Alaska News Nightly: January 30, 2012

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Senate Committee Approves More Money For Schools

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau & Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Senate Education Committee this morning approved an increase to the Basic Student Allocation – or BSA.   The BSA is the amount of money given to cover the cost of educating each student on the rolls – and it is the basis for calculating such things as the difference in operating expenses in different communities.  Last year, instead of an increased BSA,  schools shared in a one-time grant of $20-million.  But that wasn’t automatically renewed and was not money that schools could use in the budgets they’re working on now.

In a hearing last Friday,  the Alaska Council of School Administrators said that schools actually need a $320 per student increase this year – just to keep up.  But Senate President Gary Stevens balanced that figure with an amount that might be possible to get from the House and the Governor.

“There’s a lot of work ahead for all of us in this room.  If you find there’s support for $320, I’d be delighted.  But I don’t think that’s the reality of it.  I think this is the best we can do.  I think this is the wisest approach – maybe not the best – but I do appreciate the fact that we have a bill here and that we have a lot of work ahead of us to make sure it gets through the entire process.”

The bill increases the BSA for each of the next three years — $ 125 for the budgets being written now,  $130 for the following year and $135 for the 2015 budget.

Sunny Hilz, of the Kenai School Board, praised the committee’s decision to provide more than one year of funding.  She said forward funding will allow schools to plan ahead.

What it does in our school district, it changes the morale of the entire place.  It lets us focus on what we know will work.  A program doesn’t work for one year and then start over again. We have to be able to plan ahead.

House Speaker Mike Chenault didn’t make a prediction on the outcome of the increase when it gets to the House.  He told a press conference this morning that he thinks Education needs more state money.  But he says he has a problem with making a commitment to a Formula.

Putting something into law, it can certainly be changed, but sometimes it’s a lot harder to change it once we’ve put it in so I think we’ve got to be careful – could we come uip with something that’s a year or two or three years certainty for Education. We’ve done it in the past, and we can certainly do it in the future. But I think we have to  have those conversations as we look at the budget continuing to grow.

The BSA increase bill,  SB171 is now before the Senate Finance Committee.

In the House, a bill just introduced would inflation-proof education funding. HB 143 would require the administration to increase the Base Student Allocation by at least the annual rise in the Anchorage Consumer Price Index. Anchorage Democrat Rep. Pete Peterson’s bill would provide an additional $187.52 for each student.

Renda, Healy Break Out Of Ice

Ben Matheson & Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

The Renda and Healy are out of the ice.  After more than a week of cutting through ice up to 4 feet thick, both the tanker Renda and the Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy crossed into open water around 1:00pm Sunday.

As of earlier today, the tanker was transiting on open water outside of Dutch Harbor. The Renda is now making for her home port of Vladivostok, while the Healy returns to Seattle.

The tanker was escorted to Nome by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy to deliver 1.3 million gallons of fuel earlier this month. After the fuel delivery was completed and the ships began their transit south, the sea ice had grown more than 60 miles.

Ice Conditions Could Affect Fish Stocks

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

Bering Sea ice came in quickly this year and is at its largest extent since the 1970s.

It has effectively shut down the snow crab fishery, causing problems for boats as far south as the Aleutians.  But some scientists say that while it’s a pain in the short term, the ice is good for the Bering Sea’s valuable fisheries in the long run.

When this winter started, the ice extent in the Bering Sea was looking pretty average, but in the past couple of weeks, that’s changed – the ice is now covering an area roughly the size of Texas.  Andy Mahoney, a sea ice researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says the thirty-year average is about a third less than that – covering an area more like California.  Part of the reason for the increase is a persistent low-pressure system in the Arctic.

“And that creates a situation where the cold air doesn’t leave the Arctic as frequently and as a result, if the cold air stays in the Arctic, the Arctic stays colder.”

But in other northern waters, the sea ice extent is shrinking. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist Jim Overland says the Bering Sea frequently doesn’t track with the rest of the Arctic.  As average Arctic ice extents have gone down over the last 30 years, the Bering Sea has actually seen a slight increase.  Overland says that’s because despite climate change, the Bering Sea ice is mostly dictated by storms.

“The Bering Sea continues to do its own thing, this year and in the foreseeable future and that’s based on how the North Pacific storm tracks behave.”

Since 2006, the Bering Sea has been in a cold phase.  But before that, from 2000 to 2005, the Bering Sea was at the other extreme – record warm temperatures.  According to Overland, these blocs of temperature are don’t represent any pattern – and they can have a huge impact on the ocean ecosystem.

“You have this random climate extreme and it’s like a hammer hitting the bell.  You just strike the bell a couple of times with the hammer and then you stop the hammer but the bell can continue to ring.  So the biology would be the continuing effect of the shorter, random events.”

Back in the 1970s there was a period of temperatures as cool as the current ones that Overland says caused a major reorganization of the Bering Sea ecosystem.

“The fact that pollock now dominates after the 1970s…perhaps the loss of cod in the 1930s was also related to one of these five year events.

But Overland is less sure what this period of cooler temperatures could mean for ocean ecosystems, especially give the stretch of warmer weather at the beginning of the millennium.

“If we had continued to have a whole decade of warm temperatures we might have precipitated some major extent in the ecosystem, but I think the fact that we’ve have four cold years, we’ve returned back to where we were in the 1980s and 90s.”

Alaska Fisheries Science Center biologist Kerim Aydin agrees that the annual ice extent has a big impact on fish populations, but is cautious about this year’s effects.

“It’s not so much about how much the ice covers at this time of year, but how fast it melts back into the spring and summer.”

Aydin says the biggest impact is on pollock – southwest Alaska’s biggest fishery – but also snow crab.  He says consensus is emerging in the scientific community around the idea that colder springtime temperatures are better for pollock stocks because of how they affect plankton growth.

But he says it’s still unclear whether this year will be one of those years.

“Not so much the past few, but there have been years in the past where we’ve seen very cold winters, but then things have warmed up pretty quickly.”

The ice extent is expected to remain high for at least another month.

Interior Expecting Milder Weather

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The interior is coming off a weekend during which Fairbanks and several other locations had low temperatures in excess of 50 below zero.  National Weather Service meteorologist Corey Bogel says Galena had the coldest official reading.

There’s some relief in the forecast.  Things began moderating Monday morning with 30 to 40 below readings in Fairbanks, as clouds and light snow moved in.  Bogel says the longer range forecast is also encouraging.

Bogel says there may be a day or two cool down as the low moves out, but the extended forecast generally calls for milder air over the interior next week.  He says the trend will be complimented by the sun.

The interior is ready to say goodbye to January, which will be one of the top 10 coldest in Fairbanks recorded weather history.  Bogel says there have been 16 days this month when the temperatures dipped to 40 below or colder.  That’s only surpassed by 4 other months in Fairbanks history.

Anchorage Beginning to Warm Up

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Not to be outdone by Fairbanks, this January also ranks as one of the coldest Anchorage has experienced.

With an average temperature of 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit though Jan. 26 at the Ted Stevens International Airport, this month is on pace to be the fourth coldest recorded since 1953.

According to Sam Albanese, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Anchorage forecast office, the frigid temperatures have been a result of an amplified high pressure pattern over the mainland mixed with cold air coming out of the Arctic and Siberia.

But, he says that weather pattern is changing, and that there should be some warmer weather heading towards Anchorage.

“We’re looking at a more active weather pattern. We’re gonna see a low pressure system barreling on up into the Bering Sea, which in turn creates more of a stronger southerly flow over the mainland which brings a lot of warmer marine air over the state,” Albanese said.

Albanese says temperatures are expected to remain above zero tonight and should be getting consistently warmer through the weekend.

“Tomorrow, some places may be as high as 20 degrees. Tomorrow night, zero to five above. But as we get closer to the weekend, we’re looking at temperatures, even on Thursday, where you might actually see some temperatures above freezing around 35 degrees…25-25 there. And, even right through Sunday, 25-35 degrees, so, significant warming compared to what we’ve been having, that’s for sure,” Albanese said.

Click here for a link to a report by the National Weather Service’s John Papineau on Anchorage’s cold weather.

Vets Checking Out Dogs Before Yukon Quest

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Yukon Quest mushers brought their dog teams to a warehouse in South Fairbanks on Saturday to let race veterinarians look over all of the dogs signed up to run.

KUAC’s Emily Schwing was there to find out what a veterinarian looks for and how they decide if a sled dog is race ready.

Pebble Limited Partnership Releasing Research

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

This week the Pebble Limited Partnership is releasing more than 20,000 pages of research they commissioned and paid for. Since 2004, more than 40 firms have been gathering data in and around the area envisioned for the controversial Pebble Mine.

Alaska Airlines Employees Receiving Hefty Bonus

Tom Banse, NNN

Thousands of Horizon and Alaska Airlines workers will receive hefty bonuses in their paychecks next month. The Seattle-based airline group on Thursday announced a second straight year of record annual profits.

Chief Financial Officer Brandon Pedersen says his company’s planes are flying fuller than ever. It’s also been able to offset high fuel costs with higher fares.

Pedersen says Alaska Air will pay bonuses equal to about 6.5 percent of pay to most staff.

Separately, the airline’s management estimated the cost of last week’s crippling snow and ice storm at $3.5 million.  Most of that is lost revenue due to hundreds of flight cancellations.

The airline group says all 12,782 employees qualified for bonuses. That includes 2,169 Oregon-based Alaska and Horizon Air workers, 318 in Idaho and 6,487 in Washington.

Airline Hoping to Start Anchorage to Russia Flights

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

While the Anchorage airport serves plenty of international cargo flights, there aren’t many opportunities for Alaskans to get their passports stamped without passing through the Lower 48. Now, one Russian Airline is working to make Anchorage a jumping-off point for the Kamchatka Peninsula, and they’ve announced that they’ll start selling tickets next month.

Businessman, Statehood Bell Ringer Derr Passes Away

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Longtime Juneau businessman and Chamber of Commerce luminary Romer Derr passed away last week at the age of 75. He’s being remembered not just for his efforts to improve Juneau’s economy, but for his participation in the Capital City’s first ever statehood celebration.