just one suspect,” said Seitz.”The salmon shark.”Salmon sharks, which are closely related to mako and great white sharks, are one of the few fish able to keep their body temperature warmer than their surroundings — allowing them to pursue their favorite prey into even the icy waters of the Bering Sea.Still, Seitz said he was surprised to find the sharks in Northern waters during the winter, adding that the predators could be a factor in Alaska’s low king salmon returns.“It’s too early to even speculate on whether salmon sharks are actually having population level effects. But its certainly worth considering and the impact of salmon shark predation should certainly enter the conversation about what is controlling or influencing abundance of Chinook salmon in the Bering Sea,” he said.Seitz plans to further investigate the impacts of predation on king salmon by deploying more satellite tags from a Japanese research vessel this summer.
The classic postcard view of the town of Unalaska isn’t what it used to be. The nation’s oldest Russian Orthodox church still towers in front of a bay backed by tundra-covered mountains. Now, there’s also a bright orange, 200-foot barge floating in between them. It could be parked there for the next five years.Download AudioThe Resolve Ibis at its new long-term mooring site off Unalaska’s Front Beach. KUCB/John Ryan photo.The orange, boldly lettered barge is the most visible element of a private effort to improve shipping safety along the Great Circle route across the Pacific.“It is a bit loud,” Dan Magone of Magone-Resolve Marine Services in Unalaska said. “It’s intended to provide high visibility.”Magone got a Alaska Department of Natural Resources permit in May to moor the barge off the beach for the next five years. Magone has been in the emergency ship repair and salvage business on the island for decades. He said putting the barge in front of the beach that’s been the heart of Unalaska village for centuries wasn’t done lightly.“We didn’t just flippantly go anchor it up right in front of Town Beach,” Magone said. “We looked for every alternative, and in the greater Unalaska Bay, there wasn’t another safe place to put a tank barge.”The tank barge can be used to store oil that’s been offloaded, or lightered, from a ship in trouble, before the oil spills into the sea. “They prevent a terrific amount of pollution by doing that,” Magone said. “Once it spills into the environment, you don’t get very much of it back, no matter what you do, especially in an environment like we have up here.”The Aleutian Islands sit in the middle of the Great Circle shipping route across the Pacific. Every month, a couple hundred big cargo and tanker ships motor through Unimak Pass, just east of Dutch Harbor. And about once a week, a big chemical tanker goes through the pass with hazardous cargo like ammonia or pesticides.If the big ships run into trouble in the pass or elsewhere in the Aleutians, it can take a long time for the right kind of help to reach them. So Magone’s parent company, Resolve Marine Group in Florida, and the National Response Corporation in New York aim to address that.Their joint venture, called 1 Call Alaska, also has other vessels in Dutch Harbor, along with firefighting systems, seven oil-skimmer machines and 30,000 feet of oil-containment boom.Magone says all those new assets will make it much quicker to respond to maritime accidents along the thousand-mile Aleutian chain.“I think right now that they brought in additional equipment is certainly a good thing,” Ed Page said.As head of the Alaska Maritime Response Network, Page is essentially Magone’s competitor. His nonprofit network has spill equipment in Dutch Harbor and Adak and a dozen other locations in western Alaska. But Page says the new equipment might not be good for safety in the long run.Spill prevention efforts are funded by the fees that companies make by being the on-call responders for the big cargo ships. Now there are two outfits competing for those fees where there used to be just one.“Overall, there’ll be probably less money to pay for two organizations and their overhead and operating costs and even less money available to actually allocate to oil-spill response equipment and prevention measures,” Page said.Alaska Maritime Response Network provides spill prevention services throughout western Alaska, not just along the Great Circle route. Page said he’s concerned that improved safety in the Aleutians could come at the expense of safety in other parts of western Alaska.
Alaska and British Columbia on Wednesday signed a memorandum of understanding giving the state a larger role in transboundary mine permitting decisions.Download AudioAcidic drainage from the Tulsequah Chief Mine, discolors a containment pond next to the Tulsequah River in British Columbia in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Chris Miller/Trout Unlimited)Gov. Bill Walker and B.C. Premier Christy Clark signed the document during a teleconference. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and B.C. Mining Minister Bill Bennett oversaw its development.Bennet says it’s a framework covering permitting, water testing, transportation and other transboundary issues.“It signifies and formalizes our commitment, Alaska and B.C’s commitment, to work more closely together, to put more effort into that collaboration and to work on further agreements between the jurisdictions that will allow us to put in some detail exactly what that additional collaboration looks like.”He says the other agreements should be completed early next year.Walker issued a statement saying the memorandum could also boost economic development on both sides of the border. That includes improved transportation links and tourism promotion.Mine critics in Alaska have said such an agreement has no teeth.The document specifically says it imposes no legally binding obligation that could be enforced in court.Bennett and Mallott say such provisions can only be part of a treaty between the federal governments of both nations.
Sealaska shareholder Michael Lee Beasley is author of the term- limits resolution. (Photo courtesy Michael Lee Beasley)A longtime critic of Sealaska management is campaigning to limit the terms of the regional Native corporation’s board of directors. Previous efforts have failed.Sealaska allows its 13 board members to serve as long as they can win re-election. While some directors are relatively new, others have been on the corporation’s governing body for anywhere between 25 and 40 years.Shareholder Michael Lee Beasley, also known as Mick, wants to change that. He’s filed a resolution limiting directors to just three complete three-year terms.“If we want to restructure ourselves, we have to start with our election system,” Beasley said.Beasley has done this before and lost. His last attempt, in 2012, tried to limit directors to four terms. And in 2009, he tried for just two terms.The Juneau artist said incumbents have too much advantage, creating a largely self-perpetuating board.“We need a fair and balanced election system, and that will usher in different directors, different ideas, different opportunities and it will be more inclusive,” Beasley said.The term-limits resolution will be on Sealaska’s proxy ballot, which will be issued to shareholders this spring. Results will be released at the annual shareholders meeting June 25 in Ketchikan.Jaeleen Araujo, who serves as corporate secretary, vice president and general counsel for the corporation, said the measure meets Sealaska’s basic requirements.“Simply stated, he submitted a resolution that meets the qualifications because it’s not unlawful, it’s appropriate to come before the shareholders and he secured the signature of 1 percent of our voting shares in the corporation,” she said.She said the board will not take a position on the resolution until its next regular meeting in early April. The board opposed the previous two attempts.During the 2012 election, then-Corporate Secretary Nicole Hallingstad said such a measure would force many directors to leave.“This is a really significant loss of institutional experience and knowledge. That actually damages the credibility and stability of the corporation,” she said.The board makeup and leadership have changed somewhat since then.Four board seats will also be on the 2016 ballot. Most years, a board slate of incumbents wins or takes the majority of open seats.Beasley said he’ll file to run for the board, as he has done before. He said his candidacy will include promoting his term-limits measure.“The idea here is you’re like a little mouse fighting against an elephant. But you’ve got to keep your squeak going, or there’s never going to be any change,” he said.Sealaska officials maintain that the elections are fair and that the reason earlier term-limits measures have failed is that shareholders don’t want the change.They’ve said the same about separate Beasley resolutions to change or eliminate discretionary voting, where shareholders turn their ballots over to the board.The regional Native corporation for Southeast has close to 22,000 shareholders. About half live in Alaska, while about a third live in Washington, Oregon or California, according to the corporate newsletter.
If you thought Alaska was pretty warm and dry this winter, you were right. In fact, it could come close to setting a record.Download AudioAverage Alaska temperature rankings for this past winter. (Photo courtesy of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information)The latest figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information show it may be the second warmest winter since they started keeping Alaska temperature records 90 years ago.For the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island and the north Gulf Coast, the winter of 2015-16 was the absolute warmest. For other areas from Northwest Alaska down to the Southeast Panhandle, it was within the top five warmest winters.Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, points to the lowest statewide winter temperature as an example of how unusual and how persistent the warmth has been in Alaska. The lowest recorded temperature this winter in the state was minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit. That was in Arctic Village around Christmas.“If this holds up, this would be by far the warmest Alaska minimum temperature for the whole winter,” Thoman said. “In the last century, the warmest has been 53 below.”Thoman said for the entire state, winter temperatures were significantly above normal for 61 days out of the winter’s 91 days. Statistically speaking, that’s twice as many as you’d expect.Since the 1970s, Thoman said Arctic winter temperatures have been increasing about 1.4 degrees Celsius a decade.It was also a fairly dry December through January throughout much of the Interior and the northern part of the state. Exceptions included Southcentral, the Gulf of Alaska coast and northern Southeast which were all slightly wetter than normal.“Persistent Southeast winds aloft kept bringing storm after storm into the western Gulf Coast for months. … Most of that moisture gets wrung out” as storm systems cross into the rugged terrain of Alaska,” Thoman said. “So, this pattern — not surprising at all given the predominant weather pattern we’ve had for months.”Thoman said the seasonal maximum sea ice extent in the Bering Sea is shaping up to be the lowest since 1979.The overall Alaska snowpack is better than last year, but winter snowfall in areas like Anchorage was still below normal.“Similarly in Juneau, running actually near normal right up to New Year’s, but it’s collapsed since then,” said Thoman. “Only 2 inches of snow since the new year in Juneau. The lowest of record for New Year’s to now.”Alaska precipitation rankings for the winter 2015-16. (Photo courtesy of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information)The Blob, El Niño and climate changeSo, what’s the cause of the warmer winter temperatures and less precipitation in many Alaska regions this winter?Thoman said it’s a combination of the warm water sea surface temperature anomaly in thenortheast Pacific Ocean known as The Blob and one of the strongest instances of El Niño, or equatorial ocean warming. Both events can affect the southern or eastern portion of the state. Low ice coverage in the Bering Sea can also affect the western Alaska climate.“At this point, the Arctic is clearly leading the rest of world in overall climate change. The overall warming is greater,” said John Walsh, chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Walsh is co-author of an extensive report just released by the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed recent research of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and heavy precipitation and whether such events could be attributed to climate change.Walsh said climate change may be enhancing the variability of unusual weather events and shifting the extremes.“There have been some studies that have shown that the temperature extremes are changing as you would expect. There are a lot more record highs and a lot fewer record low temperatures,” Walsh said. “Sort of a mixed bag of conclusions about precipitation.”But aside from the shift to more extreme temperatures in Alaska and the Arctic, Walsh said there’s not yet a smoking gun, nothing that stands out when linking recent events to climate change. At least, not yet. Walsh suggests that all it takes is for someone to do the research.“We don’t really have anything to point to in the Arctic that stands out in terms of extreme events. Now, we do say that that’s partly because not too many studies have been done on extreme events in the Arctic. So, we’re not ruling out some gold nuggets in there from the Arctic. But, so far, they have not really surfaced in the scientific literature.”Cumulative snowfall comparisons for winter 2015-16. (Photo courtesy of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information)Spring and summerWhat could all of this mean for Alaska this spring and summer?Thoman expects warmer than average temperatures across Alaska and northern Canada.“Given the state of the snowpack, which is in the Interior overall pretty near normal, at this point we would probably favor an earlier than average breakup and so a reduced, but not zero chance, of significant ice jam flooding,” Thoman said.Thoman said a low winter snowfall could add to the wildfire danger this summer, although this winter’s snowpack was still better than the previous year’s snowpack. He expects slightly above normal precipitation, which may be good as long as it doesn’t come with thunderstorms that ignite wildfires.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has asked the Federal Subsistence Board to repeal its controversial decision to close caribou hunting in the Northwest Arctic to all non-local hunters.Download AudioMale caribou running near Kiwalik, Alaska. (Photo: Jim Dau)The Subsistence board approved the year-long closure on federal public lands last month, citing the declining population of the Northwest Arctic Caribou Herd and the need to protect subsistence. But in a letter sent Wednesday, Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten outlined several reasons for the board to reconsider.Cotton said new information shows the herd is stabilizing. And even if it weren’t, he said outside hunters represent such a small fraction of the harvest that their take poses no threat to the population. Meanwhile, Cotten said the closure would harm local economies, which make as much as $1 million annually, according to state estimates of the guide and transportation industries.However, the closure is not subject to reconsideration requests because it’s a temporary special action. That’s according to Carl Johnson with the Office of Subsistence Management, which works with Federal Subsistence Board. Instead, Johnson said a new special action would have to be proposed and passed to change the board’s decision.If that doesn’t happen, the closure will go into effect on July 1.