It’s springtime in the Chugach Mountains, where fuzzy white willow catkins are a sure sign of longer, warmer days ahead. There’s just one problem: It’s November.
“It’s pretty much unprecedented,” said Justin Fulkerson, a research botanist at the University of Alaska Anchorage who said he first heard reports of catkins (also known as “pussy willows”) showing up in the Anchorage area from a fellow scientist in late October.
Fulkerson said Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana) is normally one of the first plants to bud in spring. They’re usually seen in late March or early April, but for the plants to restart their life cycle in fall, he said, is "really odd and weird.”
He said the culprit is Southcentral Alaska’s unusually warm fall, which has willows and other early rising plants thinking spring.
“The plants are confused because of the warmer temperatures we’re having right now,” he said.
According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature in Anchorage for October was 41.8 degrees — 7 degrees above normal. On Oct. 28, the city hit a balmy 54 degrees Fahrenheit at a time of year when the temperature is typically below freezing.
Meteorologist Bill Ludwig said the warming trend has continued into November, which as of Thursday had yet to see the temperature dip below the freezing mark at sea level.
“It’s been really spectacularly warm,” Ludwig said Thursday.
Anchorage has been persistently warm for nearly two years; October extended the city’s string of above-normal months to 20, a run that dates back to February 2018, which was 1 degree below average.
So far in November, Anchorage-area temperatures have run more than 13 degrees above average, through Wednesday.
“In fact the lowest temperature we’ve had this month has been 35 degrees, and that is actually higher than the average high for this time of year,” said Ludwig, who said he’s noticed lilac bushes at his home appear to be on the verge of popping out fresh leaves.
The recent warming trend is the result of a persistent high pressure ridge along the West Coast, which is forcing warm Pacific air north over Alaska and shipping cold polar air south. Frigid temperatures are forecast for the next few days across much of the eastern U.S.
The weather pattern has meant balmy fall temperatures across all of Alaska, including the Interior, where Fairbanks averaged 7.5 degrees above normal in October and on Wednesday recorded a low of 22 degrees — which may seem chilly, but is actually well above normal at a time when low temperatures normally dip below zero.
In the Anchorage area, lakes remain ice-free and green grass grows alongside city streets. On the mud-covered slopes of Mount Baldy near Eagle River, the alders have fresh buds and pussy willows are fuzzing out as high as 2,500 feet above sea level — elevations normally covered in snow by this time of year — and on Wednesday hikers climbed the popular trail in T-shirts.
Fulkerson said the early budding likely won’t harm the willows too much, though it could mean they produce fewer flowers when the actual spring arrives. And that, in turn, could have consequences for other species. He said fewer willows could be bad news for a specific type of bee — the Clark’s andrena (Andrena clarkella) — which has evolved to feed specifically on willows.
"They wake up out of dormancy at about the same time as the willows do,” he said. “Their timing is pretty in sync.”
[Gardening column: Get the most out of this warm November for your lawn and garden]
There’s scant research on Alaska’s springtime bees and even less on the impact of willows that bud out too early. However, Fulkerson said there’s little doubt that the early pussy willows are a sure sign plants are noticing the unseasonably high temperatures.
“It’s not too surprising these warm temperatures are confusing these plants,” he said. “Plants are a really good indicator of what’s happening in these environments."
And there’s no sign the warm weather will go away. According to Ludwig, higher than normal temperatures are likely to remain in place across Southcentral Alaska for at least the next seven to 10 days.
“It’s going to stay warm.”