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Know the West

Weather dispatch from Wrangell, Alaska: Drought in the rainforest?

As Southwest states were pummeled with rain, Southeast Alaska dries out.


I poke my head out of my sleeping bag and glance skyward, past the rectangular edge of my tarp. It’s 6:30 am, and the sun has been up for hours. The moss, so deep I could lose my hand in it, is crunchy-dry, and through the green canopy of Southeast Alaska’s rainforest, I glimpse patches of sky. Just like yesterday — and the day before, and the day before that — it’s California-blue. Not a cloud in sight. 

My orange rubber rain gear, usually a necessity on oceangoing canoe trips in this part of the world (like the one I’m on now), is stashed at the bottom of a dry bag. The streams where we usually collect water are no more than a tannin-colored trickle. We hear on the radio that some of our colleagues are having emergency drinking water delivered by jet boat, while in nearby Wrangell, folks “out the road” are trucking in city water to fill their rainwater catchments. 

Welcome to the rainforest drought: the opposite end of the weather pattern that’s brought unseasonably wet storms to Colorado and New Mexico this spring. While the parched Southwest is drinking in much-needed rain and the Rockies are reveling in new snow, we in Alaska’s panhandle are basking in a huge high pressure ridge, says Tom Ainsworth, the meteorologist in charge at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Juneau office. It’s all connected: part of the same weather pattern, he says, but not necessarily part of a larger climatic force. 

Meanwhile, warmer-than-usual ocean water from the Gulf of Alaska — the causes of which aren’t fully understood is heating up the air, leading to warmer-than-usual temperatures: 53 degrees on average in nearby Petersburg, compared to a typical average of 48.5 degrees. Rainfall for the month of May is just 0.26 inches so far. The average is 5.92 inches. 

Coupled with an abnormally low snowpack (35 inches compared to an average of 90 this past winter in Juneau), Southeast Alaska’s dry spell is making city managers, foresters, fisheries biologists and others wary. “So far, we haven’t had any real serious damage (to fisheries),” says Patrick Fowler, a sport fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Petersburg. “But it’s definitely a concern as we move into summer spawning.” 

The normally-swampy Tongass National Forest is drying up with an unusually long dry spell and low snowpack.
Flickr user Jeff's Canon
Restrictions on logging were put in place on May 22, and at least one logger worries that work may cease altogether if the dry weather keeps up. Fire officials, too, have been on high alert: Usually, thunder and lightning are rare in Southeast Alaska, but more than 900 lightning strikes were recorded in one recent night, resulting in several fires. Meanwhile, the town of Wrangell has declared an official water shortage and is asking residents to cut back on water usage. “It’s not at a panic stage yet, but it wouldn’t take too much longer,” borough manager Jeff Jabusch told KSTK Public Radio

But this is, after all, the rainforest. While a dry spell this long is rare, old-timers say it’s not unheard of, and the chance of a summer-long drought is unlikely. So for now, nearly everyone — including the weather forecasters are as grateful for the sunshine as denizens of the Southwest are for the snow and rain. “We always like to deliver good news,” Ainsworth says. “And this is the third largest area in the weather service, so there’s still plenty of variation to keep things interesting.”