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WASHINGTON, D.C. — At this annual gathering of thousands of scientists that has grown in step with the increasing number of people on Earth, researchers at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union again sounded the alarm for a quiet place — the top of the world.


At a press conference devoted to the changes in the Arctic, expert panelists spoke of dwindling northern sea ice, its probable connection with severe weather down here, decreasing caribou populations (with a notable exception in Alaska) and the discovery that the Arctic Basin has “a higher concentration of microplastics than anywhere else in the world.”


This was the 13th consecutive year of the December release of NOAA’s Arctic Report Card, a series of essays written by scientists.


Sea ice, which floats on the Arctic Ocean and is now expanding in sheets during the cold, dark polar night, has always been the leadoff topic of the press conference at AGU’s fall meeting… 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

On a November morning long ago, Jeff and Annette Freymueller were feeling the effects of the 1 a.m. flight that had carried them home, to end-of-the-line Fairbanks. There was no rush to get up on that Saturday 16 years ago. They slept in.


As the sky brightened, over sips of coffee the Freymuellers pondered the last few days they had spent in Southern California, where they both grew up. Faculty members at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had flown Jeff down from Alaska for a job interview. He and Annette stayed a few extra days to check out the area.


After their return, that sleepy November morning in Fairbanks turned out to be different than the rest. 


The ground shook. Their house swayed and creaked. An expert on earthquakes and the eternal creeping of Earth’s plates, Jeff recognized surface waves that were rolling through the boreal forest, and their home.


“This is something big… read more

DENALI NATIONAL PARK — When I was 12 years old, I didn’t know permafrost was like frozen lasagna. I didn’t know what permafrost was. I grew up in a small town on the Hudson River in New York.


But here is my 12-year-old daughter and her classmates, gathered amid fragrant tundra plants. She is sitting on the T-end of a pointed steel rod, in order to help shove it in the ground. She stops when she feels a gentle thud a few feet down.


The frozen ground she reached has survived the heat of the summer, probably many summers. She has hit permafrost, a physical reminder of a time long ago during which frigid air pulled heat from the ground, leaving it hard as a rock deep beneath the surface.


Here at the Denali Science School, a three-day program put on by National Park Service rangers and Alaska Geographic instructors, these Fairbanks sixth-graders are learning more about the oversized peninsula on which they live.… read more

In Alan Weisman’s book, “The World Without Us,” the author ponders “a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.”

In his thought experiment, Weisman travels around the world to explore that question, revealing that cockroaches and bedbugs would not fare well without our sloppiness and warmth, but Theodore Roosevelt’s granite face will stare down from Mount Rushmore for the next 7.2 million years.

Weisman devotes a chapter to buildings, going into detail on their natural, gradual destruction. It all begins with water, Weisman writes, quoting a farmer who said a sure way to destroy a barn is to cut an 18-inch hole in its roof.

Posed with the question of the fate of Alaska structures without us, researchers with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks agreed that the liquid stuff of life is the most powerful agent of demise.

The research center’s Ilya Benesch has witnessed the slow and interesting fade of a mining building in Poorman… 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

Just outside my window here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, workers are drilling into the asphalt of a parking lot using a truck-mounted rig. They twist a hollow bit 25 feet into the ground and pull up hard, clear evidence of why the blacktop is sinking.


A few days ago, John Walsh gave a talk a few hundred steps from that parking lot. Walsh has spent 17 years in Fairbanks studying Arctic climate and learning about the latest physical changes in the far north. He is the chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Center, and an expert on global warming as it applies to the Arctic and subarctic.


Back in the parking lot, an engineer guiding the work watches the drillers hit clear discs of ice, about 7 feet below car level. The ice had been solid for centuries, maybe thousands of years, but the construction of a parking lot in the late 1990s is making it shrink. What used to be spruce trees and an insulating carpet… read more

All of a sudden, we are again the land of no night. Summer happens every year, but it is always a surprise. Maybe because winter is the normal state of middle Alaska, with a white ground surface possible from late September until late April.


Over the years, I have marked this frenetic, green time by slaving my body clock to the circling sun and trying to stay awake at least once for 24 hours. Races are a convenient way to do this. This year, there was one on the calendar I could not resist.


The Alaska Endurance Trail Run is a six-mile loop through my backyard, the North Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The North Campus is 1,100 acres of boreal forest, cleared fields and a few lakes owned by the university. It’s a rectangle of land with perfect ski trails in the winter and a few semi-dry running and walking loops in the summer.


Though we are still a few weeks from our deepest nod toward the sun (… read more

“Jeremy offers us only his incessant snoring to remind us that he is a man and not a god.”

So wrote Seth Adams on an Instagram post showing Jeremy Vandermeer striding across a wind-whipped ridge near the frozen headwaters of the Ambler River. Adams is a writer and photographer in Fairbanks who accompanied Vandermeer for a good portion of a recent 500-plus mile ski traverse of Alaska.

Vandermeer is an engineer with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at UAF. He teamed with Miles Raney, Adams and Bob Gillis in an attempt to ski from Galbraith Lake on the North Slope to Kotzebue on the Chukchi Sea, with much of the Brooks Range between the start and finish.

Gillis returned to Fairbanks from Anaktuvuk Pass and Adams flew back there from the village of Ambler.

Raney and Vandermeer started on April 1 and reached Kotzebue 20 days later. They skied into the windy village on the western coast a fews days ahead of the date they had planned.

Vandermeer is… read more

Snow falling silently on Alaska’s mountains will in a few months transform into a medium for migrating salmon, and so much more.


“That snowflake that falls on the mountain now is water that flows in streams and rivers late in summer,” said Gabe Wolken, a glaciologist who works both for the state and the University of Alaska.


Wolken and his colleagues recently added a snow-depth button to a smartphone app that allows anyone to add information about favorite winter landscapes and help scientists in the process.


The free app, Mountain Hub, now allows skiers, snowmachiners, mountaineers and others to enter a snow-depth measurement that helps researchers calibrate models of snowmelt and ground truth measurements from aircraft and satellites.


In Alaska, figuring how much snowfall will turn into river is a guessing game backed by a few real measurements fed into computer models. In other places, snow… read more