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Village move intensifying in summer 2019

The relocation of an Alaska village is happening fast this summer, after many years of planning and work. Observers say Newtok’s transition to Mertarvik is flying along because it has to — the Ninglick River bank is crumbling less than 10 yards from a Newtok home.

“There’s no more time,” said Aaron Cooke, an architect who helped design new houses for the project. “The water’s right by the houses (in the village of Newtok).”

After voting to move their river-threatened village more than 20 years ago, residents of Newtok are in summer 2019 building 13 new houses on the volcanic rock of Nelson Island, 12 miles from Newtok. They also hope to finish a community center that might serve as a school this fall.

“Holy moly, this is the year it finally hit a sprint,” said Cooke, an architect for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. Cooke and his colleagues have designed energy-efficient homes for Mertarvik.

Workers at the new townsite are also… read more

The man who broke through the Northwest Passage

Fifty years ago, a ship long as the Empire State Building sailed toward obstacles that captains usually avoid.

The icebreaking tanker Manhattan was an oil company’s attempt to see if it might be profitable to move Alaska oil to the East Coast by plowing through the ice-clogged Northwest Passage.

Begging his way aboard was Merritt Helfferich, then 34 and a do-all guy at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Helfferich, whose life of adventures also included the first hot-air balloon flight from Barrow, Alaska, died in New Mexico on May 2, 2019. He was 83.

Back in the late 1960s, Helfferich heard of Humble Oil and Refining Company executives recruiting a team of Alaska engineers to ride the ship and measure the properties of sea ice it crushed along the way. He wanted in.

When the ship’s launch was delayed and invited professors needed to teach their fall classes, Helfferich shot up his hand. He was soon gasping in wonder at a… read more

A powdery idea to reduce sea-ice loss

A team of researchers has a plan to slow the melting of northern sea ice using a sand-like substance.

Leslie Field is an inventor trained in chemical and electrical engineering who lectures at Stanford University in California. She and her team-member Alex Sholtz of the non-profit group Ice911 recently presented at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in front of a dozen scientists who work on northern sea ice.

Field and Sholtz shared their idea of spreading hollow glass beads over ice that floats on the northern ocean. After field testing the material on the surface of frozen lakes, they saw it increases sea ice’s reflectivity and can slow its melting. That, in turn, could help slow the Earth’s warming.

Northern sea ice has been on the wane since satellites have allowed us to observe it in the late 1970s. Though relatively few people have seen the ice floating on the northern oceans, scientists have many times pointed out sea ice’s function as the refrigerator… read more

Grades keep slipping on Arctic Report Card

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

Serpentine Hot Springs stone points raise questions

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

Opportunities make a fine Alaska career

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

A northern sense of place

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

Warming in the north continues as predicted

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

Running circles around the land of no night

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

Alaska structures crumble without us

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

Powering across Alaska on skis

“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

Was the Bering Land Bridge a good place to live?

During the coldest days of the last ice age, the Bering Land Bridge was 1,000 miles wide, a belt buckle the size of Australia that connected North America and Asia.

That mysterious land of green plants, streams and hills persisted for thousands of years, until seas swelling with glacial melt ate it up. All that remains are mountaintops that are now St. Lawrence and other islands, and the outline on maps that shows the continental shelf spreading underwater like pancake batter.

Those who have spent their careers pondering Earth’s not-so-distant past wonder if the land bridge was a good place to live. Genetic information shows native North Americans split from Eurasians about 20,000 years ago. The earliest human sites in Alaska date to about 14,200 years ago. Could people have been living on the land bridge during that gap?

At a seminar at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Nancy Bigelow pointed to a map showing Earth 21,000 years ago. The sites of New York and… read more

Utqiagvik, where the climate has changed

Two things happened on top of the world this week. In Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), on January 22 the sun topped the horizon for the first time since mid-November. 


The day before that, January 21, was the first time since Halloween the town’s thermometers recorded a below-normal daily average air temperature.


The returning daylight for the continent’s farthest north community is due to a predictable nod of the Earth back toward the Sun. Utqiagvik’s second day of direct sunlight, January 23, featured almost an hour’s increase from the day before. The town will have four hours of daylight by the end of January. By May 11, there will be no night.


Just as dramatic are the recent warm autumns and winters in Utqiagvik. While many people worldwide sense their favorite places are changing, residents of Utqiagvik use the past tense.


“The term is no longer ‘climate change’ at Utqiagvik. It is ‘climate changed.’ No doubt about it… read more

Image of Porcupine herd travels cross country

There are no photographs of bison spilling by the thousands across the Great Plains. By the time cameras came along, most of the bison were gone. John Wright of Fairbanks believes he has an Alaska version of what that photo might have been.


His image, 12 slide frames stitched together to show the Brooks Range rising from northern tundra, is papered on a wall of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. 


It takes ten steps to walk past the panorama, a vinyl print mounted at eye level just across the hall from Otto, a preserved brown bear that stands six feet tall. 


Wright’s image shows purple mountains above the orange-brown flats of northern Alaska. The coastal plain — miles of tundra carpet between the mountains and the ocean — is packed with caribou of the Porcupine herd. The animals resemble tan ants scrambling over treeless hills. Counting them is an intimidating proposition.


Wright, 69, was doing just that… read more

People return to flawed places because they do

NEW ORLEANS — As a child, Deb Long spent many hours at the post office in Ester, Alaska. Her mother Ruth was the postmaster there. As an adult, she has settled into a funky little house that stands on brick legs in the Holy Cross section of New Orleans. She likes to listen to jazz while trimming her banana tree and working on a former wagon house she rents out as an airbnb.


After she purchased her New Orleans home following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she rolled 26 tires out to the street through her wrought-iron gate. During the flood that accompanied that storm, the tires floated in over the fence. The brackish waters also soaked the walls of the house. This made the structure quite affordable when the water receded. Long purchased it because she noted that neighbors seemed to talk with one another there. It felt like home.


A few hundred yards south from Long’s house is a grassy hill that leads to the Mississippi River. That manmade, elogated ridge… read more

Driven by open ocean, Arctic continues to warm

NEW ORLEANS — At this gathering of thousands scientists at a horseshoe bend of the lower Mississippi River, a few talked about a place far away they have been watching for years.


“The Arctic shows no sign of returning to the reliably frozen state it was a decade ago,” said Jeremy Mathis, an oceanographer with the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle. 


He was one of four scientists presenting the Arctic Report Card for 2017 at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. More than 20,000 scientists will walk through the doors of the Morial Convention Center during this second week of December.


Mathis and others including permafrost expert Vladimir Romanovsky of UAF’s Geophysical Institute shared many scientists’ 2017 observations of the far north during a press conference. 


They reported much of the same news they have since NOAA scientists presented the first Arctic Report Card in 2007: The northern cap… read more

Skiers, snowmachiners help improve snow models

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

Biologist trapper retires after helping transform Aleutians

On Halloween 2017, Alaskan Steve Ebbert, 56, retired from his job as an invasive species biologist. His longtime mission of removing arctic foxes and other human-introduced species from the Aleutian Islands has left him with a legacy few of us will match.


“There are hundreds of thousands more birds flying around on the planet because of that work. That’s a pretty cool accomplishment,” said Steve Delehanty, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, referring to a program that began in the late 1940s. Ebbert took it over in 1995.


Ebbert’s job was to reverse another legacy, that of Russian and American fur trappers who, starting in the late 1700s, dropped off a few pairs of arctic foxes on Aleutian islands. Those foxes, later harvested with their offspring for their fur, ate birds and their eggs, removing birds from some of the richest nesting cliffs and rye grass tangles on Earth.


In 1949, Bob “Sea Otter” Jones, a… read more

When Jerry Brown came to Nome

A few Alaska researchers recently accepted a surprise assignment of giving Jerry Brown a tour of the Seward Peninsula.


The California governor was stopping in Nome on his way to a meeting in Russia. The 79-year-old environmentalist and leader of a state that resembles a progressive nation wanted to learn why the far north matters. He had never been to the Arctic or Alaska before.


Amy Breen and Bob Bolton were his tour guides and educators. Both work on the Seward Peninsula; Breen is a terrestrial ecologist who works with tundra plants and Bolton is a hydrologist who specializes in the interaction of the peninsula’s frozen ground with its many waterways. Both work at the International Arctic Research Center, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


On Labor Day weekend, Bolton and Breen traveled to Nome. Breen texted her contact with the governor’s traveling party, which had just landed in Nome aboard a jet. Breen indicated she and… read more

Biographer profiles scientist-explorer of northeast Alaska

In the early 1990s, Janet Collins was hiking in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when she saw “Camp 163” labeled on her map. Intrigued, she later looked up Camp 163 in Donald Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. Her curiosity led her to Ernest Leffingwell, the subject of a biography she has written and Washington State University Press just published.


In the early 1900s, Ernest Leffingwell lived for nine summers and six winters in a cabin on Flaxman Island, a wedge of sand off Alaska’s northern coast 58 miles west of Kaktovik. He mapped the coastline there, as well as inland spots like his Camp 163. He was the first person to describe and sketch underground ice wedges. He named the Sadlerochit oil formation that is the reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. And he wrote about oil seeps that led government officials to create what is now the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.


Not many people knew who Ernest Leffingwell was, but a few Alaska… read more

Sharing the trail with born Alaskans

Who is this girl, hair in braids, emerging from the tent with a full backpack?

She is 10 years old, a recent fourth grade graduate, out here with a friend from her class. Within the 20-year-old tent they share, they stay up for hours, chatting and giggling. It is mountain music.

The girl, my daughter Anna, spoke to me a few days ago as I walked beside her.

"I'm never coming out here again to hike the pipeline," she said. "You made a bad decision."

At the time, it was hard to debate with her. Forty mile-per-hour winds shoved us, drilling raindrops into our cheeks. The girl is good at arguing. I tell her she would be a good lawyer, though I hope she does not pursue that line of work.

The two girls, Anna and Salak Crowe, were hiking the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with me, their moms, and my friend Andy Sterns. For nine days, they joined me through the Alaska Range, from Meier's Lake to Black Rapids.

Their 60 miles of trail featured the… read more

Pleistocene Park an experiment in adventure

More than 700 donors believe in an attempt to recreate the ice age in Siberia. The operators of Pleistocene Park have raised more than $100,000 in a crowdfunding effort to bring bison and yaks to eastern Russia. The creators think the animals will help convert tundra to ancient grasslands that will slow global warming.


An Alaska researcher has visited Pleistocene Park five times. He has affection for the directors and an admiration for their lofty mission: "Turning the Arctic into a northern Serengeti and stopping permafrost degradation on a big scale."


Colin Edgar is a research technician at UAF who works on devices that measure greenhouse gases wafting from the tundra. He installs, fixes and gathers data from carbon dioxide and methane meters near Toolik Field Station and Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest in Alaska. Until funding fell off, he also traveled on occasion to Pleistocene Park.


Edgar's trips from Fairbanks to the North-… read more

Winter cyclist blazes an 1,800-mile trail

On a sunny afternoon in Nome, Jeff Oatley stepped off his fat bike. That day, for the first time since before the Super Bowl, he had nowhere to ride tomorrow.

On March 7, Oatley, with his wife Heather Best (who rode a few hundred miles of choice trail with him), finished a winter bicycle ride from Skagway to Nome.

Despite snowstorms that stalled him on the middle Yukon River for a few days, Oatley averaged 50 miles each day for more than a month. That's like biking on a snowmachine trail from Denver to New York, except with more spruce trees and wolves.

Advances in high-flotation winter bicycles with tires thick as loaves of bread have enabled some impressive feats. On March 26, six fat bikers sped over a hilly 100-mile trail in 10 hours in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks.

But the 47-year-old Fairbanks civil engineer's recent journey stands alone. Not only did he ride the frigid Yukon Quest trail this winter, Oatley also rode most of this year's… read more

More tropical nights in Alaska’s future?

By the end of this century, Alaskans may be enjoying tropical evening breezes for about a week each year. That's an increase from the almost zero such nights we currently savor.


But it could happen, according to a graduate student who has tightened the grids of computer models to perhaps offer a more detailed glimpse of Alaska's future.


A tropical night is one with a low temperature of 68 degrees F or warmer. Right now, even the warmest places in Alaska hardly ever experience this. By the year 2100, the average number of tropical nights at some location in Alaska goes to 6.8. That's according to a computer climate model run by Rick Lader. He is a graduate student at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks.


Most global climate models predict the future of ground temperatures and other variables in 60-mile squares. Because of Alaska's mountains and deep valleys that so affect weather and temperatures, Lader customized… read more

Lack of sea ice and Lower 48 weather

Last month, villagers in Savoonga landed a bowhead whale. Before 2017, in every January people can remember, sea ice surrounded St. Lawrence Island, locking it in for the winter. Boat-launching and whale-taking were not possible.


Now, the disc of ice chunks floating on the northern oceans is smaller than any recent year except 2010. The Bering Sea west of the Alaska mainland is wide open; satellites show a patch of dark seawater there that was usually ice-covered from 1981 to 2010. A few states could disappear in that swath of blue.


Unless you are now eating muktuk in Savoogna, it's hard to pinpoint the effects of less sea ice floating on the northern oceans. But some researchers say the northern ocean — now absorbing so much more heat and reflecting so much less — is affecting weather far from the Arctic.


"It's setting up bizarre weather patterns that are happening more often," said Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University Department… read more

An open letter to deep Interior cold

Hello old friend.


I thought you were dead. Sorry, but remember last year, when you didn't show up? It was the first recorded winter in Fairbanks when the thermometer at the airport didn't register minus 30 Fahrenheit. I didn't know what to think.


But here you are, a blob straight from the North Pole, squatting over middle Alaska. No records, but some impressive, dimly remembered numbers. Minus 56 at Tanana. Minus 51 right now at Fairbanks International.


From my perch here on the university hill, I can't see the airport. All of Fairbanks has disappeared in a fuzz of white. Remember when Carl Benson drove around town collecting particles of ice fog on plastic sheets, scraping them into a vial with a hard spatula? He wrote a classic paper on the phenomenon that happens at minus 30 or colder, when the air can't hold any more moisture. Exhaust floats behind tailpipes, as if every driver is skywriting. Please! Just keep running till we… read more

Goodbye to a smiling giant of Alaska science

T. Neil Davis has died at 84, in his Fairbanks home.


The scientist/author/doer was a graduate student and later director at UAF's Geophysical Institute. In the dynamic early days of the place where people study everything from the center of the Earth to the center of the sun, Davis was there: flying over Lituya Bay to see hillsides scarred to 1,700 feet by the tallest splash wave ever recorded. On the ground in Huslia following another giant earthquake that split the trunks of spruce trees. Enlisting half the Geophysical Institute staff to cut a rocket range out of boreal forest in Chatanika. From there, 300 giant sounding rockets have launched. A half dozen more are scheduled to blast off in early 2017.


Here are a few words from some friends of Davis.


Carla Helfferich, an author, publisher and former employee:


"I first met Davis in 1959, when he was first among equals in the hoax- and prank-playing mob of brilliant… read more

Pondering the infinite in Yukon Flats

YUKON FLATS — Out here, in a smooth plain stretching over Alaska’s wrinkled face, water and tree and mud dissolve to fuzz at each horizon. No hills or bumps. An ocean of sky. An observer once said Yukon Flats looks like a place where God forgot to put something.


Garrett Jones and I are camped on a giant island not far from the Yukon River map feature labeled "Halfway Whirlpool." Surrounded by gritty islands of silt and poplars and leafless willows, we are in the center of a river channel more than three miles wide. We feel like ants twitching for a hill to climb.


Jones, who owns Arctic River Guides, invited me on a boat trip from the upper Porcupine River to Circle, where his truck is parked. He wanted company on his last river trip before freezeup. For a few shivers, I get to see new country. This thick, twisted braid of river between Fort Yukon and Circle is, to me, the most exotic.


Yukon Flats is the largest mud-pie in Alaska:… read more

Rabies endures with help of the arctic fox

Rabies is a death sentence for any animal. Experts have wondered how a virus survives when it kills all the creatures it infects.


"We don't have a really good answer to that," said UAF's Karsten Hueffer. "It probably has to do with the long incubation time of the virus, which can be months."


Hueffer and his colleagues, including four university undergraduate students, wrote a paper on how Alaska's arctic foxes might be the carrier that keeps the disease present all the time in the western part of the state. Red foxes also get infected with rabies and pass it on, but the virus may not endure in their populations. In a future with less arctic foxes and more of the dominant reds, rabies might be on the wane in Alaska.


Scientists noted a constant presence of rabies virus in the coastal tundra home of the arctic fox. Interior forests inhabited by only the red fox seem to only have sporadic outbreaks of rabies. The researchers did their… read more

The Pleistocene sounds of the season

UAF FARM FIELDS — Gliding in with their wings folded like paper airplanes, nine Canada geese drop their paddle feet and prepare to land in a corner of this cleared plain.


On this early fall day, the birds could use an air traffic controller. Their landing zone of barley stalks is clogged with the rusty brown bodies of sandhill cranes, strutting like Mick Jagger.


The geese flap in and trot to the dirt, joining the cranes and a few other species of goose and duck in this stopover point between summer and winter. In these farm fields that are reminiscent of Wisconsin but feature treeless space rare in Interior Alaska, hundreds of birds are pausing. After a summer on buggy tundra, the birds rest here on one of the first steps of a journey that will take them as far as Mexico.


Most of the birds in the fields are cranes, bent over feeding on grains and walking. They are teeming, abundant. With a squint, they look like wildebeests on the… read more

Elephant Point and forests on ice

For all the descriptive Alaska place names out there — like the Grand Canyon, the Wall of China and the three Death Valleys — there are some that make you wonder.

Elephant Point is just south of the Arctic Circle on a tundra peninsula north of Buckland. Village residents are at Elephant Point right now, living at their fish camps and catching salmon. Elephant Point was the site of a village where 100 people once lived. It is also where the Lomen brothers of Nome operated a reindeer farm with corrals, a slaughterhouse, cold storage and worker housing.

Neither fishing nor reindeer ranching explains the name, but librarian Judie Triplehorn solved the mystery of Elephant Point with a document she placed on my desk. In it, a writer for the Edinburgh Museum in Scotland in 1829 hailed the arrival of "two tusks of the Mammoth, brought home by Captain Beechey."

Frederick Beechey was an English explorer who sailed all over the world. On one of his trips, he was the first… read more

Much of the Arctic is lower than it was before

When botanist Janet Jorgenson first visited a patch of tundra east of Kaktovik in 1988, it was flat, dry and thick with 29 species of lichens and mosses. Now, Tapkaurak is wet, gullied and fragrant with sedges and grasses. And, like other parts of Alaska's North Slope, it is a few feet farther from the clouds.

Tapkaurak is part of what might be an arctic-wide thawing, draining and settling of the landscape. More than a dozen scientists coauthored a paper on places undergoing similar changes all over the top of the world. They wrote about 11 sites in Alaska, Russia and Canada.

All of the areas were like Tapkaurak, a control site to be compared to a nearby strip of tundra driven on by oil-exploration vehicles. None of them were bulldozed, buried under gravel or otherwise manipulated by people.

"These are not disturbed areas," said Anna Liljedahl of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, first author of the paper in Nature Geoscience. "The only thing that can explain… read more

Impressions of a place far from everywhere

ST. MATTHEW ISLAND —I’m resting on a mattress of tundra plants that are growing more than 200 miles from the nearest Alaska village. While I have snuck away here to my own private ridgetop, eight other people, all scientists, are somewhere on this 30-mile-long wedge of tundra, rocky beaches, lakes and bird cliffs in the central Bering Sea. We nine make up the entire human population of the island.

On our 25-hour boat ride here from St. Paul Island aboard the 120-foot Tiglax, Steve Delehanty, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, pointed out that more people climb Mount Everest each year than walk on St. Matthew. There is one main reason.

“It’s hard to get to,” he said.

Sheer distance has saved this place from fur trapping, mining, oil drilling, airstrip building and other endeavors that leave a mark. A moist climate good for decomposition is also allowing St. Matthew to outlast an occupation by the U.S. military in World War II.

read more

A migratory house for villages on the move

As a river eats its way into Newtok, Alaska, residents are planning their moves to a new village site 12 miles away. One family will move into a house on skis with the ability to migrate as needed with self-contained water and electrical systems.

In his dozen visits to Newtok, a village of about 354 people 100 miles west of Bethel, Aaron Cooke has seen why the villagers have voted to move.

"In the seven or eight years I've been visiting there, I’ve seen football fields that have fallen away," said Cooke, an architect for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks.

The Ninglick River claims an average of 57 linear feet of Newtok's land each year. If that loss continues, houses will fall into the water as soon as two years from now.

That prompted a call from a member of the Newtok Village Council to Cooke, who had worked on prototype energy-efficient housing for another village in the Kuskokwim River Delta. The people in Newtok had heard of his… read more

Face of northern Alaska pitted by tundra fire

Eight summers ago, a bolt of lightning struck a dry tundra hillside in northern Alaska. Fanned by a warm wind that curled over the Brooks Range, the Anaktuvuk River fire burned for three months, leaving a scar visible from the International Space Station. The charred area was larger than Cape Cod.

While northern Alaska's treeless terrain has not seen a repeat of the largest tundra fire in modern times, researchers have kept their eyes on the Anaktuvuk River site. They watched green plants return in great number. Zooming out a bit, they watched the smooth face of the landscape is become pocked with thaw-pits.

The development of what scientists call thermokarst happens often in the northern boreal forest after a fire vaporizes moss and other ground cover. In a new study, Ben Jones of the USGS Alaska Science Center looked at what happens when a big fire happens north of the tree line. He and his coauthors, including pilot and glaciologist Chris Larsen of the Geophysical… read more

A float down the Tanana River

This is not Henry Allen's Tanana River. Nor is it the Trail River of people living here thousands of years before the nineteenth-century government explorer struggled his way down the Tanana. But it seems close.

I'm on a family trip down the wide brown river, starting where it arcs from the mountains to Fairbanks. Wife, daughter, dog and I will float the river 150 miles to the town of Manley Hot Springs, where our car is waiting.

When viewed from a hillside or a plane, the Tanana looks like the giant it is: a tan python slithering around wooded islands.

Here on the surface as we launch from near the ghost town of Chena, the river is glassy and gentle. It is also milky with powdered mountain from Alaska Range glaciers. The suspended minerals make the canoe hiss. U.S. Geological Survey scientists once estimated that the river carried six million pounds of sediment each hour past Fairbanks, and that half of the Yukon River's load of liquid dirt comes from the… read more

Anatomy of the worst fire year

In a gorgeous warm May this year, we have not yet sniffed the bitter scent of flaming spruce. When we do, many of us will think back to a year that still haunts us.

In summer 2004, a Vermont-sized patch of Alaska burned in wildfires. That hazy summer was the most extreme fire year in the half century people have kept score.

Here's how it happened.

May 2004 was warmer than average in the Interior, ground zero for Alaska’s fires because of its heat and abundance of black spruce, which a firefighter once described as “gasoline on a stick.”

But that May was also wetter. Fairbanks received 2 inches of rain, more than three times normal and still the rainiest May on record.

The first hint of something unusual came May 31. On that day, the Alaska Lightning Detection System recorded 7,876 lightning strikes. Peppered from the Kobuk River to the upper Yukon, the lightning was the highest total ever recorded for a single day in May.

All that… read more

Denali air still pristine, with a few specks

Fairbanks's air turns bitter every winter as we fill it with woodsmoke and other things, but just down the road Denali National Park has the clearest air measured among America's monitored national parks.


Scientists at Colorado State University have taken a close look at Denali air as captured near the park entrance. A monitor there pulls air through a set of four filters, getting samples every third day. A park employee then mails the filters to the Lower 48.


Postdoctoral fellow Qijing Bian and her advisor Sonia Kreidenweis studied the particles less than 2.5 micrometers in size trapped at the Denali station from 1988 to… read more

Two tales of dynamic Alaska tundra

As pungent eucalyptus trees soaked up inches of California rain, a few researchers inside San Francisco’s Moscone Center spoke of the treeless third of Alaska at the 2014 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The annual gathering of Earth and space scientists attracted more than 20,000 of them to San Francisco in late December.

Alaska’s tundra landscapes carpet a good portion of the state, from the North Slope to the elbow of the Alaska Peninsula. Tundra is a gathering of hardy shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses and lichen that live in knee-high communities above soil frozen hard as concrete.

Kimberly DeGrandpre spent the last two summers amid the small plants of the Seward Peninsula and Yukon River Delta. She visited villages that are just a few feet above sea level to measure how much the land is rising or falling. DeGrandpre, a graduate student with UAF’s Geophysical Institute, set up GPS receivers near villages and let them run for at least three days.… read more

A cool idea for locking up carbon dioxide

Jim Beget spends much of his time digging for clues from long ago, like when a volcanic island might have collapsed into the sea, sending giant waves to distant shores. He will soon engage in debate on a contemporary question: before carbon dioxide makes the world unlivable, what can we do about it?

In December, the UAF geologist/volcanologist will tack a poster in a San Francisco meeting hall amid the crashing surf of a thousand conversations. To educated passersby at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, he will explain his idea of capturing a greenhouse gas and raining it out over the coldest place on Earth.

"I'm a little nervous about it but I want to present it," he said.

Beget's idea is an example of geoengineering: using manmade solutions to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the 30-mile shell of gases around Earth. Accelerating levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are a frequent topic at the conference. Al Gore and climate scientist… read more

Fire on the mountain near the Yukon River

A smoking mountain near the Yukon River not far from Eagle is, after further study, still a puzzle.

People first noticed acrid smoke in September 2012. The mountain has been steaming ever since, even through the coldest days of winter. Scientists thought a likely cause for the smoldering mountaintop was an oily rock deposit that somehow caught fire.

Linda Stromquist, a geologist for the National Park Service, has been trying to untangle the mystery of the Windfall Mountain Fire that burns above the Tatonduk River. She is one of few people to set foot on the warm flank of the mountain.

Stromquist and other professionals looked at geologic maps of the area and guessed the mountain might have a base of flammable oil shale that would explain the smoking. She grabbed a few samples of rock during a two-hour trip to the mountain in a helicopter.

"The pilot was worried about clouds of sulfur dioxide, and so was I," Stromquist said. "It was hot and steamy and… read more

Arctic Alaska a different kind of place

Slicing through the top quarter of the Alaska map, the Arctic Circle marks the boundary of perpetual light. North of the line, the sun won’t set on summer solstice.

But somehow the breezy, treeless tundra of Barrow has a more arctic feel than Fort Yukon, also poleward of the line but home to dense spruce forests and Alaska’s all-time high temperature of 100 degrees.

A more “ecologically sound” definition of the Arctic is any area with an average July temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Alex Huryn and John Hobbie wrote this in their book, Land of Extremes: A Natural History of the Arctic North Slope of Alaska.

While that definition applies to Adak, Shemya, Wales and a few other cool places south of the circle and excludes Umiat (with a long-term July temperature average of 54.7 degrees), it includes most other towns and villages in what most people consider Alaska’s Arctic. When plotted as a line, that temperature standard somewhat marks the… read more

Minto Flats the home of hidden fautls

Just over the hill from Fairbanks is a broad, swampy lowland pocked with lakes and sliced by crooked brown streams. You could hide Anchorage in Minto Flats, home to more moose, beavers and northern pike than people.

The spongy surface of the flats is good for a few things: making mosquitoes and hiding the effects of frequent earthquakes. Seismologists can’t see any giant rips on the self-healing surface, but they know from how the earth shakes that two long faults lurk deep beneath the muskeg.

Scientists are so interested in the fault zone (which produces many of the shakes we feel in Fairbanks) that four of them embarked on a raft trip last August. For a few days, they floated into the heart of one of the largest geologic basins in Alaska.

Carl Tape is a seismologist at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Along with State Seismologist Michael West, seismologist Matt Gardine and graduate student Celso Alvizuri, Tape shoved a blue… read more

Three weeks in the saddle way up north

TOOLIK FIELD STATION -- After 800-plus miles by snowmachine and three weeks of working in the same clothes, it’s time to pack our duffel bags, stuff them into a barrel and set them on fire.

Just kidding about the burn barrel, but three lake studiers and I returned last night to the slushy snow of Toolik Lake, where I got my machine stuck 50 yards from the sauna. There, the boys unrolled the tow ropes and rescued me one last time.

Thanks for that to Ben Jones of the US Geological Survey Science Center in Anchorage, who invited me on this arctic adventure, Guido Grosse of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and Chris Arp of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Water and Environmental Research Center.

We seem to have broken the back of winter -- the four of us left this research camp in a biting wind and returned to newly emerged ground squirrels playing grab-tail. There are also many more humans here at Toolik now, including squirrel studiers from UAF and a… read more

Teshekpuk Lake Observatory a special place

TESHEKPUK LAKE -- Suspended in glass on the oil stove, the coffee leans south, as if the giant lake has a gravitational pull. Though Ben Jones has leveled this cabin before, he sees a useful function in the current slope, caused by thawed permafrost. Any snow blown in during the long winter will drain through the door when the warm air comes, he figures.

Jones sees most coffee pots as half full, I have observed. The geographer/interested-in-everything scientist with whom I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks works at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. Here on the northern shore of Teshekpuk Lake, the 35-year-old raised in Cincinnati is at home in a place that couldn’t be more different.

Here on a patchwork of oval-shaped lakes and dry lake beds sprouting tundra, he has created a world of his own making. He calls it the Teshekpuk Lake Observatory ( It consists of this small cabin, half a century old, and a pair of smaller… read more

Riding the bumps of the far northern trail

WEST OF NUIQSUT -- A sick snowmachine awaits rescue here on the snow-covered ice of this boot-shaped lake. After an 85-mile journey from our last stop at Umiat, one of the Ski Doo Skandics sputtered to a crawl a few miles from our intended campsite here.

The loss of one of their essential research tools has not stalled the trio of scientists traversing Alaska’s North Slope to poke shallow holes into its frozen lakes and soil. Thanks to his satellite phone, trip leader Ben Jones of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage has another machine on its way from Barrow. Two men on snowmachines are sledding it about 150 miles across the great coastal plain to us.

Chris Arp’s broken machine is one of a few not-in-the-game-plan events during the first seven days of this three-week journey across the Big White Empty between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. The ecologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Water and Environmental Research Center noticed his… read more

Summer comes early in the far north

TOOLIK FIELD STATION -- Despite a wind that makes today’s minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit feel like minus 39, a worker at this research camp in blue-white hills north of the Brooks Range has proclaimed this the first day of summer.

Today, the population of Toolik Field Station increases from nine -- five people running the camp, three scientists and me -- to 16. Seven support staff members are making the 10-hour drive north from Fairbanks. Starting tomorrow, Toolik Field Station will be in summer mode until September. During the next few months people will sleep in dorm-style buildings, weatherports and tents as they study ground squirrels, permafrost, plants, fish and other far-north mysteries. At the peak of action here in mid-July, more than 100 scientists will clomp the gravel in rubber boots.

People have pondered things here on the treeless tundra since 1975, when the National Science Foundation funded research on nearby Toolik Lake, a splotch on the map that takes… read more

A springtime journey on the arctic coastal plain

Cold water the color of iced tea wets the boots of Chris Arp as he yanks a power auger from the hole he just drilled in this quiet lake, a few miles from his office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

A whiff of sulfur, a sign there’s not much oxygen in this pond born when ancient frozen ground thawed wafts upward as Ben Gaglioti clears slush from the hole with a shovel. Gaglioti, a graduate student and USGS student intern, and Arp, an ecologist with the university’s Water and Environmental Research Center, are on the snow-covered ice here to teach me how to gather water samples.

Starting the week of April 7, bottling lake water will be my duty as I join a caravan of snowmachining scientists on the white plains and foothills north of the Brooks Range. The water samples will end up as far away as Worcester, Mass. at Clark University, in the labs of scientists who want to learn more about arctic lakes, which take up as much space as land in northern Alaska.

read more

A walk through the UAF Cold Preserve

It’s mid-February, 118 miles from the Arctic Circle. Time for a walk to work.

The trail through the boreal forest is right outside my door. The North Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks is 1,100 acres of spruce trees, ski trails, two lakes, an exotic tree plantation and a few dozen subtle research projects. Some are humming, twirling, measuring. Others are stained by leaf litter, falling back to the soil.

On a campus of about 2,250 acres, only 10 percent is roads, parking lots and clusters of buildings. My office and destination is in one of these developed areas called West Ridge. A north-facing window there provides a view of the same forest I see looking south from the kitchen table. The North Campus is quiet enough that if I see any creature except a raven during a morning commute, it’s a surprise.

Some days, like this one, are cold enough that I walk in rather than ski. A trail designated for dog walking offers the straightest line, just more… read more

A great Alaska earthquake meets southern California

An expected event in Alaska could affect millions of Americans. Here’s how:

On Thursday, March 27, 2014, a slab of the seafloor larger than human imagination fractures, rumbling beneath the Alaska Peninsula. In several planet-ringing minutes, thousands of years of potential energy releases to become kinetic. A great earthquake occurs right where scientists predicted it would.

The Pacific floor plows beneath Alaska in the region between Kodiak Island and the Shumagin Islands south of Sand Point. A block of sea floor the size of Kodiak Island rises. A bulge in the Pacific Ocean rebounds toward Los Angeles.

Scientists from the National Tsunami Warning Center see the rise and fall of lonely buoys and consult online seismic information and tsunami models. They call disaster-preparedness officials in Los Angeles with two messages: 1. Your city is in the crosshairs of a large tsunami, and 2. It will arrive in four hours.
The wave from the magnitude 9.… read more

Northern news from a big conference

How big is the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting held in San Francisco every December? So big it’s like everyone from Barrow attending on Monday. The residents of Soldotna get Tuesday, Valdez Wednesday, Nome Thursday and Kotzebue Friday.

More than 21,000 scientists walk through the Moscone Center during the week, along with others, like me, who are curious about what they are presenting.

Thanks again to the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I filled a notebook with scribbles regarding the far north in December 2013. Here are a few:

By 2050, polar bears may have their summertime sea-ice habitat reduced to the northern Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, according to a study by George Durner of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. Durner and his collaborators looked at data from the satellite collars of hundreds of polar bears and what it told him about the bears’ favored habitat. He plugged that information… read more

High-and-dry log points to great Alaska tsunamis

As Gary Carver stepped through the grasses of a treeless Alaska island with an archaeologist friend, he spotted a bleached driftwood log. The log rested on sand about a half mile from the beach and 50 feet above sea level.

Carver, on the island searching out Aleutian mummies for a Discovery Channel program, is an expert on tsunamis. He suspected that only a giant wave could have delivered a 30-foot log that high on uninhabited Sedanka Island, about 15 miles southeast of Dutch Harbor. Then he grabbed his shovel.

Carver, an emeritus professor at Humboldt State University who lives in Kodiak, dug a hole near the driftwood log. He saw in the soil that big waves had soaked the island at regular intervals.

“In the profile were layers of beach-like sand separated by peaty soils,” Carver said in San Francisco at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Carver was one of more than 20,000 scientists who attended the weeklong gathering of Earth and space… read more

Earth's coldest spot is not in Alaska

SAN FRANCISCO — Last July, while we Alaskans enjoyed another warm day, the surface temperature dropped to minus 135.3 degrees Fahrenheit in an icy trough on a south-facing ridge in western Antarctica.  According to the man who noticed the temperature, Ted Scambos at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., that and another day during Antarctica’s polar night are the coldest surface temperatures yet recorded on Earth.

“It’s more like what you would see on Mars on a summer day,” Scambos said during a press conference here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.   Scambos is one of more than 20,000 scientists who will attend the week-long gathering of Earth and space scientists. His subject was apt as the San Francisco area experienced clear skies and what local meteorologists termed a “cold snap,” with low temperatures below freezing and the patchy formation of sidewalk ice, a foreign substance in the Bay Area.

Scambos noticed the… read more

Grinding fish heads for the goodness within

NIKISKI — In a chilly building across Cook Inlet from the white pyramid of Mount Redoubt rest a few dozen plastic-lined cardboard totes filled to the brim with an amber liquid. Each chest-high cube holds about a ton of fish oil extracted this summer from the heads of salmon. It’s a product that would have been lost to the Kenai River if Pat Simpson had not recovered it.

Simpson, 49, is a fisherman-turned-entrepreneur who has for the past few summers purchased salmon heads from fish processors who do business here in this small industrial town north of the Kenai River. Using precision equipment made in Europe, Simpson’s team steams and grinds the heads of pink, chum and red salmon to render a product now available in box stores as 90-count bottles of “Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil” gel tablets.

“We sold all our fish oil the first three years (to companies that put it in capsules and sold it to large retailers),” Simpson said at his Nikiski plant, shut down and unheated for… read more

Visiting bats and the hot maggots of autumn

After she read a column on Alaska bats, Pat Holloway of Fairbanks sent me a photo of a little brown bat that made it into her house this summer. It surprised her, as bats tend to do when they appear in your home. After she stopped shrieking and ushered the bat out through an open screen, she searched her house the point of entry.

In her loft, Holloway saw a screen with a crack at its corner no wider than a pencil. She figures the bat landed on the screen and crawled until it found the slit. It wriggled into her home and gave her “the thrill of (her) summer” by swooping overhead as she was reclined, reading a book on her living room couch.

Joe Page of Talkeetna wrote that bats have roosted in the roof of his house for the past 20 years. Though he likes them, he is ready for the bats to stop cohabitating. In summer, he sometimes hears them rustling in his roof insulation.

“We’ve seen them as late as October 20,” Page wrote in an email. “This leads me to believe… read more

Alaska’s vitamin D production slows with the season

Interested people are needed to participate in a one-year study to assess the effects of long dark winters on the vitamin D and calcium levels of Fairbanks residents.

So began a recruitment poster Meredith Tallas created more than 25 years ago. Now living in California, Tallas was in 1983 a University of Alaska Fairbanks student who wanted to study how levels of a vitamin related to sun exposure fluctuated in people living so far from the equator.

“The most obvious vitamin to study in Alaska is vitamin D, because of the low light in winter,” Tallas said over the phone from her office in Berkeley.

Forty-seven people responded to Tallas’ 1983 request, and her master’s project was underway. By looking at the bloodwork of those Fairbanks residents every month and analyzing their diets, she charted their levels of vitamin D, which our skin magically produces after exposure to a certain amount of sunshine. We also get vitamin D from foods, such as vitamin-D enriched… read more

Biologist sees value in unchanged landscape

George Schaller has studied gorillas in Rwanda, lions on the Serengeti, pandas in China, antelope in Tibet, and many other animals in wild places around the planet, but he thinks the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unique among them. He visited there in 2006 for the first time in half a century.

“On the Sheenjek (River), we climbed the same cliff I climbed in 1956, and looking out there was no difference—no roads, no buildings, no garbage dumps.

“I’m sure there are rain forests in Brazil where you can walk for a few days without seeing people or big changes to the landscape, but sites like (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) that are ecologically whole are extremely rare.”

Schaller, possibly the most recognized biologist in the world, traveled to Alaska seven summers ago from his home in Connecticut for a trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with author Jon Waterman, University of Alaska Fairbanks students Betsy Young and Martin Robards,… read more

Scientists endure nights on mountaintop perch

Leaning against her Thermarest pad in a helicopter coated with ice, Taryn Lopez imagined herself as the little girl rocking to sleep in her parent’s boat. Just before she drifted off on that early September night, the volcano researcher wondered if the climbing ropes would hold the Jet Ranger to the wind-pounded volcano on the spine of the Alaska Peninsula.

“We weren’t sure if we’d wake up the next morning having moved a couple feet,” she said.

In the back seat of the stranded helicopter, John Paskievitch was confident in his improvised anchors, but had a harder time falling asleep. He couldn’t help thinking of the flying-rock windstorms he had experienced in 25 years of fieldwork in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. And how most of that extreme weather occurred in places not nearly as exposed as this.

Sleep also eluded pilot Sam Egli of King Salmon as he shifted in his seat at the unfamiliar sensation of being wrapped in a sleeping bag. Egli made the call to stay… read more

Wildfire hits close to home for scientist

While pounding nails on a roof extension for his shed this summer, Scott Rupp heard a roar that almost scared him off the roof. Three planes with bellies full of fire retardant swooped low, then banked over the mountain behind his home.

“I looked up and saw this big smoke cloud,” said the part-time farmer and leader of an organization devoted to studying climate change. “That was my first sense that this was something that was going to personally affect me.”

“This” was one of the largest wildfires in Alaska during the hot summer of 2013. It came close enough to Rupp’s homestead that he felt smoky heat on his face, a sensation that will now be on his mind every time he tweaks a computer model that simulates future fire scenarios in Alaska.

Rupp, 46, leads two lives in his home of interior Alaska. By day, he heads the Scenarios Network for Alaska & Arctic Planning, a group of about 20 scientists and staff who try to predict the future of Alaska climate so… read more

90-mile aqueduct still etched in Interior hills

Like a bright yellow contour line painted above the Steese Highway, the Davidson Ditch now reveals itself by the flagging autumn birches and poplars that clog its path.

The 90-mile system of canal, pipeline and tunnel becomes harder to see with each passing day, but the engineering triumph once helped prevent Fairbanks from ghosting out. The 1920s-era aqueduct provided the water needed to float dredges the size of apartment complexes and power hydraulic giants that firehosed water at Tanana River valley hillsides, stripping them to bedrock.

In the early 1900s, migrants from the Klondike gold rush were splashing through every creek around Fairbanks. By 1920, those men had panned much of the near-surface gold, and many were looking to move on to the next action. That’s when a college-educated stampeder saw a way to mine the low-grade deposits with massive machines and more efficiency.

The United States Smelting and Refining Company, a Maine corporation with… read more

Winds and ice stop Northwest Passage journey

Beavers and jet skis surprised four adventurers on their recent attempt to row through the Northwest Passage. Vancouver, British Columbia residents Kevin Vallely, Paul Gleeson, Frank Wolf and Denis Barnett are now back home after the team stopped short of its goal of gliding through the northern waterway on muscle power.

After ever-changing winds stalled their 25-foot rowing pod enough to put them weeks behind schedule, the four men stopped rowing when they reached Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Their original goal was to transit the Northwest Passage from west to east, beginning at Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and finishing at Pond Inlet, Nunavut, on the east coast of Baffin Island. Cambridge Bay is about as far from Pond Inlet as Denver is from Washington, D.C.

“We were way behind schedule after the first month,” Wolf said on the phone from Vancouver just before biking downtown to be interviewed by a CBS News reporter. “Heavy winds didn’t allow us to move very far.”… read more

A supertanker voyage through the Northwest Passage

Forty-six years ago, a ship long as the Empire State Building sailed with intention toward obstacles that captains usually avoid. The icebreaking tanker SS Manhattan was an oil company’s attempt to see if it might be profitable to move new Alaska oil to the East Coast by plowing through the ice-clogged Northwest Passage.

Begging his way aboard was Merritt Helfferich, then 31 and a do-all guy at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Helfferich heard of Humble Oil and Refining Company executives recruiting a team of Alaska engineers to ride the ship and measure the properties of sea ice it crushed along the way. When the ship’s launch was delayed and other professors needed to teach their fall classes, Helfferich was soon gasping in wonder at a dock in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, he saw the giant ship he was to ride all the way north to Prudhoe Bay.

The largest ship ever to fly an American flag, the SS Manhattan busted its way north in search… read more

Fifty years of far-north biology

While waiting for the talking to begin in darkened auditoriums, I sometimes scan the room, counting heads. “I’ve interviewed him, and her, and him. And her.”

At last week’s dedication of the Institute of Arctic Biology’s lovely new building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, I saw more than a dozen people who have appeared in this space since fall 1994 (when I took over this column from Carla Helfferich).

I’ve written a lot of words about these biologists because we still know so little about far-north creatures and how they survive here, and Institute of Arctic Biology people have discovered things we did not know. One example is where chickadees roost during winter (often in tiny holes in birch trees, Susan Sharbaugh found). Another is that our rugged version of Alaska wood frogs can survive colder temperatures than Lower 48 wood frogs, which live as far south as Georgia (Brian Barnes and his physiology class uncovered that one).

Barnes, who also… read more

Looking back in time at the world's oceans

 A time capsule of satellite imagery of the earth will become available to scientists this month.

On June 28, digital imagery from more than three decades ago will be released by the Alaska Satellite Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, NASA’s processor and distributor for this type of data. The images reveal an unprecedented view of sea ice, waves, forests, glaciers and more.

“It was awesome because I was resurrecting data that nobody has seen in 35 years, pictures of the earth from when I was a child,” said Tom Logan, the software engineer who processed the data.

The NASA Seasat satellite was launched in June 1978 as proof of concept for using satellites to monitor ocean features--like temperatures, wind and waves. Four months later, a major power failure killed the mission. For 35 years much of the imagery was stowed away in filing cabinets.

Now the data has been processed into several thousand unique gray-scale images… read more

Southwest Alaska challenging for travel, shelter

BETHEL — Outside the Fly By Café, the ravens are flying backwards. At least they appear to be, as a powerful wind suspends them in time and space.

A brewing ground blizzard in this Southwest Alaska hub is making it difficult for Jack Hébert to get to Atmautluak, a village of less than 300 people here on the flats of the Kuskokwim River Delta. Hébert, president and founder of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, is travelling to Atmautluak because members of the village’s tribal council called him for advice. The villagers want to both build their own homes and set up their own construction company.

Hébert, along with Aaron Cooke, an architectural designer with the center, want to partner with the people of Atmautluak as they have assisted others in places like Anaktuvuk Pass, Quinhagak, Crooked Creek and Point Lay. In Anaktuvuk, center staffers helped design and build low-cost, fuel-sipping, semi-subterranean houses that meshed with the country and… read more

Alaska forests in transition

In almost every patch of boreal forest in Interior Alaska that Glenn Juday has studied since the 1980s, at least one quarter (and as many as one-half) of the aspen, white spruce and birch trees are dead.

“These are mature forest stands that were established 120 to 200 years ago,” said Juday, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. “Big holes have appeared in the stands.”

At his Dec. 7, 2012 presentation during the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union held in San Francisco, Juday spoke of a “biome shift” now underway in Alaska — the boreal forest is suffering in the Interior and flourishing in western Alaska.

Juday presented his observations of boreal forest trees on remote and road-accessible plots along the Tanana River downstream of Fairbanks and in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. He also included results from tree-coring trips he and his colleagues… read more

Goodbye to a giant of glacier research

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Doubling our daylight savings

Last week, Carl Benson, 85, accepted a lifetime achievement award from the place he has worked since Dwight Eisenhower was president. As the snow and ice scientist and professor emeritus at University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute rose to applause from his friends and coworkers, memories rushed back to me.
One was the frigid January day he invited me along in his car to a busy intersection in Fairbanks. There, Carl used a spatula to shave dirty frost off a sheet of plywood he had placed in a snowbank earlier in the day. He later melted the residue to determine the unsavory ingredients of ice fog.

Another Carl memory is his badgering me for using “medieval units” like feet and miles in this column. He is perhaps the only person in Alaska with a driver’s license that lists his height in centimeters.

Carl was also the first person who told me how a political maneuver pushed Alaska farther out of sync with the sun. Way back when Bill Clinton… read more

A far-off place, all for the birds

HALL ISLAND — On this windy, misty August day, there are perhaps one million birds clinging to the cliffs that buttress this Bering Sea island. These seabirds, crazy-eyed and with bodies both sleek and clumsy, need solid ground for just a few months to hold their eggs. When their summer mission is complete, the birds scatter to the vastness of the sea.

The temporary human population on Hall Island is six — five biologists and me. We are intruding on a five-mile-long apostrophe occupied by birds in summer and padded upon year-round by a few arctic foxes that eat voles and birds and bird eggs and who-knows-what in winter. The only signs of people here are a collection of small World War II-era batteries on the interior tundra and a dark green square of turf that might show where a few Russians and their Aleut slaves dug in for a winter in the early 1800s.

The biologists are here for a periodic check on the seabirds, using a protocol they follow on islands throughout the… read more

A “totally weird” dinosaur; new waste study in Denali

A couple of summers ago, David Tomeo was exploring a creekbed in Denali National Park, preparing for a field seminar on the park’s dinosaurs he would help lead a few weeks later. With a trained eye for the impressions dinosaurs pressed into mud millions of years ago, Tomeo walked to a large boulder in the middle of a landslide.

“Right in the middle of it, a four-toed track stood out,” said Tomeo, program director for Alaska Geographic at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali Park.

Tomeo snapped a picture of the track and sent it to Tony Fiorillo, a dinosaur hunter from the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas who often travels to Alaska.

Fiorillo was intrigued. The track looked like that of a therizinosaur, a tall, feathered meat-eater with sickle-like claws that extended a few feet from the three fingers of each hand.

“Therizinosaurs are totally weird,” Fiorillo said. “These guys are unlike any predatory dinosaur you’ve ever seen. From head… read more

Signs of life in a far away place

ST. MATTHEW ISLAND — “Oh look, another tooth,” says Dennis Griffin, dressed in rain gear and caked with wet soil.

Griffin, the state archaeologist with Oregon’s State Historic Preservation Office, has traveled to one of the least-walked hillsides on the planet to search for evidence of his species. On a tundra rise with a gorgeous view of Hall Island and a nice panorama of St. Matthew Island, he has today found a fox tooth in a decaying jaw, chips of rock where someone made tools, pottery, a plate-size anvil stone and a yellowed walrus tusk cut with deep grooves.

“I’m very glad I extended this plot,” Griffin says.

In two days of digging into a square depression on soft ground near where someone long ago dragged the 20-foot jawbone of a whale, Griffin has unearthed the leavings of Native people who probably lived on this lonely island around the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. In foggy, wet weather typical for St. Matthew —more than 200 miles from… read more

Impressions of a place far away from everywhere

ST. MATTHEW ISLAND —I’m resting on a mattress of tundra plants that are growing more than 200 miles from the nearest Alaska village. While I have snuck away here to my own private ridge top, eight other people, all scientists, are somewhere on this 30-mile-long wedge of tundra, rocky beaches, lakes and bird cliffs in the central Bering Sea. We nine make up the entire human population of the island.

On our 25-hour boat ride here from St. Paul Island aboard the 120-foot Tiglax, Steve Delehanty, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, pointed out that more people climb Mount Everest each year than walk on St. Matthew. There is one main reason.

“It’s hard to get to,” he said.

Sheer distance has saved this place from fur trapping, mining, oil drilling, airstrip building and other endeavors that leave a mark. A moist climate good for decomposition is also allowing St. Matthew to outlast an occupation by the U.S. military in World War II.

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Standing in the middle of the ice age

FOX, ALASKA — Bison have not thundered through this neighborhood for thousands of years. But there’s one now, Matthew Sturm said, as he pointed to a horn cemented in a cold, dark wall 30 feet beneath the boreal forest.

“We’re standing in the middle of the ice age,” Sturm, an expert on snow, ice and other frozen things said from inside the famous Permafrost Tunnel, bored into a hillside north of Fairbanks. “This was the savanna of the north, with bison, saber-toothed cats, mammoths and horses. This is one of the great Pleistocene bonebeds in the world. Hundreds of boxes of bones came from Engineer and Goldstream creeks.”

Sturm and Margaret Cysewski, both of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Fort Wainwright recently gave me a private tour of the emerging new permafrost tunnel in Fox, along with a walk through the old one. Their goal is to alert people to a community meeting regarding the new and old tunnels in late July regarding how best… read more

A quarter century of change

Not too long ago, I passed a milestone that doesn’t really mean much, but is a nice round number. Twenty-five years ago, I drove a Ford Courier pickup from upstate New York to Fairbanks, Alaska. I rolled into town in August, started college in September, and have lived here ever since.


Twenty-five years isn’t such a long time, but it’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Scientists consider one-quarter century a long-term study, and I wish I followed that professor’s advice long ago when she urged I stake out a forest plot and measure its changes through the years. And I should have picked up a few pounds of gold then when it was $326 per ounce instead of $1,600.


Other things have… read more

Arctic lakes getting a closer look

Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but Alaska has more than that in the great expanse of flatlands north of the Brooks Range. These ubiquitous far-north bodies of water — most of them formed by the disappearance of ancient, buried ice that dimples the landscape as it thaws — make the maps of Alaska’s coastal plain look like Swiss cheese.

A large group of scientists are now taking a closer look at Alaska’s “thermokarst” lakes, some of the fastest-changing landforms on the planet.

Guido Grosse just got back from a spring trip to a few dozen frozen lakes of the north. A permafrost scientist with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Grosse and three partners covered 800 miles of northern Alaska on snowmachines, stopping at groups of frozen lakes in still-wintry April weather and installing instruments that will remain for years.

While Grosse’s group was breaking trail over the blown snow of the central arctic plain, another group of… read more

Spring equinox tips the light northward

My thermometer here in Fairbanks is stuck on single digits today, but the height of the sun and a quick online check informs me that this is indeed the spring equinox. We will experience daylight for half the day, which was beyond imagining when the sun was two fingers above the Alaska Range in December.


In many places, including the green foothills of New York’s Adirondack Mountains where I grew up, this equinox often falls on a day that seems like spring, with warm, remembered smells of the earth and tree buds swollen to bursting. Here in the far north, we are now receiving the same daylight as New York, but our trees will not unfold their solar panels for another few months.

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When NASA visited Venetie

VENETIE — The cozy log structure smells of coffee, gasoline, and spruce logs burning in a stove made from a 55-gallon drum. Inside the building that serves as the Village Council headquarters for Venetie, Josh Bundick explains a new policy that rewards villagers who find spent rocket parts launched from north of Fairbanks.


The Venetie men and women in the cabin look at one another when Bundick mentions that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is offering as much as $1,200 for the location of rocket parts. Dozens of these rocket stages remain in northern Alaska from aurora-studying missions launched during the last few decades from Poker Flat Research Range in Chatanika, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. Burnt out… read more

Alaska scientist leaves colorful legacy

Alaska scientist Davis “Dave” Sentman died in December 2011. The man who named “sprites,” colorful discharges that burst upward from thunderclouds, was 66 years old.


Sentman, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, retired from the university in spring 2011. This gave him more time to follow a remarkable sense of curiosity that was evident as his brothers sorted through Sentman’s belongings at his Fairbanks home. There, they noticed a birch tree strung with wires hooked to a computer; Sentman was using the tree as an antenna, trying to pick up “Schumann Resonances,” a natural, lighting-generated hum felt around the globe. Some people have suggested our brains… read more

Eroding islands, disappearing glaciers, lots of greenhouse gases


The latest meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December 2011 featured hundreds of talks about Earth science, some of those relating to Alaska (and some of those comprehensible to a non-scientist). Here are a few items from the notebook I carried around the Moscone Center:


An Aleutian Island morphs at high speed: Chris Waythomas of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage spoke of how Kasatochi Island in the Aleutians has changed in diameter since its explosive 2008 eruption. “Erosion by wave action has eaten away the coast at about (1,000 feet) per year. This may be a world record,” he said. That’s about three feet of shoreline disappearing every day.

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Bowheads rise, Barrow sinks. fire scars the tundra

From my notebook, here’s more northern news presented at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a five-day gathering of more than 20,000 scientists held in early December 2012 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco:

Bowhead whales counted from a sea-ice perch north of Barrow are “doing beautifully,” according to Craig George with the North Slope Borough. George has since 1978 counted bowhead whales for an eight-week period each year from mid-April until June. The whales, which spend their entire lives in arctic waters, are migrating past Point Barrow during that time. Since George and his colleagues began recording whale numbers 34 years ago, their counts have increased from 1,200 animals in 1978 to 3,400 in 2011. From those numbers of whales seen, George estimates there are now 14,000 to 15,000 animals.

“It’s pretty dramatic how it’s changed,” George said.

Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to… read more

Recovery after world's largest tundra fire raises questions

Four summers ago, Syndonia Bret-Harte stood outside at Toolik Lake, watching a wall of smoke creep toward the research station on Alaska’s North Slope. Soon after, smoke oozed over the cluster of buildings.

“It was a dense, choking fog,” Bret-Harte said.

The smoke looked, smelled and tasted like what Bret-Harte has experienced at her home in Fairbanks, but the far-north version was composed of vaporized tundra plants instead of black spruce and birch. The 2007 Anaktuvuk River fire, which burned an area the size of Cape Cod, is the largest fire ever recorded in tundra. It was the first wildfire in the area since slaves were shoving blocks in place to create the pyramids in Egypt (about 5,000 years ago).

Bret-Harte and others working at the research station knew they were witnessing something unusual — or maybe seeing the future. They found funding to study the burn, and time in their schedules to get their feet on the black ground. The group of scientists, led… read more

A northern journey along the DEW Line

On windy, cold nights a few decades ago, men in darkened rooms north of the Arctic Circle spent their evenings watching radar screens. They were looking for slashes of green light that represented Soviet Bear bombers loaded with nukes and headed southward from the pole.

Those men were DEWliners: a group mostly comprised of civilians who had signed 18-month contracts to work at radar sites that stretched across the Arctic like an electronic picket fence. There were stations every 50 miles from the Aleutians to Greenland. The Distant Early Warning Line stations remained in a chain along 69 degrees north latitude even as they became somewhat obsolete after Russian development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Now, long after the thaw of the Cold War, some of the DEW Line stations have been upgraded to modern radar systems. Others are moldering on the muskeg of Canada and northern Alaska.

Stacey Fritz has walked… read more

From Alaska to the top of Africa

An Alaska teacher and an eighth grade student are now seeing the world differently after a visit to the other side of the planet.

Jenny Heckathorn, a biology teacher from Valdez, and Spencer Adams, a 14-year-old from Palmer, climbed Africa’s highest peak this fall. The trip was part of the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Seasons and Biomes program and GLOBE Africa. The GLOBE program also enabled them to explore Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge and Serengeti National Park.

“What impressed me most were the similarities between African animals and North American animals,” Heckathorn said via phone from her Valdez classroom. “The herd of zebras smelled and acted just like horses; the spotted jackal up close could have been a coyote; reedbucks look just like whitetail deer from a distance; (Ngorongoro) crater looked just like Yellowstone Park, but there were wildebeests instead of vast herds of bison . . . I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, that reminds me of… read more

Alaska landscape loses a body, gains a spirit

Keith Echelmeyer has died at age 56. The glaciologist, pilot, mountaineer and fighter for life passed away last Saturday, with his incomparable wife Susan Campbell by his side and chickadees at the feeder just outside his window.

His death from a brain tumor was not a surprise, but his enduring it for eight years was.

Keith did some impressive science in his two decades at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He figured out baffling complexities of ice streams in Antarctica, worked on the fastest flowing glacier in the world in Greenland years before it became big news, and outfitted his single-engine Piper PA-12 with a laser rangefinding system that allowed his team to measure staggering ice loss on Alaska glaciers.

In 2002, after Keith flew his plane from Fairbanks to Yakutat for a conference he helped organize, he suffered violent seizures and was medevaced to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. There, he learned he had… read more

Cellphones as citizen-science tools

“Found Sea Otters Dead at 3851 Homer Spit Road . . . Right in front of oyster facility.”

Verena Gill was thrilled when this message appeared on her iPhone on a recent Saturday afternoon; it was the first use of a new iPhone application that allows people to report a beached marine mammal.

Gill, a biologist who studies sea otters and other marine mammals in her job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, helped develop the free iPhone application. It allows anyone with an iPhone to report stranded whales, walruses, seals, sea lions and sea otters.

People with the application on their cellphones can take photos of the dead or live animals and write a short description of the scene. The photo records the latitude and longitude of the animal, and the application sends an email to a network of biologists, veterinarians and others who scramble into action to recover the animal or examine it at the site. That team includes people from National Marine… read more

A friend remembers Ted Stevens' advocacy for Alaska science

When Syun-Ichi Akasofu first approached Ted Stevens, the Japanese-American leader of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute was desperate — the institute's rocket range had no money to maintain or improve its structures and equipment.

Akasofu traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet the powerhouse Alaska senator. When Akasofu reached Stevens’ office, the senator informed him that he needed to head to Capitol Hill.

“Can I come with you?” Akasofu asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Stevens said.

On the brief train ride, Akasofu pled his case for funds that would allow improvements to the rocket range his institute and the university had no money for. Stevens listened to him and deemed Akasofu’s cause important enough to turn around.

“Let’s go back to the office right now,” Stevens said.

The men caught a train going the other way. Stevens assembled his staff and brainstormed until they found a way to fund a $20 million upgrade to… read more

Dry wood is good wood

A friend says that among his most satisfying moments are those he stands contemplating his pile of firewood. He inhales the sweetness of birch, the tang of aspen and the sharp bite of spruce while he ponders the moisture wafting out of his wood.

My friend knows how to have a good time. And he is appreciating a process that is important in places where people burn wood and release its smoke into an air column that doesn’t stir much in winter — burned dry wood results in much better air quality than wetter wood.

“I think it’s a big issue,” said John Davies, a longtime woodburner and senior researcher for energy policy at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. Researchers at the center recently collected firewood from people in Fairbanks to check it for moisture content, and are also measuring the drying progress of cordwood they have stacked on the grounds of the center in Fairbanks. Fairbanks often exceeds Environmental Protection Agency air quality… read more

Burned Alaska may cause more burned Alaska

The blackened scars that Alaska fires leave on the landscape may result in more lightning, more rain in some areas just downwind of the scars, and less rain farther away, according to two scientists.

Nicole Mölders and Gerhard Kramm, both of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, study how changes in landscapes affect the weather. After Alaska’s fire season in 2004, when smoke befouled much of the air Alaskans breathed and a collective area the size of Vermont burned, the scientists wondered how all that charred country would affect local weather patterns.

The researchers used MM5, a computer model based at Penn State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to simulate conditions on the ground and in the air above it. They compared the surface of Alaska before and after Alaska’s record fire season, in which 6.72 million acres burned. The model told them that fire scars larger than 250,000 acres—about the space taken up by… read more

Learning from whales and whalers on top of the world

OFF POINT BARROW — “We’re a long ways offshore,” Craig George says. “The water beneath us is about 180 feet deep.”

In late May, a chilly breeze cuts from the west as we stand on a platform of bluish white sea ice. “The Perch,” a whale-watching tower located on a snowmachine cul de sac at the top of North America, is a small castle made of ice chunks and an impressive amount of labor. George, fellow biologist Leslie Pierce and I are at the ragged edge of sea ice that clings to the northern coast. Eiders, sea ducks almost as large as geese, bark in the cool air above the open water a few hundred yards ahead of us; the first loons to arrive this far north zip by on their way to summer.

George, a biologist with the North Slope Borough, located the Perch here so he and other biologists could count bowhead whales as they arc over the continent while migrating from the Chukchi to Beaufort seas. He and Pierce are pulling a four-hour… read more

Climber-turned-scientist ponders Alaska Range formation

About 15 years ago, a distinguished geology professor named David Hopkins noticed that one of his brightest students wasn’t captivated by the course Hopkins was teaching. After class, he called the young man to his desk.

“Jeff,” he said, “If you’re not into this, don’t waste your time with it. Do what you’re interested in.”

“Well, I’m interested in climbing,” said Jeff Benowitz.

And, for a decade, climbing is what Benowitz did. He pioneered new routes in the Alaska Range. He spent summers high in the mountains, sometimes bagging peaks from Denali base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier, subsisting on the excess food of other climbers.

Throughout that climbing-rat experience, Benowitz never stopped looking at the mountains with a geologist’s eyes. He baffled his climbing partners by stuffing into his pack rocks the weight of bowling balls. Sometimes, when snow and wind pinned him inside his tent, he put aside his Russian novels and pondered why the Alaska Range… read more

Laser light, GPS, Subaru used for precise glacier measurement

As Chris Larsen drives his 1997 Subaru Legacy wagon around the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the jutting apparatus bolted to his car’s roof rack draws a few stares.

The glacier researcher at UAF’s Geophysical Institute is chauffeuring a sophisticated GPS laser-measuring system that in one week will be in the belly of an airplane flying over the Stikine and Glacier Bay icefields in Southeast Alaska.

To save expensive flight time later, Larsen is driving the device around campus in what he calls a “coarse system check.” He will soon install it in a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter owned and flown by Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Lodge in the Wrangell St. Elias Mountains.

Larsen and graduate student Austin Johnson, who is blessed with a sense of equilibrium that allows him to peer at computer screens in moving cars and airplanes without turning green, cruise around the UA Museum of the North at 10 miles per hour. Shooting out sideways from the top of the Subaru, a… read more

Short, chubby, and neurotic might be a good combination in the cold

This message came from the grandfather of 5-year-old Ben, who lives near Inverness, Scotland:

Even in winter he will rapidly strip off and often plays in a sleeveless vest while others still have a shirt and woolly jumper on. He appears to be always warm. He goes to an excellent school but complains that the rule in winter is that they must wear their coats outside. He finds even a light coat uncomfortable in normal winter conditions.

Ben, it seems, has a remarkable tolerance for cold. His grandfather, Ged Church, is looking for answers, because Ben becomes distressed when he is overheated and “we would like to have a sensible chat with his teachers about it,” Church said.

There’s no doubt, some people run hotter than others. But what makes a person more tolerant of the cold? The size and shape of one’s body makes a difference, according to Jacques LeBlanc, a researcher at Laval University in Quebec.

Children lose more heat to their environment… read more

Alaska's largest glacier surging again

“What in the world is Bering doing?” a woman said when she looked at Chris Larsen’s photograph of the buckled back of Alaska’s largest glacier.

“The cracking-up is new on the glacier,” Larsen said. “There’s a lot more crevasses, and a lot more elevation increases where there should be thinning.”

The 2,000-square mile mass of Bering Glacier appears to be surging, Larsen told Geophysicist Jeanne Sauber of Goddard Space Flight Facility, who was looking at his poster in mid-December 2009, at the San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Larsen and colleagues discovered the surge—the sudden advance of part of the glacier—by checking the results of elevation-determining flights over the glacier in August and early September 2009.

“Where Bering takes a left out of the mountains, it’s about 100 meters higher than it was in August 2008,” said Larsen, who works at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.

When a glacier like… read more

News of the north, from San Francisco

In mid-December 2009, a few dozen Alaska scientists were part of the crowd that attended the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. I was there, too. I didn’t make it to all 15,788 posters and presentations, but here are some highlights from the notebook:

•The crumbling coast of northern Alaska “has experienced most of the (projected) 21st century warming already,” said Bob Anderson of the University of Colorado at Boulder. During summer, the thawing northern coast is calving like a dirty glacier into the ocean. Northern Alaska is losing about 30 to 45 feet of land to the ocean each year between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay, the area Anderson studies. “The ultimate culprit is loss of sea ice,” he said. When sea ice doesn’t hug the shoreline, the ocean there gets warmer, waves are larger, and the frozen bluffs of ice-cemented soil have a longer time to thaw without sea ice buttressing them (the “landfast” ice that doesn’t persist as long into summer… read more

Baghdad air not so good; Arctic ocean cooling in places

Soldiers in Iraq are breathing bad air, according to an Alaska researcher who for almost two years has monitored air quality in two camps in Baghdad. In addition to small particles blown into the air during sandstorms, soldiers at the camps are breathing in tiny lead particles, probably the result of burned leaded fuel.

“We exceed the U.S. ambient air quality lead standard almost all the time in Iraq,” said Cathy Cahill of University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.

Every three weeks, Cahill receives in the mail samples coated with a sticky film that captures particles from the air at the Army camps. A few soldiers operate the air samplers for her, and she mails the clean films back with reindeer jerky and smoked salmon tucked in the boxes. Her study is a joint venture with the Army and Navy to see what soldiers are breathing in combat zones.

“It’s bad,” Cahill says. “There’s more dust in the fine (breathable) fraction than we thought, and there’s… read more

Mobile reindeer processing unit deployed to western Alaska

Like herds of northern cattle that lived on tundra plants, more than 600,000 reindeer ranged over Alaska less than a century ago. Today, reindeer numbers are down to about 10,000 or so, due to their tendency to elope with caribou, be eaten by wolves and bears, and other reasons.

Managers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program are trying to give a boost to the reindeer industry on the Seward Peninsula by providing a mobile slaughter facility along with an expert instructor who knows how to use it.

Greg Finstad is head of the reindeer program at UAF and a man who has wrangled reindeer alongside Alaska Natives for 25 years. He ordered a 45-foot self-contained slaughter plant, winterized it, had it barged to Nome, and helped design a “high-latitude range management course” at the university campus there. To run the program, Finstad hired Heikki Muhonen of Finland, who will live in Nome for about two years.

“He’s the world’s expert,”… read more

Leaves stuck on trees; tornado witnessed

Recently, a few biologists at the Alaska Bird Observatory made an observation about our autumn. It appeared that the leaves were hanging on the trees for an extra-long time. An expert confirmed this.

“I sure did notice the leaves,” said Glenn Juday, a forest ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

For the past two decades, Juday has taken photos of a certain patch of local boreal forest between the time the first leaves fall from trees until the time it snows. This year he noticed a change from the usual pattern.

“The leaves were slow to come down, and some of them seem to be stuck now,” he said.

Juday, who works at UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, has a few theories as to why a good number of leaves haven’t made their way to the forest floor. First, it has been a warm fall in Interior Alaska. According to his unofficial count, just two years in the last 105 registered a later first fall frost at the Fairbanks… read more

Thaw scars widespread across the northland

One month ago, I wrote about a dramatic landscape feature in western Alaska called the Selawik Slump. The slump, caused by thawing permafrost, looks like a bomb crater leaking mud from the boreal forest into a clear northern river. There are dozens of them in northern Alaska, though none as big as the one on the Selawik River.

There are also many of these beacons of change in the Yukon Territory, according to Doug Davidge of Whitehorse, who read the Selawik column in the Yukon News. A few years ago Davidge was flying over the Peel River country east of Eagle Plains for work when he saw a gaping wound on a hillside. Scientists once described these features as “tundra mudflows.” They now call them retrogressive thaw slumps.

“We flew over some very dramatic looking retrogressive thaws, and we could pick out other ones as we flew along,” he said.

Davidge snapped a photo of the largest thaw slump he and the pilot noticed, near a drainage called Bonnet Plume. Though… read more

Albedo change about to alter Alaska

You can see it on the mountains—a clean, platinum finish that wasn’t there yesterday. It’s in the forecast for here in the lowlands, too. Snow. Our world is about to change.

We knew it was coming, right? The day I’m writing this, Sept. 21, is the average date at least a trace of snow shows up at the Fairbanks International Airport. So says my friend, National Weather Service hydrologist and fan-of-the-cold Ed Plumb.

Sept. 21 is also the date of the earliest measureable snowfall in Anchorage. The average date that snow endures for the winter in Anchorage is Oct. 16. Those in Barrow have already seen the white blanket; their average first date of measureable snowfall is Aug. 26.

Whatever the day, when snow appears and sticks, warmish temperatures usually don’t make a comeback. A good case study for this was the abbreviated autumn of 1992 in Interior Alaska. Here in Fairbanks, about eight inches of snow fell on Sept. 13. You can still see some birches bent in an… read more

The Selawik Slump grows unabated

About five years ago, Kevin Fox was flying over the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Alaska when he noticed the upper portion of the clear-running Selawik River looked cloudy. He traced the plume upstream and noticed what looked like a crater in the boreal forest; through a breach in its side, the crater was leaking a slurry of silt, gravel, and dirt into the river.

Fox, a pilot with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, had noticed the Selawik Slump, as researchers are now calling the nine-acre permafrost-related scar that has changed the character of the Selawik River. The feature is growing every year, and it may threaten a rich sheefish run used by villagers from Selawik.

Ben Crosby of Idaho State University studies unique landforms, and he began travelling to and studying the Selawik Slump a few years ago, after his father-in-law, Caleb Pungowiyi of Kotzebue, told him about it.

“It’s anomalously large,” Crosby said by phone from… read more

Sun stands still on Saturday solstice

“Did you feel it?” a friend asked on June 20th, at about 9:45 p.m. on a sunny Alaska night.

No, it wasn’t another earthquake. At that moment, the sun paused on its journey around our northern horizon, and we, for a second or two, experienced summer solstice.

Solstice is the precise time when the top of the world nods deepest toward the sun. Here’s what it’s like when solstice (a word derived from Latin words meaning “sun standing still”) arrives in Alaska:

Darkness, our old friend, has vanished. Even in Southeast, a person can read a book outside at midnight without a headlamp. Forget the aurora; it’s still there, dancing in the upper atmosphere, but we can’t see it. Stars, too, are a memory.

Male songbirds fill the forests with melody. Mother birds warm millions of little eggs, in nests from Attu to Annette. Alaska is bursting with migrants, here to exploit one of the richest populations of insects on the planet. Ravens, chickadees, and other winter… read more

Scientist kills polar bear during first field experience

Bob McNabb, 23, is just beginning what may be a long career studying glaciers. No matter how many seasons he spends on ice, he will probably never have a field experience like his first.

In May 2009, McNabb shot and killed a polar bear that was charging him outside a research station in Svalbard. The doctoral student observing an extremely far-north glacier in the Norwegian territory spoke about his experience when he returned to Fairbanks, where he studies at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This spring, McNabb traveled to the island of Nordaustlandet in Svalbard. The Connecticut-size island is just 10 degrees latitude shy of the North Pole. An ice cap covers 80 percent of its land area. The few mammals on the island include walrus, arctic foxes, and polar bears. No people live there.

“It’s one of the most remote places on Earth,” said Regine Hock, McNabb’s advisor and a scientist at the Geophysical Institute.

A research… read more

Springtime smoke in Siberia is our arctic haze

Arctic haze is a blob of air pollution that sloshes over the northern cap of the planet in springtime. It’s visible as a murkiness that prevents you from seeing Denali, or as dark bands on the horizon from the windows of planes flying over northern Alaska. On a bad day, it can make Alaska look like Los Angeles or Denver.

In the 1970s, scientists studied the northern air and found sulfur and black carbon floating in it from dirty smelters in Russia and other areas in Eurasia. Last spring, a team of scientists from Colorado took six flights north from Fairbanks in a plane designed to sniff the air and collect samples. After analyzing air from above northern Alaska and the sea ice north of Barrow, team members have concluded what much of the dark stuff was. It was soot from forest fires in southern Siberia and Lake Baikal, and from farmers preparing their fields by burning stubble in Kazakhstan and southern Russia.

“The fire plumes were a big surprise,” said Chuck Brock… read more

Biofuel chugs on during a cold Alaska night

Bernie Tao wasn’t looking forward to camping out at the Arctic Circle.

Tao, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University, hadn’t been to Alaska before. He also hadn’t camped in below zero temperatures since he was a Boy Scout. The National Weather Service called for the temperature to drop into the minus 20s, which was good for an experiment with biodiesel fuel, but not for sleeping. Making the outing even more difficult was the fact that Tao, who helped develop a method to make biodiesel flow at low temperatures, already felt he knew the outcome of a test that involved driving a few biodiesel-fueled vehicles to the Arctic Circle and running a generator on the substance overnight.

“I know it works,” he said in Fairbanks before heading north.

Tao slept in a tent at the Arctic Circle pull-off on the Dalton Highway with a half a dozen others as a generator purred all night, even when the temperature dropped to minus 23 degrees… read more

Big industry meets a small fishing town

Imagine a village on the ocean, well north of the Arctic Circle. For years, townspeople have scraped out a living by fishing for cod and herding reindeer. Then one day, during exploratory drilling, an oil company discovers tremendous wealth just offshore.

The residents agree to allow the giant company to develop a field of natural gas. Wary of the possibility of all the money flowing south while their environment bears all the risk, they demand concessions from the company. The company agrees to many of those requests, even though it doesn’t have to. The result is an imperfect but somewhat fair partnership.

This scenario is now playing out in Hammerfest, Norway, a village comparable to Dillingham, Alaska, in its size and economy. A University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student recently studied the interactions between a big company and the people of Hammerfest.

Matt Klick just defended his thesis on how a Norwegian oil company used “corporate social… read more

The price of oil and poor air quality

Established by people like gold miners who had other things on their minds, many Alaska cities, towns, and villages are in places with hidden issues. Fairbanks, for example, is in a valley so windless that air parcels linger there for long periods of time. Add about 100,000 people and their emissions, and that box of air can get stagnant.

In early winter 2008, Fairbanks has had some of the worst air quality ever recorded, according to Jim Conner, an air quality specialist for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

“We exceeded (federal air quality) standards in October this year for the first time,” Conner said. “It looks like we’ll have twice as many exceedances this year, about 50 (days).”

The bad air—caused by tiny floating particles from burned fuels—will lead to the Environmental Protection Agency in December to declare the borough as “out of attainment” of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. This means that Alaskans will have three years to come up… read more

Alaskans’ vitamin D production slows to a halt

Interested people are needed to participate in a one-year study to assess the effects of long dark winters on the vitamin D and calcium levels of Fairbanks residents.

So began a recruitment poster Meredith Tallas created 25 years ago. Now living in Oakland, California, Tallas was a University of Alaska Fairbanks student in 1983 who wanted to study how levels of a vitamin related to sun exposure fluctuated in people living so far from the equator.

“The most obvious vitamin to study in Alaska is vitamin D, because of the low light in winter,” Tallas said recently over the phone from her office in Berkeley.

Forty-seven people responded to Tallas’ 1983 request, and her master’s project was underway. By looking at the bloodwork of those Fairbanks residents every month and analyzing their diets, she charted their levels of vitamin D, which our skin magically produces after exposure to a certain amount of sunshine. We also get vitamin D from foods, such as vitamin-D… read more

Alaska fare from a northern science conference

Some notes from the pad, scribbled during the 2008 Arctic Science Conference held in Fairbanks, September 15 - 17:

  • In Eagle, Alaska, the Yukon River has broken up in April rather than May only 12 times in about one century of records. Ten of those early breakups happened between 1989 and 2008, according to Eagle resident and historian John Borg.
  • Willows may be responding to crowding pressure from the exotic white sweet clover by producing more tannins, which make willow less tasty to moose. James Sowerwine of the University of Alaska Anchorage also thinks white sweet clover may already be stunting willow growth on the Nenana River.
  • Ted Wu of the USDA Agricultural Research Service at UAF has been gathering up fish guts and heads by the bucketful at Kodiak fish processors and bringing them back to Fairbanks. In the lab, he and his co-workers have ground up the heads and guts of salmon, and the bones, heads, skin, and guts of pollock. They… read more

Unhealthy fats arrive with other changes in Native culture

Over the years, medical researcher Sven Ebbesson has made about 7,000 house calls in Eskimo villages touched by the waters of the Bering Sea. Ebbesson spends time in village homes because he is curious as to why diabetes and cardiovascular disease are on the rise among Alaska Natives.

“Until about 40 years ago, there was essentially no diabetes among Eskimos in Siberia, while their kissing-cousins in Alaska seemed to have a lot of it,” said Ebbesson, former director of the Alaska-Siberia Medical Research Program and a professor emeritus with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ebbesson launched a study in 1992 and found what he believes to be the downside of the prosperity that came with Alaska’s statehood and oil wealth.

“Until 1970, there was basically no diabetes or heart disease in Eskimos,” Ebbesson said. “It’s probably related to diet more than anything else, and the driver of the changes was income. They started to get some cash so they could buy food, and… read more

Is there a link between diabetes and latitude?

Diabetes seems to afflict more northerners than those living near the equator, making some researchers think exposure to sunlight plays a role in the disease.

In a new study, scientists at the University of California, San Diego found that cases of type I diabetes, in which the body doesn’t make enough insulin, increase with latitude. They recommended children one and older who live about 30 degrees from the equator receive supplemental vitamin D3 during the winter to reduce their risk of childhood diabetes. The California researchers include Sharif Mohr and Cedric Garland, and their study appeared in the online version of the journal Diabetologia.

“This is a very interesting finding,” Abel Bult-Ito, a professor of biology with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology and Department of Biology and Wildlife, wrote in an e-mail. “It does not surprise me that there is a latitudinal trend in a lot of diseases, including diabetes. The light… read more

Alaska pathway seems free of deadly bird flu

Asian bird flu and its connection to Alaska was big news a few years ago, when dozens of Alaska scientists started checking birds migrating from Asia. So far, the news from the field is good.

“There are strains of avian flu here, but not of the deadly stuff—thank goodness,” said Greg Wilkinson of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

The U.S. government spent millions in the last few years to enable biologists to capture migratory birds and swab their rear ends to search for signs of a deadly virus first found in Hong Kong in 1997. Since 2003, the Asian H5N1 virus has spread west across Asia to Europe and Africa, and has killed more than 240 people.

Alaska, so far, is clean.

“All agencies collectively sampled over 20,000 wild birds in Alaska, and the bottom line is that in 2006, we found garden-variety avian flu in 1.7 percent of those birds, and we didn’t find any of the Asian H5N1,” said Tom Rothe, the statewide waterfowl coordinator… read more

Alaska taking shape near Yakutat

The forces shaping Alaska never sleep, especially near Yakutat.

I visited the fishing town of about 800 people and many dogs a few years back. My assignment was to write about scientists studying Hubbard Glacier, which slammed the door on Russell Fiord in summer 2002, creating the largest glacier-dammed lake in the world for a few weeks until the dam broke.

The relentless advance of Hubbard Glacier takes center stage in Yakutat, but the area surrounding the town is one of the world's great examples of geology in action.

To the west of Yakutat, Mount St. Elias rises like a white pyramid to an elevation of 18,008 feet in one of the world's most dramatic transitions from sea to summit. The Yakutat block, a chunk of Earth's crust larger in area than Pennsylvania, is responsible for forming Mount St. Elias and the other mountains of the St. Elias and Chugach ranges. The Yakutat block formed somewhere off the West Coast of the U.S. or Canada and, in a trip that took… read more

More tales of a changing Alaska

More Alaska-related news from the notebook after a week at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco:

  • In autumn 2007, temperatures north of Alaska over the Arctic Ocean were about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than longtime averages, and in November there was still open water on the Chukchi Sea. “These are most likely the largest temperature anomalies on the globe for autumn,” said John Walsh of the International Arctic Research Center during a talk he gave at the conference. Walsh said that open water on the ocean and the heat it absorbs make the Arctic a real driver of the entire world’s increased warmth during autumn and early winter, and that role will only be enhanced if sea ice on top of the globe continues to decline. He also said the open water at the end of summer may have made the region stormier. Because the ice-free zone north of Alaska and Siberia persisted well into autumn, the ocean was able to provide the atmosphere… read more

Alaska and the North hot topics in San Francisco

Some Alaska-related news, culled from the notebook after a week at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco:

  • Forest ecosystems dominated by black spruce trees in Alaska and Canada cover an area one-third the size of the land surface in the Lower 48, according to Eric Kasischke of the University of Maryland. That’s significant because the tree Alaska firefighters have called “gasoline on a stick” holds a lot of carbon that would be released to the atmosphere if it burns. “We estimate that the black spruce forests in the North American boreal region store . . . nearly double the amount (of carbon) found in the forests of the 48 coterminous United States,” Kasischke wrote.
  • Temperature inversions, a common occurrence in Fairbanks and other parts of Alaska with bowl-type topography, low winds, and not much sun in winter, seem to be getting stronger, according to Stefanie Bourne of the Geophysical Institute at the University… read more

The physics of life at 40 below

A father wakes, rolls out of bed, and steps on cold carpet. He grabs a flashlight, and shines it outside the window. The thermometer reads 40 below zero, the only point at which the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales agree. The red liquid within his thermometer is alcohol; mercury freezes at 38 below.
His little boy wakes, dresses, and hands his father birch logs to add to the wood stove. The logs are heavy, cut last fall and not properly dried. The green wood contains almost 50 percent moisture, compared to about 30 percent in cured wood. The logs hiss amid other burning logs. They give off no heat until the moisture is driven off.
Outside, the car is plugged in. The father remembered the night before to activate the heating element that warms his antifreeze, which in turn keeps his motor oil just viscous enough to allow the pistons to move. A heat blanket, another northern adaptation, has kept the battery at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit; just warm enough to permit 50… read more

'Earth's climate has and will continue to change'

My memories of growing up in New York include a blanket of snow on the ground from about Thanksgiving until March. After I moved to Alaska a few decades ago, the snow Back East seemed less dependable on each winter visit, with rain often wiping it out. I thought maybe I had noticed a change, but memories are the most unreliable of data sets.

Last week, at a poster session at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting, which attracted about 15,000 scientists to San Francisco, a scientist chatted about “a region-wide winter warming trend” for New England. She had checked out regional weather records from 1965 to 2005 (which also happens to be the middle 40 years of my life).

“People who have lived in New England a long time always seem to tell you that it used to snow more and that it’s warmer now,” said Liz Burakowski of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New Hampshire at Durham. “Maybe this study shows that anecdotal evidence can sometimes be… read more

Benzene study in Anchorage targets attached garages

Because of our gasoline and our climate, Alaskans who live in homes with attached garages are at higher risk of exposure to harmful chemicals in the air. A few scientists are trying to find out the size of that risk.

Mary Ellen Gordian of Anchorage is a physician and a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who is beginning a study of benzene levels in which she hopes to test 400 local homes. In a preliminary study of Anchorage homes with attached garages, she found that one-third of the air samples from those homes had unhealthy levels of benzene.

“We had families exposed to levels way above the minimal risk level for acute exposure, and they’re being exposed to it 24-7 because it’s in their home,” she said.

Doctors have linked benzene to a higher risk of cancer related to white blood cells, such as leukemia and lymphoma, and Gordian suspects there may be a link between benzene exposure and asthma. Alaskans have a higher risk of exposure to benzene… read more

Heating today with an idea from yesterday

With the rising price of heating oil, some people are looking to the past for ways to heat their homes.

Masonry heaters, huge masses of stonework wrapped around a sinuous channel through which hot gases flow, are now appearing in Alaska homes. The clean-burning, efficient heaters existed for centuries in Europe and Scandinavia, but didn’t reach the shores of America until after the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Bill Reynolds and his wife Brenda Norcross of Fairbanks have heated their 1,400-square-foot house with a masonry heater for more than two winters. Reynolds said they have used two-and-one-half to three cords of wood per year to heat their home, which stays at a constant 70-to-72 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.

A masonry heater looks kind of like a traditional fireplace, but it fires like a wood stove, only faster and hotter. Reynolds fires his heater once a day if the temperature is warmer than minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside and twice if it’s colder. He… read more

Air quality of the great Alaska indoors

Article originally written in October 1999. 

The National Safety Council once reported that Americans spend 90 percent of their lives inside buildings. The council didn't say how Alaskans affected that number, but it's a good bet most of us spend a lot more time indoors in winter. With this inner migration comes the peril of breathing mold spores, overshot hair spray, gases wafting from new carpet, the feces of dust mites, and other indoor pollutants.

Maggie Isbell once did a study of indoor air pollution in Alaska, specifically two compounds in gasoline that often find their way into Alaska homes from engines stored near or inside the house. Isbell earned a degree with her work from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She spent a one winter and summer sampling air in Fairbanks homes and checking it for levels of benzene and toluene. Found in higher levels in Alaska gasoline than gasoline sold in the lower 48, benzene has been… read more

Even with the lag, Alaska passing peak warmth

You may not have noticed it as you were scooping fish out of the Copper River, or riding your bike through the tawny light of 10 p.m., but Alaska just made a left turn toward winter.

Much of the state will soon reach the average yearly date when the air won’t get any warmer. In Fairbanks, on July 19, the average daily temperature based on about a century of records drops from 63 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Anchorage, because the ocean is nearby, starts cooling later, on July 29, when the average temperature drops from 59 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit. Chandalar Lake reached its heat peak about July 15. Adak and Shemya in the Aleutians are two of the last places in Alaska to give in, with their average temperatures not dropping until late August and early September.

A person might think that since we get our maximum sunlight on the summer solstice (on or about June 21), we should also get our peak warmth then. The sun’s calling the shots, right?

Not entirely, said… read more

'Climate skeptic' questions conventional thinking

Syun-Ichi Akasofu’s greatest successes in a career of studying the aurora came when he questioned the conventional ideas about the phenomenon.

“I always become suspicious when many scientists agree on some interpretation,” he said.

Now in retirement, the 76-year-old former director of both UAF’s Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center is digging in on a new idea that runs contrary to popular beliefs—that today’s global warming might be more due to the planet’s natural recovery from its last cold period than from our pumping of greenhouse gases into the air. Akasofu recently gave a talk at the International Arctic Research Center in which he presented evidence for how the world has warmed in a steady fashion from well before the Industrial Revolution to the current day.

“If you look back far enough, we have a bunch of data that show that warming has gone on from the 1600s with an almost linear increase to the present,” Akasofu said. He… read more

Pollen scientist was one of a kind

Jim Anderson has died, and the world is a more boring place.

Anderson was 66. He suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, for several years before his death. A few weeks ago, the disease killed him. I felt a pang of loss even though I spoke only a few times with the former librarian of the Biosciences Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

I remember a man who dressed in colorful plaid jackets with wide lapels, someone who was a good interview because he knew his stuff so thoroughly. Until his death, I didn’t know he lived alone in a cabin with two Samoyed dogs, 25 typewriters, hundreds of teddy bears, 700 sport coats, and that he had a collection of 12,000 books on his property.

“Sometimes I think people noticed only the eccentricities and the compulsions Jim had (such as collecting 7,000 neckties), and miss the value of that very compulsiveness,” Karen Jensen wrote in an email. Jensen was Anderson’s co-worker for a few years at the Biosciences Library… read more

When moving on Alaska's trails, fat is good

On packed snow trails around Alaska, athletes are gliding, rolling and striding in preparation for winter races, such as the Susitna 100 and the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Competitors in the races, held along parts of the Iditarod Trail, choose their weapons: racers can bike, ski, run, or snowshoe the courses. During a similar race a few years ago, the now-defunct Iditasport, scientists poked and prodded some competitors in order to learn what it takes physically and mentally to do the race.

Sam Case is a professor of exercise science at Western Maryland College and a veteran of the 100-mile Iditasport who traveled to Fairbanks a few years back to discuss what happens to humans when they choose to exercise in cold weather. Case dashed the myth that anyone who exercises outside in cold places will freeze his or her lungs. Alaska athletes already know this is folklore rather than fact, but Case cited a study in which researchers found that dogs were able to… read more

The science of windshield cracks

Flipping through an issue of Nature once, I noticed that two scientists were spending hours pushing warm panes of glass into cold water to see how cracks form. Not everybody's idea of great time, but the researchers learned something about the complex processes involved with fracture; pretty useful stuff for engineers involved in bridge building.

For wisdom on Alaska's favorite glass crack, the windshield variety, I called Michael Marder, a physics professor at the University of Texas in Austin who wrote the Nature article. Marder said he wasn't a windshield expert, but he called me back the next day after curiosity had driven him into the university's library.

He told me a windshield isn't one solid piece of glass. As anyone can attest who has succumbed to the irresistible urge to heave a cinder block through a junkyard car window, a layer of clear plastic is embedded within car glass. This plastic, installed to keep glass from flying… read more

Wood burners unlock energy with a match

As our breath hangs in the frosty autumn air, thoughts turn to protecting our fragile selves from the inevitable deep freeze. Many Alaskans choose wood heat to make the winter more bearable.

Burning firewood provides warmth by releasing stored energy from the sun that trees have converted to mass we can use. British thermal units, or Btu, define the energy provided by a certain species of wood. A Btu is the amount of energy it takes to increase the temperature of one pound (one pint) of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

Firewood energy is measured in Btu per cord. A cord is 128 cubic feet, which is a four-foot by four-foot by eight-foot pile of wood. If a cord is cut in one-foot lengths to fit in the stove, the resulting woodpile will be 32 feet long and four feet high.

New Englanders might laugh at the fact that Alaskans burn birch and spruce, but hickories and oaks aren't hardy enough to survive our winters. Hickory provides about 30 million Btu per cord.

read more

Do melting glaciers make for bad oysters?

The rate of melting of Alaska's glaciers into the Gulf of Alaska has nearly doubled since 1995. In July 2004, passengers on a small cruise ship in Prince William Sound came down with stomach flu after eating local oysters. Some scientists think there's a connection between the two.

Tom Royer is an oceanographer with Old Dominion University in Virginia. Before he moved there, he was at the University of Alaska from 1969 to 1998. One of his duties for all those years has been to take readings of the temperature and the saltiness of the Gulf of Alaska. That long-term record shows that the ocean there has changed since measurements started in 1970.

“It's getting fresher, water temperatures are increasing, and it keeps warm water in the upper layers,” Royer said. “The bottom line is that everything's getting fresher and warmer.”

Those higher temperatures might have something to do with the oysters that caused people to get sick on the Prince William Sound cruise… read more

Removing the mystery from washboard roads

While driving Alaska’s graveled highways, countless people have no doubt wondered about how an unpaved road surface turns into a bouncing bed of corduroy. Keith Mather, who was studying nuclear physics in Australia in the early 1960s, had the same question. He wrote a paper about washboard roads in 1963.

Mather pointed out in his article that many people, particularly in Alaska, see washboard roads as “a welcome assurance of privacy in the outer reaches of suburbia.” He also wrote that corrugated road surfaces were a literal pain in the neck in many developing countries, where major highways featured hundreds of miles of milkshake motorways.

He wasn’t satisfied with the theories of the time: that “peculiar soil,” wind from passing vehicles, car exhaust, or impulses from car engines caused washboard roads. He doubted all these possible causes because he noticed that many different surfaces, such as train tracks and ski trails, can also be afflicted with a tiny roller… read more

Biologist sees value in unchanged landscape

George Schaller has studied gorillas in Rwanda, lions on the Serengeti, pandas in China, antelope in Tibet, and many other animals in wild places around the planet, but he thinks the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unique among them. He recently visited there for the first time in half a century.

“On the Sheenjek (River), we climbed the same cliff I climbed in 1956, and looking out there was no difference—no roads, no buildings, no garbage dumps.

“I’m sure there are rain forests in Brazil where you can walk for a few days without seeing people or big changes to the landscape, but sites like (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) that are ecologically whole are extremely rare.”

Schaller, possibly the most recognized biologist in the world, traveled to Alaska this summer from his home in Connecticut for a trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with author Jon Waterman, University of Alaska Fairbanks students Betsy Young and Martin Robards, Forrest… read more

Sounds of Denali (and lack thereof) in park plan

Chad Hults hears everything in Denali National Park—a lonely sparrow singing on Ruth Glacier after a windstorm, the voices of climbers at Denali base camp, the thunder of glacial streams after a long winter, and the whine of millions of tundra mosquitoes.
Hults, a physical scientist at Denali National Park, monitors the “soundscape” with microphones he places in various spots within the six-million acre park. National parks across the nation now include sounds, or lack of them, as resources the Park Service should protect.
“At Denali, the sounds of wolves howling, marmots whistling, white-crowned sparrows singing, water rushing through streambeds, wind in the aspen trees, and absolute stillness and quiet are among the natural sounds that are potentially impacted . . .”, park managers wrote in Denali's backcountry management plan of January 2006.
About six years ago, former Denali ecologist Shan Burson started setting out microphones in the park as part of a… read more

Pesticide traces found in Alaska wilderness

Burial Lake, named after a nearby Eskimo burial ground, is a half-mile-long body of water north of the Brooks Range. The lake is far from any village, and even farther from the nearest fruit orchard, so why did snow from near Burial Lake have traces of a commercial pesticide?

Because pollutants travel staggering distances through the air, said Kim Hageman, a chemist with Oregon State University. She is one of the authors of a paper about pesticides found in western national parks, including Noatak National Preserve in northwestern Alaska. She looked at contaminants in melted snow samples from different parks and found an unusual spike of a banned pesticide compound in snow collected near Burial Lake.

The compound found in the Noatak Preserve is an isomer of hexachlorocyclohexane known as “alpha-HCH.” Chemists developed its parent pesticide in the 1940s to kill insects attracted to fruit, vegetable, and tree crops. People also used it to kill mites on animals and even… read more

Reindeer tasting: Nice work, if you can get it

Using my tongue, I pressed the meat to the roof of my mouth. The folded slice oozed with a slight taste of blood. I chewed the sample, which was so tender it disintegrated. Then came the hardest part—I had to spit the meat into a cup without eating it.

Six of us, the “sensory panel” for the University of Alaska’s Reindeer Research Program, gathered together to sample reindeer meat from animals on the Seward Peninsula. We didn’t know we were sampling reindeer backstrap in two forms—one from a reindeer carcass that had been electrically stimulated, one from a carcass that had not.

Eva Wiklund, a meat scientist and research associate professor with UAF’s Reindeer Research Program, had set up the experiment. Wiklund is from Sweden, where there are 2,500 reindeer herders and 250,000 reindeer grazing over almost half of the country. The scale of the reindeer industry is a bit smaller in Alaska, where herders on the Seward Peninsula are still trying to recover from the… read more

"Alaska tough" test facility on the rise

When the average temperature was colder than minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit for a recent January, appreciation for heated buildings among the 100,000 tropical animals living in Interior, Alaska, known as humans, was boosted.

“That cold spell put shelter in perspective,” said Jack Hébert, a homebuilder in Fairbanks who has seen the best and worst of Alaska construction during 30 years of work. He’s now using that experience as president of the new Cold Climate Housing Research Center, an organization dedicated to finding products and building methods that work best in the cold.

Hébert recently gave a tour of the research center’s test facility, a building workers are now putting together using some of the best cold-weather materials and building techniques known. The biggest names in the business have donated triple-pane windows, wall and roof insulation, vapor-barrier sheeting and other materials for the building. Besides being a place where manufacturers can test their… read more

Villager's remains lead to 1918 flu breakthrough

The recent revival of the virus responsible for the 1918 Spanish flu, the killer of millions of people, was the end of a long journey for retired Pathologist Johan Hultin. Hultin, 81, twice retrieved samples of the virus from the lungs of flu victims preserved by permafrost in an Alaska village. Molecular pathologists used the latter of those samples to reconstruct the virus and discover that it jumped from birds to humans, which led to concerns about the current bird flu in Asia.

Hultin visited the village of Brevig Mission, on Alaska's Seward Peninsula, on two separate missions nearly half a century apart. He wanted to find what he describes as "the most lethal organism in the history of man."

Hultin was studying microbiology at the University of Iowa in 1949 when a virologist there mentioned that the key to understanding the long-gone Spanish flu of 1918 may be frozen in the bodies of flu victims buried in permafrost. Those victims could possibly be found in Alaska… read more

Blue Mussels might not be messengers of warming

A few months ago, Dave Norton was up late listening to the radio when he heard a story that divers had found blue mussels in the high arctic, a sure sign of global warming.

Or was it? Norton, of UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, had lived in Barrow for a decade, during which time he’d roam the beach after storms and pick up mussels blown ashore. Though the Barrow mussels first seemed like newcomers to the area, Norton thinks the blue shellfish may not be the slam-dunk indicator of climate change that other scientists have claimed.

News organizations around the world picked up the story Norton heard on the radio: Norwegian scientists had found blue mussels in fiords of Svalbard, Norway about 800 miles from the North Pole. The Reuters reporter who wrote the article quoted Norwegian scientist Geir Johnsen as saying the far-north mussels were a “very good indicator that the climate is warming.”

“(Some researchers) think the blue mussel is a wonderful… read more

Arctic haze makes its spring appearance

While looking out the window on a flight to Kotzebue on a recent spring day, I saw two dark bands hanging in the air above the Brooks Range. A day later, while on the ground, I noticed the mountains were pinkish rather than white. The tint looked like something you might see in Denver, where car exhaust fuzzes up the view, but I was in the Arctic, a land of few cars.

I was probably seeing arctic haze, said Glenn Shaw, an atmospheric scientist and professor emeritus at UAF’s Geophysical Institute. Arctic haze shows up in varying levels every spring in northern Alaska and elsewhere at the top of the world.

Shaw was one of several scientists who sampled the haze in the 1970s to find where it came from. They found that sulfur compounds and black carbon particles—the products of iron, nickel and copper smelters and inefficient coal-burning plants—made up a large proportion of arctic haze. Later studies showed much of the pollution was coming from the former Soviet Union… read more

Staying warm at Cool School

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE—The last time I was in this building, the year was 1982, I was wearing an airman’s uniform, and a doctor was looking at the blackened tip of my frostbitten left pinkie. It seems fitting to return to the former base clinic building, about 30 miles south of Fairbanks, for “Cool School,” the Air Force’s Arctic Survival Training School.

The commander of the school, Maj. Guyan Mandich, invited me to take the weeklong course along with a few dozen Air Force men and women. The school runs from October to March, and hundreds of military aviators graduate from Cool School each year.

Looking back on two days of classroom training and three in the woods, almost everything the instructors taught was something I didn’t know, especially when we spent Wednesday through Friday in the hills behind the base. During the outdoor portion of the course instructors gave us a can of pork and beans and two MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat). Those limited rations left us hungry… read more

481,000 acres of Alaska burn one summer day

Even the oldest old-timers in Alaska had never before seen a summer like 2004, when an area larger than Vermont burned and thick smoke hung in the air until September. Meteorologists and climate experts have published recent reports about the weather quirks that made the summer strange.

The summer of smoke began with early and sustained thunderstorms, wrote Michael Richmond, the Fire Weather Program Manager at the National Weather Service Office in Fairbanks. Richmond recently compiled facts about the summer for a presentation he wrote for a conference. He noted that thunderstorm activity was intense from May 20 to June 15.

“Although there are only 25 years of record for lightning detection in Alaska, none of the forecasters who have been in Fairbanks since the 1970s and ‘80s remembered ever seeing so much convection this early in the season,” Richmond wrote.

Fairbanks also had the wettest May in 100 years of… read more

Diving for signs of nuclear contamination

After Stephen Jewett and his diving partners emerged from the chilly waters of the Aleutians last summer, crewmembers of the Ocean Explorer scanned their bodies with Geiger counters. Checking for nuclear contamination isn't standard diving protocol, but they were working off Amchitka Island, the site of three atomic blasts in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Jewett is a research professor at UAF's Institute of Marine Science who was diving with colleagues off Amchitka to get samples of fish and other marine life, bottom water, and sediments to check for effects of the nuclear testing. The Geiger counter stayed silent throughout their June-July 2004 mission in the Aleutians.

"It's a good feeling to hear those things not making any noise," said Jewett. "Everybody was a little anxious when we started out, but we had no readings above zero the whole time."

Jewett was part of a crew sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to sample the aquatic life off Amchitka as part… read more

Northern lab cranked out the quirky and controversial

“Rectal Temperature of the Working Sled Dog.”

“Cleaning and Sterilization of Bunny Boots.”

“Comparative Sweat Rates of Eskimos and Caucasians Under Controlled Conditions.”

These are some of the studies completed by scientists who worked for the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Developed during the Cold War to “solve the severe environmental problems of men living and working in the Arctic,” the lab cranked out dozens of quirky and sometimes controversial publications.

Based at Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks, which later became Fort Wainwright, the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory was a group of about 60 military and civilian researchers charged with finding the best way to wage warfare in the cold. At the time, U.S. political and military leaders feared a nuclear or conventional war with the Soviet Union and thought that Alaska was a likely battleground.

Projects from the Air Force lab in Fairbanks included cold-… read more

What to do about a warmer planet

Last week, in a farewell column to retiring climate-change scientist Gunter Weller, I presented parts of his argument on warming in the north that he often gave to the news media, politicians, other scientists, and anyone else who would listen.

Weller, the former director of the University of Alaska’s Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research, is now living in Australia. After 36 years in Alaska, he and his wife Sigrid now reside in a house overlooking the ocean south of Melbourne, where kangaroos have replaced moose as the large wild animals roaming the yard.

In last week’s column, Weller described evidence for climate warming in the Arctic and why he believes humans have caused a good deal of it. This week’s column features bits of an interview in which he described what we can do about the considerable and under-appreciated problem of a warming planet:

“A lot of things can be done, individually and by governments, that… read more

Voice in the wilderness departs for Outback

When I heard that Gunter Weller was retiring after 36 years as a scientist in Alaska, I felt a little glum. Scientists retire all the time, but I think Alaska will have a particularly hard time replacing him.

Weller, director of the University of Alaska’s Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research, began his career in Alaska in the late 1960s as a meteorologist, but he has spend the last decade studying the research of others, combining it with his own knowledge, and spreading the word about warming in the Arctic. A Dutch television crew just interviewed him, marking the sixteenth time he’s appeared on a major television program about global warming. He gave them his stump speech on human-caused warming and its affects on the north.

Before he left to return to his boyhood home of Australia with his wife Sigrid, Weller repeated the speech for me. Following are some excerpts:

“The story is that there is a lot of change that has… read more

Forty years and counting on Mount Wrangell

When Carl Benson stepped on the summit plateau of Mount Wrangell in May 2004, he saw the same view of the Copper River valley that he had on his first visit, when he was 34 years old and John F. Kennedy was president.

Now 77 and a professor emeritus at UAF's Geophysical Institute, Benson first stepped on the summit of Mt. Wrangell in 1961. Since then, he has spent months camping near the summit of the 4,317-meter (14,163-foot) volcano, which from a distance resembles a body under a white sheet.

A recent ankle surgery has limited Benson’s time on the mountain, but he made it up for a few hours in 2004 as part of an international expedition of Japanese, Russian, and Alaskan scientists who are drilling ice cores on Mt. Wrangell’s summit. With the help of pilot Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Outfitters and his turbo-equipped Single Otter, the team recovered 50 meters of core ice from Wrangell’s summit caldera in 2003, and a segmented 216-meter core in 2004.

When Benson… read more

Smoked pike on menu for Yukon Flats scientists

People in Alaska’s interior inhaled more wildfire smoke than normal in summer of 2004. Mark Bertram and Jim Akaran ate more pike than normal, too.

Bertram and Akaran are biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who work for Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska. During interior Alaska’s recent bout of thick smoke, they were stuck on a remote lake for nearly twice the time they had planned because smoke in Fairbanks was too thick for their pilot to retrieve them. Bad weather often prevents timely pick-ups and drop-offs in remote Alaska locations, but this was the first time either biologist had his rations stretched thin by smoke.

As of early August 2004, wildfires had burned more than 4.5 million acres of Alaska, and many fires were within or near Yukon Flats, a swath of lowlands larger than Vermont and Connecticut combined. Fires run through Yukon Flats each summer because it is one of the hottest areas in Alaska--the state’s all-time high… read more

Warmth causes rivers to shrink, grow

Here’s one for the Only-in-Alaska File: In mid-July 2004, wildfires and floods were both consuming an Alaska state forest at the same time.

East of Delta Junction, the Gerstle River had overflowed its banks, slicing through a gravel road and flooding a portion of the Tanana Valley State Forest. Farther north, a wildfire was turning thousands of acres of spruce trees and tundra in the forest to smoke and ash.

While many Interior rivers that depend on snowmelt, springs, and rainfall shrunk during the summer of 2004, rivers fed by glaciers swelled and shifted in their channels. Supplied by Alaska Range glaciers, the Gerstle River forced itself out of its bed and through a road used by area farmers and Native villagers.

“Like a lot of glacial streams, the Gerstle flushes lots of gravel down its bed at high flow, so much that the river is almost higher than the surrounding ground,” said Al Edgren, the state forester for the region who was… read more

The smoking of Interior Alaska

In late June 2004, Fairbanks was a lot like Beijing.

Smoke from wildfires had rolled into town, plugging air-monitoring gauges with small particles so dense that the Fairbanks air registered above levels in Mexico City and Beijing, two of the cities with the worst air on Earth.

For the record, Fairbanks’ air measured more than 1,000 micrograms of particles per cubic meter on sensors maintained by the Fairbanks North Star Borough on the roof of the state office building downtown.

“E.P.A.’s calculation for air quality says air is hazardous at 300 (micrograms per cubic meter), we’ve had more than three times that much,” said Jim Conner, air quality specialist for the borough.

Fairbanks also came very close to violating a federal standard for carbon monoxide in the city, Conner said. An instrument that records levels of the toxic, odorless gas registered 9.2 parts per million of CO in downtown Fairbanks; 9.5 is a violation of the Clean Air Act, and midsummer… read more

Where science and high adventure meet

Lonnie Thompson once spent 53 consecutive days at 20,000 feet, about the height of Mt. McKinley. While there, on an icefield in the Peruvian Andes, a fierce wind lifted Thompson’s tent. To prevent a 6,000-foot plunge off the mountain, he jabbed his ice axe through the tent floor.

“It was not a storm—this was the jet stream coming down and hitting the mountain,” Thompson said while visiting Fairbanks recently. “I spent the night in this collapsed tent, but at least it wasn’t moving because it had an ice axe through it.”

Lonnie Thompson’s adventures have taken him from Peru to Antarctica, from Greenland to China, and from Africa to Alaska. Though he is the current world record holder for most days spent living above 18,000 feet, he earns paychecks not as a mountaineer, but as a scientist.

Thompson extracts cores of ice from mountains and icefields all over the world, and the information in those cores has answered – and raised – many questions about… read more

Ancient whalers leave their mark on the north

The high arctic is one of the farthest places from most of the 6.3 billion people on Earth, but Canadian researchers have found that the far north holds some of the oldest evidence of people altering a lake’s ecosystem.

John Smol of Queen’s University in Ontario is a frequent visitor to Canada’s high arctic, a treeless world of tundra, lakes, and constant winds. The Thule people—descendents of the Native whalers of northern Alaska—lived in the area from about A.D. 1200 to A.D. 1600, making homes out of rocks, peat, and whalebones. Though the Thule people left the area about 400 years ago, Smol and his colleagues found that the ancient people have changed the water chemistry of local lakes and Thule homesites are still affecting lakes today.

Smol is a scientist who reconstructs the past by looking at ancient creatures preserved in the muck at the bottom of lakes. He’s most interested in diatoms, single-celled algae with cell walls made of glass. This… read more

Of Wales and Wind Power

Diesel generators provide electrical power for more than 180 Alaska villages. With diesel fuel costs rising, more villages may go the way of Wales someday soon.

Wales is a village of 160 people on the tip of the Seward Peninsula where energy scientists and two Alaska electric cooperatives have supplemented diesel power with one of the area’s greatest natural resources, wind.

The wind blows year-round at Wales, which juts into the Bering Sea northwest of Nome and southwest of Kotzebue. The average wind speed at Wales is about 18 miles per hour, which is why engineers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and local power companies chose it as one of several coastal villages to outfit with wind/diesel technology. Kotzebue, St. Paul Island, and Selawik also supplement diesel with wind power or have plans to do it soon.

Mari Shirazi is an engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. She has worked on the Wales… read more

Researchers Eye Link Between Diet, Depression

During the last 50 years, Alaska Natives have eaten fewer seals from the Bering Sea and more steaks from Nebraska. The drastic change in diet that comes with the influence of another culture may be an overlooked factor in mental health problems of northern Natives, according to a team of researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Alaska Natives and other circumpolar people have experienced “a complete change in diet from marine mammals, salmon, eggs from marine birds,” said Abel Bult-Ito, an associate professor of biology with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. “Those have been replaced by steaks and Crisco, you name it. Plus soda--the consumption of those sort of sweetened beverages has skyrocketed.”

Bult-Ito and UAF students Nancy McGrath-Hanna, Dana Green, and Ron Tavernier found what they believe is a connection between diet and mental health when they studied more than 150 journal articles dealing with northern people, diet, depression, and suicide.… read more

The Most Remote Spot in Alaska

A friend sent me the following quote, from the pages of Hawk’s Rest, a book by Gary Ferguson about a wilderness outpost in Yellowstone National Park:

“Out of the million square miles of basin, range, peaks and prairies that compose the interior West, the farthest it’s possible to be from a road is a trifling 28 miles.”

Richard Forman, a Harvard professor of landscape ecology, once visited a mangrove swamp in the Florida Everglades that he described as the most remote place in the eastern U.S. The swamp was 17 miles from any road.

What’s the most remote spot in Alaska? Dorte Dissing helped me tackle that question. Dissing is a geographer and research assistant for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Forest Sciences. She’s proficient with the use of the electronic mapping system known as Geographic Information Systems. Scientists use GIS to make detailed maps of everything from migration routes used by dark-eyed juncos over Alaska to maps of… read more

The Chaos Behind the Wall Socket

An Alaska college professor was not surprised when the lights went out over the northern tier of the U.S. and southeast Canada in mid-August.

David Newman studies the workings of complex, chaotic systems as part of his research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He and three colleagues wrote a paper in December 2002 about “cascading” power blackouts similar to the largest ever, which affected 50 million people on August 14, 2003.

Newman is a physics professor who uses a variety of computers to model gargantuan interconnected systems that fail catastrophically, including power transmission grids, intercity travel halted during traffic jams, and huge communications systems like the Internet, which can be disrupted by a single computer worm.

From his office on the UAF campus, Newman described the vulnerability of the large systems that bring power to homes in much of North America.

“Events like (the blackout of 2003) happen for two reasons: we sit on… read more

Sampling Alaska Air for Migrant Pollution

In Barrow, Poker Flat, Denali National Park, Trapper Creek, and Homer, pollution sensors are now absorbing PCBs, dioxins, pesticide residue, and other nasty migrants to the north.

Ted Wu drives and flies a traverse from north to south in Alaska to string out passive air samplers that capture unwanted visitors to the state. His goal is to see what persistent organic pollutants have hitchhiked north on air currents and have settled in the cells of people, seals, salmon, plants, and other northern life forms. Wu is an environmental toxicologist and a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute and the UAF department of chemistry and biochemistry.

Toxins from all over the globe reach the north. Chemicals released in other parts of the world travel on air currents in warm weather, then fall out with rain or snow as they cool. After the compounds reach the ground, warm weather can again liberate them into the air, where they continue… read more

West Nile Virus and Alaska

Alaska state and federal agencies are preparing for the arrival of an unwanted visitor, the West Nile Virus.

The West Nile Virus, spread to the New York metropolitan area from overseas sometime in 1999, has worked its way west by its two main carriers, mosquitoes and birds. The virus, sometimes but rarely fatal in humans, has killed thousands of wild birds and horses. In 2002, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention charted the virus’ spread to 16 new states, including Washington. The states with no reported cases as of late 2002 were Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Hawaii, and Alaska.

With the rapid spread of the virus the past two years, Alaska agencies are working now to monitor any possible cases in Alaska. Kimberlee Beckmen is a wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks involved in a surveillance plan for the virus that includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Alaska Department… read more

Oil Fires in Iraq and the World's Air

In a story about oil fires set in trenches around Baghdad, a BBC News Online reporter recently quoted a British environmental chemist talking about the health affects of the smoke.

“Being in Baghdad just now must be like living in a bus garage, with all the engines running at full throttle,” said Ian Colbeck of the University of Essex.

An Alaskan scientist has studied the impact of oil fires on a grander scale, after Iraqi soldiers set fire to more than 600 oil wells as they retreated from Kuwait in February 1991. Iraqi soldiers fighting the 2003 war had ignited fewer than 10 oil wells as of April 2, 2003.

Cathy Cahill is a University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute assistant professor of chemistry and atmospheric science who wrote her master’s thesis on the Kuwait oil fires. Scientists expected smoke from the 1991 fires to have worldwide impact, such as the spread of respiratory illnesses and a “nuclear winter,” during which the smoke would block… read more

Bogs, Permafrost and the Global Carbon Equation

The spring equinox sun beat down on the white blanket covering Tanana Flats as Jamie Hollingsworth leaned a power auger into a frozen bog. He and other scientists had traveled to these lowlands south of Fairbanks to learn more about the fate of carbon in the north.

Hollingsworth, a technician with the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research Site, pulled a hollow drill bit from the ground and then pushed out its core-a brown-and-gray cylinder as thick as a soup can. The plug of earth was three feet long and veined with tiny ice lenses. Soil scientist Jennifer Harden, of the U.S. Geological Survey, and UAF graduate student Isla Myers-Smith handled the soil sample as they would a newborn baby, easing it to a cradle made of PVC pipe. To them, that frozen chunk of Tanana Flats held answers about how carbon moves through the northland.
Carbon warms the planet in the form of carbon dioxide floating in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil fuel burning,… read more

Evolution of Gear Makes Iditarod Faster

Ten years have passed since Jeff King last poured white gas over his two-burner stove and set it on fire to make it functional. Like other mushers competing in the Iditarod Trail sled dog race, King has taken advantage of the new technology that has emerged in the three decades since the first Iditarod.

King, a three-time Iditarod champion and 1989 Yukon Quest winner, remembers using a two-burner Coleman stove to heat water for his dogs in the early days of his racing career. During extreme cold weather, he sometimes needed to preheat the stove's components by setting the stove ablaze, then moving back in to light the burners after the inferno died down.

" It was heavy and cumbersome and tremendous trouble," King said recently from his home in Denali Park. "Once the alcohol cooker came on the scene in the early 90s, the white gas stove was obsolete in 12 months," King said.

Alcohol cookers now favored by mushers consist of no moving parts and a predictable… read more

The Coldest Place in North America

Wilfred "Wilf" Blezard remembers the coldest recorded day in North America's history. Now 82 years old, Blezard was one of four weathermen stationed at the Snag airport in Yukon, Canada, on February 3, 1947. On that day, the temperature dropped to 81 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

"We had six dogs that stayed outside the barracks," Blezard said over the telephone from his home in Grande Prairie, Alberta. "Their breath created quite a fog above them."

Blezard remembers tossing water into the air and watching it freeze into pellets before hitting the ground, and listening to the magnification of local sounds created by the severe temperature inversion.

"When a plane flew over at 10,000 feet, it sounded like it was in your bedroom," he said.

On that day, Blezard and his coworkers for the Weather Service of Canada filed a notch into the glass casing of an alcohol thermometer because the indicator within fell below the lowest number, 80 below zero. When… read more

Oxygen Sensors May Improve Alaska Air

Replacing oxygen sensors in cars and trucks may make the air in Alaska's cities cleaner. Oxygen sensors are devices the size and shape of a spark plug. They sniff a vehicle's exhaust and tell the engine to adjust the fuel/air mixture so the car or truck runs clean.

Oxygen sensors in many Alaska cars and trucks are not working properly, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which is funding a study to determine the extent of the problem. If replacing oxygen sensors can reduce carbon monoxide emissions, Anchorage and Fairbanks might have an easier time meeting air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Air-quality specialists completed the first phase of testing and are planning a second phase in January 2003 in Fairbanks. For the study, they are looking for volunteers who own cars or light trucks built from 1985 to 1992. Testers will monitor emissions from the vehicles before and after installing new oxygen sensors.… read more

Capturing the Sounds of Denali Park

Backcountry hikers expect peace and quiet in Denali National Park, but they don’t always get it. Some hikers at Denali have been telling park managers about excessive noise, especially from flightseeing aircraft.

“The noise is something like camping on a flight path,” wrote one backpacker, who sent a visitor’s comment form to Joe Van Horn, backcountry ranger at Denali National Park.

“I think it’s probably the most common negative report we get back, other than mosquitoes or rain,” Van Horn said. “I’ve been here for 23 years and I think the increase in aircraft-related noise is the single biggest change to the park’s wilderness character that I’ve noticed.”

The National Park Service has recognized the intrusive nature of human-caused noise, and a Denali ecologist is now recording the sounds of the park. The Park Service refers to this resource as the “soundscape.”

Shan Burson, head of Denali’s sound-monitoring program, has set up sensitive… read more

Alaska's Urban Air Quality Has Come a Long Way

The 1970s and 1980s were the bad old days of Alaska air quality.

In 1972, Fairbanks exceeded federal air standards for carbon monoxide pollution on 168 days, almost half the year. In the early 1980s, Anchorage went over the limit for as many as 52 days per year.

Today, both Fairbanks and Anchorage have cleaned up their acts. Anchorage exceeded the standard just once in the last four years; Fairbanks has had a clean record for the last two. In a new report on a cold-weather vehicle test done in Fairbanks, researchers describe how Alaskans have improved the quality of urban air and answer the lingering question of whether it's better to leave a car idling in cold weather or shut it off.

Alaska's two largest cities are vulnerable to bad air because they are both located in natural bowls that hold in pollution and both cities experience temperature inversions that make the bowls smaller by trapping cold air under warmer air. When inversions are strong and people… read more

Farewell to the Wizard of the GI Machine Shop

Larry Kozycki never liked attention, but he was too talented to avoid it.

As supervisor of the machine shop at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kozycki's job was to take fuzzy ideas from scientists and transform them into precision instruments. Kozycki died of cancer the morning of October 24, 2001. He was 56.

For two decades, scientists visited Kozycki when they needed a tool, machine, or part they could not get elsewhere. He solved problems for dozens of scientists by sitting with them in his basement office, asking precise questions, then designing obscure scientific instruments. Kozycki's inventions included a drill bit that penetrated the Greenland ice cap and two machines that pluck tiny bones from salmon fillets.

"Larry was a rare combination of talents," said Geophysical Institute Director Roger Smith, a space physicist who uses Kozycki's creations for his experiments in Antarctica and the Arctic. Smith said… read more

Will women overtake men in the long run?

Every time I stand from my chair, my aching legs remind me I ran the Equinox Marathon two days ago. Every time I see someone I know, he or she reminds me that my girlfriend beat me in that race. I salve my ego with the knowledge that the women who ran the 26.2-mile footrace over Ester Dome in Fairbanks were the fastest gang of females ever to run the race. Fifteen women ran the course in less than four hours, up from 13 the year before and a former high of eight during 1998.

Male winners have finished the race an average of 30 minutes faster than the female winners since 1993, but they have not improved in the Equinox with the same consistency as women. This raises a question tossed up every few years by sports physiologists: will women ever be faster than men?

The predictions are yes and no, depending on where you look. In a 1992 study published in Nature magazine, two researchers tracked the improvement of men and women record holders in running events and… read more

Father-Daughter Team a Rarity in Science

Boys sometimes grow into younger versions of their fathers. My older brother, for example, taught history in a high school at the same time my father taught history in a neighboring school. Baseball player Ken Griffey Jr. played on the same Seattle Mariners team as his father, Ken Griffey Sr. In Alaska lives one half of a rarer combination, a daughter who studies particulates in the air with her scientist father.

Cathy Cahill is an atmospheric scientist at the Geophysical Institute and the chemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her father, Tom Cahill, is an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis. Cathy, 32, recently collaborated with Tom, 64, during a project in which researchers tracked the movement of a massive dust cloud across the Pacific Ocean from its birthplace in the great deserts of Asia. Tom sampled the air in China, Japan, and Korea; his daughter sampled the air in the Aleutian Islands at Adak and north of Fairbanks.… read more

Students Build a Quiet Snowmachine

Jason Rohwer of Fairbanks likes the gritty, oily smell of snowmachine exhaust, and he loves the roar of his machine when he's out in the mountains. He also realizes that these sensations, which stir good memories of sunny days outdoors with his family, drive other people crazy. That's one of the reasons why Rohwer, along with fellow engineering student Edwin Dale Hahn, is trying to build a better snowmachine.

Rohwer, 22, and Hahn, 23, both seniors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, recently returned from the Society of Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Challenge, held in Jackson, Wyoming. Though they didn't come home with medals, Hahn and Rohwer are doing their part to continue the evolution of the snowmachine.

In the contest, students from 15 schools created models designed to be less stinky, less noisy, and less thirsty than conventional snowmachines. Contestants were asked to shoot their machines up mountainsides to compare performance, gun their… read more

Snake Oil or Salvation?

One morning last week I got one of those joking e-mails that look like press releases. This one supposedly announced the resignation of every last one of America's experts on every subject under the sun, who were giving up in disgust because no one ever paid any attention to what they had to say. That same evening, I heard a distinguished geophysicist give a brief speech on how to help solve America's energy problems, ease global warming, and cut air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Incidentally, his suggestion also did wonderful things for Alaska's economy, including its mining industry.

Of course, being an expert of long standing, Gene Wescott knew he'd be ignored. He spoke with the weary brevity of someone preaching to the choir-in this case, his immediate audience, the scientists and science followers gathered for the informal Arctic Round Table gathering-who knew his words would never convert the sinners in the pews down front.

Wescott's name has been… read more

Avalanches an Avoidable Hazard in Alaska

On March 21, 1999, Jill Fredston woke to a beautiful sunny day on the hillside above Anchorage. After rising from bed, she checked her backpack for its beacon, shovel, and snow probe. Then, she made a bag lunch and waited.

The phone call came in late afternoon.

"We've got an avalanche at Turnagain Pass," the trooper said.

Several snowmachiners were missing, and they needed a rescue team.

Fredston and her partner Doug Fesler, directors of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, knew the March day had all the ingredients for disaster-a fresh, heavy snowfall that coated an older, weaker layer of snow, and sunshine and warmth to lure people into the mountains. By the end of the day, searchers shoveled out the bodies of two snowmachiners, the first of six fatalities.

Recovering the bodies of people suffocated by snow is a normal part of the job for Fredston and Fesler, the foremost avalanche experts in Alaska. Fredston traveled to Fairbanks… read more

Scientist's Decision Helps Alaska Wallets

Every Alaskan who has cashed a permanent fund dividend check owes a thank-you note to Tom Marshall. In the early 1960s, the geologist made a choice that helped transform Alaska from pauper to prince.

Now retired and living in Anchorage, Marshall spoke in Fairbanks recently at the invitation of fellow geologist Don Triplehorn. Wearing a string tie and apologizing for his tendency to drift to other subjects, Marshall remembered the days when Alaska was a new state with empty pockets but plenty of land.

"We needed title to the land so we could dispose of it and get money," he said. "I can't emphasize how important that was." Marshall, 75, moved to Alaska from Wyoming during the lean days of 1958, one year before Alaska became a state. He homesteaded in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and soon got a job as land selection officer for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

In passing Alaska's statehood act, Congress granted Alaska 105 million acres-about the… read more

Dioxins: Another Uninvited Visitor to the North

At northern latitudes, urban unpleasantries are easy to leave behind. Folks frazzled by traffic noises or tired of squinting past streetlights to see the aurora can remedy both problems by driving out of town. Airborne pollutants are harder to escape. For years, scientists have found PCBs, pesticides and other harmful substances in remote patches of the Arctic. Researchers in New York recently tracked the journey of one of these nasty compounds, dioxin, from sources down south to Nunavut, Canada.

Dioxins are large, toxic molecules created when things-especially things containing chlorine-burn. PVC plastics used in hospitals give off a good dose of dioxins when burned, as do many of the ingredients in household garbage that end up in trash-burning plants or metal drums in backyards.

In 1997, researchers tested the breast milk of Inuit women and found a level of dioxins two times higher than women from southern Quebec. The Inuit women live in Nunavut, in the former… read more

Despite Smoke and Manmade Invaders, Alaska Air Still Good Stuff

Smoke from wildfires has drowned interior Alaska this summer, fuzzing views of distant hills and turning the sun into an orange Frisbee. Though the outdoors smells like a campfire, Alaska's air is still among the cleanest in the nation according to an air-monitoring station in Denali Park.

The station, a vacuum pump system near the entrance to Denali Park that pulls air through four filters, traps less gunk than any similar system installed in 70 other national parks around the country. The air in Hawaii, at 11,000 feet on Mauna Loa, is a close second, according to the National Park Service. The station that traps the most specks of pollution is located on the roof of a park service building in Washington, D.C. These statistics about air quality are part of a Park Service study on visibility. The Denali station is the clean-air champ based on the 1994-1998 average of trapped particles less than 2.5 micrometers in size. It takes dozens of specks that small to bridge the… read more

Fat Loading and the Winter Athlete

A few months ago, I joined about 130 other people in the Iditasport, a race “across 100 miles of frozen Alaska.” Competitors in the race, held along part of the Iditarod trail, were allowed to choose their weapons: racers could bike, ski, run, or snowshoe the course. Along the way, some participants were poked, prodded, and asked personal questions in the name of science.

One of the lead pokers, Sam Case, was in Fairbanks recently to discuss what happens to humans when they choose to exercise in cold weather. Case is a professor of exercise science at Western Maryland College and a veteran of the 100-mile winter race.

Case dashed the myth that anyone who exercises outside in cold places will freeze his or her lungs. Alaska athletes already know this is a bunch of hooey, but Case cited a study in which researchers found that dogs were able to inhale air colder than -70 F with no ill effects. Just like dogs, humans warm air so rapidly in our mouths and noses that cold… read more

Walking Writer Takes Stock of Alaska

As a science writer at the Geophysical Institute, my favorite part of the job is meeting men and women who explain their passion for science to me. This week, I got a chance to interview a man who has had a profound influence on my life.

Peter Jenkins, in Fairbanks as part of the university's "Writers-in-Residence" program, wrote the book A Walk across America in 1979. He and his dog, Cooper, walked from upstate New York to New Orleans in the early 1970s, staying for months in small towns with people he'd met and discovering America along the way.

I read his book in my early 20s. Especially appealing was his ability to relate to people, from the poor family he lived with in Murphy, North Carolina, to Governor George Wallace of Alabama. The images of his hike stayed with me for more than 15 years, until I got a chance to do my own walk. In 1997, I walked the length of the trans-Alaska pipeline with my dog, Jane. Like Jenkins, I wrote a book about my trip (shameless… read more

Mercury Found in Fish of Southwest Alaska

Nutritional experts recently recommended that people in a certain area limit their diet of fish because the fish contained a surprising amount of mercury. That area wasn't the industrial zone of a big city; it was southwest Alaska.

As part of a study, subsistence fishermen who live in the lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta gave scientists 66 fish to be tested for traces of mercury. Several chemists, among them Larry Duffy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, discovered that 16 of the fish contained mercury above the "level of concern" established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Scientists sampled a gram of tissue from whitefish, grayling, burbot, pike, and sheefish for concentrations of mercury. Pike most often exceeded the EPA standard, a fact that says something about the pathway of mercury in Alaska waters.

Algae and plankton ingest the chemical from the air or from minerals in the water. Small fish eat the plankton and… read more

Sights and Smells of the Fall Equinox

A little girl pulls on her rubber boots and rushes outside into the crisp fall air on September 23. She knows the days are getting shorter, but she doesn't realize this is the autumnal equinox. On the equinox, the sun appears to sit over Earth's equator, causing days and nights to each last about 12 hours everywhere in the world.

The girl hears the ground crunching under her feet. The temperature dropped to 27 degrees Fahrenheit the night before, killing many of the plants in her mother's garden. The plants didn't die on earlier nights when the temperature dipped to 32 because sugars within their sap depress the freezing point.

She walks to her favorite place, the frog pond, down a forest path. She is surrounded by the gold leaves of birch and willow trees. The trees are responding to cooler temperatures and a longer night by destroying chlorophyll. Packed within leaf cells, chlorophyll enables plants to convert the sun's energy to sugars. The trees' shift to… read more

Forty Years from the Stone Age




Syun-Ichi Akasofu keeps a list of these and 17 other words in his office. They were written by reviewers, who rejected his scientific papers at one time or another during the four decades he's been with the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This week, after 13 years as captain at the helm of the institute, Akasofu carried his list of adjectives next door. On July 1, 1999, he became director of the International Arctic Research Center. To the new job, he brings energy, tenacity, and the experience of a man who helped push the study of the aurora borealis from its infancy to adulthood. Along the way, he became one of the world's leading authorities on the aurora and raised millions to establish the International Arctic Research Center, an institute of scientists from around the globe who team up to study the circumpolar north.

His road was bumpy, but rewarding. When Akasofu, age 28, flew to… read more

The Continued Thawing of Alaska

The other day, I looked at something Alaskans rarely see but often feel, especially when it disappears--permafrost. Tom Osterkamp, who has studied permafrost for almost three decades, showed me how Alaska is changing as permafrost melts.

Osterkamp, a physics professor at the Geophysical Institute, and I drove to a place on the university campus where contractors were digging in preparation for a new section of road. At the edge of a hole large enough to fit a house, I watched a backhoe's bucket rumble through chunks of ice a few feet below the ground surface. The ice exploded under the teeth of the backhoe before quickly melting and adding to a shallow pool at the bottom of the hole. Osterkamp pointed to a white layer in the soil exposed by the backhoe. "That ice lens might go back several hundred feet," he said. "When it thaws, this road will look like that bike path over there." The bike path is sunken and cracked, bumpy as a motocross track. It's fun to ride on a… read more

The Physics of Life at Forty Below

A father wakes, rolls out of bed, and steps on cold carpet. He grabs a flashlight, and shines it outside the window. The thermometer reads 40 below zero, the only point at which the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales agree. The red liquid within his thermometer is alcohol; mercury freezes at 38 below.

His little boy wakes, dresses, and hands his father birch logs to add to the wood stove. The logs are heavy, cut last fall and not properly dried. The green wood contains almost 50 percent moisture, compared to about 30 percent in cured wood. The logs hiss amid other burning logs. They give off no heat until the moisture is driven off. Outside the car is plugged in. The father remembered the night before to activate the heating element that warms his antifreeze, which in turn keeps his motor oil just viscous enough to allow the pistons to move. A heat blanket, another northern adaptation, has kept the battery at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, just warm enough to permit 50 percent… read more

Anatomy of the New Year's Hangover

You knew it was coming--the throbbing head, the dry mouth, the muscles of jelly. The morning after a night of holiday celebration and you feel anything but jolly. You know you have a hangover and you know it was caused by drinking alcohol, but what really happened inside you?

In a timely article Andy Coghlan of New Scientist magazine detailed the path of alcohol through the human body and its painful effects along the way.

The hangover begins with a drink of a beverage containing alcohol, which has the chemical name ethanol. When someone drinks, ethanol reaches his or her stomach, where it passes to the bloodstream. A portion of the ethanol leaves the body without being processed--some is exhaled after it reaches the lungs; some makes it straight to the kidneys and leaves with a stream of urine. Most of the ethanol doesn't leave the body in a raw state. It ends up in the liver, which immediately begins processing.

In liver cells called… read more

Solstice Arrives, But Winter Got Here First

At winter solstice, the Arctic Circle represents more than a dotted line on the map. On that day, it becomes the line north of which the sun won't rise. On winter solstice, December 21 this year, the sun will make an appearance for five-and-a-half hours in Anchorage, a little less than four hours in Fairbanks, and zero hours at the Arctic Circle and points north. The darkest day in the Northern Hemisphere is officially listed as the beginning of winter, but you'd have a hard time telling someone in Barrow--where the sun set November 19 and won't rise until January 23--that winter hasn't started yet. Alaskans have a different definition for the onset of winter, and it depends on who you ask.

Jan Curtis of the Alaska Climate Research Center at the Geophysical Institute said a good Alaska definition of winter is the day when our maximum temperatures don't exceed 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When that day comes, he explained, all precipitation is in the form of snow.

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Top Woman in Science Stresses Toughness

Being a woman in science is a lot like living in the Arctic, according to Rita Colwell. To endure, you've got to have mental toughness and never give in, especially on the darkest days. Colwell followed that philosophy to one of the highest positions ever attained by a woman in science--she's the director of the National Science Foundation.

Colwell was in Alaska recently to attend the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Fairbanks. I wanted to interview her because I've noticed that in four years of writing this column, less than 15 percent of the scientists I've talked to are women. Colwell was the first woman to be named director of NSF, an agency created 48 years ago to fund American science, engineering, and education projects. Based in Arlington, Virginia, NSF had a 1997 budget of $3.5 billion, $13 million of which was awarded to researchers in Alaska. It takes a lot of energy to run one of the largest scientific funding agencies in… read more

Beavers Not Entirely to Blame for Beaver Fever

The last time I went hunting, I brought home more than moose burger. After a day in Fairbanks, I could barely stay awake, and the noises from my abdomen were so loud my dog barked at them. Though I'm always extremely careful about treating my drinking water, I came back to town with an intestinal parasite known commonly as Giardia.

When I told people, everyone offered their own story about Giardiasis, the medical name for the disease. Conflicting stories drove me to the university's biomedical library, where I picked up a book, Giardia and Giardiasis, edited by Stanley Erlandsen of the University of Minnesota and Ernest Meyer of Oregon Health Sciences University. Here's what they told me:

Giardia is the name commonly used to describe several species of one-celled animals that thrive in an airless environment. One of their favorite anaerobic places is in a human's small intestine, near where it connects to the large intestine. Giardia lamblia is the creature that… read more

Alaska's Size in Perspective

Alaska is more than twice the size of the largest of the lower 48 states, and the amount of Alaska underlain by permafrost is equal to the size of three Californias. Ten states are smaller than the area covered by glaciers in Alaska. If glaciers of the adjacent Yukon Territory and British Columbia that connect to Alaska's ice fields (often referred to as the Alaska-Yukon glaciers) are added, thirteen states are smaller than the area covered by glaciers.

The area of Alaska owned by private individuals and Native corporations is about the same size as the area of Michigan; 27 states are smaller than that. Much of Alaska is owned and managed by the federal government, which purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $4.74 per square kilometer.

The U.S. Forest Service manages an area in Alaska about the size of South Carolina and Alaska has more national parks and preserves than all the other states combined. Alaska's national parks and preserves cover an area about… read more

Permafrost Preserves Clues to Deadly 1918 Flu

Eighty years ago, a strain of influenza virus spread across the globe, eventually reaching Brevig Mission in Alaska. Five days after the flu hit the Seward Peninsula, 72 of the 80 villagers in Brevig Mission were dead.

Through a series of events suited to a detective novel, researchers made a connection between Brevig Mission and the flu virus that may help prevent another outbreak of the 1918 flu, one of the worst epidemics ever experienced.

The 1918 flu, which infected 28 percent of people in the United States, killed 675,000 Americans. More than 20 million people died worldwide, most of them young adults.

Dr. Johan Hultin made it a personal mission to find a sample of the 1918 virus he calls "the most lethal organism in the history of man." A native of Sweden, Hultin was studying microbiology at the University of Iowa in 1949. There, he overheard a virologist say that the clue to understanding the 1918 flu might be found in the bodies of victims who… read more

Of Ground Squirrels, Vitamin C, and Stroke

The arctic ground squirrel is a popular little creature at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology. Brian Barnes, a professor of animal physiology, put a squirrel on the cover of the journal Science a few years back when he found hibernating squirrels' body temperatures dropped below freezing. Molecular biologist Bert Boyer recently studied a hormone within squirrels that keeps them from snacking when they should be hungry.

These days, Kelly Drew is studying an adaptation among ground squirrels that could help medical researchers develop new treatments for stroke victims. Drew is a neuroscientist--she studies the brain and nervous system--at the Institute of Arctic Biology.

Hibernating ground squirrels are a bit like humans who suffer a stroke. Strokes, also called brain attacks by folks at the American Heart Association, happen when a clot or ruptured vessel interrupts blood flow to the brain. Denied oxygen--and glucose-rich blood, cells… read more

Expose Yourself to the Light, Be Happy

I know spring is here when I see the kid down the road wearing shorts as he waits for the school bus. He suffers on cold mornings, but the lad may be on to something--news from back east is changing researchers' ideas of how light effects the human body.

Bright light applied to the back of people's knees has had an effect similar to that experienced by people who gaze at special light tables to combat seasonal affective disorder. Scott Campbell and Patricia Murphy of Cornell University Medical College in White Plains, New York, have found this unique treatment has allowed them to reset the human internal clock. Their research may lead to different treatments for seasonal affective disorder, a common malady among northerners who in the dark season find themselves more irritable, sleepy, and hungry.

In Campbell and Murphy's study, they tinkered with people's circadian rhythms--the body's synchronization to Earth's 24-hour rotation that gets out of whack when… read more

Old Times, in Air

I now gratefully return this column to Ned Rozell, with thanks to the many people who've provided comments and corrections--especially Dr. Steve Maclean for the paper establishing that the ice worm is a true worm, always a worm, and never a midge, and for John Holland's report that Brooks Range old-timers suspected the weather warmed at the full moon.

Writing this column has given me a legitimate reason to greet my scientist friends and acquaintances with, "What's up, Doc?" Many of them helpfully take time to assuage that curiosity, producing answers and copies of their publications so I can read about what is up. Recently, friend Bob Elsner provided the printed version of a speech he gave last year, at the 50th birthday party for Barrow's former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. The main subject of the speech was acquaintance Pete Scholander, whose work at NARL made possible great advances in several fields of science--northern and otherwise.

The speech touched… read more

A Little Useful Technical Transfer

I've commented before about the uses of science conference sessions to science writers, but at this year's Arctic Science Conference, some of the most interesting stuff came to my ears while I was standing in the halls chatting with friends and acquaintances. For example, over coffee I asked noted corrosion engineer Lyle Perrigo, "What's new?"

Half an hour later, I had some insight into problems in the Russian Far East that could have powerful repercussions for Alaska, potentially good or bad. With support from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, Perrigo is among the Alaskans working to keep them to the good.

A little over 800 miles west of Nome lies Bilibino, a town in what is now known as the Chukotka autonomous region of Russia. The area would look familiar to many Alaskans, especially since the chief economic activity nearby is gold mining. Like a lot of gold camps, though, and much of the formerly Soviet Arctic, Bilibino is going through hard… read more

Children's Competency, Adults' Conversations

"Here's an Alaska scientist whose work I bet you don't know," said the boss, smiling as she handed me a book. Maybe it was a mischievous grin, since the book absorbed my weekend. Its co-author was a University of Alaska Anchorage professor of whom I'd never heard, but it proved to be a captivating account of interesting research.

Even better, the research points to practical advice that could improve any child's chances of success in adulthood.

For UAA's Dr. Todd R. Risley and his colleague Dr. Betty Hart, the research began decades ago as one skirmish in the War on Poverty. In those hopeful days, "early intervention" was one battle cry--if poor children's learning could be enriched before they started school, they should do better in school and their ensuing lives. But it wasn't that easy. For example, in programs such as Head Start, children from impoverished homes could get a big learning boost, but as they went on through the grades, they eventually lagged… read more

The Wanderings of the Arctic Circle

After 506 miles of walking, my dog Jane and I just hiked over the dashed line that encircles the top of every globe-the Arctic Circle. I'd like to pitch the tent precisely on the Arctic Circle, but it's not easy to pinpoint because the imaginary line is almost constantly on the move.

The Arctic Circle is known to most people as the spot where the sun never sets on June 21, the summer solstice, and the spot where the sun never rises on December 21, the winter solstice. The movement of the Arctic Circle due to changes in Earth's axis is called the Milankovitch Cycle, which was named for Serbian climatologist Milutan Milankovitch.

Milankovitch recognized that the tilt of Earth's axis shifted from about 22 to 24.5 degrees every 20,000 years. Then, he observed, the axis shifts back in another 20,000 years. Geophysical Institute Professor Emeritus Tom Hallinan said Earth is sort of like a spinning top that has a little bit of wobble. That wobble is what happens during… read more

Pingos Pop Up in Alaska's North Country

Many people have no doubt puzzled at the word "pingo" after spotting it on a topographic map. After you see one, the name seems to fit.

When viewed from an airplane, pingos look like mosquito bites on flat ground surfaces of the Arctic and subarctic. As Geophysical Institute Senior Engineer Emeritus John Miller explained in this column 20 years ago, pingos are actually earthen mounds with a core of ice that can measure from 10 to 500 feet across. They often support trees or bushes on top.

The word "pingo" is an Eskimo word meaning "small hill." A.E. Porslid, the first western scientist to borrow the word pingo to describe the mounds, found arctic pingos rising on sandy slopes and from old lake basins. The pingos that emerged from sandy slopes were small and often ruptured at the top, Porslid noted in a 1938 report. The novice pingo hunter might not even recognize them.

The larger pingos, the ones that rise from flat ground, are sometimes taller than 200… read more

A Potential Threat to Males Everywhere

While the role of the male in relationships and reproduction has long been assumed a necessity, there is now proof that at least one vertebrate species has learned how to get along fine without males. As discovered by the well-renowned biologist David Crews of the University of Austin, Texas, the whiptail lizard (specifically, C. uniparens) has somehow adapted the ability to reproduce in a population made up entirely of females.

In a packed UAF auditorium last February, Crews revealed the hormonal mechanisms with which the whiptail lizard has developed this remarkable adaptation. Apparently, the females of this species have learned how to take turns acting as males and, along with some special genetic changes, have completely eliminated the male sex from their species. They now possess the ability to lay eggs that hatch and grow into healthy lizards without the need to be fertilized by a male.

Although the exact ancestral lines may never be untangled, there is… read more

Arsenate and Phosphate - Chemical Look-alikes

The finding of high arsenic content in some wells located near goldbearing deposits of the Fairbanks mining district has created special concern because of possible health problems. Arsenic can cause skin and mucous membrane cancer and can damage small blood vessels, thereby leading to heart disease, kidney failure, brain damage and decreased tolerance to cold. Young people seem to be affected more than the elderly.

An arsenic atom will readily combine with four oxygen atoms to form the arsenate molecule. The arsenate molecule is a chemical look-alike to the phosphate molecule, similarly formed from phosphorous and oxygen. Phosphorous is an important element for living organisms. It forms nerve tissue, bones and teeth. Also, it makes up a part of the membrane tissue that surrounds living cells and transports the energy that fuels muscle contraction.

The cells recognize the shape of the phosphate molecule and readily absorb it. Unfortunately, the shape of arsenate… read more

Housebuilding Hints

The new buzz word among hopeful home builders seems to be "solar heat." Careful design can help take advantage of what Nature provides, even in Alaska. But the homebuilder should not let himself be detracted from also considering the fundamentals. In this regard teachings contained in the Book of Eb are worthy of study (Building in the North, by Eb Rice, available for the paltry sum of four dollars.)

Some of the hints (as interpreted by me)

Foundations - Do not build your dream home on permafrost. If you insist, better investigate carefully and be prepared for trouble.

Insulation - To get the most for your money forget the foam insulations, except for special uses. Friction fit fiber batts (not foil-backed) are the thing to use. Use at least 6 inches in walls, 12 to 15 inches in ceilings and 6 to 10 inches in elevated floors.

Vapor barrier - It is absolutely essential that an impermeable barrier be placed in interior surfaces… read more

Full Belly and Hard Head Help in Iditasport

Rocky Reifenstuhl burns calories the way most of us burn gasoline--he bikes to work every day, he bikes to running races, and, during the Iditasport race, he bikes a chunk of the Iditarod trail. While riding, he doesn't mind being a human guinea pig.

Reifenstuhl, a geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys in Fairbanks, is a two-time winner of the Iditasport, which this year featured a 100-mile bike, run or ski over a portion of the Iditarod trail beginning at Big Lake, Alaska. During the decade Reifenstuhl has pedaled the snowy miles of the Iditasport, he's allowed researchers to collect his blood and urine, ask him about what he's eaten during the race, and even ask him personal questions, such as "Do you feel worthy?" before and after the race. Reifenstuhl and other racers' willingness to be physically and mentally prodded has resulted in a few insights on what it takes to propel the human engine over several hundred miles of winter… read more

The Skinny on Humans and the Cold

I've heard that Alaska mountain-climbing legend John Waterman prepared for a solo winter ascent of Denali by lying in a tub filled with ice water. Whether Waterman's chilly soak is fact or embellishment, the ice bath nonetheless inspired me to research the cold tolerance of humans.

Over the years, many people have shed their clothes for the sake of human cold-tolerance research. Many of those people were in the Army or the Air Force. Military leaders were interested in ways to prepare infantryman for cold-weather warfare in the Arctic. Other studies were performed out of pure interest, such as several by the late Laurence Irving, a well-known Alaska scientist.

Irving, a former professor of zoophysiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in 1960 noticed with great curiosity two UAF students who walked around campus barefoot, even in winter. In accordance with their religious beliefs, the students wore only light clothing and wore no shoes or socks. Irving… read more

Ice Fog a Product of Temperature, Topography, Dogs

Carl Benson went out to collect ice fog a few days ago.

Benson, a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute, took advantage of what he considers excellent weather to gather ice fog, a Fairbanks phenomenon that occurs when the temperature drops below about minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Along the way, Benson described what ice fog is and why it transforms Fairbanks into a fuzzy dream world pierced only by bright lights.

Ice fog is what happens when water vapor meets bitter cold air that can't hold any more water. When water vapor exits a car tailpipe when it's minus 40, for example, the water vapor temperature drops from about 250 degrees to minus 40 in less than 10 seconds. Water cooled that fast forms tiny ice particles, so small that ten of them could fit side by side on the finger-cutting edge of a piece of paper. Collectively, millions of these particles take form as ice fog, the cotton candy-like clouds that hang over our roads.

Temperature… read more

Ailing Ears Aloft

Northerners are an airborne lot. With few roads, lots of territory, and a long way to go from home to anywhere else on the globe, we have good reason to climb aboard airplanes at the drop of a ticket. That tendency to travel by air means that most of us are familiar with some annoying aspects of even the smoothest flight.

The most common problem is that our ears don't seem to want to leave home. Actually, the problem is in that portion called the middle ear--the eardrum, tiny bones, and spaces between the sound-catching equipment making up our outer ear and the nerve system of the inner ear that carries sound impulses to our brains for processing.

Because middle ear spaces contain air, the whole apparatus is sensitive to changes in air pressure. Even in a well-pressurized commercial jet, passengers can expect to adjust to an air pressure change equivalent to a fairly quick change in altitude of a few thousand feet. Human ears aren't really designed for that kind… read more

If You Build It (a Wetland), They (Pollutants) Will Stay

It's hard to read a newspaper today without bumping into a story about developers destroying wetlands to build a condominium, beach house, or some other human amenity. While wetlands may be on the wane in other areas, Alaska may gain a few if Dave Maddux has his way. Maddux, a doctoral student with the School of Agriculture and Land Resources Management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wants to construct wetlands to help cure village sewage problems.

Maddux envisions a slew of manmade swamps all over Alaska. These constructed wetlands have the potential to capture pollutants from sewage lagoons and keep them from drifting downstream to be ingested by animals and plants.

Many Bush villages have sub-par sewage treatment facilities, Maddux said. A typical sewage management system consists of a large settling pond, into which all the village waste is flushed. Solids sink to the bottom of the stinky lagoons, and then the water is periodically released onto the… read more

Barrow Canyon: Where Atlantic Meets Pacific

Want to dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean without leaving Alaska? Just head north from Barrow and pay a visit to Barrow Canyon.

You've never heard of Barrow Canyon? It's an impressive, V-shaped valley that's 150 miles long and 15 miles wide. The valley floor lies 1,200 feet below the peaks that rise above it.

Don't feel bad about your apparent ignorance of Alaska geography. Barrow Canyon, one of the places where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean, is deep under salt water. It's the type of feature studied by Tom Weingartner, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Marine Science. Weingartner is a physical oceanographer, a person who has a different world view than most of us because his includes the incredible mountains, valleys and plains of the ocean bottom.

Barrow Canyon cuts a northeast-southwest swath through the earth's surface about 20 miles north of Barrow. The ocean above Barrow Canyon, covered with… read more

Larch Sawfly Larvae Make a Meal of Alaska Tamaracks

While flying in a small plane recently, Ed Holsten had an easy time spotting tamaracks, which are delicate-looking trees that grow in moist Interior valleys. The tamaracks he saw were pinkish-red instead of green because most of their needle-like leaves were gone.

Holsten, a research entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Anchorage, said the leaves were eaten by thousands of tiny green caterpillars, the larvae of larch sawflies. The population of these insects exploded this summer.

Holsten estimated that larch sawflies are feeding on at least 1 million acres of Alaska tamarack, an attack he called absolutely phenomenal.

"The outbreak almost appears to cover the whole distribution of larch in the state," he said.

Tamarack trees, also known as Alaska larch and eastern larch, are often mistaken for sickly spruce trees. Like spruce, tamaracks have cones, but deciduous tamaracks have needles that turn golden and… read more

Sleuthing the Source of Washboard Roads

While driving Alaska's graveled highways, countless people have no doubt wondered how an unpaved road surface turns into a bouncing bed of corduroy.

Keith Mather, former director of the Geophysical Institute and UAF vice chancellor for research, wondered the same thing, and in 1963 he published a paper on a subject near and dear to many Alaskans' shock absorbers--the formation of washboard roads.

Mather, who was studying nuclear physics in Australia in the early 1960s, wasn't satisfied with the theories of the time: that washboard roads were caused by "peculiar" soil, wind from passing vehicles, car exhaust, or impulses from car engines. He doubted all these possible causes because he noticed that many different surfaces, such as train tracks and ski trails, also can be afflicted with tiny roller coaster patterns.

Mather set up an inexpensive experiment at his lab in Melbourne. He assembled a contraption in which a tire connected to a central arm moved… read more

Flowing with Questions about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline

While driving your relatives over Alaska's highways this summer, you'll no doubt be inundated with questions about furry things, leafy things, andóif you're traveling the Richardson, Steese, Elliott, or Dalton highwaysóthe trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

With the aid of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company's Elden Johnson, I gathered some facts that might be helpful when your brother-in-law from Georgia lobs pipeline questions at you. Johnson, a corrosion engineer with Alyeska, has worked on the design, construction and maintenance of the pipeline since 1973.

Completed in 1977, the pipeline covers 800 miles of mountain, muskeg and river valleys in its span from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Stretch the pipeline over the Lower 48 and it would reach from Los Angeles to Denver.

The pipe is a tube of 1/2-inch thick steel with a diameter of 48 inches. It looks thicker from the highway because the steel pipe is wrapped with four inches of fiberglass insulation. The shiny… read more

Tapping the Will Power of an Arctic Ground Squirrel

It's springtime, when Alaskans expose pasty white skin to the sun, illuminating the result of eight months of winter grazing. Too bad humans don't have the will power of arctic ground squirrels.

Ground squirrels, now stumbling out of their burrows after eight months of hibernation, are enjoying their first meals since September. Their first bite must be all the more satisfying because they resisted snacking all winter long. Although ground squirrels occasionally stir during hibernation, they tend to ignore the cached supply of seeds, berries and mushrooms in their burrow. A newly discovered hormone called leptin may be the root of this impressive ability to abstain.

Humans, who don't always possess a ground squirrel's ability to shun a midnight snack, are interested in leptin. Amgen, Inc., a California drug company, was so interested it paid $20 million to Dr. Jeff Friedman, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Rockefeller University in New York City for an… read more

Spring a Painful Season for Some

"April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. " T.S. Eliot

British poet T.S, Eliot began 1922's The Waste Land with a curious contradiction noticed by today's psychologists: spring, which is supposed to be a happy time, isn't fun for some people. In fact, statistics show April and May are the most common months for suicide, both nationally and in Alaska.

Why do so many deaths by suicide occur in a season of sunshine and rebirth? One theory offered by Howard Gabennesch, a psychologist with the University of Southern Indiana, is that spring is a time of unfulfilled promise. A severely depressed, suicidal person may be negatively affected by spring because it's a time most people associate with new beginnings.

A despondent person's hopes of feeling better might be heightened with the new season,… read more

Arctic Haze: An Uninvited Spring Guest

While squinting through spring sunshine, Alaskans sometimes notice that the sky doesn't seem very blue, and that distant mountains seem a bit out-of-focus. Don't blame your contact lenses; the culprit is arctic haze, an unwanted visitor that can make the skies above Alaska dirtier than the air above California.

Arctic haze is a soup of pollutants housed within the polar air mass. Geophysical Institute Professor of Physics Glenn Shaw compares the polar air mass to an amoeba the size of Africa that hovers over the top of the earth. As the cold air mass drifts around, it picks up air pollution from one northern part of the globe and escorts it to another.

"Arctic haze" is a phrase invented in 1956 by Murray Mitchell, a U.S. Air Force officer stationed in Alaska who wrote about murky bands of pollution on the horizon noticed by pilots flying arctic missions.

Since Alaska isn't the home of many industrial smokestacks, the origin of arctic haze was a mystery… read more

Alaskans Double Their Daylight Savings

On April 7th, it's time to "spring forward" again. Time to pull the clock off the wall and watch a precious hour slip away as fast as you can turn the minute hand. We all know the ritual as daylight savings time, but in the most populated parts of Alaska it would be more appropriate to say we're going on "double daylight savings time."

That's what researchers such as Carl Benson, a Geophysical Institute professor emeritus, call it. At lower latitudes, daylight savings time brightens evenings by taking an hour of morning light and pasting it on the end of the day. This knocks Lower 48 communities an hour out of tune with the sun; the sun is highest in the sky at 1 p.m., instead of noon.

Most of Alaska gets a double dose of daylight savings. When we push our clocks ahead for the daylight savings time period---the first Sunday in April until the last Sunday in October---the sun reaches its zenith at about 2 p.m. in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Many scientists refer to… read more

Warmth of Friction Sets Wheels Spinning

Alaskans often feel as if they're getting nowhere when they step on the gas at an intersection. The speedometer needle jumps, but it's the only thing moving forward. The car's tires spin in place. We all know we're slipping on ice, but what really happens down there where tire meets road?

For the answer I dialed Samuel Colbeck, a man who studies the slipperiness of ice and snow. Colbeck is a geophysicist who works at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire.

One of Colbeck's main interests is snow friction on ski bottoms, but he also commutes to work in a car and knows the physics behind what's happening when his tires spin on a snowy road.

To illustrate one of the main forces making roads slipped, Colbeck told me to rub my hands together. I did. My hands heated up.

The warmth of friction generated by a tire spinning on snow creates a microscopic layer of water that lubricates the space between tires and… read more

Windshield Cracks: Irritation or Artwork?

A friend of mine who's relatively new to Alaska says she can't stand the tiny bowls, crooked lines and spider webs that appear in her truck's windshield as a result of driving Alaska roads. Whenever a pebble kisses her windshield and leaves a blemish, she speeds to a windshield repair service.

I think lines on a windshield are a form of Alaska artwork. A favorite old truck of mine once sprouted a fracture that looked like the west coast of Ireland.

Flipping through an issue of Nature a few days ago, I noticed that two scientists were spending hours pushing warm panes of glass into cold water to see how cracks form. Not everybody's idea of great time, but the researchers learned something about the complex processes involved with fracture; pretty useful stuff for engineers involved in bridge building.

For wisdom on windshield cracks, I called Michael Marder, a physics professor at the University of Texas in Austin who wrote the Natureread more

To Idle, or Not to Idle?

A cold snap seems to divide Alaskans into two classes; all it takes is a drive to the grocery store. Once a parking spot is found, the segregation begins: some people shut off their car engines; some people prefer to let their cars idle.

I've heard non-idlers fantasize about driving unoccupied, running, vehicles to another parking spot, just to let the idler know the excess exhaust isn't appreciated. Idlers counter with the statement that in keeping the engine warm, they're polluting less than the shopper who comes out to a cold car. Who's right?

First, a bit about cold car chemistry. When a car is cranked to life after the engine has cooled to below about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the tailpipe spews out a high amount of carbon monoxide. Abbreviated CO, carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen. CO occasionally collects in Fairbanks and Anchorage in concentrations greater than nine molecules of CO per million… read more

Fly East for Bad Jet Lag

Alaska sports teams often have difficulty winning a game against their competitors when they travel to other states, thousands of miles and several time zones away. The home-field advantage has been an accepted--and proven--cliche since Napoleon tried to invade Russia in the winter of 1812.

Alaska and other western teams might face more during away games than a hostile crowd, bad hotel food and an unfamiliarity with the quirks of a certain playing field, however. According to a study recently published in Nature, teams that travel east suffer more from jet lag than those traveling west.

Three researchers from Massachusetts decided over lunch one day to inspect major league baseball records to see how jet lag affects teams. Lawrence Recht and William Schwartz, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Robert Lew, of the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, poured through three years of game results from the 19 major league teams on the east… read more

SAD: a Sign of the Sunless Season

Over the southern horizon, the sun traces a weak, shallow arc that shrinks each winter day. The inevitable tilt of the earth once again plunges Alaska into winter and causes many Alaskans to feel melancholy, as if the sun is a loved one saying goodbye for the winter.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known by the fitting acronym SAD, is a real hazard of living far from the equator. Our wild fluctuations of daylight in the Interior--from almost 22 hours at summer solstice to under four hours at winter solstice--can have an unpleasant effect on the human brain.

John Booker, a medical and public health researcher at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Circumpolar Health Institute, said humans have biological rhythms that correspond to the amount of light that reaches the brain. Some researchers say a lack of daylight such as that experienced in an Alaska winter affects the production of the hormone melatonin, which has been called "the hormone of darkness" because… read more

Fall--Colder, Crisper, Bluer

There's something stirring in the brief Alaska autumn---trees and bushes wearing vivid colors, the musky smell of ripening highbush cranberries, and chilly mornings that give way to bright, crisp days. Punctuating it all is the rich, deep blue of the sky.

That cobalt blue isn't just an illusion Alaskans conjure up to ward off winter. According to Glenn Shaw, an atmospheric scientist at the Geophysical Institute, fall skies offer some of the deepest blues of any Alaska season.

Before being able to grasp Shaw's theories, I had to find out the answer to a question often thrown at puzzled parents by curious three-year olds: Why is the sky blue?

After talking with Shaw and opening one of my favorite sources, the text book Meteorology Today, I learned the sky is blue because of the effects on light of Earth's atmosphere, the 20-mile thick blanket of gases that covers the earth.

Much of the sun's energy is emitted as light vibrating at… read more

Wood Burners Unlock Energy with a Match

As breath hangs in the frosty autumn air, thoughts turn to protecting home and body from the inevitable deep freeze of the coming season. Many Alaskans choose wood heat to make the winter more bearable. Burning firewood provides warmth by releasing stored energy from the sun converted by trees to mass we can use.

The energy provided by a certain species of wood is defined by British thermal units, or Btu, according to the Solid Fuels Encyclopedia by Jay Shelton. A Btu is the amount of energy it takes to increase the temperature of one pound (one pint) of water by one degree Fahrenheit. For example, to bring a pint of water in a tea kettle from 60 degrees to a boil requires 152 Btu (212 degrees minus 60 degrees).

Firewood energy is measured in Btu per cord. A cord is 128 cubic feet, which is a four-foot by four-foot by eight-foot pile of wood. If a cord is cut in one-foot lengths to fit the stove, the resulting wood pile will be 32 feet long and four feet… read more

The Art of Caribou Management

In the north, managing caribou can be a tricky business. Migratory caribou herds typically number in the hundreds of thousands; they boom and bust unpredictably, and they travel incredible distances.

Because of these natural limitations, successful management schemes rely on the expertise of biologists and on the willingness of hunters to comply with management decisions, to volunteer information about the herd, and to limit their harvest when necessary.

What management system works best in getting hunters to cooperate with biologists and game managers? A team of researchers recently studied two caribou management systems to come up with a preliminary answer. They compared a Canadian management group, composed primarily of subsistence hunters, with the Alaska State Board of Game, which receives input from, but has no direct representation from, the subsistence caribou hunting population. Expecting the Canadian system might foster greater cooperation and… read more

Hold Your Breath---Pollen Season's Here!

It's mating season for trees, and you might not have noticed---unless, of course, you suffer from a pollen allergy.

If you're reading this column outdoors, which I hope you are, thousands of pollen grains could be floating invisibly around you. With your next breath, you may pull hundreds of them into your nose. Your body may react defensively; your nasal passages could swell, your head might feel heavy and your eyes may redden and begin to itch.

First, a review of the birds and the bees as it applies to trees. Most Alaska trees and shrubs depend on wind to carry their sperm, encased in pollen grains, to female eggs, which are contained within flowers or cones on trees of the same species. The female organ that receives the pollen is tiny, which makes it a difficult target for individual pollen grains. Trees compensate by releasing a generous abundance of pollen. A single catkin (a branch-dangling, caterpillar-like appendage that forms in the spring) of an alder… read more

When the Body Bonks, You Listen

It happens suddenly; after exerting their bodies for two hours or more, athletes feel as if they've sprung a leak in their foot that drains their bodies of energy. Some quit. Some limp to the finish, making spectators wince with sympathy pains.

Skiers and bikers call it "bonking." Runners prefer the traditional "hitting the wall," although phrases such as "carrying the piano," and "throwing out the anchor" also have been used to describe the sensation of how the body sometimes crashes in a long-distance sporting event.

Tom Wells, head of the University of Alaska Fairbanks physical education department and a professor of exercise physiology, is a veteran bonker. He's run nine marathons, and has hit the wall in each one. What sets him apart from most athletes is that Wells can describe in detail what's happening to his body when that terrible sensation of fatigue hits after running about 22 or 23 miles in a marathon.

Over the course of a marathon run, the… read more

Oxyfuel's smell: a curse and a blessing?

Alaskans didn't shed many tears over the departure of oxyfuel in late December of 1992.

Some people said oxyfuel, a blend of gasoline and a chemical agent designed to reduce carbon monoxide emissions in vehicle exhaust, made them sick. Some people said it made their vehicles act as if they were sick. Everybody felt it dig deep into their pockets, as each gallon cost 14 cents more than non-oxyfuel did before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Anchorage and Fairbanks drivers to use the fuel during the winter of 1992-1993.

But for all its negative qualities, the results of a recent study show oxyfuel has one attribute people might want to be thankful for: its funky smell.

The Alaska Division of Public Health in Fairbanks worked with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a study in which researchers measured benzene levels in the blood of car mechanics and others who worked around oxyfuel. Benzene, a carcinogen, is a clear… read more

The Wind as Heat Thief

This spring, I've been tricked by the brilliance of the sun into going outside wearing a sweater that I think will keep me nice and warm just to end up freezing cold because the wind is blowing through it. Instead of being toasty warm, I feel "wind- chilled."

What causes wind chill? To understand the effect of the wind on the human body, we first have to look at how the body keeps itself warm.

For the body to function normally, its temperature must be within a few degrees of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Our bodies maintain this temperature by converting food to heat. Like a hot wood stove, our bodies continuously radiate heat.

We use the heat our body produces to warm a thin layer of air between our skin and our clothes. That's why even a thin layer of clothes gives you more protection than bare skin.

When the wind blows, it removes this warm layer of air and replaces it with colder air. The body reacts to this loss by expending more energy to warm… read more

Smug Smog

Fairbanks and Los Angeles. One a frontier town bordered by wilderness. One a sprawling megalopolis bordered by smaller megalopoli. Generally, these two don't have much in common, except when both violate the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for carbon monoxide in the air.

Fairbanks recently had a string of four violations when, over eight-hour periods, more than nine carbon monoxide molecules were measured among a million other molecules of gases that make up the downtown air. The EPA is considering putting Fairbanks on the "serious list" of carbon monoxide polluters. The only name currently on the list is Los Angeles, which raises a question: How do the 30,000 people or so in the city core of Fairbanks generate the same density of carbon monoxide as L.A.'s 3 million?

Both cities are similar in that they're surrounded by hills and mountains and both experience temperature inversions, where atmospheric quirks cause temperature to increase with elevation… read more

The Seasonal Smell of Silver Bells

A wonderful smell stopped me at the open door. My neighbor's entryway was cluttered with freshly cut spruce branches ready to make into Christmas decorations, and the thawing evergreens filled the air with the sharp, nostalgic fragrance of holidays past. For evoking memories, surely there's nothing like the smell of fresh greens.

Ever wonder what fresh reds, blues, or yellows would smell like? If estimated statistics hold true, a couple dozen Alaskans could tell you. One in 25,000 people have a condition known as synesthesia, in which senses we usually think of as separate mysteriously intermingle. When one sense is stimulated, others chime in. For these people, colors may have smells, tastes, or sounds; names can be colored, and numbers can feel rougher or cooler when they're written in Roman numerals instead of Arabic.

When most of us refer to the smell of greens, we're merely referring to the scent of fresh conifer sap. But when people with synesthesia speak… read more

Setting the Hills Ablaze on Solstice

The newspaper's daily forecast summed up our lack of solar radiation all too accurately the other day: "Bitterly cold with ineffective midday sunshine."

Ineffective is an apt adjective to describe how the sun warms Alaskans this time of year. Even when it's shining orange on our faces, the sun doesn't feel very hot as we approach the winter solstice, the day in which the North Pole is swiveled as far away as it can get from the sun.

On this year's solstice, December 21, sun worshipers may want to warm their toes by following some ancient advice: plan a celebration.

According to Jerry Dennis, the author of the book It's Raining Frogs and Fishes---Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, the winter solstice has long been celebrated by observers of the natural world. In a Yule Girth festival that predates Christmas, the Goths and Saxons marked the winter solstice by building huge bonfires on hilltops. The leaping flames were a… read more

Where Alaskans and Artificial Life Agree

Some of my friends at the Geophysical Institute hold unquestioning views about the natural superiority of physics among the sciences. I've even overheard a couple of them agreeing that "social science" is an oxymoron--one of those self-contained contradictions like "jumbo shrimp."

But the social and behavioral sciences are becoming more heavily mathematical, surely something of which physicists should approve. And behavioral scientists are making greater use of the capabilities of computers. In fact, some of their study subjects now exist nowhere else but in machines.

Furthermore, if they have long enough, those computer-dwelling subjects start behaving like Alaskans--some Alaskans, anyhow.

Appropriately enough, the study begins with a game. In the original form of Prisoner's Dilemma, pairs of players are to envision themselves as criminals nabbed by the police. They are jailed separately, and each is offered a reward for turning informer. If only one… read more

A Small Triumph for French Cooking

Nutrition scientists have been struggling to convince Americans to eat more healthy diets--and they've demanded that we redefine "healthy." Statistical studies established that people live longer, and have less heart disease and circulatory system problems, if they severely curtail their intake of fats, especially those associated with meat and dairy products.

Never mind that generations of Americans grew up believing that the best beef had the most luxuriant marbling of fat and that the best milk contained a rich portion of golden cream. Study upon study confirmed the connection of cardiac and blood-vessel diseases with high animal fat intake. Cholesterol rises, fatty deposits build up on artery walls, trouble ensues.

The dietitians could point to connections of diet with heart disease worldwide. Cultures that rely upon truly lean cuisines, heavy on vegetables and starches and light on animal products, were held up to us as models of healthy eating. That the… read more

Transgenic Animals are Good Medicine

Modern medicine has come a long way, but many people can honestly claim it hasn't yet come far enough. Serious illnesses such as diabetes, hemophilia, emphysema, or heart problems now often can be treated to some degree, but medicines for these conditions are frequently expensive. Other conditions may not be fatal if left untreated, but can certainly be inconvenient; lactose intolerance, a condition in which the sugars in cow's milk cannot be digested, is an example of these nuisance conditions.

In an attempt to solve these problems, scientists are using a wonderful application of molecular biology by creating transgenic animals. Transgenic animals have had a foreign gene inserted into their genome. (A gene is a sequence of DNA that codes for a protein and passes on inherited information; a genome is the complete set of genetic information for a species.)

Transgenic animals are frequently created by a method known as microinjection. In microinjection, foreign… read more

Finding The Wimp Factor

Phobias are often embarrassing, sometimes debilitating problems. These panic-producing, apparently unreasonable fears have interested me for a long time, if only because I suffer---more properly, suffered---from one. I can use the past tense, because mine is fairly well beaten down.

Apparently that's not unusual with the so-called simple phobias. According to the British publication New Scientist, which recently published a review of the present state of knowledge about phobias, some simple phobias such as fear of a certain kind of animal usually start in childhood. Others (panic at the sight of blood, for example) can start later, even into early adulthood. Women are more likely than men to experience simple phobias, and such phobias can persist for years.

Complex phobias are harder to deal with. Agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces and public places, typically appears in women between the ages of 18 and 28. Social phobia, a catch-all term for fear of… read more

SAR as a Saving Grace---Someday

The home team's newsletter somehow found its way to the bottom of the stack; when I finally got around to reading the last issue of the Geophysical Institute Quarterly, I found an interesting article on a new use for synthetic aperture radar.

Synthetic aperture radar, better known as SAR, is a research tool whose time has come. It's certainly come to Alaska, which has the only U.S. station for receiving SAR information from space. The huge dish-shaped antenna atop the institute's Elvey Building picks up SAR data sent by earth-orbiting satellites, which report on many aspects of ground and sea over which they pass even at night or during cloudy weather. SAR images are recorded by radio waves, not light waves as would be needed for ordinary cameras, and thus are especially useful for capturing information formerly hidden from remote-sensing instruments by the arctic winter.

It was another possible use for SAR that a team from the National Aeronautics and… read more

Gnaw Those Bones

Long ago, my parents explained that polite people don't chew up chicken bones. At dinner, one should whittle off solely what discreet maneuverings of knife and fork permitted. I could gnaw away at the delicious morsels only when we dined with my mother's parents.

"The best meat," my grandfather always declared, "lies closest to the bone." Then he'd pick up a drumstick and chomp down, chewing up skin, cartilage and all. No one dared scold Grandpa, so I was safe too. Let the others mince about with cutlery. He and I were eating chicken as it should be eaten.

The image of those family dinners came back when I read in a recent issue of the journal Science about a study that offers hope for easing rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the so-called autoimmune diseases. In such diseases, the body's immune system seems to lose its ability to distinguish between friend and enemy. A normal immune system attacks invading organisms and… read more

Good Drug, Bad Drug, Same Drug

In hindsight, drugs seem to dominate the 1960s. The ones that leap to mind first may be illegal substances like marijuana and LSD, but the most infamous was perfectly legal. It was a pharmaceutical called thalidomide.

If that name generates no pangs in your memory bank, you're too young to have been paying attention to the news media in the early '60s. Thalidomide then was a popular sedative in Europe and Japan, where it was often prescribed for pregnant women because it eased symptoms of morning sickness. In this country, the ponderous processes of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had moved the drug along in the approval process only as far as clinical trials when it became obvious that thalidomide was horribly dangerous. Taken early in pregnancy, the drug stopped limb growth in human embryos. Nearly 10,000 so-called "thalidomide babies" were born with malformed or virtually nonexistent legs and arms. Thalidomide was taken off the market, and became a nightmarish… read more

Cutting Boards Revisited


One advantage of writing articles about science is that scientists are, by and large, a civilized lot. Offend them, and they're more likely to try to straighten out your thinking rather than your kneecaps. One does learn, though, to understand what they really mean when they politely point out that perhaps an error has been committed.

Thus, when Dr. Brian Himelbloom sent a civil note suggesting I had overstated the importance of a study concluding that wood cutting boards were less likely to harbor disease organisms than were plastic ones, I knew what he was really saying. It was, "Good grief, you knucklehead! Are you trying to kill people?"

Himelbloom is an assistant professor of seafood microbiology at the Fishery Industry Technology Center in Kodiak (which, thanks to state cost-cutting measures, is administratively under the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences of the… read more

Sickening DNA with Sunburns

Alaska's summer weather at its sunny best delights most of us, but it is a cause of distress for oncologists. Those cancer specialists know that exposure to sunlight, most especially its ultraviolet component, seems closely correlated to the occurrence of skin cancer. Yet "Stay out of the sun" ranks right up there with "Eat lots of broccoli" on the popular-advice list. Gimme chocolate, gimme sunshine, and I'11 listen to you once I get sick---that's the way most of us heed our doctors' well-meant wisdom.

Research has connected sunshine and skin cancer, but it's growing clearer that the true link lies in the genes---or at least in the genetic material, deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA for short.

Scientists working at the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland decided to test widely held views about DNA damage and cancer by using both human volunteers and test tubes. Their human volunteers were already in trouble. Some of them---88 people---had a type of skin cancer… read more

Does Jon Frum Live in Valdez?

Maybe because I was enjoying the warmest Memorial Day weekend in memory, my thoughts during a recent break in Valdez turned to a minor new scientific observation relating to the tropics---but wended from there back to an irreverent observation about the Port Valdez skyline.

The minor observation had to do with the beginnings of the so-called cargo cults. Members of these groups believe in a very contemporary type of sympathetic magic. In effect, once the soon-to-be believers observed that incredible kinds and amounts of material wealth arrived in airplanes, they set about building mockups of the conveyances to attract some real ones. The idea, perhaps, is like setting out a decoy for the goose that lays golden eggs. The ensuing customs are the delight of TV documentary producers, who love to show respectful people surrounding a scrapwood simulacrum of an old DC-4.

However, cargo cults are also extremely interesting to cultural anthropologists, who otherwise… read more

Taxol Revisited

Taxol, the latest cancer-fighting wonder drug, is found in Alaska---growing on trees. Even though Taxol is extremely valuable, it won't replace oil as an income producer for the state. Taxol is derived from the bark of Pacific yew trees, a species found mostly in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, from the Cascades to the Rockies. A few Pacific yews do occur in Alaska, close to the northern limit of their range, but only in Southeast, chiefly near Ketchikan and or Prince of Wales Island.

From the point of view of medical researchers and cancer patients, Pacific yews are too rare everywhere. According to a recent issue of the journal Bioscience, a mature yew will yield between five and 20 pounds of bark. To produce enough Taxol to treat one patient with ovarian cancer, the pharmaceuticals industry must process 60 pounds of bark.

None of the foregoing information is new as regular readers of this column may remember. But the Bioscienceread more

On the Chopping Block

Bad news arrived with an outspoken dinner guest. "You're carving on that?" she asked, pointing at the wooden board upon which the newly roasted duck awaited the knife. Well, yes, I was. We'd used that board for years, as had a great-aunt before us; it showed its age, so it did not leave the kitchen, but it was kindly to knives and comforting in its family tradition.

The upset guest told me she'd just read an article on how unsanitary wooden kitchen implements were. A butcher block might look elegant, but it was unhealthy, as were bread boards and meat planks of the sort I cherished. "Think of all those pores and nicks," she continued. "It makes sense that germs would thrive on wood. You never can get it really clean."

It did make sense. Soon I too saw articles exhorting cooks to avoid porous, organic, and germ-encouraging wood in favor of inert sterilizable plastic. Sadly I replaced my cherished wooden things with inorganic, impervious plastic, stuff so… read more

Cold and Humid

As Alaska settles into the nasty part of winter, with the mercury puddling at the bottom of thermometers, we dwellers in the Interior keep reassuring ourselves that it could be worse. Winters in the so-called temperate zone can feel just as bad because nobody's ever dressed properly for the cold, even though there the lowest temperatures are fifty degrees warmer than ours. Cars don't have plug-in heaters. And worst of all, winters Outside are soggy and raw. When it's really cold here, it's really dry. There's no humidity to speak of---the need for humidifiers and constantly steaming kettles to keep the furniture (and our hides) from drying out and cracking testifies to that.

At least that's what I thought until I started hanging out with scientists. According to knowledgeable people, my understanding of the situation was at best only partly right. That's because "relative humidity" doesn't mean the same thing as "total amount of water vapor in the air." It turns out that… read more

A Scourge Returns

Contagious, variable, for centuries intractable, tuberculosis has long plagued humankind. TB can afflict bones or skin, lungs or lymph; the bacteria that cause consumption also produce scrofula. In every generation, tuberculosis killed some victims outright, wore others down gradually into their graves, and left still others weakened and susceptible to different diseases.

Alaska did not escape its ravages. Robert Fortuine, in his book Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska, an authoritative source of information on northern medical matters, suggests that Native Alaskans probably were not infected with tuberculosis until European explorers brought it to these shores. Certainly Alaskans had little immunity against the particular forms of the disease that arrived with the Russians and the British, and then again with the Yankee whalers, the Chinese cannery workers, or the citizens of everywhere who poured in during the gold rushes.… read more

Truth and Consequences

Sometimes people hold strange views about themselves. Groucho Marx put it well: "I'd never join any club that would have me as a member." Psychologists are calling it the self-verification theory, and it's generating much interest and some bad feeling in their profession.

In a way, the bad feeling is perfectly appropriate. If its champions are correct, applying the self-verification theory may be able to help the world's depressed and put-upon people. (At the onset of winter in an election year, who better fits that description than Alaskans? Trust me---this may be stuff we need to know.)

William B. Swann Jr., a psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin, is probably the leading champion of the newly popular theory. He explains it as a digression from what we've long understood about our psychic makeup.

Start with the view of humans as social animals. Being accepted by our fellows is as important to us as it is to any wolf in a pack or… read more

Mapping the Road to Splitsville

For twenty years, John Gottman has been studying marriages. This University of Washington psychology professor has snooped around spouses, making note of what they do, what they say, even what they excrete. He's been looking for what predicts whether a given couple is headed for divorce.

Hordes of studies have concerned marital splits, but nearly all are attempts to measure the effects of divorce. According to the article in the University of Washington alumni magazine from which I found out about Gottman's work, he identified 1200 published studies on the subject. Of those, only four involved long-term monitoring before as well as after divorce. Not one involved observations of marriage partners as they interacted.

That was the area in which he decided to concentrate. His idea of observation, however, wasn't merely watching and listening while couples sat across from him in an office. He took blood and urine samples, analyzing them for the tell-tale presence of… read more

Starve a Bear, Feed a Heart Attack

Black bears pull off some metabolic marvels in their sleep, as I wrote in this column not too long ago. If their tricks of recycling calcium and urea while they hibernate could be transferred to human beings, we'd be a healthier and longer-lived species.

A friend drew my attention to a report about the metabolic functioning of another kind of bear. From this research, it looks as if the message in the bear's blood might translate into human benefit fairly quickly.

In this case, the bears of interest are the sea-going terrors of the whole High Arctic, polar bears. If polar bears were people, they'd be frequently scolded by dietitians. Those big white bears pudge up on blubber. They gorge on fat. When they catch a seal, they usually chow down on its hide and the layer of fat under the skin. Often enough, they leave the lean portions of the carcass for birds and foxes to scavenge.

When they can't catch nice fat seals, polar bears dine infrequently or… read more

The Joys of Inefficiency

Let's admit it: there's some snobbery among sciences. When talking candidly among themselves, for example, biologists sometimes speak of "physics envy." Mathematical, experimental, and elegant, physics seems to be more purely scientific than fields of study cluttered by the complications of life. In any measure of scientific hierarchy, physics comes out near the top of the scale.

On the same scale, political science comes near falling off the bottom.

This, I think, is unfair. The most single-minded physicist would have to admit that Charles Darwin was a pretty fair scientist, yet his procedures were those of a naturalist: Observe, record, cogitate. Like Darwin, political scientists are naturalists. They cannot manipulate people and political processes with the same impunity that a physicist has in manipulating inanimate objects and unemotional processes, but political scientists surely can observe, record their observations, and think about what they have… read more

Sickly Tans

Suntan season in the north is shaded slightly this year by nervous medical researchers who want us to stay out of the sun. Entirely, please. If we must expose ourselves at all to frightful sunshine, they say it had better be while we are wrapped in long pants and sleeves, and standing under a parasol or at least a wide-brimmed hat.

The experts' horror of ultraviolet light isn't really new. For years they've been warning sunlovers like me that sunshine ages skin--young tanned hides quickly become old leathery ones, so to speak. And sunburn is as damaging as any other kind of burn. But now the medical warnings have a new urgency.

The British journal New Scientist, issue of 16 May 1992, contained an article reviewing what's known about sun damage. The article's title indicates the main problem with too much sunshine: "The resistible rise of skin cancer."

Skin cancer of all kinds is more common than ever before, and the most dangerous kind--melanoma--is blooming… read more

Psychology in the Jury Room

Going by the contents of the research publications I read, scientific studies of legal practice are pretty rare. Since ours is a society of laws, and since lawyers are indeed important to its present manner of functioning, scientists really should enter the legal realm and snoop around---or so I think, anyhow.

Which is why I was delighted to encounter one report of some psychologists' attempts to understand how juries arrive at decisions. Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie, both with the University of Colorado, recruited people called for jury duty but not empanelled to serve on an actual trial. The recruits watched a movie of a murder trial, realistically reenacted by professional actors. The psychologists then interviewed each of their quasi-jurors, asking detailed questions to outline the reasoning that led them to declare the defendant innocent or guilty. The psychologists repeated this procedure, recording the views and judgments of panel after panel of would-be… read more

Survival Tricks of a Slippery Virus

Topics about interesting or local scientific developments likely to go unreported elsewhere in the newspapers have dominated this column for the 16 years it's been in existence. So this hasn't been the place to read about cold fusion or chronic fatigue syndrome, stealth bombers or AIDS.

But when the NAMES Project brought the AIDS memorial quilt to Fairbanks early in May, I was reminded that there was one item about acquired immune deficiency syndrome that I haven't seen discussed in the newspapers: the odd mutability of the AIDS virus.

The research, as reported in many magazines (such as Science, Science News, Discovery, Scientific American), suggests that AIDS is deadly partly because the causative virus has a striking weakness. Like other members of its family, the retroviruses, the AIDS virus has no mechanism to correct errors occurring as its genetic material undergoes duplication. That means whenever the virus multiplies, it's… read more

The Aeolian Harp

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, a powerline thickened by frost or a clothesline laden with snow will start to bounce. The shaking line looks errie, but it has an understandable cause. It's the same thing that causes bare wires to hum in a high wind: the aeolian harp effect.

The aeolian harp is the Greek answer to wind chimes. It's a stringed instrument played only by wind (or, as a Greek of the classical era might say, it's intended to be plucked only by the fingers of Aeolus, the god of winds). Nowadays, as the Random House dictionary definition starts. an aeolian harp is a box equipped with a number of strings of equal length, tuned in unison and sounded by wind.

The aeolian harp creates sound for the same reason the frosted line bounces. The cause lies in the phenomenon known as vortex shedding. A vortex (or curl) forms in flowing air under certain conditions. Normally, vortices are invisible in transparent air, but smoke makes them easy to see.… read more

To Live Long, Don't Prosper

Sometimes research results apparently point to conclusions that scientists don't recognize. Since I'm not a scientist, I'm willing to translate (with tongue in cheek, please note) the hidden news embedded in the February Natural History magazine. This issue of the American Museum of Natural History's monthly publication concentrates on the topic of aging.

Human aging is an undercurrent in the articles, but is rarely the main theme. The scientist-authors roam all over the biological map to establish the evolutionary purpose of aging how the process is manifested in organisms from paramecia to elephants. At least in passing, they also note some ways in which creatures delay the physical failings that come with the passage of time.

Collectively, these ways make up a prescription for a long, strait life. First, forget sex. The longest-lived organisms do without---at least for several generations. Very simple organisms, say single-celled animals, don't age.… read more

Weak Tea as Strong Medicine

Working chiefly with sickly mice and statistical analysis, several chemists think they may have identified a powerful cancer-combatting substance in a common beverage: green tea.

As reported in a recent issue of Science News, green tea's trek from Japanese restaurant to medical laboratory began with an apparent statistical anomaly. Some kinds of cancer seem to be less common in the Orient than in Europe or the Americas. A few of these differences are well documented: for example, Japanese cigarette smokers have a lower rate of lung cancer than do U.S. cigarette smokers.

Researchers suspected that a likely reason for this difference might lie in the very different diets between East and West. Over the years, some aspects of standard Asian diets---such as an extremely low proportion of saturated fats---have indeed been recognized as promoting health, including low incidence of cancer. But beyond that, there seemed to be some connection between drinking… read more

A Little Learning About Lead

When public laws are based on scientific research, the research had better be adequate---or the law adaptable. Members of the city council in Aspen, Colorado, could testify to that; too little learning about lead is giving them big problems with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Aspen's problems began in 1981. A graduate student from Colorado State University performed some routine tests on the soil at Smuggler Mobile Home Park, a court northwest of the town with some 80 relatively immobile trailers in permanent residence. He hoped to help the residents improve their vegetable gardens, but what he found made gardening seem downright unhealthy. In and near Smuggler Park, soil lead levels were impressively high.

The student was not surprised. Two old silver mines lay close to Smuggler Park, and lead is a common by-product of such mining. But the numbers looked bad. In most parts of the nation, the EPA accepts 500 parts per million of lead in soil.… read more

The Return of Vitamin C

According to Science magazine, vitamin C is coming back—but not all the way. Once this nutritional necessity was hailed as a help against ailments from cancer to the common cold. Later research disagreed. It did little or nothing for such diseases.

Vitamin C’s prowess seemed logical; it is a good antioxidant, and much of what ails us stems from the chemical action of substances that oxidize fats, proteins, and even DNA itself. (Considered from a cell’s perspective, it’s like reinforcing steel rusting away within a concrete bridge—the trouble comes from oxygen getting in where it doesn’t belong and changing a structural component into something entirely different.) Vitamin C reduces many of those chemicals before they can do their oxidizing.

So it should be good for health, and evidently it isn’t bad, even in very high doses. Consumed in amounts up to hundreds of times the recommended daily allowance, vitamin C apparently has no harmful effects (unlike other… read more

A Cure in the Popping Cavies

Some people don't have ethical questions about experiments using living animals. At one extreme are people who know that the mere presence of animals in laboratory cages constitutes profound immorality, an abuse of human power over fellow beings. At the other end of the ethical spectrum are the people who see animals as merely animate test tubes, fair game for any kind of manipulation that might lead to something useful for humankind.

Most people aren't blessed with such unquestioning certainty. Take me, for example. I know I'm alive now thanks to medical advances made through animal experiments, and I'd be not only ungrateful but hypocritical to say those experiments were morally wrong. Yet I'm uncomfortable about the treatment that experimental animals undergo. I approve of efforts to ensure humane treatment for them, and favor using animals only when alternatives aren't possible.

What about experimenting on animals just to see what happens? That sounds… read more

Tracking the Wily Compound

It must be simple coincidence. Somehow, just as the year rolls into the dark and cold depths, I keep finding interesting stories about research in the tropics.

Scientific discoveries anywhere have implications for people everywhere, though, so reporting news of science at work in the warm zones isn't purely self-indulgent. The item that caught my eye this time involves a promising arrangement between Merck & Co. and Costa Rica's Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad. Unlike many arrangements between massive international companies and developing nations, this one sounds good for everybody.

First, some background: Costa Rica is a model among the economically less well off nations for its attempts to preserve its lands and living things. The "biodiversity" in the national institute's name is appropriate, because this little Central American country has a huge array of different kinds of plants and animals. Costa Rica has rain forests and savannahs, mountains and… read more

People from the Peat

The conversation was hot and heavy at the next table in the coffee shop, and I nearly got into it. The subject was human remains; most of the speakers were not happy with what they saw as irreverent treatment of Native American bones and funerary artifacts held by museums.

"It's so disrespectful," one young woman said. "How would they like it if their ancestors were on display like that, dug up and stuck in glass boxes with people walking by and pointing?" Cultures differ: I almost blurted out that I'd done just that, observed an ancestor in a glass box. and I was glad he was there.

Actually, I have no proof that he's my ancestor. He lived in what is now Denmark, and the known family tree has no Danes. But he lived two thousand years ago, and given the movements of people throughout Northern Europe over the past twenty centuries, surely some of his genes now lie on my chromosomes.

And he now lies on view in a museum---not just his bones, mind, but a… read more

Mathematical Matchmaking for Jobs in Math

"Listen," a friend once told me. "When I'm reading a textbook and come across one of those big ugly equations, I slam the book shut. I want to skoosh it like a bug."

He had my complete sympathy, which is one reason I'm not a scientist. It's also the reason that you'll seldom read about subjects mathematical in this column.

However, now and then I find something I can understand--such as a recent article in Science magazine describing a situation in which mathematicians may have to do their homework if they want to find work at all.

Few new graduates want to join the ranks of academic mathematicians each year; they are competing for even fewer jobs. However, just as in any field of work, it usually happens that person X wants employment with university A, but university A would prefer to recruit person Y, who really would love to join the staff of university B--and so on through the alphabet. This leads to a certain amount of shilly-shallying in… read more

Cholesterol and Changing Facts

The constantly changing news about diet and health embarrasses science. Experts no sooner announce some discovery than other experts come up with a contradictory one. The situation evokes Alice's plight in Wonderland, as nutrition scientists keep moving labels saying "Eat me" and "Drink me" from one food to another.

Partly that's caused by people like me---joumalists who pounce on studies of food's effects and swiftly turn the technical into the popular. Sometimes dull but crucial details vanish in the process; inaccuracies creep in. "Preliminary study suggests" in the original becomes "Research proves" in the popularized version.

But more important, this shove and push of fact replacing fact as study supersedes study is exactly how science usually progresses. Here at the Geophysical Institute, for example, dozens of ideas have appeared about the configuration of earth's electromagnetic environment. Sometimes a once-discredited theory gains new life as a rocket… read more

Problems with Protecting Privacy

Scientific research often bumps into ethical concerns. Some conflicts come easily to mind: weapons development, for example, can test the judgment of right and wrong for both participating scientists and the public that pays for their studies. Others simply come as a surprise.

Science magazine recently reported on one of these surprises. It's a problem some French medical researchers have been wrestling with for more than three years.

Early in 1988, demographer Andre Chaventre assembled a team of researchers to study family patterns of manic depressive mental illness. This disease seems to have a genetic component, and the scientists aimed to decipher the nature of its heritability.

As they began amassing family histories and medical reports on manic-depressive patients, they came across a still-unexplained statistical link between the mental illness and another disease. A certain form of serious eye trouble, open-angle glaucoma, often appeared… read more

Watching for the Warming

While November temperatures in interior Alaska began slinking down into double digits below freezing, I heard a lot of complaints about global warming: Where is it when we need it? Somehow, when one's chilly car shows about as many signs of life as a mummified mammoth, it's hard to worry that the seas are growing too hot to keep coral reefs thriving in the Caribbean.

Closer to home, some scientists have identified a warming trend at one place in Canada. They have documented some of its effects, and---no comfort here---they believe that the most marked ones can be seen in the warmer months.

For 20 years, researchers from the Freshwater Institute of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans have gathered continuous records of the weather, hydrology, water chemistry, and biology of lakes and streams in the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario. To guarantee comparable records, they used consistent sampling and analytical methods throughout the study… read more

Ethics and Archaeology

Usually the scientists who dig into humankind's past find solid material for debate in every excavation. What culture produced which artifact and when? Lately they've battled as well over a substantial matter of another kind: What constitutes right behavior? According to the November 23 issue of Science magazine, problems rising in distant Peru have American archaeologists debating ethics.

The trouble began in 1987, when national police notified Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva that looters were digging up an adobe mound near the village of Sipan. The site had never been scientifically excavated, so Alva hustled to investigate. He realized quickly that under the mound lay an important tomb of the long-gone Moche culture that dominated northern coastal Peru before the Incas rose.

The looters were not about to give up on potential wealth merely because a scientist scolded them. The police had to secure the site, but it took… read more

Tricking the Immune System

Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus afflicts more than a million North Americans. It's long been one of those aggravating illnesses that can be treated but not cured; once the disease progresses to the point that its victims need insulin injections to stay alive, they'll need that additional insulin for the rest of their lives.

In some ways, its cause is well understood. In a healthy person, clusters of specialized cells---islet cells---in the pancreas gland manufacture insulin, a protein hormone essential for metabolizing carbohydrates. In a person with diabetes, these islet cells degenerate and die, no longer providing the necessary insulin.

Once it became technologically possible, medical researchers tried transplanting functioning islet cells into the pancreas glands of diabetics to cure their disease. In theory, that was a logical treatment, but in practice it didn't work so well.

Over eons of evolution, we have developed immune systems that… read more

Hardwood, Softwood, Fuelwood

A strange thing happens at my house every October: the woodstove seems to get bigger. It's been an inconspicuous little black thing in the corner of the living room all summer, but come snowfall, it's a brute right out in the middle. And it looks hungry.

If there's any science whatsoever in that observation, it's psychology. Important objects may be perceived as larger than they really are, and that stove certainly grows in importance as temperatures decline.

Other sciences apply more exactly to heating with wood. Between recent bouts of hauling stove-length chunks of birch and spruce into winter shelter, I reviewed some of what scientist Neil Davis had to impart about wood as fuel in his book Energy/Alaska.

I was willing to categorize birch as a hardwood from the first moment my splitting maul bounced uselessly off a birch log, but the book told me that isn't the usual way to tell hardwoods from softwoods. From a forester's point of view… read more

Heyday of Hay Fever

In the north, autumn snows creeping down the mountains have long been known as "termination dust." That first white glitter signals the beginning of the end for summer jobs, building projects--and seasonal sneezes. Hay fever sufferers have real reason to welcome the first snows, and there are more of them every year: allergy to wind-borne pollen is an epidemic on the increase.

Surprisingly, it's a relatively new disease. The first accurate account of hay fever entered medical annals only in 1819,when a London physician described his own "unusual train of symptoms." The first American description of hay fever didn't appear until 1852. In Japan, it was virtually unknown before the 1950s.

There's always a suspicion that minor diseases appear or increase when people are less plagued by major illnesses (why worry about a seasonal runny nose when you're dying of tuberculosis?) and are more willing to report comparatively trivial symptoms to their… read more

Missing Baselines

I've recently had the privilege of following the Alaska Commission on Science and Engineering through a series of public meetings in Southeastern. I earned the privilege chiefly by throwing myself across my commissioner-spouse's luggage and sniveling loudly until he agreed to buy me a ticket. Even as a mere tagalong, I learned a lot on the trip.

Southeastern Alaska covers a lot of territory, and people have many different concerns. Yet one theme kept reappearing in different connections everywhere: from atmospheric chemistry to zoology, Alaska is short of baseline data.

"Baseline" is something of a buzzword. It emerged from scientific publications into popular consciousness at about the time the Environmental Protection Agency hit the headlines. Originally borrowed from engineering, where the baseline is the primary line, the one from which others are measured, it has come to mean something akin to a definition of the natural state of a system.

If… read more

Hunting for Cancer Killers

A quiet revolution in procedure has taken place at the National Cancer Institute. In a way, as if the manuals have been rewritten by Henry Ford, the assembly line has come to the laboratory bench.

For better than three decades, NCI has been studying compounds for possible activity against cancer. The job of its Frederick Cancer Research Facility in Bethesda, Maryland, is making the first crucial assay: does a substance kill cancerous cells? All other considerations--what side effects a tested compound might have, how it can be delivered where and as needed, what concentrations are effective--are for subsequent research.

Until recently, the chief tools in this phase of testing were legions of leukemic mice. If a test compound apparently retarded the progress of mouse leukemia, it went on to further testing. If it didn't, it was discarded. The mice have screened hundreds of thousands of compounds. From that effort, 36 licensed drugs have emerged.

As might… read more

Tinkering with Evolution

Not so long ago, it looked as if medical research had pretty much whipped diseases caused by bacteria. The scourges of the past--bacterial pneumonia, tuberculosis, the various and often lethal illnesses generated by the streptococcus and staphylococcus families--seemed to be licked for good. Just as DDT wiped out noxious insects, so antibiotics promised to do away with deadly microscopic bugs. Thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry, research could move on to the more challenging realm of diseases caused by viruses or mysterious molecular malfunctions, such as those leading to cancer and various hereditary problems.

It's turning out that the DDT analogy is uncomfortably exact. At first, that powerful insecticide seemed to do the job perfectly. Then horrifying side effects turned up, leading to the near-extinction of numerous species of birds. Finally, the sprays were no longer effective. They had simply promoted development of insects resistant to DDT.

In… read more

Fuss over Farming Fish

The right of Alaska's salmon to live free was one of the battles engaging Alaska's legislators during the past session--or so the debates over fish farming might have seemed to someone catching only the occasional headline or sound bite. Legislative action killed possible salmon farms for now, but some Alaskans are still puzzled over the fuss.

Theoretically, the idea seems sound. Instead of letting young hatchery-produced salmon run away to sea, they are raised in big floating pens. Safe from natural predators and offshore factory ships, they are fed and tended in a protected patch of sea. The eventual result is a living for the fish farmer and a few hired hands and a better supply of affordable and good-quality seafood for consumers.

Of course, problems appear once fish farming gets past the theory stage. Early this year, Science magazine gave space to some controversies about the industry in Washington state that echoed--and perhaps clarified--the… read more

Score One for Sunshine--Maybe

Medical research keeps coming up with bad news for the self-indulgent. I've felt personally attacked by discoveries showing my favorite foods, drinks, and behaviors are likely to shorten my life.

Probably the saddest news was that overindulgence in sunshine was downright unhealthy. I've always found some excuse to be outside at noon on sunny December days, and in June I've found excuses never to come inside at all. It was hard to think of giving that up in the interest of preventing skin cancer at worst, wrinkles at best. I even wrote a column back in 1988 sharing the bad news with fellow northerners, so we'd feel better about our midwinter sunlessness.

Perhaps I was whistling in the dark. A recent study by Cedric Garland, Edward Gorham, and Jeffrey Young seems to indicate that sunshine also offers benefits.

The first statement in the announcement of their work reads, "A new study of the association between sunlight energy striking the ground and age-… read more

Windowshopping at Science Conferences

Most Alaskans have never been to a science conference and wouldn't dream of going to one. Yet these meetings are a terrific source of information on what's new in research, and often have something interesting and understandable for the public.

This state hosts many meetings of scientific groups every year, from anthropology associations to zoological societies. They're a necessary part of a scientist's career, but they're accessible to non-scientists as well.

Conventions of scientists aren't like the annual gatherings of other organizations. Science meetings are mostly continuous seminars, a chance for people working in fast-changing and specialized research fields to hear what their colleagues elsewhere are doing. People are there to learn and to inform.

The procedure is called "presenting papers," but the actual paper may be little more than an outline. The rest is in the presenter's head, and perhaps on some illustrative slides. Most of the work is… read more

Fiber Optics Goes to Our Heads

Now that quantities of research have been applied to the problem, it sometimes seems as if anything people eat, drink, breathe, or think about affects their chances of developing cancer. Recently, a scientist bumped into an odd finding that might add one improbable item to the list: Having gray hair may increase your cancer risk.

Wait, don't panic. First, nobody knows for sure. It's only a possible implication of an interesting development that turned up quite incidentally in the course of unrelated work. That's a far cry from an identified hazard. So take this odd little report as--at worst--a cautionary tale.

The apparently outrageous suggestion comes partly from the technology known as fiber optics, which has given us better communication using light, but it stems mostly from the curiosity of a British scientist who studies ways of measuring radiation doses received by animals.

The scientist, John Wells of Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories, has been… read more

Science Books for the Holidays

The gift-giving season is here, and people have been asking me about books on scientific topics as presents for general readers.

Taste in books is about as personal as taste in clothing, so that's not an easy question. And I'm no expert; I just read as much as I can, about nearly everything. But of course I have favorites, and have asked others for opinions.

For people living Outside or newcomers to Alaska, I've never found a better gift book than Alaska Science Nuggets, by Neil Davis ($14.95 in paper, $19.95 hardback). It's definitely not a glitzy coffee-table kind of publication, but its 400 very short essays on matters mostly northern are clear and often entertaining. Browsers can pick up more than most sourdoughs know about auroras and ice worms, glaciers and earthquakes. Originally published by the Geophysical Institute, it's now been reprinted by the University of Alaska Press.

Since that book is in the old-reliable category, I checked with… read more

The Joy of Oats

It pains me to read studies in human nutrition. Most of the news seems bad. Worse, I develop a yen for anything put on the dietetic hit list. Eggs were dull sustenance until someone got serious about studying cholesterol; now I collect omelet recipes.

It's different with things we're supposed to add. When research showed that some members of the cabbage family seem to stave off a few types of cancer, I happily added broccoli to salads and stir-fries. For me, maybe the best of the foods now bearing the Eat Me for Health label is oats.

Oat bran--the outer portion of the oat grain--has received most of the publicity. Soluble fiber, such as that in beans and especially in oat bran, apparently lowers blood cholesterol in people who eat fair quantities of it. Other kinds of things our mothers urged us to eat for bulk or roughage, like wheat bran, don't have that result. The fiber they contain is considered insoluble. It's useful and healthy enough, but doesn't seem to… read more

Diets and the Unfairness of Evolution---Maybe

It's spring, temperatures are going up, and winter-shielded flesh is coming out of hiding. Often enough, you find there's a bit too much of it. Only optimists think baseball is America's warm-weather pastime. Actually, it's dieting.

Dieters nowadays are barraged with so much information regarding the number of things hazardous to human health (including too-stringent dieting) that a friend of mine claims the thing to do is buy a box of cake mix, throw away the contents, and eat the box. Steamed, of course. Add no salt. It's free of fat and cholesterol, high in fiber-surely perfect health food. I warned her that the dyes used to color the box are probably deadly. Even plain brown wrappers usually are laden with residues of evil chemicals. It seems we just can't win.

As dieters, doctors, and parents of small children have long complained, food that is good for you just doesn't have the appeal of food that isn't. Worse, perfectly healthy food gains in appeal when… read more

A Minimum of Aluminum

The other week, a friend proudly told me that she'd tossed out her old aluminum cookware. "That stuff is dangerous,' she said. It's stainless steel and glass around this house from now on."

She was almost right, but throwing away the pots and pans really won't make much difference.

Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth, but it binds so tightly to oxygen it's extremely difficult to remove from the rocks and soil where it occurs. For that reason, aluminum was extremely expensive and rare up to the late 1800s. It took the development of an effective electrolytic technique for refining aluminum and inexpensive ways of generating electrical power to bring down the price and increase the availability of the metal.

Its uses have been increasing ever since. Until a few years ago, the only hazard this inexpensive and versatile metal seemed to offer was that discarded aluminum products would overrun dumps and landfills.

Then some doctors began to… read more

Haunted Doors and Murphy's Law

As most of the world knows, January 1989 brought Alaska a spell of what lore-makers would call a Great Blue Cold. While the bottoms fell from thermometers, hardy reporters flocked north to tell the rest of the world about the phenomena of ice fog and square tires, frostbite and hypothermia.

They missed a good one. None of them reported on the haunted garage doors.

This was the scene played out many times in urban Alaska during that cold spell. Home from work drives some hardy soul, braving ice fog and fears of brittle fan belts. The garage door appears dimly through the gloom, the finger leaves the mitten, pokes the button on the door's remote control, and--nothing happens. The driver grumbles, worries about frozen mechanisms, waves the control gadget about, finger still on button...and eventually the recalcitrant door rises. Safe at home, the driver forgets the whole incident as just one more of the almost-problems that get lost in the string of real problems… read more

Darkness on the Brain--and on the Stomach

A few articles back in this series, I tried to say something nice about our midwinter darkness by pointing out how healthy the absence of sunlight was for human skin. There was only a passing reference in that column to seasonal affective disorder, SAD for short, that afflicts some northerners during the time of long nights. I've been hearing more about it since.

Like most newspaper readers, I knew that SAD sufferers endure chronic depression, lethargy, and sleepiness throughout the winter. That sounds bad enough, but it turns out that SAD also brings a profound craving for carbohydrates. It's a dieter's nightmare.

It's also a nasty trick. Analytical-minded friends, self-help books, and even doctors are given to warning people trying to lose weight that they can't use food as a crutch to cheer themselves up. But, in SAD, that is exactly what can happen.

It also works with other cyclic mood disorders. Women who suffer from… read more

Short Days Are Good for You---On the Outside

With the holidays past, northerners enter a gloomy season. We know the sun is coming back, but it's coming too slowly. Call it The Darkness, The Tunnel, The Pits, by whatever name midwinter on the calendar is not a popular time of year.

Furthermore, medical practitioners tell us that Alaska's dark winters can be hard on health. Some people even come down with debilitating illness---Seasonal Affective Disorder, with its appropriate acronym of SAD. Overcoming that takes lightbathing in the correct spectrum; expensive bulbs or a trip to Hawaii ease the symptoms.

Yet, ironically, there may be a gleam of real health in The Tunnel. For one of the human body's most important organs, life without sunlight is a boon. Our skin loves The Pits.

Never mind how pleasant basking on the beach may feel. Hidden in those sunny skies overhead are all kinds of ugly disasters for human skin---wrinkles, spots, drying, thinning, the apparent addition of decades of wear. In… read more

Where is the Endless Arctic Night?

Now that the tourists have flown south, and the last reporters have left the arctic whaling grounds, we can discuss an old northern myth just among ourselves. We don't have to tell anyone else.

All right, here it is: Barrow doesn't endure two months of total darkness every winter. In fact, our northernmost town never experiences 24 hours of total darkness at any time of year.

You can see why this news shouldn't get around.

It may not be so easy to see why it isn't a preposterous lie. Before the deluge of black photographs (or maybe videotapes) start arriving from zip code 99723, let me explain what astronomers mean when they discuss the days and nights of high-latitude locations.

First, a place has to lie above 66 degrees 33 minutes north (or south) latitude before the sun should be either above or below the horizon for a full 24 hours at some time during the year. That's the latitude of the Arctic (or Antarctic) Circle. However, the atmosphere… read more

Mitochondrial DNA and the First Americans

Scholars are by no means agreed about exactly when the earliest Americans arrived. Most do agree that Alaska, then enlarged and connected to Asia by the lands now drowned by the Bering and Chukchi seas, is the only feasible route for early tribes to cross from the old world to the new.

Studies of tooth characteristics, genetics, and languages all suggest that these earliest immigrants arrived in three separate waves. First were the Paleo-Indians, whose descendants include all of the South American and Central American Indians, as well as most of those in the forty-eight states. They were followed by the Na-Dene, ancestors of the Athabaskans, of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and of the Navajo and Apache of the Southwest. The final wave included the Inuit and the Aleut.

There is still a good deal of argument about dates. Many South American anthropologists feel they have evidence for human occupation much earlier than anything generally accepted from Alaska… read more

Our African Mother

You've seen her face guessed at on the covers of national news magazines, where she's been headlined as the "African Eve". She lived in Africa, something on the order of 200,000 years ago, and she was everybody's grandmother -- with about ten thousand "greats" ahead of the "grand".

Now, this does not mean that this common ancestress of us all contributed a disproportionate amount to our total ancestry, nor that she was the first human woman, nor that she was the only woman alive at that time who has descendants today. But if you could trace back your family tree from your mother to your mother's mother to her mother and on for somewhere between six thousand and twenty thousand generations, you would eventually find this woman -- and everyone else on earth, if they could trace their female ancestry the same way, would find the same woman. Every human being on earth is related through her.

Why an Eve rather than Adam? The answer comes from the mechanism of sexual… read more

Red Wine and Migraine Headaches

Her headache was ripening. She was subject to occasional abrupt onsets of migraine and even now a thing like a starburst pulsed in one corner of her field of vision and her temple had begun to throb. -- Ngaio Marsh, Clutch of Constables.

Migraine headaches can be caused by a variety of things, most of them rather poorly understood. For about a quarter of the sufferers, specific foods seem to trigger the attacks of throbbing headache, sensitivity to light, and nausea. Alcoholic drinks, and in particular red wines, are among the commonest items named by victims as possible triggers of migraine episodes. Doctors have generally tended to blame the alcohol in wine, but a new study in London suggests that the cause may indeed be specific to the redness of wine.

The test was carried out by dividing migraine sufferers whose attacks seemed to be triggered by red wine into two groups. Eleven were given a drink of red wine, while nine had a mixture of vodka and lemonade… read more

Cracking Logs and Warped Boards

Logs crack, most often in long spirals. Boards curl. Doors stick in damp weather, and chairs pull apart when it's dry. Wood is a marvelous material in many ways, but it does have its problems under changing humidity conditions.

The original function of wood, of course, was to hold up trees, not houses. Wood that is supporting a living, healthy tree is not subject to large, uncontrolled humidity changes. The inner part of the trunk is shielded from fluctuations by the outer part, which is carrying moisture between the leaves and the roots of the tree. Food travels in the living phloem tissue just under the bark. Water and minerals are carried through the xylem, the living but no longer growing outer part of the woody trunk.

When the tree dies or is cut, it dries until its moisture content is in balance with the humidity of the surrounding air. As water is removed from the xylem tissue, it shrinks. But the shrinkage is not uniform. The cells of the xylem have the… read more

The Electrical Season

Anybody who's lived through a winter in the colder parts of Alaska knows that at this time of year, you can expect frequent electrical shocks. Showers of sparks occur if you walk across a nylon rug and then touch something metal, remove a nylon jacket worn over a polyester sweater, or pet the family cat. As Larry Gedney pointed out a year or two ago in this column, this happens because winter air is dry, dry air is a poor conductor, and poorly conducting air can't conduct an electrical charge away from you as fast as you build it up. Thus you can build up enough of a positive or negative charge that when you finally reach for something that can bleed it off, the result is an impressive Zap!

But why does humid air conduct electricity better than dry air?

In a gas or liquid, electrical current (the flow of charges) is carried by ions -- particles that have somehow obtained more of one kind of charge than the other. In air, ions are formed when a molecule with… read more

Relative Humidity Revisited: The Case of the Soggy House

Although dry houses are the norm in the colder areas and seasons of Alaska, there are exceptions. Stan Jones of Fairbanks, for instance, wrote that in his new house windows sweated, crackers mildewed, and things generally felt so soggy that the family finally had to get a dehumidifier. How could this happen, considering what I said a few weeks ago about how little water really cold air could hold?

When cold air with a high relative humidity but very low actual water content is brought into a house and heated, the result is a very low relative humidity. Human activities inside the house, however, are continually adding water to the air. If there were no way to remove the water, and the air, once inside the house, stayed there, the relative humidity would gradually approach 100%.

In the real world, houses are not that tight and there are mechanisms to remove some of the water without exchanging air with outside. In a very well-built house, however,… read more

Alaska's Polluted Air

Ice fog. Wood smoke. Carbon monoxide. Why should Alaska, with its miles of wilderness, little heavy industry, and a total population less than most cities with poor air quality, have so many problems with air pollution?

The buildup of air pollution resembles the filling of a leaky bucket. The size of the bucket is determined by vertical mixing, while the leakiness is controlled by wind speed. You'd need a waterfall to fill an enormous bucket with many large leaks, but a trickle of water could overflow a small bucket with a single pinhole. Alaskan lowland areas in winter are small buckets with very minor leaks. By contrast, areas like Los Angeles or Denver are much larger and leakier, but with much faster rates of inflow.

The vertical mixing that controls the bucket size is in turn controlled by inversions -- warm air lying over colder air. Since the colder air is denser, it is unable to mix freely with the warmer air above.

read more

Three Kinds of Friction

You're driving along, your reflexes still set to summer, when the light changes. You hit the brakes, your wheels lock, and you skid merrily into the intersection. Or perhaps it's the turn you've been making all summer at 20, and your car suddenly decides to perform a Viennese waltz instead of going where you try to point it. Why do cars behave as they do when ice returns to the roads?

The reason we are able to control cars at all is because of friction between the car's tires and the road: more accurately, because there are three kinds of friction: rolling friction, starting friction, and sliding friction. Sliding friction between the wheels and the pavement is the villain of the piece, while total rolling friction and starting friction allow the car to be controlled. Both starting and sliding friction between wheel and road are greatly reduced by ice. Within the brakes, however, starting friction causes the problem.

The easiest way to understand the three… read more

How Dry I Am

Paint is flaking off the walls. Your sinuses feel as if they were lined with a thin layer of concrete. House plants long for a vacation in the relatively moist Sahara. You stop slathering goop on cracking skin long enough to listen to the weather report, only to hear, "current temperature minus twenty degrees, relative humidity seventy-five percent." Obviously, the weather service's humidity has very little to do with the humidity where you live! But why?

Actually, if you measured the relative humidity outdoors, as the weather service does, you'd probably come up with about the same value they get. Contrary to general belief, Alaska north of the Coast Range complex does not have a particularly "dry" cold in winter. The only reason the humidity is not closer to 100 percent is because of the way relative humidity is defined. It's the amount of water actually in the air divided by the maximum amount the air could hold if it were saturated, that is, if it had an endless… read more

How Do Greenhouses Work?

If you've ever heard an explanation of how a greenhouse works, it was most likely based on the differing transparency of glass to solar and thermal infrared radiation. Glass is transparent to most of the wavelengths of solar radiation, but is effectively opaque to the much longer (thermal infrared) wavelengths emitted by the plants and soil inside the greenhouse. Solar radiation can get into the greenhouse, where it is absorbed by and heats whatever is inside the greenhouse. The longer wavelengths emitted by the heated surfaces cannot get out through the glass, however, so heat keeps building up -- at least that's how the conventional explanation goes. Polyethylene greenhouses, however, seem to work just about as well as glass ones -- and polyethylene is nearly as translucent to thermal infrared radiation as it is to solar radiation. So why does a greenhouse get so hot on a sunny day?

Whether bare or covered by a greenhouse, the ground absorbs radiation from the sun and… read more

Equinoxes, Time Zones and Daylight Savings

At 6:52 pm 135th meridian time, March 20, 1987, the sun is halfway through setting at the South Pole and halfway through rising at the North Pole. Everywhere else on Earth that day, the day of the spring equinox, the sun rises due east 6 hours before local solar noon and sets due west 6 hours after local solar noon. So why aren't the equinox sunrise and sunset times in this newspaper 6 am and 6 pm?

One reason lies in how we define sunrise and sunset. "Official" sunrise and sunset occur when the upper edge of the sun appears to be just below the horizon, allowing for the bending of light rays passing through the atmosphere. The combination of using the upper edge of the sun and bending of light means that the center of the sun is almost a degree below the horizon at official sunrise and sunset times. This can result in 10 to 15 minutes difference between the official sunrise time and the time when the center of the sun is actually in line with the observer's horizon.… read more

Newton on Ice

1. Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.

2. Change of motion is proportional to, and in the direction of the straight line of, the motive force impressed.

3. To every force there is always opposed an equal reaction force.

These are Newton's laws, the famous statements of the fundamental principles that govern large bodies in motion. They are also the bane of the student who is first introduced to them. They can be the bane of Alaskan drivers as well.

Let's look at a car stopped at an intersection. The force of gravity is acting on the car, causing it to apply a downward force equal to its weight on the road. The road applies a reaction force upward on the car equal to the car's weight. The net force on the car is zero, and the car remains stationary. When the light… read more

Farewell...Well, Almost

It has now been over ten years since Neil Davis first started writing this column in 1976. When Neil retired five years ago, I assumed the duties of coordinating the column and writing many of the articles. Now I'm about to retire too.

The experience has been one of the most pleasant and rewarding of my life -- and one of the most educational. I have been repeatedly amazed at the sophistication of so many Alaskans who have written to suggest topics, submit their own ideas, contribute articles and (more often than I would like to admit) straighten me out on my own mistakes. To all those who have written with contributions to the column, kind words or outright criticism, I express my deepest appreciation. In all, over 800 articles have been produced. At the outset, I would not have believed that there could be that many topics to talk about, particularly if they were to be constrained largely to science in the north. I was obviously mistaken, as readers from across the… read more

Sun is Brightest During Winter

Most Alaskans would look at you as if you were a little strange if you told them that the sun is actually brighter during the winter months than during the summer. In reality, such a statement would make a good bar bet, because the fact is easy to establish. For instance, instrumental measurements made from atop Hawaii's Mauna Loa document that the the sun is brightest not during June or July, but in mid-January.

The reason is that the earth's orbit around the sun is slightly elliptical, or egg-shaped, and the sun is a little off-center of the ellipse (technically, it lies at one focus). The earth is actually closer to the sun, and the sun is thus brighter, during January. It appears dimmer at the northern latitudes because it lies lower in the sky, and its rays must pass through a greater thickness of atmosphere.

The earth's axis of rotation is presently tilted 23.5 degrees from the plane in which it revolves around the sun. That is why the Arctic and Antarctic… read more

Overweight Vehicles Take Toll on Roads

A recent study by Dianne Marshall of the University of Alaska School of Management in Fairbanks contains some eye-opening statistics about the impact of overweight vehicles on the roads of Alaska. The state presently has a little over 2,500 miles of paved roads, much of which was initially paid for by federal funds, but for which the state bears most of the maintenance cost.

According to Marshall, the American Association of State Highway Officials estimated in the 1950s that it takes the passage of 9,600 cars (assuming 4,000-pound cars with 2,000 pounds on each axle) to equal the effect of one 80,000-pound truck. More recently, the Alaska State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities estimated that it takes 30,000 Ford Escorts to equal the effects of one 80,000-pound truck.

To cite one example that seems to bear this out, in Alaska the northbound lane of the Parks Highway typically wears out faster than the southbound lane. Most of the heavy traffic… read more

Good Water Not Guaranteed in the North

Most people moving to Alaska do so with a mental picture that includes clear, sparkling, fast-flowing streams in the wilderness. When they have lived here for awhile, the realization gradually sets in that it's not always so.

Granted, Alaska has some of the most beautiful creeks and rivers in the world. But it is often a shock to first-time kayakers, rafters, or river boat travelers to find that these pristine waterways sometimes have the appearance of something they wouldn't want to stick a finger into. Those who decide to stay, build a house and drill a well are often in for even bigger disappointments in water quality.

Fortunately, it's not human habitation that most often causes stream and well water "pollution" (for lack of a better word). It's Nature herself.

Glacial streams, and almost all the larger rivers which they feed, are carrying the maximum amount of glacial silt that they can transport. This causes a hissing which can easily be heard… read more

The Human Ear Sounds Off

If your ears ring all the time, you may not be the only one who notices. Patrick Zurek of the Center for the Deaf in St. Louis has published an article in the Journal of the Acoustic Society in which he reports on cases he has studied where the ear not only receives sound, but also produces it.

Zurek first made the discovery on himself. While studying the interference effects of tones that are close in frequency within the inner ear, he placed a microphone in the canal of his right ear. When he turned on the microphone to begin the experiment, he was astonished to find that his ear was emitting sound with a frequency of 1,910 hertz (cycles per second), which is a high pitch almost three octaves above middle C. On checking, he found that he could also detect the sound in his left ear, although he had not been physically aware of the tone in his natural hearing with either ear.

Turning to the medical literature, Zurek learned that his discovery was not… read more

Highway Glare Ice, Part II

Recently this column discussed why winter highways often wear a thin layer of ice when there has been no rain or snow for a long time.

Most experts polled believed that the temperature differential between the air and the pavement caused the icing. When warm air overlies a cold surface, such as a paved road, moisture in the air may precipitate out directly onto the asphalt and freeze. This type of ice is most common when warm days alternate with cold nights, or when the weather warms after a long cold spell has chilled the ground. Automobile exhausts were another reason cited, as was the obvious one of the ice simply being the compressed remnants of a snowfall.

That column prompted many readers to write or call in with their own theories on the subject. Vern Seifert of Anchorage, for example, feels that the Bernoulli effect may be partially responsible. When a fluid (or gas, like air) is forced to flow faster by passing through a… read more

Where does Highway Glare-Ice Come From?

Have you ever noticed that, even when there has been no snow for a long time, there almost always seems to be a thin layer of ice on the highways in the winter? You would think that unless it is replenished in some way, it should eventually be broken up and knocked aside, or maybe just sublimated away.

I posed this observation to various people at the State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (both the Maintenance and Research branches), the U.S. Weather Service Forecast Office, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the University of Alaska Departments of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, the Fairbanks International Airport, and several associates here at the Geophysical Institute.

In all, I have polled at least 20 individuals and come up with almost as many different opinions. I use the word opinions here, because there do not seem to be any black-and-white answers. Different causes seem to… read more

Arctic Mythology

Most places have their local lore--colloquial knowledge that is commonly believed by all who have lived in the region for any period of time. Some of these bits of lore are founded on time-proven experience, and can be very important to the well-being of the residents. For example, very early in my childhood in Montana I learned that you never play with a black and white striped kitten that you find in the woods.

Alaska and the Arctic have their share of such folklore, much of which is also founded on good practice. However, there are some widely believed bits of supposedly sage advice that are better classified as the fictions that they are, and quietly deleted from our lives. The following statements are often-accepted items of "Arctic know-how." Some are true, some are not. Do you know which are which?

True or False:
Question… read more

Oil Temperature and Engine Wear

Dr. Terry McFadden teaches a course at UAF called Arctic Engineering. It is a gold mine of tips, solid engineering, common sense and often little-known facts about coping with day-to-day problems encountered in cold climates.

If you don't like puzzles, skip the next paragraph, but I'm including it here to show the kind of problem that McFadden gives his class. It's a classic of basic engineering rationale, and requires only rudimentary mathematics and a little insight to solve. For malingerers, the answer is given at the end of this column. The problem reads:

"Some experts estimate that the wear on the rings of an internal combustion engine is as high as 0.001" per 1000 miles of operation when the oil temperature is below 170 degrees F. If the maximum allowable wear is 0.006", how long can you run your engine when the oil temperature is below 170 degrees before you wear it out?" (A 6-to-1 engine-to-wheel reduction ratio, an average running speed of 3000 rpm, and… read more

Cold Soaking

When it is very cold, have you ever wondered why a car left sitting outside for a week seems disproportionately harder to start than one left outside only overnight? Does the cold really "soak in" over long periods of time? Intuition and experience lead us to believe that something like that actually occurs, but it is a physical absurdity that a piece of iron could actually soak up and store "cold" over long periods of time. This has not prevented the term "cold soaking" from creeping into the vocabulary of those who live and work in an arctic environment.

Ed Gauss wrote an article about the phenomenon in a 1974 issue of The Northern Engineer, a Geophysical Institute publication. As a search pilot for the Civil Air Patrol, Gauss had a special interest in starting engines when they had been "cold soaked." In addition to reviewing the literature on the subject, Gauss instrumented the engine of an eight-cylinder International Scout on which to perform his own… read more

Unexpected Scientific Discoveries Are Often The Most Important

Today's scientists are often forced into playing a game with Catch-22 rules to obtain support for their research. Commonly, they are expected to submit a proposal stating what it is that they hope to discover before they can be awarded a research grant to discover it.

You can ask fiction writers what their next book will be about, and the chances are that they will be able to provide you with a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be. But to ask a scientist what his or her next discovery will be is to misinterpret the scientific method. Of course, it is possible for experienced scientists to plot the latest trends in their field and to anticipate where the next discovery is likely to be made (or, more important, where it needs to be made).

But searching for something you expect to find robs science of some of its mystique. Worse, it can lead the workers down narrow corridors and cause them to miss a gem hidden in the corner. Unfortunately, writing detailed… read more

The Wintertime Static Jump-Start

Among the blessings I count when the snow of winter becomes the mud of spring in interior Alaska is that I will no longer get zapped every time I touch a faucet or a light switch --or kiss my wife.

The tiny but annoying shocks that we administer to ourselves in the winter come from static electricity. It's called static because it isn't moving through a conductor such as a wire--the charge just sits there on the surface of whatever has picked it up. When we shuffle across the floor on cool, dry days, our shoes pick up electrons from the rug. From these, our bodies accumulate a negative charge (an excess of electrons). Then, whenever we touch a grounded object such as a radiator or a less-charged human being, a spark made up of these excess electrons will jump from our fingers to the object.

A good way to discharge yourself without making bodily contact is to carry a coin or a key around, touching anything that looks suspicious with it first. It works and it… read more

Pilings That Grow

Most often, we associate construction problems in the north with that sinking feeling as the underlying permafrost melts. Under certain circumstances, though, the problem may be just the reverse, and piles or buried footings may be squirted out of the ground almost like toothpaste from a tube.

The culprit is frost heaving. The type of frost heaving responsible for this bizarre behavior occurs in very fine-grained soil in areas where water can be supplied from below the frost line during the winter. As the ground in the upper layers freezes, it expands--particularly if it is a clay soil. Some clays can nearly double in volume when they freeze.

In areas where the water supply is abundant, freezing soil can create forces which literally push telephone poles or bridge pilings out of the ground. As water is added from below, the freezing and expansion continues through the winter, placing enormous pressures on any foreign object (such as a piling) that might be… read more

Predicting The Tanana Breakup

In May 1976, this column carried an article by John Miller and Neil Davis that presented probabilities for the Tanana River ice going out on particular dates and hours. Their calculations were based on records that had been kept for the Nenana Ice Classic since its inception in 1917.

Miller and Davis downplayed the seriousness of the diagram which they produced, suggesting that it could perhaps be put to best use by hanging it on the wall and aiming at its center with darts. Nevertheless, they noted that the data from past breakups indicated that the most probable minute for the ice to go out lay during the hour between 12:00 noon and 1:00 P.M. on May 6. They also noted that this had not yet occurred during the history of the Classic.

The following year, on May 6, 1977, two of the most flabbergasted people in the state of Alaska must have been John Miller and Neil Davis when the ice went out at 12:46 P.M. 

That initial success has not been repeated, but with… read more


It's a conical hill found in the Arctic and often has a crater lake in the center. It has been formed since the last ice age and can be found in sizes ranging from 50 feet to over a quarter of a mile across. It looks like a small volcano, but it's not. It's a pingo.

Of all the tricks that ice plays in the frozen ground of the north, the formation of pingos is one of the strangest. In reality, a pingo is nothing more than one of nature's (excuse me) pimples--an ice-cored hill, thrusting out of the surrounding terrain.

In the arctic tundra, a pingo begins when pools of standing water in low areas gradually expand to become a thaw lake. Water from the lake is prevented from percolating downward into the underlying permafrost, so the lake fills to the point where higher ground is breached, and the lake is drained. When this happens, permafrost encroaches on the lake bed from the sides, and the sediments which have accumulated in the center gradually freeze.

read more

Snow: A Weighty Matter

During the heavy snowfall of December, the Geophysical Institute received a number of calls requesting information on the amount of snow loading roofs should be able to support. It would have been prudent of me to have referred callers to the Department of Civil Engineering, but foolish pride prevailed, and now I might as well dust off the old engineering texts and stumble ahead, as it were, into the storm.

It should be understood that any figures given should only be interpreted in the broadest sense and treated as extremely rough guidelines (and with a good deal of suspicion).

First of all, only frame construction is considered, and only a flat roof at that. Only three sizes of rafters (or joists) will be considered (2" x 6", 2" x 8", and 2" x 10") with specific examples for only spans of 10 and 16 feet between supporting members. Average construction-grade lumber is assumed, with what is called in engineering handbooks an "extreme bending factor" of 1,500… read more

The Shortest Day

The first day of winter may have an ominous ring to some, but to those acclimated to living in the north, it is a cause for celebration, not for gloom - the sun is coming back.

At 7:23 A.M. on December 21st of this year, the winter solstice will occur, signaling the beginning of winter. The exact time changes slightly from year to year (some years, it falls on December 22nd), but the significance is the same. The sun has reached as far south as it will go until the equinox on June 21st, when the days begin to grow shorter again. To northerners, having reached the first day of winter is a good reason to begin celebrating the holidays.

If the earth's equatorial plane were to lie in the planet's orbital plane around the sun, days and nights would be of equal length all over the world, every day of the year (except at the poles, where the sun would appear to just roll endlessly around the horizon). Fortunately for those of us who prefer seasonal variety, the plane… read more

Don't Fill Her Up with Antifreeze

With winter approaching, most of us have begun to think about checking our antifreeze. If we're "good" down to, say, 20 below, it's probably wise to put in some more. How much? Well, on the back of most antifreeze cans or jugs, there is usually a table explaining the freezing points of different concentrations of antifreeze and water. Almost all of these tables show values down to about 60 below with a half-and-half mixture, but go no further. That's a pity, because it is at that point that strange things begin to happen.

It's not funny to the poor guy who wants to make really sure this winter, and with a "what the heck" attitude, fills the cooling system with pure antifreeze. He will be the one walking back into the house some frosty morning when its 10 below, shaking his head because his car radiator is frozen solid.

Thom Wigle of Dow Chemical in Ontario informs me that his office receives several hundred complaints each winter from irate customers complaining… read more

The Mystery of the Propagating Windshield Crack

Surely, any driver who has spent at least one winter in the north has had a windshield chipped by gravel thrown up by some passing vehicle. About the only thing a person can do in such a situation is to inspect the seemingly insignificant damage, shrug his shoulders, and muse (as did Jeeter, while viewing a crumpled fender in the 1941 movie, Tobacco Road), "Well, it don't hurt the runnin' of it none."

Although most of use have had this experience, the shocker usually comes the next day when we climb in to go to work, and discover that this "little nick" has spread halfway across the windshield.

What I would like to know is: Has anyone ever seen this phenomenon occur? All the cars that I have driven up here without exception have ended up with windshields looking like jigsaw puzzles, but somehow, it all seems to have happened when I had my back turned.

Just several days ago, I was leisurely driving along a freshly gravelled road on the University… read more

Servicing Scientific Field Sites Not Easy Task In North

The job of installing and servicing the many scientific observation stations scattered around remote areas of Alaska is a demanding one. At least, it is usually arduous work and, at worst, it can be extremely hazardous.

To take a single example, consider the problems encountered in installing a remote seismographic monitoring facility. It is necessary to choose a location in the planned area of study which has line-of-sight access to some central recording point, so that the seismic data can be telemetered by radio to a recording device. Often, this means that the instrumentation must be located on the top of some mountain. This usually requires the service of a helicopter, snow machine, or, in the worst-case scenario, backpacks. Hundreds of pounds of batteries and scientific gear must be moved.

Once on the selected site, the seismometer (the motion-sensing component) must be buried--an exhausting task when done by hand in permafrost or bedrock. Then the… read more


A lot of public attention has been given in the last few years to low- salt or "sodium-free" foods. Sodium is absolutely essential for life. The problem is a common one--over indulgence. The average adult requires about a quarter to a half of a teaspoon of salt a day, but studies show that the average adult takes in five to twenty times that much.

Most foods already contain a natural balance of salt (e.g., meat), and some, such as pickles or sauerkraut, a great deal.

Sodium is not the only component in required salts. Potassium instead of sodium is used in the "salt substitute" on our grocery shelves. Potassium is also required for muscle function, but in only one thirtieth the concentration as sodium. Oranges and bananas are two of several common sources of potassium in our diets. Sea salt is also finding its way onto the grocery shelves at a fancy price, and is somewhat superior to table salt as far as balance and other essential trace components (e.g., iodide… read more


As a boy, I enjoyed playing with fireworks. Cherry bombs, M-40s--they were all fine--the louder, the better.

As a young man, I was a member of several rifle teams, both small and large bore. Back then, it was not considered macho to wear ear protection.

In the Army Corps of Engineers, it was a positive delight to watch my platoon practicing blowing up bridges and creating road craters, all with a satisfying blast that made your ears ring. I'm paying for it now. My ears still ring and I don't hear very well.

Almost everyone experiences a buzzing or ringing in their ears at some time. A chronic condition, though, is enough to drive a person to distraction--it's like the smoke alarm in your house going off 24 hours a day.

Terry Dunkle, in the April issue of Science 82, provides some insights. The condition is called tinnitus (pronounced tin-EYE-tus). I can be caused by any number of reasons. Among these are ear infection, anemia, or simply… read more

Why are Northern Daily Temperatures So Constant?

In the Sahara Desert, daily temperatures can range from blazing heat at midday to near freezing at night. Here in the North, we normally experience comparatively mild fluctuations during a 24-hour period. Why the discrepancy?

The answer lies in the fact that the angle of solar elevation varies little during the day at high latitudes. At the equator, the sun is directly overhead at noon every day of the year, and disappears completely during the twelve hours of darkness at night. This creates the extreme in temperature between day and night.

In Alaska, the situation is obviously different. In winter, the low sun angle provides little heat during the day, and during the summer, the sun circles around the horizon, changing little in apparent elevation. Thus, there is comparatively little change in temperature during a 24-hour period, except for those times when a weather front is approaching.

The First North Americans

There is little doubt that the Americas were originally populated by nomads from Asia who migrated across a land bridge connecting Alaska with Siberia. These migrations occurred during epochs of low sea level when much of the earth's moisture was locked up in snow and ice.

Three anthropologists, working independently, using different approaches, and each unaware of the others' work, have now concluded that there must have been three unrelated migrations, involving different Asian strains, and occurring thousands of years apart.

One line of evidence is provided by Joseph Greensburg of Stanford University, who found that all American Indian languages can be placed into one of three groups. Greensburg studied more than 1,500 Indian tongues, searching for similarities in simple words such as I, you, the numbers one and two, and names for parts of the body. Such words tend to change little with time. In most European languages, for example, the word for "me" begins… read more

Steaming Tailing Piles in Winter

On the still, cold and sunny days of winter, many of the long abandoned tailing piles in Interior Alaska appear to be venting something that looks like steam. This is best seen during temperatures of minus 20°F or colder, with the observer positioned to look toward the sun in the direction of the tailing piles. The dredge tailings in Fox and Ester are two prominent locations to observe this unusual effect.

Tailing piles as a geothermal source? That would be handy, but not practical in view of the tiny amount of heat being "pumped" by these miniature "chimneys" of coarse rocks. What we see, of course, is not steam, but a steady flow of (relatively) warm, moist air coming in contact with the frigid out-of-doors temperature. As the moist air quickly cools to the surrounding temperature, it is forced to give up most of its water vapor. The invisible vapor condenses into either supercooled fog droplets or ice crystals, both of which are visible on windless days under certain… read more

Who's the Brainiest of Them All?

It appears that the matter has been settled out of court, and right-handed males lose.

Neurologists at the University of Pennsylvania conducted studies of blood flow through eight regions of subjects' brains while they were performing mental tasks, and found that the flow rate was highest in women and in left-handed people.

Since gray matter, found mostly in a quarter-inch layer on the surface of the brain, is largely responsible for intelligence and also conducts the most blood, the conclusion was inescapable.

So men, if you have a left-handed wife who also happens to be a woman, better let her balance the checkbook.

Songwriters Take Liberties with Alaska's Geography

While most Alaskans take pride in their hardiness, even the most seasoned sourdough must blush when Johnny Horton proclaims in one of his best-selling records that "When It's Springtime In Alaska, It's 40 below." While that may be true on rare occasions, it's hardly commonplace.

There are many examples of outlandish stories that have been told of life in the far north (also many very good ones, such as those written by Jack London). A couple of relatively recent songs illustrate the point that there is a lack of general knowledge about where Alaska is, and what it's all about.

One example is found in Lefty Frizzell's fairly old (late 1950s) recording of "Saginaw, Michigan." In this saga, the hero, who is trying to woo his sweetheart in Saginaw, is repulsed by her father, who claims he is a bum. The hero comes to Alaska and, after a while, sends a telegram that claims that he has made the "Richest Strike In Klondike History." The girl's dad, who is obviously a… read more

How Good are Over-the-Counter Drugs?

Every year about this time, I catch, what my wife euphemistically calls, a "Summer Cold." The Contac and Coricidin stocking our medicine cabinet at these times make it look like we're opening a corner drugstore.

But just how good are these counter drugs, anyway?

An article in the recent June issue of Science 83 makes me wonder. The magazine pulled no punches and named names. The best slam was made at Anacin, which is advertised as containing the "pain reliever that doctors recommend most." The pain reliever turns out to be aspirin which costs less than half as much in its generic form. The only other ingredient is caffeine, and the FDA is still debating whether or not it has anything to do with pain relief at all.

Another of the interesting items on which the magazine reported was NyQuil. This thing has a list of unpronounceable ingredients until you get to the phrase: "Alcohol, 25%." Now, if that won't help you get to sleep, what else will?… read more

Radiation Exposure

Radiation is as natural as water, and like water, it can be either damaging or essential. While we can see water and understand its effects, most radiation is invisible to us, and its effects are only dimly understood.

Radiation can be of three types. One is pure energy such as sunlight or X-rays. Another class consists of the energetic particles from the nuclei of matter such as neutrons or alpha particles. The third type is something between pure energy and pure matter and is usually an energetic free electron. In any case, we are concerned with the radiation ability to energize and disrupt living cells by either breaking apart too much of the cells' material for them to recover, or worse, mutating the genetic code within the cell.

Everyone is being bombarded with natural radiation of one kind or another all the time, and this type of radiation has absolutely nothing to do with any human activity. The amount of natural radiation an average human receives… read more

The Insights of Youth

The March, 1983 issue of Science Digest contains a thought-provoking little article by Paul MacCready, in which he explains that as a youngster he was fascinated with trying to float the largest possible needle on water. Such a feat is possible, of course, because of the surface tension of water.

Years later, MacCready was telling his son, then about 10, about his earlier experiments and he suggested to the boy that he perform his own experiments on placing the needle on the surface of the water as gently as possible so as not to break the water's "skin." Possible gadgets such as hooks or electromagnets might do the trick, he said.

The boy thought about this for a moment, and then said "Why don't we just freeze the water, set the needle down on it, and let the ice melt?"

Whether or not that worked, the story doesn't say, but that is not significant. The point is that most adults would work for many days on the problem without coming up with such… read more

Why Doesn't The Stomach Digest Itself?

If you were to put a piece of zinc into a cup of gastric acid, the zinc would dissolve. It's therefore not surprising that the stomach's digestive juices can make short work of anything we deliberately feed to it.

But why doesn't the stomach eat itself? In a manner of speaking, it does. The stomach is lined with a dense layer of cells, called epithelial cells, which continually sacrifice themselves in order to protect deeper layers of the stomach wall. Each minute, the surface lining sheds some 500,000 cells, and it completely replaces itself in three days.

This is in much the same manner that ablative heat shields attached to space vehicles are flaked off and carried away during reentry. This also carries away the heat and protects the vulnerable space capsule lying beneath.

The main components of digestive juices are a protein-digesting enzyme called pepsin and hydrochloric acid. The pepsin is relatively harmless, but hydrochloric acid is extremely… read more

Melting Permafrost in Previously Forested Areas

The first things that come to mind when talking about damaged tundra are pictures of water-filled trenches created when bulldozers during WWII, or oil rigs during the ensuing years, marched across it without understanding or regard for its fragility. Once the thin protective insulating layer of vegetation is damaged or removed, the underlying permafrost begins to melt, creating, in time, mushy ditches that used to be roads. These will remain for centuries.

What is less appreciated is that equally damaging effects can occur in regions south of the vast, treeless expanses of tundra, when clearing and construction on ice-rich ground occurs.

The Army Corps of Engineers took the problem seriously after the war when, in 1946, they established a long-term experimental station near Fairbanks to examine the relationship between vegetative cover and the stability of permafrost foundation material. Continuous monitoring under varying ground cover conditions were made for a… read more

Shifting Sands

The average citizen would tend to associate Alaska with igloos, glaciers and icebergs. But sand dunes? C'mon. That's the Sahara.

The fact is that Alaska has extensive areas covered by sand dunes. Most of these have been created since the last glacial period (the Wisconsin) about twenty-five thousand years ago.

Granted, glaciers and sand dunes don't often go together, but in this case they do. Many of us in interior Alaska live on ground called loess (pronounced luss). This is rock flour that has been ground up by glaciers and transported by the wind to form the topsoil on most of our hills.

But strong winds can also pick up larger fragments and carry them downwind where they are deposited and eventually build up a considerable mass. This is how Alaska's sand dunes are formed. Most of them are found in the northwest part of the state, deriving from "storm winds" that have swept the area since the last glaciation. Residents of the Delta area are all too… read more

Ski Waxing as an Art Form

Although the mosquitoes are not yet with us, as the days grow longer and the temperatures moderate, one cannot help noticing the growing proliferation of that other curious species, the skibug.

I used to do some downhill skiing, but gave it up when I decided that broken legs were too much of a price to pay for a little fresh air. And cross-country skiing--well--I've never seen the point of trying to climb mountains with those slippery things strapped to your feet when you could just as well walk. We have a cross-country trail passing through our property near Ester, and I can get a whole Sunday's entertainment out of watching the plight of skiers coming down off the well conditioned trail and hitting our icy driveway.

But I'm developing a growing respect for the true addict. I came across an article the other day that leads me to believe that, if you're going to be good at this thing, not only must you be something of an athlete, but part engineer and chemist as… read more

What Do Carbon Monoxide Levels Mean?

Each winter we hear advisories being broadcast over local radio stations about current and projected carbon monoxide levels and the resulting air quality. One may hear in Fairbanks, for instance, the announcement that "Carbon monoxide levels for an eight-hour average may exceed 15 parts per million. Air quality will be poor." Just what does this mean, anyway?

Although different municipalities may have different criteria on which to base estimates of air quality, most are governed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Fairbanks North Star Borough Environmental Services, for instance, uses the term "good" to describe air with less than 9 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide (CO), "fair" to describe air with between 9 and 15 ppm, and "poor" to describe air with greater than 15 ppm CO.

Carbon monoxide is just one of literally thousands of chemical pollutants being thrown into the air from automobiles, power plants and other man-made sources. Air… read more

A Real Snow Job

Billy Connor, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in Fairbanks poses the question, "How should you shovel snow off your roof?"

"The proper way," according to Connor, "is that you do it a little on one side of the roof and then a little on the other) but not all on one side at once." I've been wondering why.

It may be that if all the snow is on one side of a gabeled roof, a good amount of the stress accumulated by its weight, in addition to being directed straight downward, develops a horizontal component that pushes the other side out, leading to potential collapse.

On a flat roof, it shouldn't make any difference where you start shoveling, so this line of reasoning goes, but I'm not sure of this either. Until Connor reveals his secret, I'd be glad to hear from any readers who have an opinion on the matter.

Freeze or Fry?

Every year, someone in the north succumbs to the cold. Freezing to death in the winter is a fairly simple matter for those who are not prepared. Also, there are those who use improper heating devices and end up asphyxiating or incinerating themselves.

Even in warmer weather, hikers and hunters die of hypothermia--a gradual draining away of the body's heat, which may be due to no more than a quick dunking in a lake or prolonged exposure without shelter or proper survival gear.

Although we seldom hear of it up here, in the lower states, according to the January issue of Science Digest, one of the largest causes of death due to cold (after exposure) is heart attacks due to shoveling snow.

Any way you look at it, one advantage that we northerners have is that we seldom have to worry about heatstroke. Those unfortunates in St. Louis and Kansas City in 1980, for example, endured at least two weeks of 100 degree plus temperatures and the mortality rate… read more

Gravel Roads Better Than Pavement on Permafrost

The Research Section of the State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF) has released a Research Note which casts doubt on the practicality or advisability of paving all the rural roads in the north. In many instances, they note, a well-built gravel road is preferable.

The primary benefit to gravel roads is that they are relatively immune from frost heaving and have less of a tendency to thaw underlying permafrost. Studies showed that on very poor foundation material, such as thawing permafrost, the patching, pothole filling and repaving required by paved roads resulted in maintenance costs more than twice that for a good gravel surface.

This is not to say, however, that all gravel roads are inexpensive to maintain--note the word "good" in the previous sentence. Few gravel roads in Alaska are consistently safe for travel at high speed, and where improper materials are used in their construction, or where the footing is stable, such as on… read more

The Spots Before Your Eyes

On one of the last few beautiful days of summer, I was lying back in our lawn chair looking at a clear, blue Alaska sky. Actually, what I was doing was not so much looking at the sky, as watching those pesky spots, blobs and ropey filaments wandering around seemingly before my eyes.

My experience, which is probably not much different than anyone else's, is that when I stare at a featureless background such as a clear sky, my field of view contains a number of specks or more complicated forms which remind me of nothing so much as pictures I've seen of bacteria. Sometimes the "bacteria" are straight, and at other times it looks as if they've been tangled up or dumped into a heap. Although some forms are surprisingly clear, I can never quite focus on them, and if I turn my eyes in order to concentrate on one, it outraces me outside my field of vision.

Observing these questionable objects can be an amusing and harmless pastime if one has nothing else to do, but at… read more

Out with the Bad Air, In with the Good

With the escalation of fuel costs and the nationwide campaign to conserve energy, many Alaskans are taking advantage of the bargain basement rebates being offered to tighten up and insulate their houses.

In recent months, however, it has begun to leak out from the media that there may be more to the matter than meets the pocketbook. The one item that has received the most attention is that, in tightly enclosed areas with no air circulation, formaldehyde fumes arising from construction materials and insulation may reach toxic levels.

Other undesirable pollutants are cooking fumes, carbon monoxide and cigarette smoke, to name but a few. In addition, high humidity levels in tightly sealed buildings may lead to degradation of building materials and water or ice formation on windows and in insulation.

Given these precautions, the solution appears simple--merely provide adequate ventilation. But now we find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation. If we blow out… read more

Permafrost and Homesites

Permafrost: A word that means little to many of us and a lot to some. Back in 1969, my wife and I began to lay the foundation for what was to become our house. This was in a location about 10 miles west of Fairbanks, near the community of Ester.

Although we knew about the dangers of what permafrost could do to dwellings, our building site was located on a south-facing slope situated on what appeared to be a very solid footing of Fairbanks loess, or wind deposited glacial flour (generally referred to in the area as "silt"). As a one-time geologist, this seemed safe enough to me.

Like so many people in Alaska, we were not able to complete the house in only one season, and it was not until two years later that we could afford to have a water well drilled. Imagine our consternation when the driller informed us that, only six feet down, our house was sitting on solid permafrost.

Ordinarily, this would have meant that, within a matter of years, the heat… read more

Is The Speed of Light Fast Enough?

Very often, anyone who is making a long-distance telephone call outside the state of Alaska is communicating over at least one satellite link. While the benefits of space-age communication are enormous, they may also be frustrating. In a transcontinental call, one may often notice that there is an agonizing overlap in the conversation. People on one end of the line will begin a sentence at the precise instant that the person on the other end does the same. Then there are a few seconds of silence while everybody tries to get the thing sorted out, and the process repeats.

The confusion usually results because of the time lag involved in the transmission of the signals to a communications satellite and back to Earth. These satellites are in stationary, or synchronous orbit over 22,000 miles above various points of the earth's surface. Because the waves carrying the transmission travel at the speed of light, or about 186,000 miles per second, the round trip takes about a… read more

Highway Load Restriction Determination

During the winter, frost heaving can occur beneath Alaska's roadway pavements. Frost heaving is the result of freezing soil drawing water from underlying unfrozen areas, resulting in the formation of ice lenses or layers.

In the springtime as the roadways thaw, large concentrations of excess water from these ice lenses are present in the roadbed. During the thawing period, the road foundation becomes sponge-like and saturated with water, and heavy loads may crack the pavement. For this reason, "spring load restrictions" are commonly applied to prevent pavement breakup during the critical thawing period.

Research engineers of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF) have learned that the roadbed generally reaches its lowest strength when the thaw depth is between 20 to 40 inches (1/2 to 1 m), with strength recovery by the time the thaw reaches 50 inches (1-1/2 m). To be safe, load restrictions should be applied when thawing begins.… read more


Change is a part of life in the north, as elsewhere, and it is one of the many topics dealt with in this column. Now, it is time for a change in the column itself.

From now on, the Geophysical Institute's Professor Larry Gedney will be the primary writer of the column. Larry is an experienced seismologist with wide ranging interests and writing skill. For me, this change is not exactly a good-bye because I hope to continue to contribute articles to the column. However, the transfer of primary responsibility will allow me more time for other writing activities on Alaskan science topics.

This time of change is appropriate for announcing the availability of a compilation of past articles. Called Alaska Science Nuggets, the book contains approximately 400 articles appearing in the column since its inception in March 1976. The book is softbound, has 248 pages, approximately 100 photographs and illustrations and also complete listing of contents and an index to help… read more

Static versus Sliding Friction

Many of us never take the time to consider the physical laws that affect our lives. A case in point involves the difference between static versus sliding friction, which certainly becomes a factor any time that we enter a car. We all know that jamming the brakes is not the best way to stop. We also know that spinning the wheels is not the best way to extricate ourselves from a snow bank. Nevertheless, we all do these things, practically as a matter of instinct.

If we were to tie a string to a block of wood resting on a table, we would probably have to pull on the string with a force roughly half the weight of the block to get it to move. In the vernacular, this means that the coefficient of static friction between the block and the table is about 0.5. However, once the block is moving, we would not have to exert as much force to keep it in motion--probably only about one-fifth of the block's weight. This is equivalent to saying that the coefficient of sliding friction… read more

Electromagnetic Smog over Alaska

The use of radio for two-way communication and audio and video broadcasting is increasing in urban areas of Alaska; consequently there is an increase in the electromagnetic smog people are being exposed to.

At least one home located near transmitters on the mountain slope above Anchorage now is engulfed in radiowave emissions that exceed, by more than 200 times, the legal limit the Soviet Union allows for its citizens. Suspecting ill effects upon his family, the home owner asked the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to measure the radiowave levels in his home. Responding, the Department measured power levels in the house up to a high of 250 microwatts per square centimeter.

This level of radiation caused no official alarm because there is no legal limit to electromagnetic radiation levels in the United States, and the measured radiowave energy in the home is only one-fourth the voluntary standard recommended by the American National Standards… read more

Arctic Radio Propagation

One expert on radio propagation has said that if he wanted to pick the worst place in the world to build a communication system it would be Alaska and western Canada. Permafrost, rugged mountain terrain and the ionospheric effects associated with the aurora combine in Alaska and western Canada to make communication difficult at all radio frequencies.

Frozen ground makes a poor electrical conductor and therefore affects radio communications in two ways. One way has to do with the effectiveness of transmitting and receiving antennas. Many of these work best if set above highly conducting earth. If the ground below the antenna is a poor conductor, it may be necessary to build an artificial ground plane from metal. This is the purpose of the horizontal wire structures one often sees at the base of antennas in the north.

The electrical conductivity of the ground also affects the propagation of radio waves across the surface of the earth. Ordinary AM broadcasting,… read more

Does Wind Chill Affect Machines?

It is well known that the wind-chill factor can lower the effective temperature experienced by human beings by many degrees, depending on the velocity of the wind. The debatable question often arises, "Does it also affect machines?"

Many of us have had the experience of sitting in a car at a stoplight with clear windows, only to have them fog up again when the car starts moving. More often than not, this is a result of snow that was on the hood being sucked through the car's heater system; but there is another factor involved as well, and that is wind chill.

If we were to take an engine block and install it on mounts in the middle of a field for the winter, it would make no difference in the temperature of that engine block if the wind blew or not. It would remain at the ambient temperature of the air surrounding it, whether or not the air was moving. However, if we were to start up that engine and let it warm up, there would be a great deal of difference in the… read more

Vehicle Accidents on Lake Ice

On Thanksgiving weekend two vehicles, a van and a snowmachine, fell through the ice on Harding Lake in interior Alaska. No human lives were lost, but a family pet went down with the van. The ice thickness measured at several places was 10 inches and should have been sufficient to support a loaded 3/4-ton truck. What probably happened?

Several possibilities immediately come to mind. Ice can be weakened by the action of upwelling springs eroding at the bottom surface of the ice. This possibility can be ruled out because this is a shallow-water phenomenon, and the two vehicles now lie in approximately 100 feet of water. Another possibility is that the heavier van was traveling at the critical speed where it rides the crest of the wave created in the ice sheet by the vehicle's weight. Motion at this critical speed can cause the effective weight of the vehicle to increase and the ice to break if not thick enough. It is also potentially a problem when vehicles follow each… read more

Winter Solstice

In much of the lower northern hemisphere, the recognition of winter solstice is largely overshadowed by anticipation of Christmas, which follows in only three to five days. But for those who live near or inside the Arctic Circle, solstice day is an important dawning of a new annual era: this is the day the sun starts coming back.

The exact time and date of winter solstice changes from year to year. On leap years solstice occurs about eighteen hours and ten minutes earlier than it did the previous year. On other years solstice occurs five hours and forty-nine minutes later than the year before. This year, solstice coincidentally happens at noon on December 21, Alaska Standard Time.

If one lives well north of the Arctic Circle, the fruits of the change at solstice are a bit slow in coming. On Alaska's North Slope the sun doesn't even come up until the latter half of January or early February. In the more heavily populated areas of Alaska and Yukon Territory, the… read more

Burning Peat

One estimate of Alaska's peat resource indicates that the state has enough peat to supply its total energy needs for well over 1,000 years, at the present rate of energy usage. However, as one might guess, there are a few practical problems to overcome, some of which may be so severe that the actual use of peat in the years ahead might be minor compared to other fuels.

Europeans have heated their houses with peat for centuries. Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands already have exhausted their supplies, so no longer burn peat. Ireland still obtains about a third of its needed energy by burning approximately 3.5 million tons of peat each year. The Soviet Union is the world's leading peat consumer; it gets about two percent of its energy from 70 million tons of peat burned annually. One city, Leningrad, supplies 17 percent of its electrical energy from nearby peat bogs.

One advantage of peat over coal and oil is the low sulfur content of peat. The burning of peat… read more

Microwave Death

The first official recognition in the United States of a causal link between human fatality and exposure to microwave radiation came recently from events that transpired in that most-American of all places, the Empire State building.

Samuel Yannon was a radio technician who worked for 15 years on radio transmitters located atop King Kong's famous perch. After the first 11 years, Yannon complained of sight and hearing problems and was worried that the cause might be the radiowave environment in which he was working. According to a recent article in the London Sunday Times, he later developed cataracts, lost more than half his original weight, became prematurely senile and then died. The courts agreed that the microwave environment was the cause of Yannon's problems and awarded his widow a modest cash and pension settlement.

The United States has no regulations to limit the radiowave energy in a worker's environment, but the Soviet Union requires that the… read more

Negative-Ions and Computers

Evidence seems to be mounting that ion concentrations in the air do affect how people feel. Further, there is evidence that the new trend toward using computerized equipment in offices may be creating a special problem.

Outdoor air contains about a thousand positive and negative charges (ions) within each cubic centimeter. Cosmic rays coming into the earth from the sun and elsewhere break apart air molecules and thereby create much of the ionization that exists in the air. Since more cosmic rays come in at the high latitudes, the high-latitude air normally has a higher proportion of ionized air molecules or molecular clusters. However, in cities and in confined spaces such as offices, processes take place to reduce the number of ions. One important process is attachment of charge-carrying molecular clusters to pollution particles in the air. When that happens both the ions and the pollution particles tend to be swept out of the air by the electric field that exists… read more

Alaska Science Policy?

Ever since statehood was achieved in 1959, Alaska has mostly relied upon the federal government for the basic technical information needed to manage the affairs of the state.

If a dam, a pipeline or a windmill installation were to be built, the results of federally funded science provided the needed information on stream flow, environmental constraints or average wind speed. Most probably it was a federal project anyway, so, clearly, it was a federal responsibility. The federal government also has had the responsibility to avoid undue environmental impact of any of its projects, so, all in all, the scheme could be said to have worked out reasonably satisfactorily. Of course not everyone has always agreed. Some have argued that there has been too little concern for social and cultural impacts, and that the locals may have suffered unduly as a result.

Now the game seems to be changing. Alaska is originating more of its own projects, and the federal government is… read more

Ice Fog

An important characteristic of the arctic and subarctic environment, especially in winter, is the stillness of the air. Aircraft pilots in particular notice the change that winter brings as their craft speed steadily along, instead of bouncing around through summer's turbulent air.

As the sun retreats to near or below the horizon, less heating of the ground surface and the near-surface air occurs. If the sky is clear, the earth radiates its heat energy to the frigid reaches of space and then cools the air in contact with it. Cold, stagnant air near the ground results, often inverting the normal trend for decreasing air temperature with increasing altitude. Sometimes extreme inversions develop. At Fairbanks, where hills surround the city to further hamper air movement, the near-ground inversions are among the world's most extreme, as much as 16°F (9°C) each 100 feet (30 meters) of altitude.

The stagnation and horizontal layering of the air creates spectacular… read more

Science In Northern Government

Until one thinks about it, it seems strange that one of the United States' most remote and least populated local governments should be among the first in the nation to form its own science advisory body. With a population of only 8,000, the North Slope Borough now has such a group.

National governments typically form science advisory bodies and many states do, yet few county or borough governments have taken such a step. First established to provide scientific advice to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in 1980, the advisory committee now gives advice to the government of the North Slope Borough as well. The scientists on the advisory committee, mostly Alaskans and some from elsewhere, serve without pay. The group is chaired by Dr. John Kelly of the Institute of Marine Science of the University of Alaska.

The Whaling Commission and North Slope Borough officials formed the science advisory group to assist them in facing a number of problems. Conflicts over the… read more

Herpes Virus

The waters of southeast Alaska have something to offer to sufferers of herpes viruses: two species of seaweeds of the Rhodophyta (red algae) group that grow along the coast have been found to relieve symptoms of herpes infections.

Herpes viruses cause a variety of diseases that range from cold sores to the more-serious genital herpes which can produce painful blisters. It can cause death to infants and perhaps cancer in women. The virus that causes cold sores is named herpes simplex virus Type 1. Herpes simplex virus Type 2 causes genital herpes.

These viruses attack skin or mucous membrane cells where they become parasitic upon the normal processes in the cells. The infestation is difficult to attack with antiviral drugs because the drugs also attack the host cells. Genital herpes is transmitted sexually and is now considered to have reached epidemic status in the United States with 300,000 new cases being reported each year.

Newborn babies can contract… read more

Lead in Drinking Water

Recent tests on water delivered by some Alaskan community water systems have revealed unsafe levels of lead in the water. Lead concentrations in excess of five parts per billion are considered unsafe, especially for children. Lead poisoning causes weakness, anemia, constipation and paralysis. That sounds depressing enough, but it's not even the whole story; lead poisoning itself causes depression.

Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation has found excessive lead concentrations in community water systems at the western Alaska villages of St. Michael, Gambell and Shishmaref, and also at the interior village of Birch Creek. The culprit, reports DEC engineer Stan Justine in a recent issue of The Northern Engineer, is lead-containing solder used to join copper pipes in the water distribution systems.

Corrosive chemical action similar to that in a car battery occurs to release lead into the water. The copper pipe acts as a cathode, and droppings of… read more

Alaskan Energy Use

Alaska pumps into the ground more than twice as much energy as it uses each year.

That, to me, is just one of the surprising facts contained in the new State of Alaska Long Term Energy Plan, now prepared in draft form by the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development. In 1979, Alaska consumed just over two-tenths of a quad of energy, and it re-injected into the ground just over half a quad of natural gas to keep the pressure high in the Prudhoe and Cook Inlet oil wells.

The term 'quad' is a shorthand name for a unit used to measure energy. It is a term used only in the big leagues; but when it comes to energy production, Alaska definitely has arrived. One quad is one quadrillion (1015) British Thermal Units (B.T.U.s). One quad is the amount of energy contained in a flow of 476,000 barrels of oil each day for one year. By means of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, Alaska exported, in 1979, 2.96 quads of energy. That is about eighteen times as much energy as… read more

Springtime Road Restrictions

Several Canadian provinces and most northern states, including Alaska, place special springtime restrictions on the weight of trucks allowed on surfaced roadways. Since, in some instances, the restriction permits only 50% of normally-allowed gross vehicle weight, it seriously curtails economic trucking during the breakup period.

The reason for limiting truck loads, and for further restricting them during breakup, is that heavy axle loadings can cause road pavement to flex to the point where the pavement cracks. At first, the cracks may not be visible because they mostly start at the bottom of the pavement and break upwards toward the top. Once the cracks start, they can propagate quickly and lead to breaking up of the entire road surface.

Road builders and maintenance personnel have devised ways to measure pavement deflection under the load of a rolling wheel. One method, the Benklemen Beam test, involves direct measurement of the deflection when a wheeled axle… read more

Northern Suicide

Research on the causes of death among northerners reveals some disturbing trends. Among those who live in the northern half of Alaska the proportion of violent death by suicide is three and one-half times the proportion in the United States as a whole. Furthermore, among Natives in northern Alaska the suicide rate during the years 1970 to 1974 increased to a figure two and one-half times that which had occurred in the years 1960 to 1964. In 1975, the U.S. suicide rate was thirteen per hundred thousand; in all of Alaska the rate was eighteen per hundred thousand.

Among the statistics on suicide provided to me by Mr. Brandt Stickel of Northern Alaska Health Resources, a private corporation, is a curious one on the difference between the sexes. Native and non-Native suicide rates among northern Alaska males in the age group 15 to 24 is roughly twice that of peers in the United States, but among females in the same age group the rate is ten times the U.S. rate in the peer… read more

Toxicity of Burning Material

The deadly fires that spread through the MGM Grand Hotel and the Las Vegas Hilton during the past year have demonstrated the danger from toxic gases released from combustion on materials commonly found in homes and other buildings. The problem has special relevance for anyone contemplating building a new home or re-insulating an older one since there are substantial differences in the toxicity of insulating materials that one might choose to use.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh (March 7, 1981 issue of Science News) recently have tested the toxicity of some of these materials by burning them and exposing mice to the smoke produced. Such tests are tough on the unfortunate mice but the results may save human lives.

One of the least toxic materials used in houses is wood. Fiberglass insulation Is almost as good. Smoke from both materials is comparatively slow to kill. In the tests on mice, It took twenty to thirty minutes of exposure to fumes… read more

Energy From Wood

The energy source that powered the Klondike and later goldrushes was wood. It has been said that without the forests of Alaska and western Canada the goldrushes could not have taken place.

Though many of the goldrushers arrived on coal-fired steamers, they had enough else to carry over Chilkoot and other passes into the gold fields that they could hardly carry fuel too. Early-day photographs of the diggings show areas denuded of forest; the miners cut essentially all the trees around to build their cabins and mine shafts, and for fuel to cook and heat with and also to thaw frozen ground.

The miner's use of wood as almost their only fuel source illustrates some of the characteristics of wood as an energy source. Though wood is difficult to transport, it grows almost everywhere so, within limits, is readily available. Also it takes little technology to utilize this energy resource. Anyone with a match or two sticks of wood to rub together (and skill or lots of… read more

Alaska's Oil Wealth

The lowest official estimate of Alaska's income from petroleum resources over the next ten years is 455 billion dollars.

That statement was made at a recent symposium in Anchorage on energy wealth redistribution sponsored by the Alaska Growth Policy Council. Even those people at the meeting who were familiar with big numbers had a hard time comprehending just how much money 455 billion dollars really is and what it might buy.

Whatever that sum means, the speaker citing the amount went on to quote former legislator Steve Cowper who said that it was more money than Alaska will be allowed to keep, and of course, that was the central topic of the symposium.

Supposing that Alaska is allowed to keep the money, I did a little calculation to see how far the money would stretch if it were given out to each Alaskan resident. Rounding off the numbers a bit, assume there are 400,000 Alaskans and that the 10 years of oil wealth is just 400 billion dollars. Averaged… read more

Whale Oil Versus Smoke Detectors

The emergence of Alaska and northwestern Canada as energy resource areas for the rest of North America is bringing increasing awareness that all here is not just ice and snow. Even so, something happens every once in a while that illustrates the misunderstandings people still have about the North.

Such an instance involves an exchange of correspondence between the Alaska Council on Science and Technology and a representative of the well-known Underwriters Laboratory Inc., the organization whose UL symbol we trust on the many gadgets we buy.

In preparation for a research program it administers for the Alaska State Troopers, the Council had asked if Underwriters Laboratories had done any testing of smoke detectors in small houses typically found in rural areas of cold climate regions.

A helpful response came from the laboratory, but it contained an interesting remark, "it is our understanding that most of the residences of the type described use whale oil… read more

Ion Generators

For more than ten years, controversy has swirled around the usefulness of ion generators sold (at roughly 100 dollars each) to improve air quality in homes and offices. Total American sales of ion generators was near the ten million dollar mark in 1980, so obviously many people think or hope the generators are worthwhile.

The stated purpose of a home or office ion generator is to increase in the air the number of molecules or molecular clusters that carry positive or negative charges--such molecules or clusters are called ions, even though the name ion has a broader meaning for most scientists.

Any volume of natural air near the earth's surface contains roughly equal numbers of positive and negative ions, there being about a thousand or so of each in a cubic centimeter of natural air. Since there are more than ten billion billion air molecules per cubic centimeter, the ratio of ions to neutral air molecules is pretty small.

The relatively few ions that… read more

Residential Fire Deaths

Alaska has the distinction of having the highest death rate due to residential fires of any state in the nation. The problem is greatest in rural areas of the state, since the death rate there is five times that of the state as a whole.

Seventy-five percent of residential fires start out by smoldering, as contrasted with those that flash up right at the start. It is recognized that such fires usually proceed in four stages.

During the first, incipient stage, which may last for minutes to days, there is no perceptible smoke, heat or flame. Next, there is a smoldering stage during which there still is no flame or heat, but the combustion increases enough to create visible smoke.

The third stage usually involves less smoke, but flames break out, and much heat is given off. The final, fourth, stage proceeds rapidly with extensive flames and smoke and the emission of many toxic gases.

Because so many fires go through the various stages, early… read more


Not long ago there appeared on the front page of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner a photograph showing an Anchorage man standing on a Fairbanks street beside a large, crudely lettered sign saying "DMSO sold here." The accompanying story indicated the man was doing a brisk business, selling 8-ounce bottles for $24 each--purportedly for use as an industrial solvent.

DMSO, is the commonly-used name for dimethyl sulfoxide, a chemical in use as an industrial solvent for over twenty years. In 1964, DMSO was alleged to have therapeutic value for treating arthritis and diseases or conditions affecting muscles and bones and even mental disorders. The Food and Drug Administration authorized clinical tests of DMSO but studies on animals in 1965 indicated the possibility of nasty side effects such as eye damage, headaches, nausea and skin rash.

Controversy has surrounded the use of DMSO as a drug ever since. Finally in 1978, drug-quality DMSO was allowed as a prescription… read more

Freezing of Hot and Cold Water Pipes

Why do hot water pipes sometimes freeze up and burst when adjacent cold water pipes do not? That is an intriguing question recently asked by Anna Kvistad of Clear, Alaska and Tom Busch of Nome.

My first thought on the matter was that the statement of the question itself was in error because I could not understand how it could be possible for a hot pipe to freeze and burst without a cold pipe doing the same, and probably quicker. But then I asked around and found that several people had observed the same seemingly illogical phenomenon described by Ms. Kvistad and Mr. Busch. In fact, hot water pipes exposed to freezing temperatures can freeze and burst while identical cold water pipes beside them remain intact.

The reason for this curious difference is thought to be related to the existence of foreign solid particles in well or stream water, that is, in any except distilled water. Compared to the size of water molecules, the foreign particles are quite large,… read more

Energy-Efficient Homes

As northerners seal up their homes to save on heating costs, they run the danger of a problem most of us have not thought much about--the quality of air inside the house.

Indoor air pollution is a different beast from the one that sometimes pervades the out-of-doors. In the old days, the energy-efficient Eskimo sod house had a serious problem with smoke from seal-oil lamps and a central open-pit fire. Years of exposure created soot deposits within the inhabitants' lungs equal to that encountered by today's habitual cigarette smokers.

Most modern homes--especially mobile homes--contain materials such as plywood and foam insulation, either as part of the structure or in furniture. Michael Gold, writing in the March/April issue of Science 80, notes that these materials release a dangerous pollutant, formaldehyde. The formaldehyde evaporates from processed wood walls and from couches, beds and other furniture. In some newly insulated homes, the concentration… read more

Housing Insulation

Prevention of direct heat flow through a wall or ceiling is not the only reason for installing proper insulation. Three other reasons, according to residential housing expert Axel R. Carlson, are to prevent condensation, to reduce convection drafts within a room, and to avoid cool surfaces for a person's body heat to radiate to.

Whereas some rooms feel warm and comfortable, others definitely feel cold. Chances are the room that feels cold has cold walls and a cold floor. Such a room has convection drafts of cold air down the walls and across the floor. Furthermore, every object in a room radiates energy to every other, and the net amount of energy exchanged depends upon the temperature differences between the objects. Even across the room, a cold wall feels cold to a person's warm face because the face loses energy to the wall by radiation.

A truly serious problem is that cool interior surfaces of buildings cause condensation. If there is not a perfect vapor… read more

Thick Ice is Best

A recent article in this column dealt with the danger of traveling across ice at certain critical speeds where stresses build up and drastically increase the likelihood of breaking through. The reason is that an object moving at the critical speed stays abreast of a wave it creates in the ice below, and in so doing causes the stress in the ice to grow to a limit that can exceed the strength of the ice.

I cited an example wherein a 10-ton truck moving at 20 mph across foot-thick ice floating on 20 feet of water could stress the ice as much as a stopped truck weighing 100 to 150 tons. Reader Phil Johnson of Fairbanks, who is knowledgeable about operations on ice and particularly about the take-off and landing of heavy aircraft on ice, points out that the example I quote is not relevant to thick ice over deep water.

Mr. Johnson rightly notes that the stress created by an object moving across ice varies in a complex way that depends upon the salt content of the ice… read more

Spring Suicides

Many residents of high latitude say that it isn't winter's cold that depresses them so much as it is the increase in hours of darkness as winter sets on. Since fall seems to be a somewhat depressing time for many, it is surprising that there are reports of more humans in the arctic regions attempting suicide in springtime rather than in fall. One would think that it should be the other way around: that the increasing light and warmth of springtime would give new hope to a person who is depressed, and that there should be fewer suicides than in other seasons.

A hint as to what might be the cause of the spring increase in suicide attempts is given by Thomas A. Wehr and other authors in an article in the November 9, 1979 issue of Science magazine. Their studies of depressed persons suggest that severely depressed persons may have their internal clocks out of kilter. Relative to their sleep-wake cycle, their other bodily rhythms are advanced. Tests involving the… read more

Spring Freeze-up

Warmer springtime weather and lengthening daylight should signal to the northerner that winter's troubles are over. But just when you think you have it made, the sewer or the well freezes up. If not unfair, this quirk of fate seems a bit illogical.

One easy way to understand why the pipes freeze up so late in the season is to think about coming in from the cold wearing heavy rubber boots. One's feet stay cold for many minutes, even if the booted feet are propped up near a hot stove. It takes a long time for the heat to penetrate the boots. Then one may suddenly realize that the boots have become very hot, and will feel hot for many minutes after they are taken away from the stove. This example shows that energy is not transferred instantaneously.

So it is with freezing soil in winter except that the transfer of heat energy is much slower than in the rubber boot. As the top soil layer freezes, it gives up heat that is carried away by the air. Heat given up by the… read more

Radiowave Effects on Humans

Damaging effect to the human body by radio waves will result if the waves are intense enough to heat up the body. The extreme example is what happens to meat put in a microwave oven.

If a person's body is immersed in a strong radiowave field the electrons and ions in the body try to oscillate in unison with the radiowaves. This means energy is extracted from the radio wave and converted to tiny oscillatory motions of electrically-charged components of the body. The more the motion, the higher the body temperature.

In the Soviet Union, regulations require that workers not be exposed to radiowave radiation in excess of 10 microwatts per square centimeter. One hundred times this radiation level (i.e., 1 milliwatt per square centimeter) will create slight temperature increase in humans, the rise being about the same as results from normal light physical activity. Prolonged exposure to this intensity of radiowave radiation probably causes permanent damage. Exposure… read more

Shrinkage of Logs

How much do house logs shrink as they dry, and how long does it take? This is another of those reader's questions that should be easy to answer but isn't. It seems that house logs lack the uniformity of other construction materials such as metals, plastics and concrete. Perhaps that is one reason people like log homes.

I found a useful source of information on building with logs and on other types of residential construction to be Axel Carlson of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska. Several of his informative flyers are available free from the Extension Service. Another valuable source for me was an old book published in the 1890's that, from the looks of it, was carried by its original owner, my grandfather, on his trip into the Klondike in 1897. Smaller than a typical paperback, this manual of engineering knowledge has nearly a thousand ultra-thin, gilt-edged pages filled with tiny print. No author's or publisher's name shows in the book, but… read more

Using Solar Energy Effectively

The 1941 book Kabloona by Gontran de Poncins contains a description of an unusual labor-saving application of solar energy by the Eskimos of King William Island in Northwest Territories. The description also illustrates how powerful the sun's rays can be during early spring-April and May--even far above the Arctic Circle.

Long ago, the King William Eskimos noticed that a small piece of fur or a rag would absorb enough solar heat to melt its way into several feet of ice. Normally, if a King William man was in a hurry to create a hole in the ice to fish through, his only recourse was to chop his way through with a cutting tool. But he knew that if he was not in too much of a hurry, he could use solar energy. The accepted method was to lay dog feces on the ice in the right places and then wait for the sun to do all the work.

Alaska's Gold

If all the gold that has been mined in Alaska were put in one place, the pile would weigh somewhat more than 1200 tons and a cube formed of it would be 13 feet (about 4 meters) on a side.

At $400 per troy ounce the total value of the gold mined so far in Alaska is twelve billion dollars. Even in these days of inflation and high energy costs, 12 billion dollars is not ptarmigan feed.

According to an article by Mark Robinson and Tom Bundtzen in the September 1979 issue of the Mines and Geology Bulletin, the Fairbanks mining district holds the record for greatest total production, well over seven million troy ounces. Juneau follows as a close second with nearly seven million ounces. Nome with four million ounces and the Iditarod district with its 1.3 million ounces are the only other gold mining areas in Alaska that have produced more than a million ounces. The total production of gold across the border in the Klondike district is roughly that of the… read more

Radiowave Pollution

Each year we install more electrical, electronic and radio devices to make life convenient and more fun. In so doing we surround ourselves with increasing levels of electromagnetic radiation.

Is this a serious problem? The Russians certainly think so, for they have enacted stringent regulations limiting the radiowave energy that workers can legally be exposed to. The limit is ten microwatts per square centimeter (usually simply stated as ten microwatts, leaving out the unit of area).

How about in this country? No regulations exist, although the government recommends a limit of ten thousand microwatts.

Much investigation of the effects of radiowaves on animals and people has been done in the Soviet Union, but little has been pursued in North America. Some of that research in California has used cats to demonstrate significant changes in chemicals that play a role in brain function at levels as low as 100 microwatts. The average leakage from microwave… read more

Growth of Cancer

Earlier in this column I suggested that studies of the cancer-like burls found fairly commonly in northern spruce forests might contribute to the prevention of human cancers. In response, Dr. Hugh F. McCorkle, a pathologist from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has written to point out that similar studies have been performed, with somewhat encouraging results.

Medical researchers have learned from studies of abnormal growths in plants and small mammals that abnormal tissue growth, at least in some cases, is a two-part process. First, something has to trigger the process that may eventually lead to a killing cancer. But the cells triggered may not produce malignant tissues unless the tendency toward malignancy is supported by the presence of substances that promote abnormal growth.

An example is provided by experiments wherein a cancer-generating chemical insult was injected into the bladders… read more

Alaska's Problems

What do northern scientists think are the most serious problems facing Alaska? More than 500 scientists and technologists have responded to this question posed recently by the Alaska Council on Science and Technology.

Roughly half of the respondents focused on the general problem of how to develop and manage resources without destroying environment and lifestyle. Strong concern was raised for the problem of how to extract nonrenewable resources without devastating Alaska. Some took the skeptical view that there is no way Alaska can avoid the impacts of an expanding population and its associated development--the best that can be done is to seek ways to minimize the impacts.

Though nonrenewable resource development was a major issue, still more scientists were concerned with the issue of how best to develop renewable resources, especially fisheries, timber and agriculture. In essence, they seemed to say that nonrenewable resources are only a temporary asset and… read more

Yogis, Bears, Seals and Babies

At first glance it seems a bit curious that an Alaskan physiologist would travel to India to measure the oxygen intake of a meditating Yogi. But it turns out that Yogis have much in common with many Alaskan mammals and also human babies during the birth process.

Measurements by the University of Alaska's Dr. Robert Elsner, who usually studies diving seals, have shown that the oxygen intake of a Yoga practitioner in meditation can go as low as half that required to sustain normal life. This is quite a feat, though the lowering of metabolic rate is an old trick for hibernating mammals such as black bear and squirrels. The smaller hibernating animals can voluntarily reduce their metabolic rate (oxygen intake) to less than 1/100 of the normal rate and, without harm, drop their body temperature to near the freezing point.

Seals and other diving mammals similarly modify their own metabolic rates so that they can stay under water for many minutes. The mechanism… read more

Carbon Monoxide from Melting Snow

A warning all hunters and campers should heed is to be extra a careful when melting snow over an open-flame cookstove. Such a seemingly innocent act may have been the cause of the death of Arctic explorers S.A. Andree and Knut Fraenkel. They died in 1897 on White Island, northeast of Spitsbergen. Thirty-three years later their bodies were found where the men apparently died while sitting comfortably in a warm tent. Aside from this conjecture about Andree and Fraenkel, there are known instances of serious carbon monoxide poisoning from open-flame campstoves in tents.

Tests have shown that the danger of poisoning is especially great when snow is being melted in pans placed on open-flame stoves such as the Primus-type and Coleman-type cookstoves. These tests were conducted in 1942 by a group that included two scientists well known in the North, Drs. Laurence Irving and Pete Scholander. Somehow in the years that have lapsed since 1942 the consequences of the tests seem to… read more

Seal Finger

Until about 30 years ago, amputation of the offending finger was the accepted cure for a disease called spekk-finger (blubber-finger), by Norwegian sealers. In Alaska and elsewhere, the disease is called sealer's finger or seal finger.

Seal finger occurs only among those who handle seals. According to medical doctors Elizabeth F. Elsner and James R. Crook, of the University of Alaska, the exact nature of the infectious agent is unknown. Doctors have conjectured that a bacteria is involved, but the specific organism has not been isolated.

The infection is thought to be transmitted through a small cut in the finger of those who handle seals. Within a few days an extremely painful swelling of the finger occurs. As the finger swells up it becomes taut and shiny in appearance. The flesh itself becomes soft but there is no pus. Consequently, lancing provides no relief.

Nowadays, there is good news and bad news about the treatment of seal finger. The good news… read more

Burls and Human Cancer

There is enough similarity between the growth of burls on Alaskan spruce trees and the occurrence of some cancer in humans that the two could be different manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Every spruce burl that I have seen cut into shows highly ordered structure in the region of abnormal growth. These are not really cells gone wild; instead, they are just grow at a very fast rate under the same rules that govern the structuring in the normally growing tissue. This type of growth also is typical of some animal cancers.

When several burls grow on a single spruce tree, it is likely that they all began growing at once. Evidence for this simultaneity is seen when annual rings in the tree and its burls are counted to determine which year each burl began. So it would seem that whatever agent controls the abnormal growth is spread throughout the tree in a single year. And there has to be some mechanism which determines where on the tree burls will grow.

read more

Air Pollution in Fairbanks

The influence of a particular geographic setting and of certain weather conditions can make dispersion of pollutants especially difficult. An excellent example is provided by Alaska's second largest metropolitan area, Fairbanks, situated within a three-sided basin (Birch Hill to Chena Ridge) within a still larger three-sided basin (the Salcha Bluffs behind Eielson Air Force Base to Chena Ridge). These hills protect Fairbanks from strong winds on three sides. On the fourth side, the south, the Alaska Range and the Coast Range beyond it are distant but effective blockades against wind and storms.

As a result, Fairbanks has, at ground level, one of the lowest wind conditions in the world. The lack of wind allows the air over the city to remain relatively stagnant. A further effect of this highly sheltered location is that Fairbanks is typically clear-skyed (except for summer thundercloud; which often form within the valley).

Without the insulating effect of a cloud… read more

Heating with Wood

How much forest land does it take to keep a northerner's house perpetually in firewood?

To answer this question we begin by defining the size and heating requirement for an "average" interior Alaska house. Axel Carlson of the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service defined an average house as one having about 1200 square feet of floor area and needing 176 million BTU's for heat each year. It would take about 1250 gallons of fuel oil each year to heat such a house.

By photosynthesis, the plants growing on an acre of land can convert and store about 200 million BTU's of solar energy each year. So, in principle, it would seem that an acre could supply a house. In practice, though we burn only tree trunks and perhaps the largest branches for house heating. This plant material is produced at a far lower rate.

Forests considered to be just marginal for commercial wood production in Alaska and Yukon will yield about a fifth of a cord of trunk wood… read more

Solar Heating

It is easy to see how solar heating can be economical at low latitude. But will it work in Alaska and Yukon?

The solar energy available to a collector depends mainly upon the time of day, the time of year, and the latitude of the collector since each of these three geometrical factors determines the angle to the sun. The most possible heat is presented to a horizontal surface when the sun is directly overhead.

As the sun falls lower in the sky, there is less heat energy available for two reasons. First, there is the loss to the shielding atmosphere, and second, the energy that does penetrate through the longer path of air is spread over a larger area, just as is the shadow of any object.

Part A of the diagram shows how the number of calories per square centimeter of surface per minute drops from 1.22 when the sun is overhead (90° elevation) to zero when the sun is on the horizon. This graph does not account for any cloud cover or excessively water-laden… read more

Home Heating Costs

There can be no doubt anymore that knowledge applied to house building and home heating leads to money in the pocketbook for years to come. The Geophysical Institute's quarterly journal The Northern Engineer is responding to the high level of public interest in energy conservation by frequently carrying articles on this general subject.

One particularly interesting article by Carol Lewis, soon to appear in The Northern Engineer, contains information on fuel costs. Her figures are for Fairbanks in early 1979, but one can use the information she gives to calculate fuel costs at any location. So doing, one can make an informed judgment on which is the best fuel to use.

A slightly smaller than average but well-built house will require about 1000 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil for annual heating. According to Ms. Lewis, a gallon of fuel oil contains 135,000 BTU's, but typically it is burned with an efficiency of only 70%. Therefore the 1000 gallons of fuel oil will… read more

A Famous Alaskan Scientist

At its annual banquet in Fairbanks on April 13, 1979, the Alaska Club of the National Scientific Society Sigma Xi will honor Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu. Internationally, Akasofu is among the most famous Alaskan scientists, if he is not the most well known.

Not long after he received his doctorate from the University of Alaska in 1961, he discovered and described an important aspect of auroral behavior--the fact that it follows a particularly violent behavioral pattern called the auroral substorm. When we observe brilliant auroras flashing across the sky, we can be sure that the aurora is in the throes of the substorm described by Dr. Akasofu. The substorm behavior is the reason why the aurora often appears quiescent for many minutes or even several hours and then suddenly bursts into an hour or so of frantic activity.

Substorms are important because they influence auroral behavior and its side effects such as interference with radio communication. Even more important… read more

Hai-Toh Lim's Thesis

The other day a big package came in the mail. Inside was Hai-Toh Lim's masters thesis "Solar energy as a form of supplementary energy for heating Alaskan Inuit houses".

Two years earlier Ms. Lim's supervisory mentor at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, had called. He had this eager architectural student who wanted to come to Alaska to try to design better houses for northerners, particularly in the windswept coastal regions, and to see to what extent solar energy could be used to heat them. Could Ms. Lim associate with the Geophysical Institute and could the Institute provide enough fiscal support to pay her board and room?

There really was no money, but later when Hai-Toh Lim herself called, her enthusiasm bubbling over the phone sorely threatened fiscal responsibility. Finally a legal and moral way was found to permit Ms. Lim's residency, and some months later Hai-Toh, all five feet of her, arrived behind a big smile.

During her tenure here, Hai-… read more

The Stars at Night

Is it really true that the stars seen in a northerner's sky do not seem as numerous and as bright as those in more southerly skies? Since almost everything is better in the Yukon and Alaska, it hurts to admit that our view of the stars is, in fact, inferior.

The reason has nothing to do with the stars themselves. Although the stars are not uniformly distributed in the heavens, the spinning of the earth on its axis exposes to all stargazers similar stellar concentrations through the night. The greatest concentration is seen viewing regions of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It appears essentially overhead in Alaskan skies, though only about 30 degrees above the horizon at the North Pole.

At high latitudes, the stars do not stand out against the blackness of the sky because the sky there is not black. Even at middle and low latitude the sky is not truly black because of weak luminosity of the high atmosphere. Called airglow, this light emission arises largely from… read more

Soft Springtime Roads

Why is it that northern roads which can be dry in fall are almost invariably wet in springtime?

One possible source of moisture is the melting of snow and ice on the road surface, and sometimes runoff water flows onto the roadway. But roads that have no runoff problem and which have been kept clear of snow and ice all winter still can be wet at breakup

The real culprit is upward migration of soil moisture during and after freeze-up. The seriousness of the problem depends upon the composition of the roadbed and the availability of moisture in the road bed material or the soil below. Normally, water exists in the soil in three forms--vapor, liquid water that is free to move through pore spaces in the soil, and liquid water that is relatively tightly adhered to the surfaces of soil particles.

In fine-grained soils (silts and clays) with high water content, the free liquid water in the pore spaces moves toward that part of the soil having the lowest… read more

Summer Freezing of Wells

During the course of a year, the temperature of the air fluctuates more than the temperature of the soil just at the ground surface. In addition to having a lesser seasonal variation, the ground normally has a higher mean annual temperature than the air. The reason is that snow cover insulates the ground and thereby inhibits heat loss from the soil in winter. During summer, when the snow is gone, the flow of energy from the air to the colder soil below is comparatively efficient, especially if there is not a moss layer.

During the year the soil temperature right at the ground surface typically varies by 35° to 90°F (20° to 50°C). The variation is least in wetter terrains. Below the ground surface, the seasonal variation in temperature diminishes rapidly with depth. Approximately every 20 feet the variation reduces by a factor of 10.

Consequently, at a depth of 20 feet the ground temperature fluctuate seasonally only a few degrees, and at 40 feet the fluctuation… read more

The Common Cold

Do Alaskans and Northern Canadians have more and worse colds than people living in the more temperate regions to the south? Evidently not, although colds among peoples of the tropics are less common and less severe than those of residents of temperate climate.

The common cold is caused by virus infection and is communicable only among Chimpanzees and humans; no other animals are susceptible. Whether there is a single cold virus or many is not known.

But it is known that getting chilled or wet does not contribute to catching cold. One is far more likely to catch cold following an auto accident, according to Dr. John Thigh, director of the University of Alaska's Life Sciences Division at Fairbanks. In fact, he says, severe trauma of any kind is frequently followed by the victim's catching cold.

The natural resistance to infection when exposed to cold virus varies from person to person, and an individual's susceptibility may change over the years. It may be… read more

Nitrate-Nitrite Quandary

Molecules that contain a nitrogen atom bonded to two oxygen atoms are called nitrites and ones with three oxygen atoms bonded to the nitrogen are called nitrates.

Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate have long been used to flavor, color, and preserve cured meats, a result being to virtually eliminate the risk of botulism poisoning in the United States. Nitrates are essential to plant and animal life and are extensively used to manufacture fertilizer and explosives.

Unfortunately, ingestion of too much nitrate, especially in infants, causes damage to their hemoglobin's ability to carry oxygen. A more serious health hazard is that the human body can covert nitrate to nitrite, and then the nitrites combine with other nitrogen compounds called amines to form cancer-causing agents. Another worry is that excessive use of nitrate fertilizers over the years may, like fresh aerosol sprays, partially destroy the earth's protective ozone layer.

Not yet known is the… read more

Surviving Hypothermia

Immersion in cold water or any situation which causes one's body to shake or shiver hard from cold can soon lead to the condition called hypothermia. Hypothermia kills if the temperature of critical body organs is held too low too long. Death usually comes from failure of the heart owing to disorder in its rhythm. If one could keep his heart beating regularly, he could tolerate long periods of hypothermia.

For fishermen or others in situations where there is a definite chance of sudden immersion in cold water--and northern waters are almost always cold--the best protection against hypothermia is an approved buoyant vest or jacket worn all the time, not just laid in the boat. Warm clothes help a lot, especially waterproof clothes that will help trap body-warmed water around a person's torso.

If one falls in the water without a buoyant vest, one should tread water to keep the head out of the water, since heat loss through the head is rapid. And of course, one is… read more


Hot tea, coffee, and hot cocoa or chocolate are the traditional drinks of the North. They share in common two traits: they're warming and they contain caffeine.

Humans have been enjoying the stimulating effects of caffeine containing plants for thousands of years; nowadays nearly every Northerner consumes caffeine, not only in hot beverages but also in cola drinks. A cup of coffee or tea contains between 100 and 150 mg of caffeine; a cup of cocoa, up to 150 mg; and a cola drink, up to 35 to 55 mg per can.

Caffeine is a mildly addictive drug with stimulating effects which generally lasts between three and five hours in a person. The drug does not accumulate in one's body, which can rid itself of it almost completely overnight. Easily absorbed from the stomach, caffeine is quickly distributed to all tissues and organs of the body. The quantities found in each tissue are dependent on the water content in the tissues.

One should be moderate in his or her… read more

Oral Electricity

For some years, I've accused my wife of deliberately trying to cause me pain by inserting in my salami sandwiches the sheet of aluminum foil that sometimes sticks to the last slice in the package. Each time I am awarded by a disdainful laugh and a comment that biting into a little bit of aluminum couldn't possibly hurt anyone who claimed to be tough enough to live in the Frozen North.

Therefore, it was with great glee that I received from University of Alaska geology professor Daniel Hawkins an article he had found explaining why biting aluminum foil hurts so much. The article states that considerable pain or discomfort can result from a tooth filling coming into contact with certain metals.

The standard dental filling is an alloy of silver, tin and mercury. When a piece of aluminum or similar electrically active metal is places in the mouth a wet-cell battery is formed. The tooth fillings form one electrode, the piece of aluminum the other, and the mouth's… read more

Ice Lenses Versus the Highway Department

Over much of their length, Alaska's highways have, like a wrinkled old man, special character. It is not the horizontal curves that make these roads interesting, it is the ones that go up and down.

It takes the neophyte Alaskan driver only one broken axle or battered head to realize that a DIP sign usually means business. If there is a SLOW sign and a DIP sign, be extra careful. And if, in addition, there is a yellow sawhorse beside the road, it may be wise to get out and walk ahead of the car before proceeding onward.

The culprit is usually the thawing of ground ice beneath the highway. In some permafrost areas crossed by roads, there are extensive near-surface sheets of ice that have been formed over hundreds or thousands of years. Several feet of settling can occur within the few years following the removal of tree and moss cover that previously protected the ice from the sun's heat.

Sometimes the roads cross over near-vertical ice lenses which are… read more

An Underground House

If you have a building site on a south-facing slope and are interested in lower heating costs in future years, the underground house is worth considering. Whether or not one uses solar collectors or some other exotic form of heat, the house surrounded with dirt on all sides except one offers real advantage when it comes to outside wall temperature. Instead of fifty below just beyond the insulation, the earth covered house offers temperatures well above the mean annual temperature (plus twenties or thirties Fahrenheit in Alaska).

Unlike its Eskimo and Athapascan sod-covered forerunners, the underground house need not be dark. Large multi-pane windows placed on the south wall and properly shuttered on cold, dark nights can provide both light and heat when the sun is up, yet without excessive heat loss during evening and nighttime hours.

The accompanying drawing exhibiting one possible layout of an effective underground house was shown recently by the University of… read more

Migratory Birds and Influenza

Some parts of Alaska are said to have lost more than half their population during the great influenza pandemic (worldwide epidemic) of 1918-19. At least 20 million people died as three waves of flu swept around the globe. Twenty-five million people in the United States, a fourth of the population, became clinical flu cases in the fall and winter of 1918. Of these, a half-million died.

Just why there are sudden worldwide outbreaks of influenza is not yet fully understood. But now it is known that similar flu viruses inhabit humans, horses, swine and some birds. Outbreaks of the disease have occurred almost simultaneously in humans and horses. In early 1976 an outbreak of flu at Fort Dix, New Jersey, was traced to viruses in swine.

An article in the December 1977 issue of Scientific American by Martin M. Kaplan and Robert G. Webster suggests the possibility that the virus is rapidly carried around the world by birds. Migrating mallard ducks have been found… read more

Alaska's First 300 Birder

How many of Alaska's 381 known species of birds have you seen? If it's as many as 200, you are in select birdwatching company-- probably fewer than 30 persons have seen as many.

Being one of those ignoramuses who might not be able to distinguish between a pigeon and a sea gull, I'm the sort of person who appreciates jokes about birdwatching more than the activity itself. Nevertheless, I could not help getting caught up in the excitement of the moment when Dan Gibson, an ornithologist with the University of Alaska Museum, learned that he was Alaska's first 300 birder.

Dan's 299th and 300th sightings occurred recently in Juneau. A friend there tipped him off that two unusual birds were in town. Gibson flew to Juneau specifically to see the reported Mountain Bluebird and Evening Grosbeak. At the time, Gibson did not know he had broken the 300 mark. That news came later in a letter from the Smithsonian Institution informing Dan that a bird he had observed in the… read more

A Sundial for Fairbanks

Sundials were on their way out a thousand years ago when fledgling inventions led to the development of modern clocks. In those early times the hour had no fixed length; it depended upon season and latitude.

Simplest of all sundials is one with a vertical pointer (a gnomon) which casts its shadow on a flat surface marked to show the passage of the hours. We show here such a sundial designed specifically for Fairbanks. In one sense it is a rather fancy sundial because it tells both the hour of the day and the day of the year. This ability comes from the use of the University's high-speed computer, which gives us a leg up on the old-time sundial designers. The design is based upon calculations by Professor Hans Nielsen showing the length of a vertical stick's shadow each hour of the day and the direction to the shadow tip.

Dashed lines show the paths of the end of the pointer's shadow across the sundial on the days indicated. We drew in only… read more

Hunt Speaks On The Forum

For some months now short articles by various scientists have appeared in this spot. Although the writers have not aimed to give a mini-course in science, I have learned much about mushroom fairy rings, sun spots, volcanoes, flood conditions, permafrost, satellites, and our unique northern visual resource--the aurora, and many other aspects of the physical environment

Instead of applying for three extension course credits from the University, I prefer to reflect on the humanities and the sciences. It is the charge of the Alaska Humanities Forum to bring the humanities into closer contact with everyday problems of America. Our state program is perhaps the most lively one in the nation and it has reached people throughout the state with conferences, seminars, lectures, films, and television.

The emphasis of the Forum has been the involvement of people in the formulation of public policy. These articles reach thousands of readers, Alaskans who need not be reminded… read more

Violent Death in Alaska

Why is violent death due to accidents, suicides, homicides, and alcohol steadily increasing in the forty-ninth state? What aspects of behavior put an Alaskan in a greater risk category for violent death than a person living in another state?

Under the auspices of the Washington-Alaska-Montana-Idaho (WAMI) Program for medical education at the University of Alaska, Dr. Robert F. Kraus performs research dealing with these and other questions concerning preventable or violent deaths.

By studying the changing patterns of mortality in the various cultures of Alaska for the period 1950-1974 it has been found that in the non-Native population there has been a slight increase in the percent of deaths due to chronic illness and violence. However, for the Native population there has been a striking change in the mortality pattern. Infectious disease, the main killer in the early 1950's (nearly 70% of all deaths), now accounts for only slightly more than 20% of all Native… read more

Why Live in Alaska?

Mosquitos, cold and long winters, high costs, great distances from family and old friends, less cultural advantages--all reasons for not living in Alaska. So why does one?

The best reason of all was told to me some years ago by Joan Koponen. She and her family had just returned from spending several years in a heavily populated part of the lesser states. "There," she said, "you do not even have to think to exist. No matter what mistakes you make, someone will take care of you. But here, if I take my children out in a car in winter without a sleeping bag along, and if I run in a ditch, they may die. I need to live in a place where it matters what I do--Alaska is such a place."

Photograph the Midnight Sun

Contrary to your first impression of June nights in Fairbanks, the sun actually sets every evening for at least two hours. The "midnight sun" can be seen from Eagle Summit which is about 100 miles north on the Steese Highway. Eagle Summit is not north of the arctic circle but the midnight sun can be seen from there between June 17 and 24. Two effects combine to make this possible. First, the altitude at the summit is roughly 3,600 feet above sea-level. This gives enough height so that an observer can see over the sea-level horizon. Another effect is atmospheric refraction. This is the bending of light rays by the atmosphere in such a way that the sun can be as much as 3 degrees below the horizon of an observer and still be seen.

We offer the following tips to those who would photograph the midnight sun from Eagle Summit.

If you want to take photographs you will need to do some planning. First, make sure you have the necessary equipment. The most critical item is… read more

Comparative Heating Costs

Prior to 1962 we heated our Fairbanks house cheaply using coal. It was dirty, the furnace and coal took up lots of space, but mainly we stopped using coal because our stoker quit. She finally refused to get up early, as she had done before, so that the house would be warm upon my own arising.

Investigating the relative costs and merits of electricity and oil, we chose electricity. It was relatively cheap then, clean, used no space and was economical to install. At that time it cost little more for a totally electric house than one heated by coal or oil and using a propane cook stove and electric lights.

By 1973 the situation had probably not changed greatly. In that year Professor Eb Rice published a graph showing the costs of heating with coal, oil and electricity. The accompanying graph reproduces his data and also gives the costs in Fairbanks for 1977. The graph shows that coal heat is cheapest and electricity most expensive. Coal now costs 175% of the 1973… read more

Continental Drifter Visits

Twenty years ago there raged among earth scientists a major controversy over continental drift. The "continental drifters" contended that mountain building, earthquakes and volcanoes all could be explained by large-scale motions of portions of the earth's crust. On the other side were those who said it was all nonsense--that the laws of physics precluded the relative motion of continents across the globe. As a student in a group opposed to continental drift, I well remember how valid my group's arguments sounded and how we were later proven wrong.

One of those men who proved it to us was Sir Edward Bullard, leader of a group of earth scientists in Cambridge, England. His group produced many of the ideas and concepts of plate tectonics which have led to the general acceptance of continental drift.

For Alaskans continental drift has special consequence, for it is here that crustal plates come violently together to cause our spectacular mountain scenery, volcanoes… read more

Life and Attitudes in Fairbanks

What are lifestyles in Fairbanks? How do Fairbanksans view the changes during the oil boom? How do they view their own future and what concerns them most? Answers to these and many other questions are contained in a report released in December 1976 by the University's Institute of Social and Economic Research. Based upon 415 interviews, the report entitled "Fairbanks Community Living" attempts to provide a representative cross section of the community. Some of the results:

The estimated borough population is 42,000. These persons live in 15,000 housing units of which 64% are in the urban area, the other 36% live elsewhere in the borough. Roughly half live in single-family detached dwellings and either own or are buying their home.

Eighty-three percent of heads of households are employed; 50% of wives are employed. The average workweek for the head of household (man or woman) is 53.9 hours, and 40.9 hours for the working wives. More than half say that the… read more

Arsenic in Well Water

A number of wells in the Fairbanks area contain greater than acceptable concentrations of arsenic. These wells occur within a mineralized belt extending from Pedro Dome--Cleary Summit southwest to Ester Dome. The arsenic derives from arsenopyrite and other arsenic compounds found in association with gold veins of the Fairbanks Mining District. Arsenic is contained both in stream water and well water; in the Ester Dome area between 1/3 and 1/2 the approximately 100 wells recently sampled contain arsenic in excess of the recommended maximum.

Some people of Austria and other regions intentionally eat arsenic compounds believing that they exert a tonic effect. Some arsenic compounds have been used as medical treatment for various disorders and diseases. There are known instances of persons ingesting rather substantial amounts of arsenic without showing evident harmful effect.

On the other hand, arsenic is a known poison which degenerates the lining of the digestive… read more

Treasuries of Information

Alaskan police can rejoice at the publication of The Alaska Regional Profiles series. Disputes over caribou migration routes and the minimum requirements for residential sewer-water systems need not shatter community peace any longer. Families torn by dissention, over subsistence harvests, the location of thermal springs, and freeze-up dates, can settle these divisive issues by a quick reference.

Finding facts on the state's people, resources, and land has always been difficult. Few up-to-date reference books existed and the need for comprehensive compilations has been manifest. The Arctic Environmental Information and Data Center of the University of Alaska, aided by other agencies, with federal and state support, planned a regional profile series. To date, volumes on the Arctic, Southeast, Southwest, and Southcentral Regions have appeared. The quality of these books is uniformly excellent. Hundreds of interesting photographs, drawings, maps graphs, and… read more

Automobile Costs

Fairbanksans pay a high dollar cost to operate their automobiles. Just how high is that cost? While some families will get by for less, the table below presents estimates that are realistic for many others.

Item Cost

Compact Sedan

4-Wheel Drive Pickup

Initial purchase price



Interest for 3 years



Trade-in after 3 years



Net cost per year

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Body Hot Spots

In his recent book, Body Hot Spots, University of Alaska biologist, R. Dale Guthrie, advances a fascinating set of hypotheses to account for many of the perplexing and often intimate details of human appearance and behavior. Why do men have beards? Why do women generally neither go bald nor have beards? How is the social stare enhanced by oversized spectacles or eye coloring of certain patterns?

In formulating his novel hypotheses, Dr. Guthrie has drawn on various specialty areas in biology including embryology and histology, evolution, paleontology (the study of fossils) and behavioral biology. He also has drawn on his wide experience as a hunter and observer of sheep, caribou, and other big game, and the book features drawings and quotations from everything from comic books to poetry.

Both serious biologists and casual readers are finding the book's conclusions revolutionary. Of these, perhaps the most important conclusion is that the human species is… read more

Carbon Monoxide For Breakfast

A common question asked of scientists investigating carbon monoxide pollution in Fairbanks is: "How can a town as small as Fairbanks, with so few cars compared to the large metropolitan areas of the lower forty-eight, rank so high as a city severely affected by carbon monoxide pollution?" It doesn't seem right, does it? Even with an inversion, you would not expect Fairbanks CO levels to be as high as Los Angeles.

The truth is that Fairbanks in the winter normally has CO levels higher than Los Angeles. Why? There are several reasons; one is that, as you know, Fairbanks is cold in the winter. When automobiles are started with cold engines they produce remarkably large quantities of CO until they reach normal operating temperature. In fact, a good estimate of how much CO is produced during a cold start when the temperature is 0° F is 1 gram for every cubic inch of engine displacement. Since a typical car might have a 350 cubic inch engine, estimate 3/4 pound of CO produced… read more

Cold Trap Entrance

If you are building an "interesting" cabin in the woods and want to keep winter heating costs down you might consider incorporating a cold trap entrance. You must be willing to put up with the inconvenience of climbing down and then up flights of stairs each time you enter or leave the house. However, climbing is good for the legs and the cold trap entrance avoids the drafts and heat loss of a conventional doorway.

The bottom of the barrier wall of the house should extend about 18 inches below floor and ground level (whichever is lowest) to prevent air flow. The cold trap entrance operates on the principal that cold air is heaviest and therefore settles downward. It forms a dense layer that inhibits flow of air through the entryway. The use of a solid door in a cold trap entrance is optional. However, it will impede the flow of cats, dogs, wolves, etc.

Building in the North

In Spring, one's fancy turns to resolutions to improve the house or to build a new one. Increasing costs of electricity and fuel give added reason to fix up the old house or to carefully plan the new.

To help save money and enjoy better living, every homeowner should obtain a new 68-page booklet written by Dr. Eb Rice. It is available at various local outlets now. This booklet, Building in the North , is a goldmine of good ideas for a better house, and it is fun to read.

Ice Fog Effect on Temperature

The temperature inversion over Fairbanks forms because the ground radiates energy to the sky. When thick, dense ice fog forms, the ice fog partly replaces the ground surface as the radiating source. The temperature inversion then moves up toward the top of the ice fog dome. Within the ice fog, the temperature is colder and more nearly constant. The result is a thicker layer of cold air near the ground.

Because of the increasing density of the ice fog layer over the past few years, those area residents who built or bought homes on the lower hills are losing the temperature advantage they once had. A few years ago, a home 50 or 100 feet above the valley floor often enjoyed winter temperatures perhaps 10 or 20° warmer than homes in the city. Only those residents in the higher hills now avoid the deepest cold.

How much longer will they? If the city continues to expand and the ice fog to increase, there may be less reason to live in the hills. Could this affect future… read more

Roof Insulation

After you read Building in the North you will also profit from reading a new pamphlet from the National Bureau of Standards called Making the Most of your Energy Dollars in Home Heating and Cooling; it is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

Unlike many American publications, this one actually considers Alaska as part of the United States and gives information on how to do things here as well as in other parts of the country.

The real shocker in the pamphlet is a scheme for calculating the amount of roof insulation you can afford to install. It considers the cost of insulation relative to the cost of electricity, heating oil and gas. Because the cost of electricity and fuel oil has gone so high in this area, it is now economical to install approximately two feet (yes feet, not inches) of mineral fiber insulation in your roof.


The only thing windows are really good for is to see through. One might, with variable outside shutters, be able to use their greenhouse effect to help heat the house during some months of the year. In any case, we insist on having windows. So the smart thing to do is to minimize their bad effects.

In Fairbanks, it is absolutely necessary to use at least two panes of glass to cut down wintertime heat loss through conduction. Considering current and future fuel costs, it is cheapest to install 3 or 4 panes of glass in every window. To be most effective, the panes should be at least 3/4 inch apart so as to cut conductive heat losses. The inner pane should be tightly sealed; the outer panes should permit some air passage so that any water vapor can get out.

Since even a 4-pane window conducts much more heat than a well insulated wall, it is becoming economical to shutter the window in winter whenever one does not wish to look out. Inside curtains or shutters are… read more

Cold Water Drowning

Spring starts the season when children fall through the ice; later in the year many adults drown while swimming or boating in Alaskan waters. Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death in Alaska

Cold is usually an enemy to life, but in some instances it is a friend. In recent years scientists have learned that people can be submerged in cold water for long periods without brain damage or other lasting harm.

In March 1975, an 18-year-old man was submerged in a freezing Michigan pond for 38 minutes. Declared dead, he was on the way to the morgue when he gasped and caused a diversion of the transporting vehicle to the nearest hospital. Two weeks later he returned to college and continued to be an A student. But two hours of resuscitation were required to bring him around.

The lesson is very clear. Rescuers should not give up when someone appears to have drowned in cold water. Resuscitation should be continued at least until the person's body… read more

Air Pollution Potential

Why is the air pollution problem so serious in Fairbanks? Fairbanks is not an industrial city with factories which contribute to pollution problems, and it is not a large population center.

The primary culprit is air stagnation caused by the development of temperature inversions. These trap near the ground a large fraction of whatever air pollution is produced.

In consequence, each person in Fairbanks contributes to air pollution in a way that is comparable to the effect of one hundred or more people in a city like Los Angeles. Fortunately Fairbanksans are developing an awareness of the problem and public officials are actively working to control it, but the high individual "pollution potential" may be a real limit to growth of the Fairbanks area.

Roof and Window Design

Alaskans are showing increased awareness that careful housing design can bring economies and pleasant living. Planning for the best relationship between roof overhang and window placement has caused several people to write or call for information on the elevation of the sun through the year. Usually people wish to build an overhang that lets sunlight stream into south-facing windows during the cooler months of the year, but which keeps at least part of the direct sun out during the hottest months.

The accompanying table gives the angle of the sun measured above the horizon at noon through the year. The angles, in degrees, are given for the twenty-first day of each month so as to show the extremes reached on the solstices, June 21 and December 21. The sketch suggests how to design a window and roof overhang relationship that best meets your desires. At the cooler or more northerly locations, one may be interested only in a roof overhang that never blocks out the sun, even… read more