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This week marks 30 years since I turned my pickup left onto a North Pole road and noticed the clutch pedal did not return to my foot. In a panic, I reached down with my mittened hand and pulled. The frozen plunger oozed back into position.

Driving at minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit is not a smart thing to do. But I was in my mid-20s and had a firefighting class to attend on Badger Road. That location, fuzzy with ice fog, was dark-side-of-the-moon cold during the last time Alaska had a genuine statewide cold snap — one that lasted 14 days.

Late January 1989 featured a low temperature of minus 76 degrees F in the village of Tanana. That’s just four degrees off Alaska’s (and America’s) all-time low of 80 below zero, recorded at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971.

Those are old numbers, but Brian Brettschneider, @Climatologist49, recently tweeted that when today’s wind-chill formula is applied, McGrath residents on Jan. 27, 1989 experienced a world-record windchill for… read more

Two-hundred and thirty-six years ago, when General George Washington marched back into New York City as British troops were walking out, a volcano erupted in Iceland.

For eight months of 1783, Laki volcano spewed lava and belched noxious fumes into the atmosphere. One-quarter of the residents of Iceland died, and the sulfur-rich gases that spread worldwide reflected the sun’s rays, making many places on Earth cooler.

Using evidence held in white spruce trees, researchers think the Laki eruption was a catastrophe for northwest Alaska residents, who had no idea why their July turned into November that year.

Rosanne D’Arrigo of the tree-ring lab at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York recently told the story of Alaska’s year without a summer. She attended the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union last month in Washington, D.C.

On a poster in a cavernous meeting hall there, she displayed a photo of tree rings from a white spruce tree from… read more

In 1908, a colossal blast incinerated a swath of wilderness deep in Siberia, at about the same latitude as Anchorage. 

The explosion that July day registered on seismic recorders all over the world. Within minutes, 80 million trees lay flat and scorched in a circle 60 miles wide. Scientists calculated the shock was more than 1,000 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

What happened? That’s a great question. Nineteen years after the event and 91 years ago, Leonid Kulik, curator for the meteorite collection at the St. Petersburg Museum, traveled to the Stony Tunguska River to find out. From the distant evidence, he expected to see a crater where a meteorite crashed into Earth. 

He found none. Those that have followed him over the years have not found expected nickel or iron deposits. Nor have they collected any space rocks like those fired into the snow when the Chelyabinsk meteorite exploded above the Ural Mountains in 2013.

If the… read more

Stone spear points from Serpentine Hot Springs on the Seward Peninsula hint that ancient people may have migrated northward between ice sheets from warmer parts of America, bringing their technology with them.

 

Heather Smith, an anthropologist at Eastern New Mexico University, wrote a recent paper based on spear-point fragments she and others found near Serpentine Hot Springs during the summers of 2010 and 2011. 

 

In her study, she wrote the stone points represent “either Clovis groups moving north through the ice-free corridor to northern Yukon and Alaska, or the interaction of Clovis groups with humans already present in the northwestern Subarctic and Arctic.”

 

Found only in North and South America, fluted points were part of a famous find near Clovis, New Mexico, that scientists radiocarbon dated to be about 13,000 years old. Anthropologists have found fluted points in several places in Alaska, including near… read more

Floating down the Fortymile River, we saw a cut in the green hills that hinted of a creek. My canoeing partner and neighbor, Ian Carlson, 13, wanted to see a ghost town. The map told us one should be dead ahead.

 

There, up a path of floury soil, was Franklin, Alaska. Like many Alaska ghost towns, it was a less-than-ideal place for kids and dogs: rusted nails, jagged edges and punky wood floors that can no longer bear weight. The four kids and two dogs in our party were all over it.

 

No one was there to meet us at Franklin, population zero, the site of the first major gold strike in Interior Alaska. It was a living town from 1887 to 1948. 

 

We noticed stone steps fitted into the hillside with care, a shed with an intact roof, and a dozen spruce-log buildings on their way to becoming soil.

 

In the early 1900s, gold miners and other river travellers called Franklin “Dogtown” because so many were staked… read more

Thanks to her six-year-old grandson, Janet Klein of Homer recently hosted a few interesting house guests.

 

Five experts on ancient creatures slept in Klein’s Homer house last month as they searched local cliffs for another chunk of a mammal that lived in Alaska millions of years ago. Her guests were Patrick Druckenmiller of the UA Museum of the North, Grant Zazula and Susan Hewitson of the Yukon government, paleontologist Analia Forasiepi of Argentina, and Ross MacPhee, curator of mammology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

 

Along with Klein, a Homer resident and naturalist, the scientists were looking for a rock that might fit into the petrified jawbone of a tapir Klein’s grandson Kai found about a year ago on a beach near Homer.

 

Kai Reising, then 5, was beachcombing in July 2017 with his grandmother; his mother, Deborah Klein; his father George Reising; and his younger brother Silas. In an… read more

About 160 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward was taking some heat for his significant role in the purchase of Alaska. On the day the Russians received the $7.2 million check, a group of white travelers were at Nulato, getting ready for an upriver trip to Fort Yukon to explore this strange land.

Among them was Frederick Whymper, an adventurous English artist who had signed on to help document a telegraph project across North America. In his book “Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska,” he left behind some insights into what America was getting itself into.

In his 20s, Whymper left what must have been a comfortable life in London to travel to British Columbia, where he gained the position of artist on the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition. That experience may have whetted his appetite for wild and uncomfortable, because he soon became the artist for the Russian-American Telegraph Project. His job was to document an… read more