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Record warmth, confused plants: An Alaska January to remember

Warm weather blanketing Alaska for days now has shattered records, turned plants green and changed the way some people live.

The temperature hit 62 degrees at Port Alsworth, on Lake Clark, on Monday, tying the highest January temperature ever recorded in the state, the National Weather Service reported.

Nome peaked at 51 degrees, topping the city's warmest January with a temperature typical of early June, forecasters said.

In Anchorage, snow continued melting Tuesday in the latest of 15 consecutive days with temperatures at 32 degrees or above. As of Monday, it was the city's fourth warmest January ever recorded.

"It's spectacular," said Sam Albanese, warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service.

While Alaska is prone to warm spells occasionally breaking up winter freeze, the string of unseasonably warm days rarely last for this long, he said.

In 1949, there were 17 days of temperatures at freezing or above and 16 days in 1985, said the weather service.

Albanese expects temperatures in Anchorage to cool down in the next few days, but still hover above normal. Temperatures will dip below freezing at night, he said.

Rick Thoman, climate program manager for the weather service, said Tuesday that he didn't see much sign of precipitation in mainland Alaska for the next two weeks.

"As far as places that have lost most of their snowpack, there's no sign that we would get into a pattern that would rebuild that to a significant extent," he said.

Warm temperatures and a shallow snowpack closed the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood indefinitely.

Organizers have cancelled or rerouted sled dog races. The Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage may have to turn Sunday's Ski for Women event into a run or walk. A decision will be made on Saturday. Christine Cikan, 50, slid on the slick trails around Westchester Lagoon with her dog Tuesday afternoon.

The meltdown has forced her to routinely bury her perennials in snow to keep the roots alive. She chipped away the ice on half of her Russian Jack driveway to ease mobility.

"I don't usually have my ice grippers on every day, but I haven't bothered taken them off this past month," she said.

Steve Brown, a district agriculture agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, lost about a third of his perennial garden last year when a thick freeze piggy-backed a defrost, he said.

He said he's heard from Alaska peony farmers concerned another year of thaw-freeze could rip apart their crop.

"Everyone with a perennial garden is worried sick as well," Brown said. "If it gets super cold before we get some snow there's going to be a lot of stuff lost."

Brown recommended people use straw, shredded paper, snow or hay to insulate gardens from overnight drops in temperature.

"The paper doesn't decompose very fast, but you could just rake it up in the spring," he said.

Area biologists in Anchorage and Fairbanks said warm temperatures haven't interrupted one species too much -- the bears.

A bear may wake up from hibernation briefly if water enters its den or if stirred by seismic activity or close, loud noise, said Jessy Coltrane, Anchorage-area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Coltrane has heard one fourth-hand report of a bear spotting in Anchorage this winter. In Fairbanks, a pilot spotted one bear about 30 miles from the city.

"It's not like on Monday when it hit 50 degrees every bear jumped out of its den and started to run," Coltrane said.

Still, she recommended people carry bear spray when going into bear country.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.