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IDITAROD, ALASKA — While gliding along a trail that had just felt the imprint of 2,000 dog feet, Bob Gillis skied over to a rock that jutted from the snow.

A few miles northwest of the ghost town that gives the world’s most famous sleddog race its name, Gillis and I were in the neighborhood of the oldest rocks in Alaska. Could this be one of them?

A geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, Gillis poked the rock with his ski poles.

“Looks like a volcanic rock to me,” he said.

Even though the rock had hardened to its present form tens of millions of years ago, its age was probably not even close to some unusual rocks discovered near Iditarod.

On a journey from McGrath to Shageluk following the path Iditarod racers had laid down, Gillis and I skied onward toward the next shelter cabin. Unknown to us, a few hours earlier we had slid over the oldest rocks in Alaska, which were coated with snow and a ribbon of packed… read more

Cape Espenberg is an eyebrow of sand, driftwood, and low plants on the northeast corner of the Seward Peninsula. It is now quiet except for the swish of the wind through cottongrass and the songs of birds, but archaeologists have found a large village site there.

People lived on the cape for more than 4,000 years. Some of their descendants now live in the villages of Shishmaref and Deering. No one knows why the ancient people left.

Just a few feet above the Chukchi Sea, Cape Espenberg might have been hammered by storms that shoved water onto land. Or maybe an absence of storms meant driftwood was so rare people could not build homes. A researcher is using evidence from a nearby lake to see how often extreme storm surges have hit the area over the last few thousand years.

Chris Maio has floated a raft in a small lake at the end of a narrow trough cut through Cape Espenberg. The surge channel is a straight connection to the ocean, three-quarters of a mile long.… read more

PANORAMA MOUNTAIN — “For some reason, when I come to this terrain, I know something’s been pulverized.”

Cole Richards says this while watching three companions kick their steps Chilkoot-Pass style into an abrupt hill. The slope rises from the pancake floodplain of the Nenana River just behind him. The landscape here seems a bit confused.

Richards, a graduate student in seismology at UAF’s Geophysical Institute, is standing in snowshoes on the Denali Fault, atop a foot of compacted snow. The Denali Fault is a weak spot in Earth’s crust that has maintained a frown across the middle of Alaska with its continual jerky movement. One of the most obvious strike-slip faults in the world (where land on one side of the fault creeps in the opposite direction of land on the other), the Denali Fault unzipped more than 200 miles of tundra and ice during a giant 7.9 earthquake in 2002.

Richards and nine other scientists are performing some rare February fieldwork here, where… read more

Bogoslof Island is the gray tip of a mountain that pokes from the choppy surface of the Bering Sea. The volcano stands alone just north of the Aleutians, far south of the larger islands of St. George and St. Paul.

Nora Rojek, a biologist at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge based in Homer, once knew Bogoslof well — its screaming seabirds and the roar of waves fizzing at its black sand shores, along with the smell of salt particles suspended in spray.

The Bogoslof Rojek knew recently reinvented itself, quadrupling in size after its latest eruption, which started about Christmastime 2016 and continued until August 2017. What had been a 74-acre island became a 321-acre island.

On her August, 2018, return to Bogoslof, Rojek crinkled her nose at the smell of sulfur. Everyone aboard the refuge ship Tiglax saw steam rising from the gray island. The ashen surface they would be stepping on would be one of the newest landscapes on Earth.

“… read more

Across Alaska and a sliver of western Canada, 280 seismic stations silently do their jobs. Hidden in dark holes drilled into rock in boreal forest, northern tundra and mountaintops, the instruments wait patiently for the next tremor.

 

The EarthScope Transportable Array of seismic monitors is now embedded across Alaska and Canada, adding 196 new stations to existing networks. The stations have spent the past year recording even the smallest earthquakes, sounding out an unprecedented level of detail about Alaska’s rumblings and transmitting that information in real-time.

 

EarthScope, its national office housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, is a National Science Foundation program focused on mapping the dynamic geological structure of North America. The Transportable Array is hundreds of seismic stations deployed in a grid; it has leapfrogged its way every two years across swaths of the continent for more than a decade. Now… read more

The frozen cliffs of Drew Point, Alaska, (population zero) are tumbling to the ocean faster than perhaps any other location in the Arctic. The sea has eaten house-size chunks of tundra at a rate of more than 50 feet per year recently.

 

Ben Jones has watched pieces of Alaska’s northern coast disappear since 2003. Then, as a University of Cincinnati researcher, he flew over Drew Point and saw blocks of tundra and frozen soil that had detached from the land and leaned into the sea like capsizing ships.

 

Last week, he and Chris Arp, both of UAF’s Water and Environmental Research Center, snowmachined out to Drew Point in dim winter light. With the landscape now locked up for the long polar night, they went to see if they could gather a deeper plug of soil from a chunk of land that had fallen into the ocean in summer 2018.

 

They wanted to find out if salty, unfrozen soil at its base might have something to do with why the 20-foot cliffs at… read more

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

 

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

 

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

For the past century, official thermometers scattered around Alaska have shown a warming trend. Most of the trusted weather stations are in river valleys; Gulkana, at 1,300 feet, is the high point of Alaska’s 21 “first order” weather stations, some of which have been running for a century.

 

But what about the weather up high? A scientist recently found evidence for even greater warming within the snows of Mount Hunter, sampled at a 13,000-foot saddle. Mount Hunter shoulders up next to Denali and Mount Foraker in Denali National Park.

 

In 2013, Dom Winski of Dartmouth College spent a few weeks living on Mount Hunter’s high plateau. He and a team from Dartmouth, the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire twisted a hollow drill bit into ice and snow on top of the mountain. 

 

That summer they pulled out two cores of snow and ice, each in segments that added up to more than 600 feet. They transported all that ice back to a… read more

For the past century, official thermometers scattered around Alaska have shown a warming trend. Most of the trusted weather stations are in river valleys; Gulkana, at 1,300 feet, is the high point of Alaska’s 21 “first order” weather stations, some of which have been running for a century.

 

But what about the weather up high? A scientist recently found evidence for even greater warming within the snows of Mount Hunter, sampled at a 13,000-foot saddle. Mount Hunter shoulders up next to Denali and Mount Foraker in Denali National Park.

 

In 2013, Dom Winski of Dartmouth College spent a few weeks living on Mount Hunter’s high plateau. He and a team from Dartmouth, the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire twisted a hollow drill bit into ice and snow on top of the mountain. 

 

That summer they pulled out two cores of snow and ice, each in segments that added up to more than 600 feet. They transported all that ice back to a… read more

KANUTI HOT SPRINGS — After a few hours of skiing through deep snow, Forest Wagner and I smelled a tuna sandwich. We knew we were closing in on warm pools of water.

 

From the frozen Kanuti River, we moved along an open stream up toward Kanuti Hot Springs, one of more than 100 hot springs in Alaska. Except for the extreme northwest portion of the state, hot springs exist from Attu in the Aleutians to the northwest Brooks Range to as far south as you can get in Southeast. 

 

The majority are on or near volcanoes, with very hot water bubbling or steaming up from deep below, where Earth’s great crustal plates are grinding past one another.

 

In non-volcanic areas of Alaska like the Interior, deep warm rocks that were once magma are the heat source. Water that falls as snow and rain percolates down until it reaches those hot rocks. Superheated, that water rises, snaking upward through fractures in the ground and pooling on the surface as… read more

What’s this? Another aftershock?

 

That’s hundreds now, each more faint than the last.

 

Sorry, I guess I’ve moved on. I should pay more attention, given that you — a 7.9 deep in the seafloor not far from Kodiak — are the most powerful earthquake on the planet since one off Mexico last August. 

 

It’s just that you’re so mysterious, hard to define. And you got buried in my news feed.

 

But you did create a stir. You rousted hundreds of Alaskans. People felt the shake, saw alert messages on their phones. Feet hit the floor. They grabbed what they could and drove to high places.

 

The all-clear came two-and-a-half hours later, when your harmless waves lapped at Sitka, 530 miles away, earlier than they reached Kodiak, 180 miles away. This proved again that tsunamis travel faster in deeper water, and the abyss lurks just beyond the Continental Shelf. 

 

A few who study tide gauges and buoys saw the… read more

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

May 11, 2017

In the early going of my second hike across Alaska along the route of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, I chose to walk the highway rather than the pipe's route to get up Thompson Pass north of Valdez. The road added six miles to our day. But I tried the pipe route up the pass 20 years ago and it was like trying to climb a 90-meter ski jump.

Most of my mileage so far on this trip has been on the shoulder of the Richardson Highway. The pipeline pad here in the mountains is still deep with punchy snow. You'd think a guy would have checked that out before starting.

The road, surprisingly, is quite pleasant. Cora doesn't seem to mind being leashed. And only about 10 cars and trucks pass us each hour. Is Alaska becoming the land gone lonesome, with people headed down the Alaska Highway and moving out? I've seen a good number of U-Hauls. Or is it not Memorial Day yet?

If the people are still on their way in, the birds have beat… read more

Nine years after it erupted, Kasatochi Island is just beginning to resemble its neighbors.

Kasatochi is a speck in the middle of the Aleutian chain between Dutch Harbor and Adak, about 75 miles east of the latter. The volcanic island had no modern history of erupting until August 2008. In a few days that summer, the island changed from the lush green home of a quarter million seabirds to a gray pile of ash.

Two biologists escaped the island aboard a fishing boat less than one hour before the eruption. The cabin in which they were living disappeared, vaporizing in a hurricane of hot gases and ash.

Following the eruption, Kasatochi seemed dead. Scientists visiting the island one year later searched for one hour before finding the first sprigs of vegetation. A few insects survived the eruption deep within rock folds, but Kasatochi was a quiet place that stunk of sulfur.

The island was muddy and inhospitable, but scientists saw something there: A great… read more

The second-largest earthquake on the planet in 1904 happened somewhere in Alaska. It could have been St. Michael, Rampart, Fairbanks, Coldfoot or a place called Sunrise on the Kenai Peninsula. People felt the magnitude 7.3 at each place.

 

If an earthquake happens today, within a few minutes Alaska Earthquake Center researchers post a map with its latitude/longitude (the epicenter) and the depth of the rupture (the hypocenter). Historic earthquakes take a bit more detective work.

 

These earthquakes are worth knowing about because pinpointed locations tell scientists how busy a certain fault has been and hint at the possibility of future earthquakes.

 

That's why Carl Tape was so intrigued about an earthquake that happened when Teddy Roosevelt was on the campaign trail, Cy Young had just pitched the first perfect game and miners were sinking picks and shovels into creeks all over the American possession that was to become the territory of… read more

Sometimes, a great idea arrives ahead of its time. A person squints at a raw landscape, thinks about it in his bunk on a heaving ship, dreams of it. He scribbles a diagram. He remains quiet years later as others rediscover the same thing.

 

Such was the case of a rugged geologist who island-hopped in the Aleutians following World War II. Thinking about the age of rocks he found, the placement of a string of volcanoes and how they were linked with the depth of earthquakes, Bob Coats arrived at this notion: the sphere of Earth is constantly eating its own plates and regurgitating them back out. At those explosive boundaries, now called subduction zones, volcanoes often ooze to the surface.

 

Coats died in 1995, but his idea remains in a 1962 paper he wrote of his time in Alaska.

 

"He solved a major problem that wasn't known to be a problem — where'd the skin (of the Earth) go?" said the late scientist's friend, David Scholl. Scholl is a… read more

NEAR MILLER CREEK — Crouching amid scratchy spruce branches and surrounded by feet of snow, Amir Allam jabs half-frozen soil with the spikey base of a white cylinder. The seismologist twists the 6-pound seismometer to orient it northward. Then he clicks a cable to a magnetic connection on top.

"Starting operation," says a tinny voice that sounds like a woman from London. The words come from a thick tablet attached to the cable. In less than 10 minutes, Allam has deployed another shake-detection instrument on one of Alaska's greatest earthquake producers, the Denali Fault.

Allam, assisted during this season of bear emergence by shotgun-toting UAF student Nick Lock, will install dozens more seismometers in a dense grid straddling the fault. A weak point in Earth's crust ruptured here in 2002, slicing the highway and shoving the nearby Trans-Alaska Pipeline on its extra-long rails.

A team of five including seismologist Carl Tape of the Geophysical Institute… read more

A landslide last fall caused a giant wave of the type not seen in Alaska since the storied 1958 event in Lituya Bay.

After a period of heavy rains, a mountainside near Tyndall Glacier collapsed into a fiord of Icy Bay on October 17, 2015. The displaced water generated a wave that sheared alders more than 500 feet up on a hillside across from the slide.

To put that in perspective, the 2011 tsunami in Japan reached about 130 feet above sea level. The Icy Bay wave may be the largest since a magnitude 8 earthquake shook much of a mountain into Lituya Bay in 1958. The wave that followed ripped spruce from 1,700 feet up a mountain slope and left trimlines in the bay that are visible today.

Last October, seismologists at Columbia University in New York detected the Icy Bay landslide on their instruments. Göran Ekström and Colin Stark specialize in picking up landslide signals. They figured the slide spilled 200 million tons of rock in 60 seconds.

Winter snows… read more

Millions of people live in dimples on the Earth's surface — often near the ocean, in lowlands between mountain peaks too rugged and cold. One of these global indentations, Cook Inlet Basin, recently showed another characteristic of the planet's basins — they quiver like a bowl of jelly during an earthquake.

Many people in Anchorage got rattled during the recent 7.1 earthquake on January 24. Carl Tape did not feel the earthquake in Fairbanks, but in another way he knows it better than almost anyone. Last summer, Tape and his colleagues at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks installed seismometers across Southcentral Alaska. One of the instruments is just 30 miles from the epicenter of the January 24 earthquake.

"I'm feeling pretty fortunate that we put these out and then we get a magnitude 7 within 50 kilometers," he said as he worked on computer visualizations of earthquake waves in his Fairbanks office. "You need to be close to the source… read more

December 16, 2015

U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps give you a choice on the height of Mount Isto. Depending on what map scale you choose, the mountain in the Brooks Range is either higher or lower than 9,000 feet.

Using a new combination of techniques, an Alaska researcher has crowned Mt. Isto the highest peak in America's arctic, unseating longtime presumed champion Mt. Chamberlain, listed at 9,020 feet.

That scientist, UAF's Matt Nolan, spoke Dec. 16 at the 2015 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The Fairbanks resident is one of about 25,000 researchers gathering at the Moscone Center from Dec. 14-18.

Nolan has spent many hours in the Brooks Range staring at white pyramid peaks from his camps on McCall Glacier, which he has studied since 2003. About five years ago, adventurer Kit Deslauriers was waiting at the Coyote Air compound in Coldfoot for a trip in to ski the highest peak in America's… read more

North America's highest mountain should be a volcano. Denali sits about 60 miles above where the Pacific Plate grinds beneath the North American plate, as do Iliamna, Redoubt and Augustine. If you draw a line from the Aleutians to volcanic features in interior Alaska, the curve goes over Denali's summit.

Like its neighbors in the Alaska Range, the big mountain shows no signs of having erupted. But seismologists recently noticed deep shaking that was intriguing enough to explore.

About one year ago, a seismic station in Denali National Park between the Toklat River and the Eielson Visitor Center recorded an earthquake about 20 miles deep. It wasn't big, a magnitude 1.7, but it shook longer than most earthquakes.

"These are volcanic-like earthquakes," the type that happen when molten rock oozes beneath the surface, said Stephen Holtkamp, a researcher with the Alaska Earthquake Center. "They are right where volcanoes should be, right above the subducting slab at… read more

Augustine Volcano sits alone, a 4,000-foot pyramid on its own island in Cook Inlet. Like many volcanoes, it has a tendency to become top heavy. When gravity acts on Augustine's oversteepened dome, rockslides spill into the ocean. A scientist recently found new evidence for an Augustine-generated tsunami from a time when Egyptian pharaohs built their own pyramids.

Zebulon Maharrey's record of a tsunami deposit from 4,200 years ago extends a long record of Augustine's collapses into the sea. A graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Maharrey has spent the last four years looking at the volcano. Augustine last erupted in 2006, sending an ash cloud two miles high and oozing enough lava to create a new summit.

In Nanwalek, a village on the southern flank of the Kenai Peninsula and 50 miles east of Augustine Volcano, Maharrey found small pieces of wood and other tsunami debris in an eroded face of peat, 21 feet above high-tide level today. He also discovered… read more

A scientist once noticed a connection between the stress that tides inflict on the planet and the number of small earthquakes that happen in some areas when that pressure is greatest. She saw a pattern to these earthquakes leading up to great tsunamis. A graduate student is now looking for a similar signal in Alaska.

Yen Joe Tan of Columbia University is combing through a database of offshore Alaska earthquakes to see if there is any link between the number of small earthquakes triggered by tides and great earthquakes that send tsunamis racing thousands of miles.

How might tides cause earthquakes? At high tide, more water piles on top of geological faults, adding to stress that's already there. If the fault is close to slipping, the tides can trigger small tremors. Solid ground also responds to the gravitational pulls of the moon and sun. Joe Tan is looking at the combined effects of ocean and Earth tides.

A Japanese researcher has studied the relationship… read more

MINTO — Sarah Silas, 89, smiled as she remembered an earthquake that shook her village more than 60 years ago. The floor of her cabin swayed so that her young son staggered away from her.

"My three-year old boy was laughing," she said inside her log cabin, its front door open to warm air on a golden day. "The ground was moving so much I couldn't even reach my little son."

Silas, with her husband Bergman a gracious host to a visiting seismologist, was one of a few people in this village of about 200 who remembered an earthquake in October 1947. The earthquake scientist, Carl Tape, was in Minto to interview elders and check on the installation of a super-sensitive instrument that detects ground motion.

A few blocks away at the Minto airport, two contractors were drilling a nine-foot hole that would soon be the home to a seismometer. That sophisticated earthquake detector is part of a plan to carpet Alaska with like instruments about every 50 miles, from the… read more

Alaska’s landscape has an unusual feature that allows us to enjoy cheap bananas in the Interior and other things that make life possible in the subarctic. The Nenana River, born on the south side of the Alaska Range, makes a u-turn and flows north through the mountains. With it comes a wide, low corridor that has favored construction of both the Alaska Railroad and the Parks Highway.

“Ordinarily, a mountain range is a pretty good barrier,” said Don Triplehorn, a man curious about many things and a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He described the curious behavior of the Nenana.

“It flows out to the south, downhill as any decent river should, but then it turns west and then north, past McKinley,” Triplehorn said “That’s really unusual.”

And the Nenana River isn’t the only major waterway cutting through the Alaska Range. The Delta River does the same thing, originating south of the Alaska Range but then flowing north through the mountains… read more

Natalia Ruppert was at the dentist when she heard the ping of a text message on her phone. When she rose out of the chair, she noticed a magnitude 4.2 earthquake happened near Noatak. “Aftershock,” she thought, as she remembered her recent visit to the northwest Alaska village of about 500 people.

Ruppert, a seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks, last week flew north at the request of Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule. She happened to be working on the Saturday he called the Alaska Earthquake Center after a decent shake the night before. Joule was looking for information on recent trembling in an area of Alaska that doesn’t often experience large earthquakes.

Three days after Joule’s call, Ruppert was on a plane to Kotzebue and then Noatak with Earthquake Center technician Christopher Bruton. Ruppert traveled to those towns for her first time ever to answer peoples’ questions. Bruton’s mission was to install seismometers in places… read more

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

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

Clues from a crater-like sinkhole on the island of Kauai point back to a giant wave that came from Alaska at about the time European explorers were pushing west, seeing the Mississippi River for the first time.

The Makauwahi Sinkhole on the southeast shore of Kauai holds the mysterious equivalent of about nine shipping containers full of rocks, corals and shells from the Pacific Ocean. For the material to breach the amphitheater-like limestone walls of the feature required a wave about 25 feet high, said Rhett Butler of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology in Honolulu. Butler gave a presentation on the subject at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union held in San Francisco in December 2013.

That wave probably came from a great Aleutian earthquake, Butler said. The tsunami probably struck between the years of 1540 and 1660, according to dating of the organic materials within the sinkhole.

The great tsunami story starts with David… read more

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

“This morning the seismic tremor was down just a little bit from yesterday. We’re hoping it calms down before too long, but it might last for awhile.”

Jeffrey Freymueller was on the phone last week with the electric utility in Cold Bay, a community about 40 miles from the Pavlof Volcano, which had been erupting for more than a week. The utility was wondering how much ash fall to expect and whether it would need to shut down its diesel generators. The ash had exceeded 20,000 feet, grounding several regional flights.

The alert level was downgraded on Tuesday as the tremors and explosions tapered off. Yet Pavlof tends to fluctuate and could always flare up again.

Freymueller is a geophysics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and the GI’s coordinating scientist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which monitors more than 20 active volcanoes in Alaska and provides information and warning to the public, governments, the Federal… read more

Red and blue waves triggered by a magnitude 4.6 earthquake rippled outward from the Anchorage area and fizzled out after 45 seconds. Except in Cook Inlet basin, where the waves were trapped for another half-minute, bouncing back and forth, up and down, within the 7.5-kilometer-thick sedimentary basin.

“It’s like throwing a rock in the pond. Except water is a homogeneous material. In the solid earth you have basins and mountains and other variations,” said Carl Tape, a seismologist and assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The actual Cook Inlet earthquake occurred in 2009. Tape is using supercomputers to do the first detailed three-dimensional simulations of earthquakes in Alaska with computational models that he has played a major role in developing over the past 10 years. The models are too complex for regular computers, using codes that track the seismic waves at millions of grid points at each time step. They are also far more accurate than… read more

Near a small village in Russia, Marina Ivanova stepped into cross-country skis and kicked toward a hole in the snow. The meteorite specialist with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Vernadsky Institute in Moscow was hunting for fragments of the great Chelyabinsk Meteorite that exploded three days earlier.

This search was different from others. Ivanova has looked for metallic stones on the world’s great deserts and in Antarctica, places where heavenly rocks stand out because of their contrast with the surface. When the Chelyabinsk Meteorite in mid-February rained out fragments over the Ural Mountains, pieces marked their fall with little vole holes in the snow.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Ivanova said during a recent lecture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “This event was amazing.”

The fragments fired into the snowpack like bullets. After a bit of digging, Ivanova and other searchers found them stuck to “carrots” of melted snow… read more

Around midnight on January 4, Kathleen Brandt felt an earthquake at her home in Sitka. As framed pictures trembled and then fell from the walls, she started counting.

“I got to 22 seconds before the shaking stopped,” Brandt said. The 45-year resident of this historic Southeast community told her earthquake story following a recent community presentation there by Natalia Ruppert. Ruppert is a seismologist with the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Earthquake Information Center. Jim Baichtal of the U.S. Forest Service, who lives in Thorne Bay, invited Ruppert down to Southeast to speak to locals who wanted answers about the shaking.

Following two meetings in Craig and Sitka during which Ruppert answered questions about the large earthquake and weeks of aftershocks, Southeast residents shared a few stories that showed their tsunami savvy.

In the middle of that dark January evening, Brandt rousted her sleeping husband Harvey. She did so because she remembered a fall… read more

CRAIG — In this cozy Southeast Alaska community that smells of red cedar chips used to power a boiler that heats both the school and the pool, seismologist Natalia Ruppert responded to an hour of questions from more than 150 people who gathered in the auditorium of the Craig High School.

The residents of Craig and the outlying areas, many of them wearing Xtratufs and flannel shirts on a rainy/snowy evening, had experienced up to a minute of shaking around midnight on Jan. 4, 2013, the result of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that ripped the sea floor about 80 miles west of Craig.

One-hundred-and-seventy people — about one-tenth of the population of Craig and the nearby village of Klawock, were a rapt audience for Ruppert, an earthquake expert with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.

Ruppert traveled to Craig from her home in Fairbanks at the invite of U.S. Forest Service Geologist Jim Baichtal, who lives in Thorne Bay, also on Prince of… read more

On June 6, 1912, if you happened to be sitting on a log outside your cabin near Fairbanks, Juneau or Dawson City, you would have heard an explosion.

           

There was no way to know the boom came from hundreds of miles away, or that it was the starting gun for the largest volcanic eruption of the 1900s. Nor would you imagine that in the next three days, a mountain would collapse upon itself, or that ash and hot gases would explode from the ground six miles from that mountain, creating a landscape of hot ash and 500-foot geysers of steam. The  Novarupta-Katmai eruption of 1912 was hard to imagine then just as it is now, 100 years since it happened. Here are a few things that set the… read more

CRAIG — In this cozy Southeast Alaska community that smells of red cedar chips used to power a boiler that heats both the school and the pool, seismologist Natalia Ruppert responded to an hour of questions from more than 150 people who gathered in the auditorium of the Craig High School.

The residents of Craig and the outlying areas, many of them wearing Xtratufs and flannel shirts on a rainy/snowy evening, had experienced up to a minute of shaking around midnight on Jan. 4, 2013, the result of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that ripped the sea floor about 80 miles west of Craig.

One-hundred-and-seventy people — about one-tenth of the population of Craig and the nearby village of Klawock, were a rapt audience for Ruppert, an earthquake expert with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.

Ruppert traveled to Craig from her home in Fairbanks at the invite of U.S. Forest Service Geologist Jim Baichtal, who lives in Thorne Bay, also on Prince of… read more


Rain. At this point in the brief Alaska summer, you may not be its greatest fan, especially if you live in Eagle, where rain has twice within a month eaten your road connection to the rest of North America. And rain may have annoyed you if you were playing softball during the record hour last week when 1.15 inches fell at Fairbanks International Airport. And you may have cursed the sky if you were installing a roof in Anchorage on the August day in 1997 when almost three inches of rain fell.

Perhaps we judge liquid precipitation a bit harshly at times. Rain is, after all, the free distribution of a substance infinitely more valuable than gold. And, even in the Southeast’s Little Port Walter — where residents endure 80 days each year with precipitation amounts greater than one inch, most of it in the form of rain — we still don’t… read more


On Oct. 6, 1883, this entry was in the Alaska Commercial Company logbook at an English Bay trading post, located about 50 miles northeast of Augustine volcano:

“This morning at 8:15 o’clock, 4 tidal waves flowed with a westerly current, one following the other . . . the sea rising 20 feet above the usual level. At the same time the air became black and (foggy), and it began to thunder . . . it began to rain a finely powdered brimstone ash.”

Augustine Volcano, which erupted explosively at the beginning of 2006, also erupted in 1883. But there was a dramatic difference. In 1883, part of the mountain tumbled into the sea and caused a tsunami that crossed Cook Inlet and bounced back again.

Because the tsunami happened at low tide in an area with some of the largest tidal ranges on Earth, the sea rising 20 feet was almost… read more

More than a century ago, eight prospectors were panning the glacial sands near Hubbard Glacier when the earth starting shaking and never seemed to stop. A few days later, they had survived a natural phenomenon that probably should have left them dead.

Geologists Ralph Tarr and Lawrence Martin, in the area a few years later to study the marvelous glaciers, saw things like mussels “resembling clumps of blue flowers” on rocks 20 feet above the ocean. They saw so much evidence of a giant earthquake they interviewed a few prospectors in Yakutat and included their stories in a 1912 government paper, “The earthquakes at Yakutat Bay, Alaska, in September, 1899.”

When Tarr and Martin arrived in Yakutat, prospector A. Flenner was working as a carpenter there six years after the series of large earthquakes, the biggest being a magnitude 8 that happened on Sept. 10, 1899. Flenner… read more

After a few chaotic, free-form weeks in Haiti, an Alaska geologist reported that he and a team of others didn’t find the rips in the ground they were looking for following the early January earthquake near Port-au-Prince.

When Rich Koehler of the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys arrived in Haiti after three days of travel from Alaska, no rooms or rental cars were available. Koehler and his coworkers caught rides to search for the ground features they expected to see and managed to stay with a family in an undamaged home.

“We got really lucky,” Koehler said. “We kind of had to shoot from the hip a little bit, because everything was not functioning.”

While weaving through streets upon which people had set up temporary living spaces, Koehler and others searched in vain for torn ground that showed the expression of the earthquake. Such markers… read more

When Rich Koehler came to Alaska from Nevada in June, he thought he’d spend January at his desk, preparing to explore the state for signs of ancient earthquakes over the summer. He’s now packing his bags for Haiti, where the geologist will search for ruptures on the ground surface caused by the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that killed thousands in the Port-au-Prince area.

The National Science Foundation set up a “rapid response team,” and team leader Paul Mann of the University of Texas at Austin selected Koehler, who works for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, to join the team because of his experience in the Caribbean. Koehler will travel to Haiti for two weeks to help document scars on the ground torn by the magnitude 7 earthquake.

The “strike-slip” fault system that failed in Haiti is similar to the Denali Fault, which ripped nearly a 200-mile frown through tundra and ice in Alaska in 2002 during a magnitude 7.9 earthquake.

“It’s pretty… read more

This column first appeared in 2001.

Almost 100 years after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is still a moonscape of ash and volcanic rock, without a tree or shrub in sight. The valley, located on the Alaska Peninsula where the Aleutians hook on to mainland Alaska, is a silent reminder of the power and potential of Alaska’s volcanoes.

I once visited the valley as one of a dozen people on a 10-day field trip with John Eichelberger, formerly of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, now with the United States Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program in Reston, Va. As we approached the valley the first day on a bus ride from Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, the story of the 1912 Katmai eruption began to unfold.

A few miles before we reached the valley, we saw the skeletons of spruce trees, bone white and surrounded by green bushes. The trees have been standing dead since early June 1912, when… read more

This column first appeared in 2003.

On a wet, windy, foggy night a few summers ago, Guy Tytgat checked into the loneliest hotel in the Aleutians. His room was four feet wide and five feet tall, made of fiberglass, and perched on the lip of a volcanic crater.

Tytgat did not enjoy the long night he shared with 420 pounds of batteries, an antenna and seismic equipment, but he is thankful the little gray hut was there.

Tytgat, now working at New Mexico Tech, was in 2003 a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. For more than 20 years, he had installed and repaired seismic stations across Alaska, from 14,000 feet high on Mount Wrangell to Umnak Island in the Aleutians. He was on Umnak Island a few years ago (before Okmok’s 2008 eruption) when he spent the night in an equipment hut.

The huts contain seismometers that allow scientists at AVO to monitor the rumbles of distant volcanoes from their offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Also enclosed in… read more

When I met Bill Streever last year, as we chatted while standing on the thawed ground of an old permafrost research site, I was a bit jealous when he mentioned his notion to write an entire book on cold, and things related to it. What a simple, super idea, I thought.

Now, I’m really jealous. Right after its publication in July, Streever’s book, “Cold; Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places,” cracked the top 30 on The New York Times’ list of bestsellers for hardcover nonfiction. “Cold” has blanketed the nation, and Streever, a biologist and environmental studies leader for BP Exploration Alaska, has hit the big time.

And he richly deserves it. In “Cold,” Streever takes a subject we perhaps talk about more than any other in Alaska, and sends the reader from the tropics to the top of the world, and not as just a drop-in journalist. He has spent many days shivering in what passes for summer on the North Slope, and there are no descriptions of pine trees where only spruce… read more

In the mid-Aleutians, 1,200 miles from Anchorage, little Kasatochi Island—about 1.5 miles from end to end—was the surprise volcanic eruption of 2008, blowing up and painting itself in a shade of gray. Scientists revisited the island a few times in summer 2009 to see what, if any, life had returned. Here’s a report from the most recent trip; a few scientists and I returned from Kasatochi in mid-August.

The crew of the Tiglax, the Alaska National Maritime Wildlife Refuge’s fine and functional 120-foot vessel, anchored a few hundred yards off the gray beach of the gray island and ran a skiff ashore with scientists dressed in orange Mustang survival suits. The weather was as colorless with the island, with moody clouds hiding the gaping crater rim at Kasatochi’s summit. In our three visits to the island, which were wedged between trips to calm bays of other islands, we would never see the top of Kasatochi.

No one hiked to the caldera, either, because the hiking was not… read more

In a science report in which they wrapped up their 2008 field season, biologists Ray Buchheit and Chris Ford wrote, under a section titled Interesting Observations, “Our island blew up.”

Their island was Kasatochi, a 700-acre green island in the mid-Aleutians that featured an old fox trapper’s cabin and a crater filled with aquamarine water.

“It looked like Monster Island,” a volcanologist said. “You were expecting Godzilla to stomp around the corner any minute.”

That was the old Kasatochi, the one before an eruption on Aug. 7, 2008. Today’s Kasatochi, now 32 percent larger, probably has no crested or least auklets, down from about 200,000 a year ago. After the eruption, there were probably no insects or plants on the island either. There is also no evidence of the cabin Buchheit and Ford were living in when they felt earthquakes that lasted for nine minutes, until a fishing boat captain plucked them from the island with one bag each. One hour later, Kasatochi… read more

Tammy Wisdom of Baker City, Oregon, wrote and asked if any Alaska Science Forum readers knew of her grandfather, Alva “Al” Wisdom. Al Wisdom died in Seward in 1964 as a result of a wave generated by the Good Friday Earthquake. This request inspired some readers to share their own stories of Seward during and following the earthquake.

Larry Werner of Anchorage, 61, was a junior in high school when the earthquake struck Alaska on March 27, 1964. He remembers trying to flee Seward with his mother in her car because “everything was on fire.”

Werner and his mother drove down Third Avenue, then the only way out of town, to find that a wave had deposited railroad cars, parts of houses, and other debris on the road. Werner said he saw Al Wisdom on a bulldozer, trying to clear the road.

“I ran over and talked to Al on the Cat,” Werner said. “He said, ‘Check back in a little while, it’s going to take a while to clear through this mess.’”

Werner and his mother… read more

Researchers added up all the concrete, paved roads, buildings and other manmade hard surfaces in the Lower 48 and found a combined area of nearly 44,000 square miles, about the size of Ohio. That’s enough pavement, concrete and shingles to cover the combined areas of Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island.

“I was surprised it was as big as Ohio, but a lot of people thought it’d be the size of Texas,” said Chris Elvidge, the main author of the study and the manager of the Nighttime Lights Lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geographic Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Elvidge and his coworkers use satellite data to produce maps of lights across North America, which is one of the inputs that helped them determine the “impervious surface area” of the Lower 48 states. The scientists didn’t include Alaska or Hawaii in their study, but they will in a project they are now working on—a map of the developed areas of the entire world.

read more

In 1905, Louis Prindle was a 40-year-old geologist bushwhacking through eastern Alaska when he stumbled upon a crater covered with spruce trees. He took a photo of the oddity and continued on his wilderness trek to map the Fortymile country.

Mount Prindle, named for Louis by another geologist, is one of the loneliest volcanoes in Alaska. While most of Alaska’s volcanoes make up the curve of the Aleutian Islands, with bunches of others on the Alaska Peninsula, in Cook Inlet, and in the Wrangell Mountains, Prindle stands alone in the Fortymile River country close to the Canada border, about 50 miles northeast of Tok.

Louis Prindle’s orders were to satisfy miners’ demands for maps of the upper Yukon and Tanana river regions. With hundreds of miles to cover before ending his summer expedition in Fairbanks, he didn’t spend much time exploring the stadium-size volcano tucked in the upper reaches of the East Fork River.

The volcano piqued the interest of others who… read more

On the phone from the Kodiak Senior Center a few years ago, Eddie Opheim Sr. remembered back to the day 45 years ago when he felt the rumble of the Great Alaska Earthquake.

“I knew the earthquake was going to come because I felt the tremor,” said Opheim, now 98. “I told my family there was an earthquake coming, and to hang on.”

Opheim, his wife, and four children lived on Spruce Island north of Kodiak when the largest earthquake in the written history of North America struck on March 27, 1964. After riding the bucking ground for what seemed like forever, Opheim and his family headed for high country in his Jeep. Later, in the darkness of night, he heard the monstrous groans and pops of his buildings as a giant wave known as a tsunami swept away everything he had.

“We lost a sawmill, both boat shops, our barn and cattle and our home,” Opheim said. “We lived in an Army tent for awhile until I built shacks out of scrap lumber that was left on the beaches.”

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In 2007, Sandy Zirnheld flew the length of Hubbard Glacier with pilot Paul Claus, using a laser altimetry system to see how much the glacier had thinned in the last few years. After a successful flight along Hubbard Glacier, Claus suggested they fly over Mt. Logan on their way back to his landing strip in the Wrangell Mountains.

As they flew over Canada’s highest mountain, Zirnheld, a research technician with UAF’s Geophysical Institute, operated a laser-rangefinding unit mounted in the belly of Claus’s Super Otter. They flew over the summit twice, recording the mountain’s elevation as 19,574 feet.

Their measurement is 276 feet lower than the number appearing on most maps, and 23 feet higher than the height of the mountain determined by Michael Schmidt and a team of Canadian climbers during a 1992 expedition.

Zirnheld’s measurement was part of a campaign of opportunity to measure high peaks by Chris Larsen of the Geophysical Institute. Larsen has teamed with… read more

Jessica Larsen knows an island in Alaska’s Aleutian Chain so well that you could drop her off blindfolded anywhere on its eastern lobe and she’d know where she is. But today you’d have to give her a few minutes to study the horizon, since ash a few feet thick now covers part of Umnak Island.

During the last decade, Larsen has spent days and weeks of her life—totaling about six months—on the island, making the green Aleutian landscape one of the most enduring in her mind’s eye. A volcanologist with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Larsen’s trips to the island were to study the eruptive history of Okmok volcano. Then, on July 12, Okmok blew an ash cloud 50,000 feet. Rising molten rock met the water of a lake, turning some of the green island into a moonscape.

“It’s exciting, and at the same time it’s surprisingly difficult,” Larsen said of the explosive eruption. “I’ve been on that island so much, and… read more

An island smaller than Alaska’s largest airport has frustrated thousands of people trying to get into or out of Alaska. Kasatochi volcano is one of three volcanoes rumbling in the central Aleutians in August 2008, along with Mount Cleveland and Okmok.

Kasatochi, about 80 miles northeast of Adak island in the central Aleutian chain, has spewed an ash cloud that twisted eastward over the North Pacific, scattering planes and canceling flights because pilots know that flying a jet through an ash cloud can cause engines to seize.

Kasatochi is an unlikely source of plane diversion. Before this eruption, the 717-acre green island with slopes that rose steeply to an aquamarine water-filled crater looked like the set of a monster movie. Though biologists saw streams of bubbles in the caldera lake a few years ago, there was no modern record of it erupting. There was one “dodgy report” of the volcano erupting in 1760, but the recent eruption was a “complete and utter surprise… read more

About nine years ago, I wrote in this column how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded two University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists to examine whether the pooling of water behind the massive Three Gorges Dam in China might cause earthquakes.

After the magnitude 7.9 earthquake in northern China on May 12, 2008, journalists from China and London, and an observant reader, e-mailed the UAF Geophysical Institute to see if the creation of the dam, which is nearing completion and holding back ever-increasing amounts of water, might have caused the earthquake.

First, a little background that was in the 1999 article: the Three Gorges Dam spans the middle portion of the third-longest river in the world, the Yangtze, which is more than twice the length of the Yukon. The concrete of the dam makes a wall 600 feet high and one mile long. The water behind the wall is more than 445 feet deep, with… read more

Twenty summers ago, earthquakes rocked the town of King Cove on the Alaska Peninsula. Some people were so worried that the nearby volcano, Mt. Dutton, was going to erupt that they caught flights out of town. Others called in the cavalry—members of the fledgling Alaska Volcano Observatory.

In 1988, John Power had just finished his master’s degree when he became the observatory’s first full-time employee. He flew out to King Cove with a few colleagues to check on the volcano.

“I remember that the biggest earthquake happened in August, on 8/8/88,” said Power, a geophysicist with the USGS Alaska Science Center who still works for AVO in Anchorage. “It happened right at the peak of salmon season, so there were a lot of people in town.”

After installing a few seismometers on the flanks of 4,800-foot Mt. Dutton, eight miles from King Cove, Power and his comrades saw that the character and the size of the earthquakes didn’t suggest that Mt. Dutton was going to… read more

In 1958, Paul Newman married Joanne Woodward, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Ted Williams signed with the Red Sox for $135,000, Congress approved the Alaska Statehood Act, and Frank Zappa graduated from a California high school.

Fifty years ago also marked the last time scientists got together all over the world for what they called an International Polar Year. As part of that effort, a renaissance man named Hugh Odishaw, who studied English literature, math, and electrical engineering, helped put together a booklet that accompanied six National Academy of Sciences posters designed to excite people about science. He did this task with enthusiasm for the International Polar Year, an event he thought was “the single most significant peaceful activity of mankind since the Renaissance and the Copernican Revolution.”

I saw the booklet at a science conference and started browsing it. As someone on the lookout for science stuff that’s simplified but not too dumbed-… read more

People wait years for permits to raft the Grand Canyon. Michelle Ridgway just visited a much larger canyon in Alaska, one that most people will never hear about.

Zhemchug Canyon, 20 percent longer and deeper than Grand Canyon, is a T-shaped cut in the sea floor beneath the gray waters of the Bering Sea. On a recent Greenpeace-sponsored expedition, Ridgway, a marine ecologist and consultant from Juneau, descended into the canyon alone in a tiny submarine.

“I’d been through the Grand Canyon the year before and was expecting a real similar experience,” Ridgway said. “But I was humbled. (Zhemchug Canyon is) enormous.”

The ancient Yukon River may have contributed to the vastness of Zhemchug Canyon, according to a theory first presented by David Scholl and the late David Hopkins. During the last Ice Age, when more of the world’s oceans were locked up in glacier ice, the Yukon flowed a few hundred miles farther southwest, carving at its mouth the vast gorge that is… read more

Fairbanks adventurer Roger Siglin has journeyed close to the magnetic north pole. Near Resolute, in the northern area of Canada now known as Nunavut, Siglin was 300 miles from the magnetic north pole, the wandering spot on Earth’s surface that attracts compass needles and confounds scientists.

There, his compass needle dipped like a divining rod over water.

“I had to tilt the compass quite a bit to keep the needle from hitting the face,” said Siglin, whose snowmachine odysseys have taken him thousands of miles in the high Arctic.

The magnetic north pole is now somewhere centered on the Arctic Ocean north of Canada, approximately latitude 82 degrees north and longitude 114 degrees west. It won’t be there long. The magnetic pole migrates about 10 kilometers northwest each year. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say the magnetic north pole has strayed around the north for thousands of years, at one point dropping to the latitude of Anchorage.

Within… read more

On June 29, 2007, Tohru Saito trudged up the steep sidehill to Denali Pass on a mission different than the hundreds of other climbers who tackle Mount McKinley every year.

Saito, who works at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was there to do annual maintenance on a weather station perched on the mountain at 18,733 feet.

Though he wouldn’t reach the station for a few hours, Saito knew where to look for it. He stole a glance to the ridge above and saw the weather station and the spinning wind cups of its anemometer. That was a good sign, but his intuition told him there was something strange about where the station stood.

A few hours later, Saito and the climbing party, led by Japanese mountaineer Yoshitomi Okura, arrived at the weather station site just above Denali Pass. There, they saw the weather station was clinging to the granite by one bent titanium leg attached to a guy wire. Some force of nature—probably a… read more

More than a century ago, eight prospectors were panning the glacial sands near Hubbard Glacier when Earth starting shaking and never seemed to stop. A few days later, they had survived a natural phenomenon they probably should not have.

Geologists Ralph Tarr and Lawrence Martin, in the area a few years later to study the marvelous glaciers, saw things like mussels “resembling clumps of blue flowers” on rocks 20 feet above the ocean. They saw so much evidence of a giant earthquake they interviewed a few prospectors in Yakutat and included their stories in a 1912 government paper, “The Earthquakes at Yakutat Bay, Alaska, in September, 1899.”

When Tarr and Martin arrived in Yakutat, prospector A. Flenner was working as a carpenter there six years after the series of large earthquakes, the biggest being a magnitude 8.0 that happened on Sept. 10, 1899. Flenner had been panning for gold in the area that day.

“Mr. Flenner stated in 1905 that after the first shock on… read more

Earth is pocked with giant craters that are reminders of a natural hazard that has happened before, and hopefully won’t happen again any time soon—the “super eruption.”

Stephen Self, a volcano researcher from Open University in England, was in Fairbanks recently to lecture on super eruptions. The last super eruption happened in 1815, when a tropical volcano named Tambora exploded for two days, leaving behind a giant caldera and pumping so much ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that 100,000 people died the year after the eruption. The ash and gases didn’t kill them, but the volcano’s affect on the atmosphere did. In many areas of Europe, crops failed to grow that year in the low light conditions.

Temperatures in London were 5-to-8 degrees Celsius cooler in 1816, Self said. “It was the ‘Year Without a Summer’ in the northeastern U.S., a year that inspired people to move West.”

Super eruptions don’t happen often, but they have been much larger than the… read more

On October 6, 1883, someone wrote this entry in the Alaska Commercial Company logbook at a trading post at English Bay, Alaska, about 50 miles northeast of Augustine volcano:

“This morning at 8:15 o’clock, 4 tidal waves flowed with a westerly current, one following the other . . . the sea rising 20 feet above the usual level. At the same time the air became black and (foggy), and it began to thunder . . . it began to rain a finely powdered brimstone ash.”

Augustine, which erupted explosively at the beginning of 2006, also erupted in 1883 but with a dramatic difference: part of the mountain tumbled into the sea in a giant landslide. That landslide caused a tsunami that crossed lower Cook Inlet and hit the southernmost Kenai Peninsula.

Because the tsunami happened at low tide in an area with some of the largest tidal ranges on Earth, the 20-foot high wave flooded areas only slightly above the high tide line. Researchers think the damage from the 1883 tsunami was… read more

SAN FRANCISCO—Six years removed from one of the most crushing losses in America’s political history, Al Gore has a new gig. He’s the voice of what he calls “the climate crisis.”

The former vice president urged to action several thousand scientists who came to hear him speak during a session of the American Geophysical Union conference. The time for scientists to communicate their findings to the public is now, he said, adding that scientists can’t wait for a disaster to urge people to action.

“As you know better than any other group on this planet, the climate crisis cannot be dealt with that way,” he said.

Gore, author of the book “An Inconvenient Truth” and creator of the movie with the same name, said that global warming is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem with three parts: 1) The collision between our species and the planet; 2) Technological advances that make our impacts on the planet much greater than the impacts of our grandparents; and 3) “We… read more

California gets lots of press for its cities along the legendary San Andreas Fault, but Alaskans live in the most seismically active state in the U.S., by far. Three of the largest earthquakes in recorded history have happened here, including the second-strongest quake ever recorded. The March 28, 1964, earthquake - a magnitude 9.2 - destroyed much of Anchorage, Valdez and Cordova.

There are good reasons why Alaska shakes more than any other state. Earth's crust is made up of about a dozen or so plates - gigantic fragments of rock that are more than 1,000 miles across and are up to 40 miles thick, according to Bruce Bolt in his book, Earthquakes. Although we consider the ground beneath us to be relatively stable, the surface we walk our dogs on, drive to work on, and build our houses on is moving.

To visualize plates, imagine the earth as an orange. A woman peels the orange, ending up with 12 pieces of orange rind. She then glues those sections of peel back on the… read more

Yoshitomi Okura stopped into the office the other day. His cheeks had the color of rare steak; they were the cheeks of someone who has spent lots of time on the snow in summer.

Okura had just reached the summit of Denali for the seventeenth straight year, information he only gave up when prodded. He wanted to talk about the repair of Alaska’s highest weather station, which now informs me via the Web that the temperature at 18,733 feet on North America’s highest peak is 3 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s 66 degrees here at 450 feet in Fairbanks and 99 degrees at LaGuardia International Airport during an East Coast heat wave.

Okura has been involved with the Denali weather station ever since he and a group of Japanese climbers in 1990 installed an aluminum tetrapod amid granite boulders a few steps off the West Buttress climbing route. In 1999, the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks started maintaining the station in partnership with the… read more

The great Alaska earthquake of March 1964 jarred Earth’s plumbing system far beyond Alaska. More than 700 groundwater wells in the continental United States showed water-level changes, including a 12-foot rise in a South Dakota well. A well in Australia fluctuated more than two feet after the 1964 earthquake. The Denali Fault earthquake of 2002 caused a well in Wisconsin to rise more than two feet.

There’s a mysterious connection between water wells and earthquakes, and scientists seem to notice it after every large earthquake, and even after some smaller ones. After reading how the giant Sumatra earthquake of 2004 triggered activity within volcanic Mount Wrangell, an Alaska graduate student took a look at recent large earthquakes in Alaska and Sumatra to see how wells in the state reacted to the big shakes.

Samik Sil, a graduate student from Calcutta, India, recently looked at a few dozen Alaska wells for his master’s thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.… read more

“Thirty years from now, oil will be little used as a source of energy,” Kenneth Deffeyes told a crowd at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently. “Our grandchildren will say, ‘you burned it? All those beautiful molecules? You burned it?’”

According to Deffeyes, a hard-rock geologist and professor emeritus at Princeton University, the world’s oil supply peaked on December 16, 2005, which means we’ve now removed and produced half of the oil that’s there to be sucked out. And what does that mean?

Increasing levels of chaos, he said. When the demands put on a system approach the system’s maximum output, things go a little crazy.

“We are close to the capacity of the system right now, so little things like hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico can cause wild fluctuations,” he said. “Price volatility is on us in a big way.”

In his book, “The Long Emergency,” James Howard Kunstler wrote of the event that Deffeyes said happened last December: “At absolute peak,… read more

“In the last two summers, fire has ravaged 10.5 percent of Interior Alaska.”

I wrote that sentence a few weeks ago in this column, and a wildlife biologist thinks I chose a bad verb. A dictionary definition of ravage is “to devastate.” Tom Paragi chooses words that are more positive when he looks at a burned forest.

Paragi works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. His specialty is the ecology of disturbances to the boreal forest, among them logging and the effects of wildland fires. I told him “ravaged” came to mind when I walked through a burned spruce forest and saw the charred bones of red squirrels. He said that red squirrels have the unfortunate tendency to seek shelter in spruce trees when something threatens them. Other small mammals, such as voles on the forest floor, might survive a fire because the soil around them is wet enough not to burn. Larger animals move fast enough to escape slow-moving wildfires typical of the boreal forest, he… read more

Last July, hundreds of small earthquakes began rattling Mount Spurr a few miles beneath its snowy summit each day. In response, scientists with the Alaska Volcano Observatory flew to its flanks 80 miles due west of Anchorage. They rushed to install five new seismic stations to better record the shaking. They also installed three GPS stations to see if the mountain was inflating like a balloon due to the pressure of molten rock.

“We got lucky Spurr acted up in summer,” Tom Murray, scientist-in-charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, said recently. “In winter, with the ground frozen and less light, it would have been difficult to mount such a response.”

Murray and other volcano-watchers throughout the U.S. dislike the current scrambling it currently takes to outfit the most dangerous of the nation’s 169 volcanoes with state of the art instruments. He and researchers at the U.S. volcano observatories have written a report… read more

Energy from the giant Sumatra earthquake traveled 7,000 miles to shake up an Alaska volcano.

Mount Wrangell experienced “a small flurry of events” about one hour after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004, according to John Sanchez of the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Sanchez checked out a number of Alaska volcanoes for increased activity following the giant earthquake and he found that Mt. Wrangell, a 14,163-foot volcano about 50 miles east of Copper Center, shook with at least 12 tiny earthquakes as the energy waves from across the globe passed through the mountain during a 10 minute-period.

“It’s very unlikely that this group of events, spaced regularly in time, happened just by chance,” Sanchez said. “We think the earthquake gave the volcano a little nudge that allowed these events to happen.”

Large earthquakes often trigger volcanic activity—the 7.9 Denali Fault earthquake in 2002 triggered similar unrest in volcanic… read more

“Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels,” urged one reputable scientist.

“Relax, the end is not near,” said another.

A few of the nation’s authorities on the world’s oil supply gathered in December 2004 for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Organizers of the conference created a session titled “Running on Empty? Oil: How Much, Where and at What Cost?” The session attracted standing room only crowds and kindled debate on the amount of recoverable oil beneath the skin of our planet.

Several scientists mentioned “Hubbert’s Peak,” the name given to the 1956 prediction of an oil company geologist that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. To the surprise of many in the oil industry, Hubbert was right, said Kenneth Deffeyes of the Princeton University Department of Geosciences. Other scientists applied Hubbert’s method to world oil… read more

An ancient clump of moss has something to tell us, says the scientist who found it last summer in Peru—the planet is warmer now than it has been since ice covered that plant 50,000 years ago.

Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson delivered that message to a few hundred scientists who crowded a lecture hall at the December 2004 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. More than 11,000 scientists attended the annual meeting where Thompson gave several presentations (including one about drilling an ice core from the saddle between Mounts Bona and Churchill in Alaska) and was a featured speaker on National Public Radio’s Science Friday.

In his lecture, Thompson, who holds a record for most days living above 18,000 feet, told about visiting Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes, a tropical glacier system that formed at high elevation with its summit at about 18,600 feet. In 2002, he and his colleagues found a bed of plants recently exposed by… read more

Bruce Finney just returned from a 34-day cruise through southeast Alaska, up to Glacier Bay and continuing on to Prince William Sound. Along the way, he punched 30 holes into the ocean floor.

From those 30 holes, Finney pulled up cores of sediment that together add up to more than one-third of a mile. Now in cold storage in Corvallis, Oregon, that long cylinder of ocean bottom holds the history of the Gulf of Alaska.

Bruce Finney is a paleooceanographer who works at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Marine Science. In the past few years, he’s made headlines for using cores of freshwater lakes to determine centuries’ worth of salmon runs into the lakes. The National Science Foundation funded this cruise to the Gulf of Alaska, where Finney and his colleagues from six other universities hope to find a good story trapped in the muck of the continental shelf.

The continental shelf is the relatively shallow area—between about 300 and 600 feet deep—that extends… read more

“I hit G-forces on the dozer that only astronauts are trained for.”

These are the words of the operator of a D-9 Cat who found himself in the saddle during the largest earthquake on the planet in 2002.

“You could hear the Alaska Range ripping apart.”

That came from a woman who said she was “thrown around, I had no choice,” during the earthquake.

These comments and others like them have found their way back to a University of Alaska scientist who took a road trip in November 2002 to the areas affected by the Denali Fault earthquake about one year after it happened. He stopped at lodges, bed and breakfasts, gas stations and restaurants to ask people about the earthquake. He also wrote down addresses of places where the earthquake ripped through and later mailed out questionnaires, a surprising number of which made it back to him.

Artak Martirosyan, a scientist who studies strong earthquake motion at the Geophysical Institute, used their responses to… read more

Researchers added up all the concrete, paved roads, buildings and other manmade hard surfaces in the Lower 48 and found a combined area of nearly 44,000 square miles, about the size of Ohio. That’s enough pavement, concrete and shingles to cover the combined areas of Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island.

“I was surprised it was as big as Ohio, but a lot of people thought it’d be the size of Texas,” said Chris Elvidge, the main author of the study and manager of the Nighttime Lights Lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geographic Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Elvidge and his coworkers use satellite data to produce maps of lights across North America, which is one of the inputs that helped them determine the “impervious surface area” of the Lower 48 states. The scientists didn’t include Alaska or Hawaii in their study, but will in a project they are now working on—a map of the developed areas of the entire world.

Elvidge… read more

Japanese mountaineer Yoshitomi Okura will soon attempt to reach two lofty goals—the repair of a weather station high on Mt. McKinley and then a walk uphill to stand on its summit for the fifteenth consecutive year.

Okura, 53, lives in Japan but travels to Alaska each summer to climb Mt. McKinley with a team of young climbers from Japan and a few Americans who assist with repair and maintenance of the weather station. The weather station, six aluminum poles bolted together to provide perches for weather instruments, sits above Denali Pass in perhaps one of the windiest places on Earth.

“There’s certainly bursts of 100 miles per hour plus winds that go through that pass,” said Roger Robinson, chief mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park.

The weather station recorded an unofficial wind speed of 188 miles per hour three days before it stopped working in January 2003. When Okura and a climbing team took the West Buttress route to the station… read more

Japanese mountaineer Yoshitomi Okura will soon attempt to reach two lofty goals—the repair of a weather station high on Mt. McKinley and then a walk uphill to stand on its summit for the fifteenth consecutive year.

Okura, 53, lives in Japan but travels to Alaska each summer to climb Mt. McKinley with a team of young climbers from Japan and a few Americans who assist with repair and maintenance of the weather station. The weather station, six aluminum poles bolted together to provide perches for weather instruments, sits above Denali Pass in perhaps one of the windiest places on Earth.

“There’s certainly bursts of 100 miles per hour plus winds that go through that pass,” said Roger Robinson, chief mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park.

The weather station recorded an unofficial wind speed of 188 miles per hour three days before it stopped working in January 2003. When Okura and a climbing team took the West Buttress route to the station in… read more

Over thousands of years, the toes of five glaciers have advanced and retreated over what is now the Anchorage bowl, leaving behind deposits of water-saturated clay. Upon that clay sit Anchorage’s largest buildings.

Large earthquakes can cause this soil to act like a liquid, which is why scientists recently outfitted the Robert W. Atwood state office building with one of the densest clusters of seismic instruments in the country.

The Atwood building is a 20-story building in downtown Anchorage into which researchers have installed shake-detection devices in 10 locations scattered from the basement to the roof. Seismologist Utpal Dutta, a research associate with both the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, recently gave me a tour of the Atwood building and nearby Delaney Park, where six seismic instruments are buried in the soil to a depth of 200 feet.

“Here, we can monitor an earthquake… read more

On the phone from the Kodiak Senior Center, Eddie Opheim Sr. remembered back to the day 40 years ago when he felt the rumble of the Great Alaska Earthquake.

“I knew the earthquake was going to come because I felt the tremor,” said Opheim, 93. “I told my family there was an earthquake coming, and to hang on.”

Opheim, his wife, and four children lived on Spruce Island north of Kodiak when the largest earthquake in the written history of North America struck on March 27, 1964. After riding the bucking ground for what seemed like forever, Opheim and his family headed for high country in his Jeep. Later, in the darkness of night, he heard the monstrous groans and pops of his buildings as a giant wave known as a tsunami swept away everything he had.

“We lost a sawmill, both boat shops, our barn and cattle and our home,” Opheim said. “We lived in an Army tent for awhile until I built shacks out of scrap lumber that was left on the beaches.”

read more

Alaska sits on the collision point of two of Earth’s colossal plates, which makes the state North America’s leader in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This unstable perch has also made Alaska part of a huge national study that local scientists are calling “a dream come true.”

Starting in summer 2004, scientists and engineers will travel all over Alaska to install 151 new GPS receivers and other instruments that will be part of a nationwide effort to find out more about the moving crust under our feet. The National Science Foundation has devoted $219 million to the Earthscope project, which includes the installation of GPS receivers and the deployment of roving seismometers throughout the U.S., the use of radar aboard satellites to measure changes in Earth’s crust, and the drilling of a 2.4-mile borehole into the San Andreas fault.

Alaska earth scientists are excited at the potential of a statewide network of sensitive GPS receivers, which allow them to measure the… read more

SAN FRANCISCO -- A huge earthquake similar to the November 2002 Denali fault earthquake probably ripped along the same path in the last 650 years, said a scientist who searches for signs of ancient earthquakes. David Schwartz of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California announced results from summer 2003 fieldwork on the Denali fault in Alaska at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. More than 9,000 scientists who study Earth and space attended the meeting, held Dec. 8-12, 2003.

Schwartz was part of a USGS team that spent 11 days last summer exploring different segments of the 215-mile scar left behind by Earth's largest earthquake in the year 2002. The researchers were looking for better detail of the earthquake's "fault trace," the torn pathway left behind on the ground surface after a large earthquake. The Denali fault earthquake left a dramatic path of cracks through glaciers, and the warmth of summer exposed many jagged lines torn… read more

Natural hazards were not on the minds of Alaska pioneers who hacked homesites out of the wilderness that would later become Anchorage, Valdez, and Fairbanks, but each city has a fatal flaw. Much of Anchorage sits on soils that are unstable when shaken during an earthquake. The same problem forced Valdez to move from the floodplain of the Lowe River to a bedrock townsite after the 1964 earthquake.

The Army Corps of Engineers was able to take much of the risk out of Fairbanks’ most obvious danger—the flooding of the Chena River.

The Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project allows managers from the Corps of Engineers to impound water from the Chena during periods of high flow and shunt it toward the Tanana River. Manhattan could fit inside the 20,000-acre flood control complex in North Pole, which has saved Fairbanks from flooding several times. Since the 1979 completion of the Moose Creek dam, the Tanana River levee, and the four 30-ton floodgates that make up the… read more

Alan Alda, the actor and host of PBS television’s Scientific American Frontiers, recently traveled to Alaska on a mission to interview scientists about the changing North.

Alda and the show’s crew gathered footage and scientist’s opinions for “Hot Times in Alaska,” a program scheduled to air on PBS in 2004. Along the way, they asked good questions, heard frank and scary answers, and carried the message of Alaska scientists to a broader audience.

One of Alda’s first stops was the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There, Alda visited Gunter Weller, a northern meteorologist and the director of the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research. Weller often talks to reporters, and the staff of Scientific American Frontiers impressed him. John Angier, the show’s executive producer, .traveled to Alaska one month before Alda or the camera crew in order to line up relevant interviews. Weller said he told Alda the following:… read more

In the cold waters of the Bering Sea sits a pyramid of volcanic rock that may someday become another Aleutian island.

Jennifer Reynolds of UAF’s

Global Undersea Research Unit, part of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, recently announced the discovery of an undersea volcano in the Aleutian Islands southeast of Semisopochnoi Island, about 1,300 miles west of Anchorage.

As a volcano geologist, Reynolds was intrigued when she heard that biologists exploring the coral community clinging to an underwater pinnacle thought the peak might be a volcano. When Reynolds and others investigated the feature on a scientific cruise in summer 2003, they found a submerged volcano with its summit about 2,000 feet above the surrounding sea floor, which is about the same elevation Ester Dome rises above Fairbanks.

Marine biologists Bob Stone and Jon Heifetz of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Auke Bay Observatory got a close look at the undersea volcano… read more

Japanese mountaineer Yoshitomi Okura returned to Denali National Park and Preserve for the 14th consecutive year in 2003 and accomplished two goals—he reached Mt. McKinley’s summit and modified a weather station high on the mountain.

I had the privilege of joining Okura on a trip up Mt. McKinley’s West Buttress route in June 2003. Our main goal was to service a weather station, which Okura and other members of the Japan Alpine Club installed in 1990, and donated the station to UAF’s International Arctic Research Center in 1999. Okura remains the driving force behind the station’s upkeep and maintenance, which is often needed because of its location.

Wired to rocks just south of Denali Pass, the weather station consists of six aluminum poles bolted together in the shape of a teepee with a crossbar at the top. Climbers taking the West Buttress route to Mt. McKinley’s south peak travel within a few yards of the station, which clings to the rocks with the help of… read more

Fifty years ago, the Anchorage Daily News reported on unrest in the Middle East, a crash in the returning Bristol Bay red salmon population, war on the Korean peninsula, and the hazard of residing across Cook Inlet from some of the world’s most active volcanoes.

“City in Total Darkness as Eruptions Rage,” was the banner across the July 9, 1953 edition. Mount Spurr, located 78 miles west of Anchorage, had erupted, and a western wind carried much of the ash over Alaska’s largest city.

“Residents of this area carried on their normal pursuits today in spite of the ‘strange darkness’ and persistent ash fall caused by this morning’s eruptions,” a reporter wrote. By 1 p.m. on the afternoon of the eruption, Anchorage had experienced a “total blackout.” Even small amounts of ash can contaminate water supplies, close roads and airports, and cause health problems. The Army Air Corps moved most of its aircraft from Elmendorf to other air bases in Alaska, and mothers were… read more

The Denali Fault earthquake jiggled the Alaska Range with enough force that the mountains gave off an acoustic signal detected in Fairbanks, scientists recently discovered.

John Olson, Charles Wilson, and Daniel Osborne heard the mountains move with microphones installed in the woods on University of Alaska land. The microphones are part of an infrasound system of the sort used to detect nuclear explosions. Olson is a physics professor and Wilson is a professor emeritus at UAF’s Geophysical Institute, and Osborne is a project engineer there who turns their ideas into reality.

The magnitude 7.9 Denali Fault earthquake of Nov. 3, 2002 ripped a scar across 210 miles (340 kilometers) of Alaska. The ground along the Denali Fault moved as much as 29 feet (8.8 meters) during the earthquake. The sudden jerk of the mountains shoved large parcels of air and created an acoustic signal in the same way a speaker cone produces sound.

“Imagine Mt. Hayes and Mt. Hess… read more

Like a forest of ghosts, the lifeless gray trees along Turnagain Arm are a silent reminder of Alaska's Good Friday earthquake. While studying the same area, an Alaska researcher unearthed less obvious clues that chronicle Alaska's violent past and point to the state's unstable future.

The earthquake that rocked Southcentral Alaska on March 27, 1964, was the second-largest ever recorded. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake trails only a 9.5 recorded in Chile in 1960. Alaska's largest earthquake shook the ground for four to seven minutes. During those hundreds of seconds and shortly thereafter, 115 Alaskans died. The tsunamis generated by the earthquake spread the deaths southward; four people died at Newport Beach, Oregon, and 11 more at Crescent City, California.

The killer earthquake was caused when the Pacific plate slipped beneath the North American plate, relieving pressure the two masses built up by pushing against each other for centuries. The release of energy… read more

True north and magnetic north are the same in some parts of the world, but not in Alaska. Compass users in the north need to readjust them every few years for declination, the difference between true and magnetic north, because of the extreme effects of Earth's magnetism at high latitudes.

Bill Worthington, a geophysicist who works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Fairbanks, knows more about magnetic declination than most people. He oversees the College

Magnetic Observatory, home to a few instruments that are about 1,000 times more sensitive to Earth's magnetic field than a hand-held compass.

Worthington recently invited me out to the observatory, which sits in a circular clearing of 46 acres on the wooded campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The USGS formerly housed its sensitive instruments in buildings closer to the core of campus, but the steel in the chassis and engines of large vehicles passing by caused disturbances in magnetic field… read more

Mount Wrangell hasn't been itself lately. For the past few years, the volcano had averaged about 10 internal earthquakes per week, but its inner rumblings have died down since the Denali fault earthquake of November 3, 2002.

Geophysical Institute Professor Steve McNutt, of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Fairbanks, along with graduate student John Sanchez and their colleagues monitor the volcano with four seismometers, two of them anchored near its summit at 14,163 feet. They report that the lack of shaking within the volcano coincides with a decrease at another Alaska volcano, Veniaminof.

"The decrease in activity in Alaska caught our interest because people normally look for an increase in volcanic activity following an earthquake," McNutt said.

While Veniaminof Volcano on the Alaska Peninsula has resumed a somewhat normal rate of shaking, Mount Wrangell, 50 miles east of Copper Center, has remained quiet after the earthquake.… read more

On November 10, 2002, Geologists Peter Haeussler and Patty Craw experienced geological serendipity.

Based out of Paxson Lodge, they were taking day trips together by helicopter into the Alaska Range to measure the spectacular changes wrought by the Denali fault earthquake of November 3, 2002. Seven days later, while flying toward the Denali fault, they ran into low clouds that blocked the mountain passes. Changing plans in mid-air, they turned around and searched valleys south of the Denali fault.

While flying above Susitna Glacier, Haeussler and Craw were astonished to see a long crack on its icy face. They had discovered a fault.

For decades, Alaska geologists have mapped faults-weak points in Earth's crust that allow the ground to move during earthquakes-but the Susitna Glacier fault stayed hidden until the magnitude 7.9 earthquake of November 3 exposed it.

"To discover an unmapped fault that caused a surface rupture is amazing," said Craw, who… read more

Tiny plants and animals suspended in coastal mud flats, salt marshes and freshwater bogs may help tell scientists when the next big earthquake is likely to strike Alaska. According to a British researcher, the microscopic creatures are tipping us off about ground movements that happen before huge earthquakes.

Ian Shennan, a geographer from the University of Durham in England, performs much of his work in rubber boots, exploring the muck where the sea meets the shore. In Scotland, Washington and Alaska, he searches the soil for pollen grains and tiny remains of algae, called diatoms. The varieties he finds tell him how the land has risen or subsided in relation to sea level over the years. For example, when freshwater algae species are abundant in a certain area, he knows the land was above the high tide mark when the algae was alive.

A dramatic change in algae or pollen types means a change in sea level, such as one that happened in Alaska on March 27, 1964. On… read more

As Lissy Hennig set up a tripod on the flank of Panorama Mountain, I tried to feel the earth move beneath my feet. In the week following the Denali Fault earthquake, the mountain had moved as much as it had in the two years prior, and scientists weren't sure why.

Hennig's boss, Jeff Freymueller of the Geophysical Institute, wanted to find out more about the post-earthquake ground movement along the Denali Fault, so he sent Hennig down the Parks Highway with his tool of choice: global positioning system receivers. The GPS receivers Freymueller uses are sensitive enough to track the movement of Earth's plates, which creep along at the speed fingernails grow. Since the Denali Fault earthquake of Nov. 3, 2002, GPS receivers deployed by Freymueller and others have detected one centimeter of ground movement each day at a site near Donnelly Dome outside Delta. That's about 300 times faster than before the earthquake.

At sites off the Parks Highway that Hennig and I… read more

Many Alaskans now have a vivid memory of where they were on Sunday, Nov. 3, when the world’s largest earthquake so far in 2002 rocked the state. Many Alaska scientists will remember the weeks after as a blur of activity.

One week after the earthquake, I dropped in on seismologists at the Alaska Earthquake Information Center on the third floor of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A half dozen of them sat around a long table, looking weathered after a mission to install portable seismometers just off the roadways slashed by the rupture of the Denali Fault. The seismometers are measuring the hundreds of aftershocks that have followed the earthquake.

The scientists returned with tales from the road—about fractures in the ground that offset lines on the highways by as much as 22 feet, about a store owner on the Tok Cutoff Road who said his business was down about 50 percent because people were either leaving the area or holing up after… read more

Fairbanks adventurer Roger Siglin has journeyed close to the magnetic north pole. Near Resolute, in the northern area of Canada now known as Nunavut, Siglin was 300 miles from the magnetic north pole, the wandering spot on Earth’s surface that attracts compass needles and confounds scientists.

There, his compass needle dipped like a divining rod over water.

“I had to tilt the compass quite a bit to keep the needle from hitting the face,” said Siglin, whose snowmachine odysseys have taken him thousands of miles in the high Arctic.

The magnetic north pole is now somewhere near Ellef Ringnes Island, approximately latitude 79 degrees north and longitude 106 degrees west. It won’t be there long. The magnetic pole migrates about 10 kilometers northwest each year. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say the magnetic north pole has strayed around the north for thousands of years, at one point dropping to the latitude of Anchorage.

Within Earth is a… read more

While visiting Kodiak recently, I scratched my Interior Alaska-biased head when I saw a street sign that also gave the elevation of that spot, 100 feet above sea level. I appreciated the information, but why did I need to know it?

One-hundred feet or higher above sea level is the best place to be on Alaska's coast following a large earthquake, said Paul Whitmore, a geophysicist with the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer. Tsunamis are the reason.

A tsunami is a massive wave that sometimes follows an earthquake or underwater landslide, volcanic eruption, nuclear explosion, or meteorite impact. Kodiak is one of the many Alaska communities that pay attention to this silent, terrifying threat, because a tsunami destroyed much of the town in March 1964.

On the afternoon of March 27, 1964, an earthquake with magnitude 9.2 ruptured Earth's crust about 14 miles beneath the seafloor of Prince William Sound. Near the boundary of the massive Pacific… read more

On the type of cloudless day that transforms Valdez into the prettiest place on the planet, two men were sitting on a propane tank enjoying the return of the sun. I interrupted their basking with a question: "Where is Old Valdez?"
"It's over there," the man with baseball cap and sunglasses said. "You're not going to find much."

He was right. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake of March 27, 1964, destroyed the Valdez that was. Only concrete foundations, rusted pretzels of plumbing, and rotten dock pilings remain. The Valdez that exists today is a town rebuilt a few miles west of the original. The geologic instability of Old Valdez, which was constructed in the flood plain of Valdez Glacier, was noticed in 1899 by Edward Gillete. Gillete was an engineer working with Capt. W.R. Abercrombie, who surveyed the Gold Rush route from Valdez to Copper Center almost a century ago.

"Where the small town of Valdez has been hastily built there is danger at any time of having the… read more

Shishaldin Volcano is a snow-covered cone with a point that reaches 9,414 feet above sea level. Located on Unimak Island in the Aleutians, Shishaldin did a curious thing before it exploded in 1999—it hummed.

Shishaldin hummed for half a day in April 1999 before the volcano blasted an ash plume ten miles into the sky. The voice of the volcano may have much to tell people who study volcanoes.

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach is one of those people. She's a post-doctoral researcher with the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Fairbanks. She came to town to interpret Shishaldin's mutterings. Another researcher, Milton Garces, now of the University of Hawaii, had installed an industrial microphone called a pressure sensor on the northern flank of Shishaldin in 1997; the device recorded the volcano's wheezes, belches and groans during its eruption two years later.

Caplan-Auerbach hunkered down and studied the recordings of the industrial microphone, which captures sound waves on… read more

Gold rushes have given birth to towns all over Alaska. Fairbanks, for example, exists because Felix Pedro found a few nuggets of gold north of here about 100 years ago. In Canada, a stampede for diamonds is now making one of its loneliest regions a bit noisier, and a whole lot wealthier.

In the Northwest Territories, companies are extracting the equivalent of a coffee can full of diamonds each day. The gems within that can are collectively worth $1.4 million. The great diamond rush of the north began in the early 1990s.

Kevin Krajick tells the story of this modern stampede in his new book, "Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic." Krajick is a writer based in New York City who spent eight years writing his book, including many trips to one of the most remote regions of North America, the treeless northern region of Northwest Territories known as the Barren Lands. There, a prospector named Chuck Fipke in 1990 found evidence of… read more

Something stirred beneath the Aleutian Islands in the fall of 1996. Beginning in September, Pavlof Volcano erupted. At the same time, hundreds of small earthquakes shook the foundations of other volcanoes that make up the Aleutian chain. Scientists have not seen such widespread turmoil in the area since.

Steve McNutt is a volcanologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory who thinks the simultaneous earthquake and volcano activity in1996 was no coincidence. Something larger may have triggered the rumblings, McNutt said, and that something is a key to figuring out the mysteries of the Aleutian Arc, the swath of volcanoes that curves from the Alaska Range to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. One of Earth's geological wonders, the Aleutian Arc has a spread equal to the distance between San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

McNutt recently presented his evidence to a room full of colleagues at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Pavlof Volcano, famous for… read more

When Glenn Shaw drove from Fairbanks to Phoenix this fall, he carried along a wooden box that he pulled from his trunk every 100 miles. The box, an instrument he invented 33 years ago, tells him the quality of the air. During his late August and early September road trip, he used it to sample the air in a paved line across western North America.

Shaw is an atmospheric chemist and physics professor at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute. His recent trip from Alaska to Arizona was not one of his funded studies. His research vehicle was a Toyota Corolla that Shaw and his wife Gladys drove south on a trip to visit family. He took along his wooden box out of habit and curiosity.

The box, also known as a sun photometer, is the size of a child’s lunchbox. On top is a circular peephole. When Shaw points the box at the sun, the photometer tells him how much stuff is floating in the air between the box and the sun. That stuff includes smog, water vapor, wildfire… read more

Gary Laursen is the sole professional explorer of a vast kingdom in Alaska. Fungi, the subjects in this kingdom, live in the woods, in refrigerators, on rocks, and between our toes. Without them, the natural world would cease to function.

Laursen is the state’s only working mycologist (a person who studies fungi) and a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Biology and Wildlife. He spends his summers traveling across Alaska from the North Slope to Southeast, searching for Hobbit worlds of fungi that pop up in late summer and autumn before disappearing back into the soil. His goal is to inventory the fungi of Alaska, and to determine the roles fungi play in the ecology of different areas of the state.

To classify living things, scientists have created five kingdoms—plants, animals, protists (single-celled creatures including plankton), monera (bacteria), and fungi. Unlike the plant or animal kingdoms, in which scientists have identified and… read more

Mount Okmok is bulging like a balloon. Scientists noticed the expansion of Okmok, a volcano on Umnak Island in the Aleutian chain, while using Global Positioning System receivers recently to determine tiny changes in the surface of the mountain. A portion of Okmok’s summit crater inflated by about one inch during the past year, hinting at a possible eruption.

“If we end up having an eruption in the next several months, we’ll say ‘Ah-ha!’” said Jeff Freymueller, who studies the planet’s slow-motion movements with GPS.

A few years ago, he used the same system to discover Seward and Homer were moving away from one another by a few centimeters each year. Freymueller, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, is also using GPS to see how much the new lake created by Three Gorges Dam in China will press into the Earth, possibly triggering earthquakes. The GPS system Freymueller uses is similar to hand-held GPS units, though his… read more

Mount Katmai was a handsome mountain with three peaks poking more than 7,000 feet into the moist air of the Alaska Peninsula on June 5th, 1912. Three days later, after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, the summit had disappeared. In its place today is an aquamarine lake rimmed by canyon walls 300 feet high. Mount Katmais transformation from mountain to crater lake is still a mystery to scientists because it imploded rather than exploded.

During the eruption that created the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Mount Katmai collapsed into itself like an ice cream cone left in the sun. At the same time, about 10 kilometers to the west, a volcano named Novarupta spewed seven cubic miles of blistering rock and ash over the landscape. Researchers first thought that Mount Katmai was the source for most of the ash and rock that covers the valley. Other volcano craters, such as Aniakchak in Alaska, feature a vent in the crater that was the explosive source of the eruption… read more

Ninety years after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is still a moonscape of ash and volcanic rock, without a tree or shrub. The valley, located on the Alaska Peninsula where the Aleutians connect to mainland Alaska, is a silent reminder of the power and potential of Alaska's volcanoes.

I recently visited the valley as one of a dozen people on a 10-day field trip with Geophysical Institute Professor John Eichelberger, of the Alaska Volcano Observatory. As we approached the valley the first day on a bus ride from Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, the story of the 1912 Katmai eruption began to unfold.

A few miles before we reached the valley, we saw the skeletons of spruce trees, bone white and surrounded by green bushes. The trees have been standing dead since early June 1912, when falling ash killed them.

Getting off the bus and hiking into the valley, we left Alaska for another world. As we walked… read more

A few years ago, I asked experts to estimate when the world's supply of oil will dry up. Most agreed that improved technologies will probably allow oil companies to extract it at current levels until at least 2050, and that new discoveries might bump the reserves well into the next century. But a mathematician suggests that when we look at the supply of a finite resource, we also must look at the effects of increasing demand.

Evar Nering is a professor emeritus of mathematics at Arizona State University. He lives in Scottsdale, he is 80 years old, and he began teaching math during World War II. Nering wrote an essay, "The Mirage of a Growing Fuel Supply," that recently appeared in The New York Times. Nering said he often used consumption of a nonrenewable resource as an example of the exponential function in his calculus classes, and the simple equation might be helpful to those making decisions about national energy policy.

"Say you have a 100-year supply of… read more

A windstorm in the Gobi Desert recently sent a wake-up call to two Alaska scientists. At 2 a.m. on April 12th, the cell phones of two volcanologists in Anchorage began to ring, a sign that tiny particles the size of volcanic ash were floating in the air above Cleveland Volcano in the central Aleutian Islands.

The cell phones of these scientists, on-call members of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, were linked to satellites that detect volcanic ash in a buffer zone around Cleveland Volcano, which first erupted on February 19. Dave Schneider, who works for the observatory, tracked the mystery cloud back to its source using another satellite signal. He discovered it was a now-famous dust cloud born in the Gobi Desert in eastern Mongolia and the Taklimakan Desert in western China.

A few days later and a bit farther north, atmospheric scientist Glenn Shaw looked southward from his office window at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and noticed a milky haze where there… read more

Volcanoes often wake in one of two moods. Some explode, launching rocks the size of minivans and shooting ash miles into the atmosphere. Others stretch, belch a few gases, and ooze molten rock. A new project in Japan might help scientists predict which way a volcano will behave when it stirs from a long slumber.

Explosive eruptions grab more attention than effusive eruptions, during which lava flows from a vent without much of a pyrotechnics show. One of Alaska's most famous explosive eruptions was Mt. Katmai in 1912, which in two days spewed more than 30 cubic kilometers of pumice and grit into the air. If Katmai erupted with the same vigor tomorrow, the plume of ash would prevent planes from flying over the north Pacific, and the ash would muck up power plants, vehicles, and life in general across the southern half of the state.

Volcanoes that erupt in a non-explosive fashion don't affect people over as large an area, but they can be deadly. Unzen Volcano in… read more

Pavlof, an Alaska volcano with a fondness for erupting in fall, is not alone. Three other volcanoes from around the globe seem to share Pavlof's preference, erupting mostly from September to December. This routine behavior in a very unpredictable world intrigues Steve McNutt.

McNutt, a volcano seismologist with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spoke of the volcanoes' curious timing at the recent fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. More than 8,500 scientists attended the San Francisco meeting, which is held at a cavernous convention center for an entire week each December.

At a meeting similar to this in 1999, McNutt first received a clue that other volcanoes share Pavlof's tendency to erupt in sync with a season. While in Birmingham, England, McNutt gave a talk on Pavlof's eruptions. Makato Murakami of Japan approached McNutt after the presentation and told him of two volcanoes in Japan that showed a similar pattern of… read more

Not all parts of Anchorage shake the same during an earthquake. Downtown Anchorage receives twice the jolt of the Chugach Mountain foothills, according to Geophysical Institute scientists who studied the reactions of different parts of town to the same earthquakes.

Niren Biswas is a seismologist who leads an ongoing project with scientists from around the world. Together, they are finding what areas of Anchorage are more vulnerable to shake, rattle, and roll during earthquakes. Biswas and his coworkers scattered 20 seismometers in and around the Anchorage Bowl, and installed one each in Chugiak and Palmer. Unlike seismometers used to detect earthquakes all over the state, the ones in Anchorage only read earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.5 or greater.

All 22 seismometers operate around the clock, feeding their information via telephone line to the Municipality of Anchorage Data Center. From there, institute scientists in Fairbanks check the information every day… read more

“Stomp your foot,” said Doug Christensen, a seismologist with the Geophysical Institute, as we stood in a grassy clearing north of Healy. I obliged, striking the earth three times with the sole of my boot.

“Yeah, that looks good,” he said while looking at a tiny computer screen. Three bursts of squiggly lines showed the seismometer he and his coworkers had installed was picking up subtle vibrations felt within the ground. Christensen, graduate student Liz Meyers, and others are installing 36 seismometers to take the pulse of central Alaska. One of their goals is to find the foundation of the Alaska Range.

Christensen, State Seismologist Roger Hansen, and Geoff Abers of Boston University received funding from the National Science Foundation to install temporary earthquake-detection sites along the Parks and Denali highways, the Petersville Road, and the Denali National Park road all the way to Wonder Lake. When they finish in early June, the scientists will have… read more

In a geological sense, India is a bit of a bully—shoving itself into Asia with enough muscle to push up the Tibetan Plateau, home of the world’s highest mountains. Political problems and rugged topography have long prevented scientists from understanding this area where continents collide, but recent satellite information is providing clues about how the “roof of the world” was built.

Jeff Freymueller of the Geophysical Institute is among a group of scientists who present new research on this topic in the latest issue of Nature. Freymueller and his colleagues use Global Positioning System satellites to track the subtle movement of Earth’s crust. GPS is a system of 24 satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. As all 24 satellites zip around the globe at an altitude of about 12,500 feet, they broadcast radio signals that are picked up by GPS receivers. A computer within the GPS unit instantly compares the distances from… read more

The year 2000 exposes a basic flaw of the calendar—each year is about 11 minutes too long to keep the solstices and equinoxes where they should be. The problem began more than 2,000 years ago, when Julius Caesar created “leap year,” slapping an extra day onto the end of February every four years.

Leap year stuck, but it wasn’t a smooth ride. In Caesar’s day, about 45 BC, most people followed the lunar calendar. People figured out the day of the month by checking the phase of the moon, which orbits Earth every 29 days. The ancient Babylonians began each new month on the day of the new moon. The full moon marked the middle of the month, and as the moon waned back to new moon, the month was over. As the years progressed, the lunar calendar became out of step with spring, summer, winter and fall. Caesar noticed this error and enlisted Sosigenes, an astronomer from Alexandria, to invent a new calendar.

Sosigenes knew that it takes Earth 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and… read more

In the northern foothills of the Alaska Range, two tiny ponds are making researchers wonder why Mt. McKinley is not a volcano.

The ponds, filled with dark water and ringed with willows, are craters, pocks left behind from volcanic explosions that happened about 3,000 years ago. Located near Buzzard Creek north of Healy, the craters are among thousands in Alaska. Called maars, the craters are smallish volcanoes that form when molten rock reaches up from within the ground and detonates as it reaches the water table. The craters near Buzzard Creek are made up of the same stuff as the Aleutian Arc. In 1912, Katmai, one of the volcanoes in the arc, hosted the largest eruption on the planet this century.

Based on the chemical signature of rocks found near the Buzzard Creek craters, Mt. McKinley and the rest of the western Alaska Range should be volcanoes, said Chris Nye with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. But Mt. McKinley and its neighbors are not volcanoes, and that… read more

Fairbanks adventurer Roger Siglin has journeyed close to the magnetic north pole. Near Resolute, in the northern area of Canada now known as Nunavut, Siglin was 300 miles from the magnetic north pole, the wandering spot on Earth's surface that attracts compass needles and confounds scientists.

There, his compass needle dipped like a divining rod over water.

"I had to tilt the compass quite a bit to keep the needle from hitting the face," said Siglin, whose snowmachine odysseys have taken him thousands of miles in the high Arctic.

The magnetic north pole is now somewhere near Ellef Ringnes Island, approximately latitude 79 degrees north and longitude 106 degrees west. It won't be there long. The magnetic pole migrates about 10 kilometers northwest each year. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say the magnetic north pole has strayed around the north for thousands of years, at one point dropping to the latitude of Anchorage.

Within Earth is a core… read more

Tiny plants and animals suspended in coastal mud flats, salt marshes and freshwater bogs may help tell scientists when the next big earthquake is likely to strike Alaska. According to a British researcher, the microscopic creatures are tipping us off about ground movements that happen before huge earthquakes.

Ian Shennan, a geographer from the University of Durham in England, performs much of his work in rubber boots, exploring the muck where the sea meets the shore. In Scotland, Washington and Alaska, he searches the soil for pollen grains and tiny remains of algae, called diatoms. The varieties he finds tell him how the land has risen or subsided in relation to sea level over the years. For example, when freshwater algae species are abundant in a certain area, he knows the land was above the high tide mark when the algae was alive.

A dramatic change in algae or pollen types means a change in sea level, such as one that happened in Alaska on March 27, 1964. On that… read more

In a project reminiscent of the Great Wall, the Chinese are building another of the world's largest structures. When they finish the Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese will have built a wall across the third largest river in the world, created a reservoir almost 300 miles long, and tapped an electrical source equal to 18 nuclear power plants.

Water held by the dam also may trigger earthquakes that could threaten millions of people. Two scientists at the Geophysical Institute are working together to help the Chinese assess the earthquake risk of Three Gorges Dam. Born in the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, the Yangtzi River flows almost 4,000 miles to the ocean, making it the third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon (the Yukon is half the length of the Yangtzi). Hoping to harness the power of the river, the Chinese government began building the dam a few years ago, expecting to finish by 2009. When the mile-wide, 600-foot high dam is complete, the flooding… read more

In the early 1950s, workers for the U.S. Navy drilled test wells in an area of the North Slope known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve. The drillers sent core samples of rock to Fairbanks, where Florence Weber and Florence Collins, both geologists with the U.S. Geological Survey, noticed something odd. The samples, taken from an area where the surrounding rock was lying flat, were tilted upright. Some of the rocks were shattered.

The strange rocks seemed vaguely familiar to Weber and Collins, two of the first women geologists in Alaska. Both had attended a field trip to Indiana to see an impact crater, the massive divot left behind after a meteorite hit the ground. Looking at the pulverized rocks from the petroleum reserve, they thought the Navy diggers may have tapped into an impact crater on the North Slope. Weber and Collins followed their hunch and wrote a USGS paper on what has become known as Avak, the only impact crater confirmed in Alaska.

The Avak impact… read more

During winter, Mount McKinley is one of the coldest places on the planet. The sun, weak as a light bulb, cuts a shallow arc over the southern horizon. Wind chill on the mountain drops below minus 100 degrees. Not many people try to climb North America's highest peak in winter, but not many people are like Naomi Uemura.

Uemura, a Japanese mountaineer, liked to do things alone. In 1966, he climbed the Matterhorn by himself, sparking a love for solo treks that made him a hero in Japan. His solitary trip by dog sled to the North Pole in 1978 earned him a place beside Christopher Columbus and Sir Edmund Hillary on a list of explorers compiled in Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia.

In 1984, Uemura walked into the alpenglow of Mt. McKinley in a quest to become the first person to climb the mountain alone in winter. Clipped to a long bamboo pole designed to span the mouths of crevasses, he set out in early February.

On February 13, pilot Don Lowell flew over the… read more

The grizzly hadn't seen my dog or me, so I yelled and waved my arms. The bear stood, looked in our direction for three unforgettable seconds, then trotted up the valley. Late for a meeting with scientists, I kept hiking in the direction of the bear. A few minutes later, as I clung to a rock wall where the valley narrowed into a canyon, I had a feeling I was being watched. There, staring at me less than 20 feet away, was a glaciologist.

When I could pry my fingers off the rock, I shook hands with Roger Elconin and Adam Bucki. Elconin is an independent researcher who has studied rock glaciers near McCarthy for years. Bucki, a graduate student at the Geophysical Institute, invited me to join them on a rock glacier. That glacier, named Fireweed, sprawls on the 30-square-mile bulk of Fireweed Mountain near McCarthy. Fireweed rock glacier consists of three lobes of rock merging to become one long tongue. The tip of that tongue broke off in 1993.

Elconin, now of… read more

If a tree falls near the University of Alaska, Buck Wilson hears it. His microphones, planted in the forest, record volcanic eruptions from around the world and meteors hurling into the atmosphere. In 1980, he detected a nuclear bomb all the way from China.

Wilson, a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute, studies sounds too low for the human ear. He and John Olson, a professor of physics at the Geophysical Institute, recently gave me a tour of a microphone array they use to catch inaudible signals from volcanoes, the aurora, winds over distant mountains, and manmade disturbances in the air.

Through willows and birch, we walked on a wooded trail near the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. There, strung out like spokes on a bicycle rim, were plastic tubes connected at the hub by a sensitive microphone enclosed in a plywood shelter. The system is one of three types of microphone arrays at the site designed to catch infrasound waves like a spider catches… read more

More than 1 million acres of Alaska have gone up in smoke this summer, clouding the views of people from the foothills of the Brooks Range to the Kenai Peninsula.

While most of us wish for the smoke to blow some other way, Cathy Cahill seeks it out. Cahill is an atmospheric chemist at the Geophysical Institute who studies the smoke from wildfires. Studying something that floats in the air isn't easy. Cahill said smoke is made up of particles so small that 50 of them could line up side-by-side along the width of a human hair.

Though these specks fuzz our views, they also create beautiful sunsets. Smoke hides the mountains and paints the sunset red because it scatters light, Cahill said. Much of the sun's energy reaches Earth as radiation waves of visible light, in colors ranging from purple to red. We see the sun as yellow on clear days because more yellow light reaches our eyes than any other color. Smoke particles are just the right size to deflect some photons… read more

Something strange is happening beneath the Kenai Peninsula. Unlike Seward, which is behaving as it should by creeping northwest a few centimeters a year, Homer is migrating southeast.

The lethargic relocation of both towns is happening because Earth's plates are constantly in motion, but something is making the eastern and western sides of the Kenai Peninsula move like confused snails in opposite directions. Jeff Freymueller wants to find out why.

Freymueller, a geophysics professor at the Geophysical Institute, uses global positioning satellites, also known as GPS, to monitor the movement of Earth's plates, which creep along at about the speed fingernails grow. The measuring system consists of 24 satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force. Freymueller anchors GPS receivers to bedrock so he can see the Earth move. With an array of these sites along the Kenai Peninsula, he and his colleagues have been able to track the oddball advances going on there. Satellite… read more

Ten years ago this month, the tanker Exxon Valdez met Bligh Reef, polluting Prince William Sound with 10.8 million gallons of crude oil from the North Slope. Ten years later, scientists still debate the effects of the accident on the waters and wildlife of Prince William Sound.

Bob Day and Steve Murphy are ornithologists who work for ABR, Inc., Environmental Research and Services. They've studied seabirds in Prince William Sound since the time of the spill to determine how oiled areas affect the birds. They found seabird numbers declined immediately after the spill, but they also discovered that most species came back to areas that were once tainted with crude oil. "We were surprised how quickly most species recovered," Day said. "By 1991, most of the species showed no evidence of avoiding the spill area." Using bird counts taken before the spill, they found that numbers of birds in the sound in 1991 were at levels that would be expected had there been no oil spill,… read more

In 1874, the chief geologist for the state of Pennsylvania had some bad news. He said that if people insisted on using oil lamps to light their houses, U.S. oil fields would run dry by 1878. A century later, U.S. oil fields had produced more than 150 billion barrels of crude oil. We didn't run out of oil in 1878, or in 1978. Does anybody know when we will run out?

In a report by the International Energy Agency in Paris released last March, geologists estimated there are 1.5 trillion barrels of oil left on Earth. John Edwards, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, reckoned that 2 trillion barrels of oil exist in known and undiscovered deposits. Either estimate would be enough oil to last through the next century, but as the Pennsylvania geologist found out in 1874, it's not easy to predict what we can't see, and crude oil deposits trapped within different types of rock are almost impossible to quantify.

"All we're doing is guessing," said Wes… read more

There's a volcano in Alaska so dependable you can almost set your watch to its eruptions. Pavlof volcano, located near the spot where the Alaska Peninsula turns into the Aleutian Islands, usually starts rumbling in the fall and late winter. Pavlof, one of the world's most active volcanoes with 41 eruptions since the late 1700s, has erupted in mid-November six times in the past 25 years. A volcano researcher thinks he might know why.

Geophysical Institute Research Professor Steve McNutt works for the Alaska Volcano Observatory. He recently sent a memo to the other members of AVO in Fairbanks and Anchorage telling them to keep an eye on Pavlof during the first few weeks of November. As of mid-November, Pavlof showed no alarming jumps in its seismic heartbeat, signals volcanologists can monitor from their offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks. But they won't be surprised if Pavlof starts shaking soon.

In 1973, 1976, 1980, 1983, 1986, and 1996, Pavlof erupted or was… read more

Tom Buntzen keeps a rock in his office that's a little different from the others. It's gray, fits in his palm like a baseball, and has a few lichens still clinging to it. What separates it from others is that it could be the oldest rock in Alaska.

Buntzen, a geologist and operator of Pacific Rim Geological Consulting in Fairbanks, collected the rock near the ghost town of Iditarod in 1983, when he worked for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Buntzen, Marti Miller, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and others mapped the geology of the Iditarod quadrangle. They found a pocket of old rocks on a knoll they used as a helicopter pad. On the exposed bump, Buntzen and Miller noticed something weird. From the fabric and textures of the rock formation, they knew the rock was metamorphic, that sometime over its history this rock had been changed by the heat and pressure of being buried deep underground. The geologists did not expect to… read more

If a space alien pondering Earth wanted to figure out what's going on within this blue and brown sphere, it would do well to touch down near the Aleutian Arc, where fresh craters and steaming mountains are compelling clues that something special is happening.

"If you want to learn about a planet, you have to go where the action is," said John Eichelberger, a volcanologist and professor at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Alaska has more than its share of Earth's violent geological action; Alaska is home of the largest volcanic eruption on the planet this century (at Katmai, in 1912) and the second-largest earthquake (the 9.2 magnitude earthquake of 1964) recorded.

The restless nature of Alaska is related to the processes that formed and continue to drive the pyrotechnic displays of the Aleutian Arc. The Aleutian Arc is just what it sounds like, a curve of mountains and volcanic islands extending like a smile from the… read more

Seventy years ago, lightning started a forest fire near Little Poker Creek. The flames quickly blazed a path of charred black spruce as the muskeg below smoldered for days, creating a patchwork of burned and non-burned areas in the 2,600-acre drainage. This summer, the Little Poker Creek watershed will burn again, only this fire will be lit by man.

Scientists and fire-fighting professionals from Alaska, Canada, and as far away as Brazil and Japan will converge on interior Alaska in late July and early August to learn more about fire behavior with a controlled burn over an entire drainage. The Caribou-Poker creeks watershed, on the west side of the Chatanika River about 30 miles north of Fairbanks, has been a study area since 1969.

According to Terry Chapin, a professor of ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Arctic Biology and the head of the project, such an experiment has never been done before. Last year, fire-fighting crews from… read more

Working in a steep valley once in Kenai Fjords National Park, I used an old avalanche chute for a daily commute. With all the trees sheared by a slide the winter before, the chute provided some of the best walking in the valley. Unfortunately, black bears came to the same conclusion. After I bumped into two in one day, I chose a more difficult path through the woods.

The bears' apparent preference for a country cleared by avalanche supports an idea becoming popular with habitat researchers-landslides and avalanches aren't such bad things.

Gordon Reeves and Kelly Burnett, fish biologists with the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Oregon, have studied the effects of landslides on streams and fish. Though landslides turn a creek brown and clog it with other debris, such as large trees and rocks, what remains after a natural landslide may be beneficial to fish in the long run. Logs provide shelter and feeding holes for fish, and rocks make good… read more

Just South of Haggard Creek, Pipeline Mile 643--Please humor me and read this column, because I worked hard for the setting in which I wrote it.

In this space, I'll compare the Alaska mountain ranges I'll walk through this summer--the Chugach, Alaska, and Brooks. To acquire the proper writing mood, I chose an elusive overlook just off the pipeline. From here, I can simultaneously see the Alaska Range, the Wrangell Mountains, and the Chugach Range. To spend some time here, I've toted my water from a creek a half-mile of hilly, crumbling rock away, and I'm ignoring my fear of scat piles so large I'm wondering if they filmed the Jurassic Park sequel here.

If you need another reason to scan further, know that Erin Parcher, an amazing student assistant at the Geophysical Institute, helped me gather the notes for this column. Erin's leaving soon to share her ample brain as a teacher. She may be gone by the time this column hits the paper. Our loss.

Back to… read more

On the type of cloudless day that transforms Valdez into the prettiest place on the planet, two men were sitting on a propane tank enjoying the return of the sun. I interrupted their basking with a question: "Where is Old Valdez?"

"It's over there," the man with baseball cap and sunglasses said. "You're not going to find much."

He was right. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake of March 27, 1964, destroyed the Valdez that was. Only concrete foundations, rusted pretzels of plumbing, and rotten dock pilings remain. The Valdez that exists today is a town rebuilt a few miles west of the original.

The geologic instability of Old Valdez, which was constructed in the flood plain of Valdez Glacier, was noticed in 1899 by Edward Gillete. Gillete was an engineer working with Capt. W.R. Abercrombie, who surveyed the Gold Rush route from Valdez to Copper Center almost a century ago.

"Where the small town of Valdez has been hastily built there is danger at any time… read more

Amazing fluid, oil. It powers our vehicles, heats our homes, wraps our sandwiches, and inspires an occasional war. Oil touches all of our lives, especially in Alaska, but what is it?

Some oil, particularly that from Alaska's North Slope, is the remains of prehistoric creatures and plants from the sea, according to Michael Whalen, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The critters and algae that are now crude oil lived hundreds of millions of years ago when a shallow ocean covered what is now Alaska's North Slope. The gradual rise of the Brooks Range, caused by the Pacific plate shoving over the top of the North American plate, pushed out the ocean and eventually buried enormous amounts of ocean plants and animals.

As this organic mix was forced farther downward and was subjected to pressure from the rocks above and heat from the inner earth, it cooked for a few million years or so. This unsavory stew of former life… read more

Seward is migrating toward Fairbanks.

In the past year, the coastal community on the Kenai Peninsula has moved 35 millimeters-about one-and-one-half inches-closer to Fairbanks. That won't save you much gasoline on your next drive to Seward, but the creeping movement of areas all over Alaska is of keen interest to those who study the forces that cause earthquakes.

Jeff Freymueller, an assistant research professor of geophysics at the Geophysical Institute, tracks the fingernail-growth speed of Earth's plates with the help of satellites and Global Positioning System receivers.

The Global Position System, GPS, is a system of 24 satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. As all 24 satellites zip around the globe at an altitude of about 12,500 feet, they broadcast radio signals that are picked up by GPS receivers, some of which can fit in the palm of your hand. A computer within the GPS unit instantly… read more

Like a forest of ghosts, the lifeless gray trees along Turnagain Arm are a silent reminder of Alaska's Good Friday earthquake. While studying the same area, an Alaska researcher recently unearthed less obvious clues that chronicle Alaska's violent past and point to the state's unstable future.

The earthquake that rocked Southcentral Alaska on March 27, 1964, was the second-largest ever recorded. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake trails only a 9.5 recorded in Chile in 1960. Alaska's largest earthquake shook the ground for an unbearable four to seven minutes. During those hundreds of seconds, or shortly thereafter, 115 Alaskans died. The tsunamis generated by the earthquake spread the deaths southward; four people died at Newport Beach, Oregon, and 11 more at Crescent City, California.

The killer earthquake was caused when the North American plate rumbled over the top of the Pacific plate, relieving pressure the two masses built up by pushing against each other for… read more

Miles below the ocean's surface, there exists another world: a dramatic landscape of vast mountain ranges, eerie spires of black rock, and dark, yawning canyons. Inhabiting this spooky setting is a most unlikely resident--light.

Cindy Van Dover is one of the scientists who detected this light, a faint glow that exists in a world of midnight black. Van Dover is a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Marine Science.

Much of the nocturnal topography of the sea floor has been shaped by molten rock forced upward in areas where plates in Earth's crust spread apart, Van Dover said. Heaps of lava quickly cooled by sea water have formed incredible, yet unseen, mountain ranges.

"They're the most dominant geographic feature of the planet, other than the continents," Van Dover said.

Scattered amidst these mountains are tubes that spew the exhaust of the reaction between near-freezing sea water and lava. These chimneys, known as… read more

At the bottom of the world, an earthquake shakes the South Sandwich Islands. Waves of energy travel through the center of the earth, reaching Alaska in about 20 minutes. Seismometers near Fairbanks feel the shudder.

By studying this pathway of earthquake vibrations through the earth, scientists at Columbia University in New York recently discovered that the earth's inner core, a 500-mile ball of iron, is moving faster than the earth's surface. This spinning ball-within-a-ball may be a major force generating the earth's magnetic field.

Using earthquake information gathered over the last 30 years at the College International Geophysical Observatory in Fairbanks, seismologists Xiaodong Song and Paul Richards calculated that earthquake vibrations from the South Sandwich Islands are reaching Alaska faster as the years progress. Speedier seismic waves tell the researchers something is going on deep within the planet.

Although no one has dug a 3,000-mile… read more

Like a just-awakened giant with a rumbling stomach, Mount Iliamna is demanding attention.

Frequent earthquakes have rattled within the snowy dome of the 10,000-foot volcano in the past few weeks, making scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory take a closer look at the mountain, which sits about 75 miles across Cook Inlet from the town of Kenai.

Researchers, such as Geophysical Institute Volcano Seismologist Steve McNutt, are keeping both eyes on seismometers attached to Mount Iliamna to see if its behavior evokes a feeling of deja vu. McNutt and Geophysical Institute graduate student John Benoit recently detailed the habits of volcanoes that erupted from 1979 to 1989. They found the sleeping giants often go through the same rituals before waking with a bang to spew ash, hot gases, and molten rock.

After sifting through a decade of information, McNutt and Benoit noticed a pattern. Volcanoes often go through the following steps before erupting:… read more

To glimpse the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, I recently drove eight hours up the dusty Dalton Highway, cringing as oncoming trucks lobbed rocks at my formerly pristine windshield. The drive was worth the wincing. After about 200 miles, Sukakpak Mountain gave me a dramatic welcome to the southern Brooks Range--it rose at an angle like a ghostly, 4,000-foot wave frozen in the act of crashing on a beach.

The drastic slant and pale complexion of many Brooks Range peaks is due to the drift of continental plates and the presence of limestone, said Gil Mull, a geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Mull, a man who has picked around the Brooks Range with his rock hammer for 30 years, shared a few hours of his time with me shortly after I returned from my trip to the Brooks Range. The range lies above the Arctic Circle in a 600-mile, east-to-west band that seals off the North Slope from the rest of Alaska.

Many peaks appear limestone… read more

After the Exxon Valdez met Bligh Reef in spring of 1989, I was among hundreds of newly hired Alaskans who landed on the beaches of Prince William Sound. Using diaper-like cloths, we wiped crude oil off black, greasy rocks. Many of us shared a common thought about the never-ending task: "There must be a better way."

For many types of fuel spills, there is a better way: feed the contaminated soil to bacteria with a hunger for petroleum products. In a process called bioremediation, soil bacteria make a meal out of spilled oil and gasoline.

In theory, everybody wins: the bacteria are happy because they've gained energy from the fuels; humans are happy because the bacteria have transformed the toxic liquids into carbon dioxide and water, the same products we exhale.

Bioremediation is good, but it isn't perfect, according to Mark Tumeo, director of the Environmental Technology Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Tumeo is working on a… read more

Being the wonderful place it is, Alaska attracts migrants of all shapes and forms--from ducks winging their way north in the springtime to humans towing both trailers and dreams of life in the Last Frontier. Because of its location on the globe, Alaska also draws its share of wind-carried pollutants from other areas of the earth.

In a recent study by Indiana University researchers, samples of Alaska tree bark showed high concentrations of pesticides that were sprayed on crops possibly half a world way. The Alaska results were part of a worldwide analysis of tree bark performed by Ronald Hites, a chemistry professor at IU in Bloomington, Indiana, and Staci Simonich, who earned her doctorate degree with the research and now works with Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati.

Northern areas such as Alaska become home to pesticides hitching a ride on the wind because of what Simonich calls a "global distillation process," where airborne pollutants are carried from warm to… read more

Alaskans who live in the Interior were recently reminded that the earth isn't a passive, lifeless hunk of rock and soil. Many people who live near Fairbanks now remember precisely what they were doing at 9:23 p.m. on October 5th when a magnitude 6.2 earthquake rattled buildings and provided conversation fodder for the next day.

Earthquake stories are common in Alaska because we live in the most seismically active state in the U.S., by far. Three of the largest earthquakes in recorded history have happened here, including the second-strongest quake ever recorded. The March 28, 1964, earthquake--a whopping magnitude 9.2--destroyed much of Anchorage, Valdez and Cordova.

There are good reasons why Alaska shakes more than any other state. The earth's crust is made up of about a dozen or so plates--gigantic fragments of rock that are more than 1,000 miles across and are up to 40 miles thick, according to Bruce Bolt in his book, Earthquakes. Although we consider… read more

"There is no ozone hole!" barks right-wing radio and TV personality Rush Limbaugh, who claims "environmentalist wackos" are behind the effort to ban chloroflourocarbons, and grant-hungry scientists are perpetuating a myth to butter their bread.

Contrary to Limbaugh's opinion are pesky facts, such as those presented this year by Geophysical Institute Associate Professor of Chemistry Dan Jaffe and his colleagues. Monitoring ozone high above Alaska, Jaffe found spring 1995 levels noticeably lower than the average of ozone levels from 1984-1994.

Ozone is important to life on earth because it absorbs ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Unchecked, ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer and damages ecosystems. Ozone, an unstable molecule of three oxygen atoms, is present throughout the atmosphere. It does much of its protective work in a dense layer from about 15 to 18 miles above the earth. There, ozone molecules intercept ultraviolet radiation and convert it to… read more

"Wanted: a 40-pound chunk of Alaska's largest meteorite. May currently be employed as your doorstop. Call University of Alaska Museum."

Roland Gangloff hasn't run the above classified ad yet, but he might consider it. Gangloff, earth science curator at the museum, recently found a disturbing disparity when researching the Aggie Creek meteorite, the largest heavenly body fragment ever found in Alaska. When miners discovered the iron-nickel meteorite clanging around in the rock tumbler of a gold dredge in 1942, it was reported to weigh about 95 pounds. Today it weighs 57 pounds. Its curious weight-loss program is what Gangloff calls "one of those great Alaska mysteries."

The mystery of the Aggie Creek meteorite began long, long ago. No one knows exactly how it was formed, but here's a possible scenario: A planetary body large enough to have a solid core broke apart after a violent collision with something bigger. Fragments scattered, including iron-nickel chunks… read more

Volcanoes are a lot like people, according to John Power of the Alaska Volcano Observatory---no two are alike, and each one gives different signs of a pending eruption.

Because of their unpredictability, forecasting volcanic eruptions is an inexact science for those at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, an organization made up of a team of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the UAF Geophysical Institute and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, with centers in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Forty-two Alaska volcanoes have spit up magma, or molten rock, since people started writing down eruption observations in 1767, according to Volcano Seismologist Steve McNutt, who works at AVO in Fairbanks. Because most of Alaska's volcanoes are far removed from cities and towns, the abrasive ash they belch during an eruption presents the greatest danger to humans---not, as in other parts of the world, lava flows or mud slides.

When Mount… read more

Is the Great One a grand illusion? Is the tallest mountain in North America a mirage?

A friend recently told me that the Mount McKinley we see as a huge lump on the southwest Fairbanks horizon is actually an impostor, an optical illusion that really isn't there. She said that because of the curvature of the Earth, we shouldn't be able to see the mountain from Fairbanks or from Anchorage.

Her argument made sense. Because the Earth is a sphere, sailors at sea only can view other ships to a distance of about 13 miles before those ships seem to disappear into the horizon. Mount McKinley is 160 miles from Fairbanks as the raven flies and 135 miles from Anchorage, so seeing it from either city should be impossible. Perhaps the sailor's formula is not applicable because the mountain rises 20,320 feet, almost four miles, into the sky.

Any good scientist would test the Mount McKinley mirage theory with observation and applied knowledge. I ran for help.

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Around the halls of the Geophysical Institute, where many scientists are researching the effects of global climate change in the Arctic, Professor of Physics Glenn Shaw is famous for taunting them with his own theory about worldwide warming, or the potential lack of it.

"We should not call this ground we stand on the Earth," Shaw has said one more than one occasion. "We should call it Planet Ocean-Cloud."

From space, Shaw explains, the Earth can only be seen through a cloak of white. In fact, in all the space pictures he's seen, clouds are the Earth's most dominant feature. As Shaw sees it, clouds could be the key to climate regulation. They could be the reason the climate of our planet has remained relatively stable, despite the fact that most scientists believe the sun has increased in intensity by over 20 percent since life sprung up here about 4 billion years ago.

Shaw speculates that clouds act as climate regulators by bouncing reflecting Earth-… read more

They were the unwanted, shunned by the society that made them. Regarded as the most despicable of wastes, they languished in huge piles, miles apart from one another. Then one fateful day they merged to form one, each complimenting the other as they became a strong, productive unit.

That romantic-sounding scenario was staged in Fairbanks this fall, as soil scientists and mining engineers played matchmaker with two unlikely bedfellows---sewage sludge and gold mine tailings. Judging from their results, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The coupling was inspired by state and federal laws requiring miners to restore natural vegetation to areas they've disturbed. Tailings piles, especially those leached with sodium cyanide to extract gold as at the Ryan Lode Mine outside Fairbanks, are about as fertile as cement. The piles contain almost no clay or organic matter (any carbon-containing thing that was once living, like decaying leaves and twigs or… read more

Scrubbing rust stains out of the sink the other day, I suddenly remembered the controversial idea of easing global warming by dosing the seas with iron. I knew that somebody had done something to test the idea, and that the test hadn't fulfilled the hopes. Then I forgot about it again, until volume 143, number 1943, of the journal New Scientist emerged from the mailbox amidst a clot of catalogs. It contained an article showing that the idea was both sound and useless.

Nowadays just about everyone who reads a newspaper understands how a buildup of carbon dioxide (among other gases) is keeping Earth's heat from escaping back out to space. The gases are acting much like the glass in a greenhouse, and their presence is as much a result of human activity as is greenhouse glass. Humankind is burning fossil fuel by the megaton, and the burning is releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked away by millions of years of plants' growing, dying, and being buried.

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In January 1991, a disastrous oil spill occurred in the stormy Irish Sea. The cargo tanker Kimya capsized off England's Bodorgan Head, killing 10 crewmen. The ship eventually settled upright on the bottom, but in shallow water with some 1500 metric tons of oily cargo still in her tanks. The loss of lives and ship made for a significant disaster, but no one except the insurers worried much about the cargo. Unlike Torrey Canyon or Exxon Valdez, Kimya wasn't carrying crude oil; she wasn't carrying petroleum in any form. Her oil came from sunflowers, not rocks.

Sunflower oil, as everyone involved with the shipwreck knew, is a nontoxic product, so biodegradable that even people find it edible. The responsible parties assumed the oil would provide food for marine bacteria, which might benefit the whole local food chain. The bacteria lie near the base of that chain, and they are largely carbon limited; thus the carbon-rich sunflower oil could… read more

"Boy, Alaska is sure a tough place," my friend wisecracked into our long-distance phone conversation. "First you beat up on Exxon, now you're going after robots." For sheer brute force, any of our active volcanoes outpowers the average megacorporation, so her comparison was hardly fair. Spurr just threw rocks at Dante until the hapless robot fell over, that's all. Remember that old line--It's not nice to fool Mother Nature?

Not that Mt. Spurr was either fooled or even close to giving up all its secrets, despite Dante's slow but steady work. And Alaskans--those in Anchorage and on the Kenai especially--have good reason to wish the volcano wasn't so secretive. Just two years ago, on August 18, 1992, Spurr erupted so much gritty ash into the air over Southcentral Alaska that automatic streetlights turned on hours before sunset--and that was only one of its 1992 eruptions. An ash-spewing volcano upsets all manner of human activities, from flying to breathing; a restless… read more

This column's topic was dictated by a concatenation of coincidence--otherwise, known as fate, or luck. Consider: in mid-July 1994, much of the state of Georgia was submerged under the rainy aftermath of a tropical storm, while parts of Alaska's Interior were drying out after their own mini-deluge. Meanwhile, the shards of a big comet descended into the atmosphere of Jupiter, there generating explosive releases of energy equivalent to nuclear megatonnage.

Naturally, this was the perfect time for Geophysical Institute Professor David Stone to hand me a scientific article that considers the possible link between a broken-up comet and a great flood. Not just any great flood, either. Authors Edith Kristan-Tollmann and Alexander Tollmann, both of the University of Vienna's Geological Institute in Austria, suggest that a cometary crash is the cause of the flood we usually associate with Noah.

So many cultures have tales of catastrophe by flood among their beliefs that… read more

The plane reached cruising altitude smoothly, and I settled back into cattle-car class comfort with reading material in hand: a recent issue of the sprightly British journal New Scientist. Big mistake. It contained an article that turned my family visit Outside into one more guilt trip.

Airline passengers, it seems, are doing more than their share to disrupt the earth's protective ozone layer. We Alaskans do a great deal of passengering on the commercial jets now catching some blame for attacking ozone, and we live at the brink of high latitudes where ozone loss has been most notable. The problem seems one to which we should pay attention.

Thanks to a steady barrage of media coverage, most people now know that the three-atom molecule of oxygen known as ozone blocks much of the hazardous ultraviolet light emitted by the sun. There's now less ozone in the stratosphere available to carry out this protective service because people have mucked up the natural… read more

"So? You had to go to Australia to find an example?" My spouse, an attentive reader of these columns, offered that question in response to an article on a successful attempt Down Under to earn money while saving some of the environment. Then, playing fair, he found some US examples of commercial interests doing well while doing good.

The one that most caught my fancy came from the journal Illahee, a term that has several meanings centering around the ideas of "earth" or "place" in the Chinook trade jargon that enabled Northwestern Indians and Europeans to negotiate in a common language. The spring 1994 issue of Illahee contains an article with the arresting title, "The Ecology of Larry's Markets." Its author has an even more arresting title: Brant Rogers is the environmental affairs manager at Larry's Markets. The title isn't a euphemism that really means something like the guy who waters the lawns, either.

Larry's Markets are a five-store chain of classy… read more

"Hey," said my spouse, handing me a page of the Sunday paper. "Take a look. What's going on?" Shortly thereafter, I called Charlotte Rowe, Deputy State Seismologist at the Geophysical Institute. "Hey," I said. "What's going on?"

These buck-passing questions rose from an article by Hawaiian journalist Jan TenBruggencate, in which he reported the demise of the Richter scale for describing the size of earthquakes. Scientists are phasing it out, he wrote.

"Actually, we rarely use it to report on earthquake size," Rowe said. Rats. Not only had I barely begun to understand the Richter scale, I believed I'd heard quotes---recent quotes---attributed to Rowe herself giving earthquake magnitudes according to that scale.

"Not really," she said. "For one thing, I'm careful not to use the term 'Richter scale'--we get too many visitors coming through the lab asking us to show them the Richter scale, as if it were a machine of some sort," Rowe said. "It's actually the… read more

In much of the world, environmental success stories are seen as tales of economic hard times. Here in the north, many people assume that saving species means losing jobs, and that it's impossible to preserve both ecosystems and cash flow. According to the journal New Scientist, a population biologist in another corner of the world thinks otherwise, and he's set off to make himself---and many investors---richer while he's enriching some ecosystems.

John Wamsley is an Australian scientist who was dismayed by the rapid decline in the unique native animals of his homeland. Frustrated by what he saw as governmental mismanagement of the problem, he undertook a massive experiment that was also an attempt to earn money. Wamsley founded a company called Earth Sanctuaries of Adelaide and began to buy up big tracts of land. Then he built fences and began to kill animals.

Such behavior is not exactly what one might predict from a conservationist, but therein lay… read more

Alaskans may be the least worried people on earth about global warming. On a chilly August afternoon or a frigid January night anywhere north of Dixon Entrance, a few degrees more warmth doesn't sound like a threat. It sounds like a promise.

Nevertheless, a shifted climate would affect us, and not always pleasantly. If sea levels rise significantly, for example, Homer Spit could become Homer Sandbar; the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta might soon become Y-K Bay. So we too should keep a wary eye on those things that seem to be turning up the global thermostat.

Or not turning it up, as the case may be. And---suddenly---that may be the case with methane, one of the chief culprits in changing Earth's atmosphere into a heat-trapping greenhouse. According to a recent issue of the journal Science, the decades-long steady and spectacular increase in the amount of atmospheric methane has stopped.

In fact, it stopped in 1991. The rate of increase had been slowing… read more

Mention bacteria, and people are likely to conjure up images of unpleasant, disease-causing microorganisms. Yet bacteria do more than cause food poisoning and skin infections. Most are harmless to humans, and some are even necessary for our survival. Without thinking about it, we rely on one of their major characteristics: the capability to break things down. Bacteria degrade the garbage we dump every day; they degrade the leaves that plants drop before winter; and they degrade animal feces. If it were not for the action of bacteria, those substances would remain in their original condition forever, and their contents would not be available for recycling and reuse by other living things. Researchers at various institutions, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have paid attention to this characteristic of bacteria and have started research on the creatures to see if they can be used to clean up our environment.

Cleaning up wastes in the environment by using… read more

Enraptured by the Interior's so-far balmy winter, my mind lately has turned to the subject of global warming. It took only a little research to establish that even experts on the subject will do no more than speculate if global warming caused the unusual weather patterns of the winter of 1993-94, with record-breaking snow and cold in the eastern half of the United States and temperate conditions in our corner of the far north. Climate (which, metaphorically speaking, is to weather as a career is to a job) is a wonderfully complex subject, and even the experts still know too little about the earth---and for that matter, the sun---to be sure.

But I did find out that some people think they now understand one aspect of the far north's role in the global warming game. It involves the Arctic output of one of the greenhouse gases contributing to the warming, and it comes down to balancing the carbon budget.

Consider: some things, such as animals, internal combustion… read more

I just polished off the last of the milk, and the plastic bottle is lying atop the other garbage in the trash bag---haunting me. It's a waste of a wonderful material, and the Fairbanks landfill (like every other landfill in the country) is filling up with the long-lasting stuff. Researchers have estimated that polyethelene foam pellets, the ubiquitous packing material, will degrade less than one percent in a century. But plastic recycling isn't available in many places, and it isn't economically competitive with new plastic, which costs only 65 cents a pound to make.

Guilt-ridden wasteful consumers like me may be saved by an unlikely superhero, a soil bacterium with the stately name of Alcaligenes eutrophus, hereinafter called Al. Just as people store energy in the form of fat, Al stores energy in the form of a biodegradable plastic, polyhydroxybutyrate or PHB. Al has found a home with Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries, where the bacteria produce enough plastic (… read more

During August 1993, Western scientists were finally invited into the long-closed oil-producing region of western Siberia. What they found was reported in a November issue of the British journal New Scientist, in an article titled "The Scandal of Siberia." It's a report worth reading for any Alaskan, since we share with that part of Asia both a far northern location and a lot of oil and gas. And, though we may be chronically annoyed by one aspect or another of our relationship with the petroleum industry, Siberia's experience shows we've escaped much potential trouble.

As recently as twenty-odd years ago, the muskeg and taiga forests of western Siberia, an area about the size of all Europe west of the old Iron Curtain, were largely undisturbed. Native peoples herded reindeer, fished, and trapped. Add timber and other forest products to that list, and you'd pretty much have described the entire regional economy. Now it's hard to find any area more than a mile from… read more

The family freezer holds an Alaska mix of store-bought and wild-caught foods, a ready resource for the span of feasts between Thanksgiving and New Year's. This year it's missing only one familiar standby; the freezer holds no native mushrooms.

The absence of wild mushrooms means little here. Crops of the local edible fungi vary greatly from year to year, and I'm a very conservative mushroom hunter, sticking only to species I can identify with certainty.

But elsewhere mushroom hunters' larders are empty because mushrooms are disappearing from places where they've endured for decades. European mushroom hunters report fewer species and fewer, often smaller, specimens than ever before. (That may be one reason why European buyers were so keenly interested in Alaska's outburst of morel mushrooms after the Tok forest fire).

According to Eef Arnolds, a fungal ecologist at the Agricultural University of the Netherlands, woodland fungus species are in a "… read more

Alaska's only world-class caves changed category from "Unknown" to "Little Known" less than a decade ago, so both scientists and spelunkers are still finding surprises in the limestone passages beneath Prince of Wales Island. Thanks to Owen Mason of the University of Alaska Museum, who sent me copies of two papers by paleontologists Timothy H. Heaton and Frederick Grady, I now know a little about one of those finds.

The papers were published by the journal Current Research in the Pleistocene (which, despite the promise in its name, does not contain scholarly studies by time travelers to the Ice Age). For five years, the authors report, officials with the Tongass National Forest and cave-loving explorers with the National Speleological Society have been finding and surveying the Prince of Wales caves. In 1990, expedition leader Keith Allred poked into a high passage of the cave called El Capitan, Alaska's largest known cave. There he found the nearly complete… read more

The article looked innocent. Who'd expect much fuss from a discussion of how evolutionary biology and economics come together in game theory? But what authors Matt Ridley and Bobbi Low have written seems certain to cause trouble. For example, by the end of their article, they asserted that both the Pope and Vice President Gore propound erroneous views, and that the new Greens have an essential similarity to the old Reds.

Wow!

Their article appears in the September issue of The Atlantic, a generally staid monthly that has nevertheless been willing to indulge controversy ever since 1857, when it published arguments for abolishing slavery. This debate is hardly in that league, but it is entertaining.

The authors start from the premise that environmentalism is in trouble. Though green-thinking leaders argue that good environmental practices are compatible with good economic growth, experience so far doesn't bear that out. Why would we need laws to… read more

It began in 1980 as a wild green idea, a gleam in the eye of a founder of the environmental activist group Earth First! It grew, clarified, and came up for serious consideration during a meeting of scientists in November 1991. Finally, it was presented as a real and desirable possibility before the 1993 annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. Now it is known as the Wildlands Project, and it's up for public debate.

The core of the idea is perhaps best seen as a moral vision. In this view, preserving biodiversity---as full a range as possible of native plant and animal species---is a good thing. The rate at which human activity has driven species to extinction is shameful and should be brought under control. Pragmatists defend this view with arguments about economic and other anthropocentric concerns---who knows what naturally occurring cancer cure remains yet undiscovered, literally lurking in the weeds?---but at heart it is the expression of a belief that… read more

Alaskans sometimes seems to be perversely proud of the local capacity for catastrophe. We brag about the bad stuff, from Southcentral's great earthquakes to the Aleutian's great winds, from the North Slope's mosquitoes to Southeastern's devil's club. That enjoyment of bad news may serve us in good stead if some preliminary research findings prove true: Alaska's volcanoes may have triggered the last great ice age, with a little help from the 30 volcanoes on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.

The suggestion comes from work based neither on volcanoes nor glaciers. Instead, the evidence is written in the muddy bottom of the North Pacific Ocean. It was gathered by scientists aboard the JOIDES Resolution, a drill ship that worked in a broad area between Japan and Alaska last summer. The researchers were able to collect extensive core samples of the sea-bottom sediments from 25 holes at seven different sites along the cruise track.

Just as in an archaeological dig,… read more

For reasons unknown, San Diego's institutions of higher education harbor a surprising number of scientists with arctic specialties. Among them is Waiter C. Oechel of San Diego State University, who annually leads a team of researchers to Alaska's north. One of their important study subjects is the carbon dioxide emitted by arctic tundra.

Measuring exhalations from tundra is especially interesting to scientists and the agencies funding them nowadays because of the attention paid to the possibility of global warming. Headlines concentrate on how burning up jungle and chopping down rain forest may be leading to an overall heating of the climate because such activities increase the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet it turns out that far colder, less impressive-looking plant communities also may have important implications for the process.

To see why this is so, envision a typical northern terrain of the type that seems to be heaven for… read more

It was 1964. Our guide, a long-time friend who worked as an engineer for the government of Iceland, was showing us the significant sights near his home town of Reykjavik. "The spot we've come to now," he announced as the car rounded a bend, "offers one of the most remarkable vistas on our south coast. To the right, on the horizon out to sea, is the huge plume being formed as the volcanic heat of the new island of Surtsey meets the cold ocean water."

Icelanders have a great sense of humor. The fog was so thick we could barely see to the sides of the road. I never did glimpse the newborn island rising from the Atlantic Ocean, but Surtsey always holds a special fascination.

In some ways, it's remarkable that Surtsey is still around to interest anyone. The frequent eruptions on and off Iceland kick up new little islands now and again, but---like the two that have formed since Surtsey quit erupting in 1968---they usually are soon washed and blown away. That happens… read more

Far under Alaska's northernmost town, something strange lies buried. It's big. It's mysterious. And the only reason anyone knows it's there is because an atomic bomb was detonated last year in China.

All right, so I'm having a little fun here. Though every word of the foregoing paragraph is true, the situation isn't as creepy as it's been made to sound. Here's the story.

In May 1992, a nuclear device was detonated in China. This underground test generated a one-second seismic punch that penetrated thousands of miles into the earth. Nearly on the other side of the globe, chains of seismometers in Canada and the United States picked up the pulse. In effect, it was the same thing oil-seeking prospectors do by setting off dynamite blasts or monitoring sonic pingers, only on a gigantic scale. Light doesn't penetrate into solid earth, so it's necessary to use some other sort of waves to provide images of what's within. Seismic waves are the best researchers have been… read more

Rod Combellick sounded downhearted on the phone. It was the voice of a prophet with no honor in his own land.

"About that article on the prehistoric Seattle-area earthquakes," he said. "Do you know about our work on past earthquakes in southcentral Alaska? It's really very similar." Well, no, I didn't. To remedy that, Combellick sent a copy of a forthcoming paper.

The column on earthquakes near Seattle he referred to explained how researchers discovered a big quake had occurred right under the city's site a thousand years ago. The group responsible for the work in southcentral Alaska is the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, for which Combellick is Chief of the Engineering Geology Section. And the paper reports how he and his colleagues think that a whopping great earthquake, one with a magnitude between 8 and 9, rends the region from the Copper River Delta past Cook Inlet an average of every 600 to 800 years.

Scientifically speaking, the… read more

Most northerners enjoy an occasional visit to Seattle. The place was long the real capital of Alaska, economically and practically if not politically, so we have good reason to feel the Emerald City is really an overgrown and civilized version of home.

However, it may be more like home than we---or Seattleites---would like. According to the 4 December 1992 issue of the journal Science, Seattle also lies at the heart of earthquake country. We're talking big earthquakes, too.

This may not seem like a startling discovery. After all, every section of the coast of North America shakes at some time as the great plates composing our planet's crust grind past or under one another. And the city of Seattle itself is no stranger to earthquakes. A moderate quake, with magnitude 7.1 and centered near Olympia, hit there in 1949, and one of magnitude 6.5 with epicenter nearly halfway between Seattle and Tacoma hit there in 1965; that one cost about $12 million in… read more

There's a famous old poem that blames the downfall of a kingdom on a missing horse- shoe nail: "...for want of the nail the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost...: and so on through lost soldiers, battles, wars, and crowns. The poet's point was that little things indeed can mean a lot, and overlooking them can lead to big difficulties.

We also tend to shrug off quantities at the other end of the scale. The size of the United States' national debt, for example, is a true mind-boggler. We just can't comprehend what that enormous number means. Yet, as the newspapers and economic commentators tell us every day, we avoid confronting that number only at our peril. It seems we catch it either way. We tend to relate to things on a scale that is commensurate with our perspective whether we happen to be an amoeba or an intergalactic monster. We are largely incapable of comprehending big things, and we simply don't appreciate the importance of little things.… read more

Lately I've been razzed about my bias in favor of things northern. The comments arose because I asserted in a recent column that weather in the north during autumn 1492 helped make possible Columbus' encountering America. That, my critics thought, was pushing things a bit far.

Hah! It's possible to push much farther. For example: according to some authorities, the north may be saving the world from roasting. If they're right, this region may be responsible for holding down the supply of an important culprit in the greenhouse effect.

The authorities are Tare Takahashi, Pieter P. Tans, and Inez Fung, all experts on different aspects of carbon dioxide's interactions with the rest of the world. They base their idea on a study of how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere from what sources, and how much leaves the atmosphere into what sinks. (Anyone who puts off doing the dishes should like the idea of a "sink" as a final resting place, which is just about how… read more

The Cold War's end brought special joy to Alaskans. At long last, we can talk freely with our neighbors on the other side of the Bering Strait, visit them, get involved in shared concerns. Commercial ventures beckon; rubles turn up in every store in Nome. People-to-people exchanges thrive; my neighbors just returned from a visit in Siberia. Research opportunities abound; as I write, my spouse is in Moscow, helping plan an expedition into the Arctic Ocean north of the former Soviet Union. All in all, there's so much traffic back and forth, you'd think the Bering Land Bridge was dry ground again.

However, sometimes the new traffic encounters rough going. Business people admit that rubles don't buy much. Travellers speak of heart-warming but stomach-upsetting festivities. And some scientists have run afoul of the KGB.

Sydney Levitus is director of the U.S. World Data Center for Oceanography, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.… read more

From tomorrow's weather to next year's salmon runs, what will happen in the future commands a lot of scientific attention. Recently, a group composed predominantly of scientists was asked to devise a warning sign that will last for ten thousand years, and that will be understandable as a warning of extreme danger to anyone who sees it ten thousand years from now.

The warning sign is needed for the first nuclear waste repository, where buried plutonium-contaminated materials are to be entombed for millennia far beneath New Mexico. But, to quote Alan Burdick, a science editor who wrote of the problem in the August 1992 issue of Harper's Magazine, "Every tomb needs a tombstone." This tombstone must be special indeed.

The team composition reflected the complex task: psychologist, linguist, archaeologist, anthropologists; materials scientists and an architect; two astronomers who had worked in the National Aeronautics and Space Agency's quest for ways to… read more

In honor of construction season, I offer an odd fact about a common building material. Plasterboard (also known as wallboard, gypsum board, and Sheetrock---the brand name of the best-known kind) may seem pretty solid, but nowadays some of it is made out of thin air.

Well, not quite. As a politician might say, I misspoke. Actually, it's generated out of thick air-polluted air, to be precise.

The chief ingredient of wallboard is gypsum, a mineral also known as calcium sulfate dihydrate. Pure gypsum can take remarkably different forms. Alabaster is a fine-grained rock gypsum, appreciated by sculptors since prehistory because it is beautiful but soft enough to carve. Satinspar is gypsum in fibrous, translucent form; selenite is gypsum in sheets so transparent that it is sometimes mistaken for mica.

These and other less chemically pure but more common forms of gypsum are mined or quarried virtually all over the world. Gypsum is bulky stuff, so it is… read more

When the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting convened in Chicago this February, among the sessions was the first-ever symposium on zoopharmocognosy.

Like Dave Barry, I should pause here and assert: I am not making this up. Zoopharmocognosy is a word new to most dictionaries because it describes a new field of research--new enough so nonscientists haven't yet come up with some informal equivalent term. The scientists who coined the word put together Greek roots covering the items to be included, so that when they read "zoopharmocognosy," other scientists would understand they were dealing with the ability of animals to medicate themselves.

To anyone who's watched a cat eat grass to help upchuck a hairball, there's nothing extraordinary in the thought of animals taking natural medicines to make themselves healthy. What is extraordinary (and recent) is the recognition of just how sophisticated the process can be.

Primates are… read more

I hereby recommend the new book Assembling California by John McPhee, to every Alaskan with any interest in geology. I do this partly because McPhee is a fine writer and because unraveling the geologically messy puzzle of California makes an entertaining story. The real reason, however, is that McPhee supports northern chauvinism; he credits Alaska with raising the Rocky Mountains.

The idea would have been considered outrageous a few decades ago. To make any sense at all, the suggestion has to be based in the theory of plate tectonics, and that theory became respectable only toward the end of the 1960s. Prior to that, the image of great segments of the earth's crust skidding about on the underlying mantle, like so many bumper cars on a well-waxed floor, ran counter to geologists' reasoning. New technologies changed their perception and gave new reasons for why the earth appears as it does. Plate tectonics explains a lot, from what causes most great earthquakes to… read more

Popular wisdom has it that a healthy ecology means a lousy economy. In this view, saving endangered creatures, like snail darters or spotted owls, leads to losing jobs, taxes, even whole communities. Preserving habitats implies closing industries. The choice has seemed to be between enough greenery and enough greenbacks.

That perception may be changing, at least in some portions of the country. One place where the change is under way is near Yellowstone National Park, where research of a professor of economics at the University of Montana is being received with glee by ecologists.

The ecologists and biologists needed cheering up, because they believe the greater Yellowstone area ecosystem--which supports more biodiversity than any other in the temperate zone--is gravely threatened by present government policies. The 18-million-acre area has a lot of government; it falls within four states and under the jurisdiction of a whole alphabet-soup array of federal… read more

When he ordered the retreating Iraqi army to set more than 700 Kuwaiti oil wells afire, Saddam Hussein may have become history's most spectacular sore loser. He also became the promulgator of one of history's most uncontrolled experiments on the effects of air pollution.

Right after the shooting stopped, scientists' speculations on just what those effects would be covered a full range of possibilities. Some people thought the sooty clouds would intercept so much sunlight that air temperatures would be lowered. Within that group, expectations went from minor local chilliness to global catastrophe as the probable result of the cooling.

Others claimed that view was totally wrong. Pointing to the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by the tons of burning oil, they suggested that the overall effect would be hotter temperatures rather than colder ones.

Many meteorologists thought these gloomy predictions were just short of… read more

One of the things about science that's hard to explain to Congressional committees is that you never can tell what research will turn out to be useful---or why.

Superficially, it wouldn't seem that Dr. Michael Gold, of the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology, would face that concern. He studies the physiology, biochemistry, and genetics of a common little fungus found worldwide: Phanerochaete chrysosporium, a member of the white-rot family that attacks the lignin in wood.

Research on this organism might have some practical use. A fungus responsible for rot-ting wood deserves understanding. It has its obvious bad sides, from the human perspective, if the wood it rots is in our homes or furnishings. It has its good features as well, since forests would die out if dead wood did not rot and return to the soil for recycling into new trees. Without rot, a walk in the woods would be more like a scramble through the woodpile.

But it… read more

OK, you read it here first: next winter will probably be another chiller.

No, this prediction doesn't come from the new edition of the Farmer's Almanac. It isn't based on the latest satellite images captured here at the Geophysical Institute. Rather, it's an informed guess made by experienced volcano watchers. They're worried that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines amounts to a gigantic switch, turning down the global thermostat.

They have some cause for concern. In retrospect, atmospheric scientists judge that the 1982 eruption of El Chichon volcano in Mexico kept so much of the sun's energy from warming earth that the planetary surface temperature cooled by several tenths of a degree Centigrade for more than a year. According to Science magazine, Pinatubo's outpouring looks far larger, and seems likely to have a greater effect on the atmosphere.

Anyone who has seen photographs of gritty, drifted volcanic ash covering structures… read more

"I've never seen such goofy timing," a traveler said to me early this summer. "You' ve got sunrise in the middle of the night and sunset after midnight, into the next day." I tried to explain Alaska's temporal manipulations on the basis of bankers' and stockbrokers' convenience, but he went off mumbling something that sounded like "Capitalist conspiracy."

He was almost right. The ubiquitous and nearly arbitrary time zones with which we live are the residue of decisions made by capitalists in cahoots---the railroad barons of the last century.

That item is among the details to be found in Keeping Watch - A History of American Time, a book written by Michael O'Malley and published in 1990 by Viking Press. The railroads, O'Malley reports, pioneered standardized time zones in the 1880s.

They had to. Local solar time is perfectly adequate for an agricultural society---up at dawn, lunch break when the sun is at its highest, work over when the sky… read more

Generally the farther someone lives from a threatened animal, the easier it is to think good thoughts about it. City dwellers donate a lot more money to save tigers than do Bengali villagers, who may inadvertently and unwillingly donate farm animals and even kinfolk to tigers. The villagers have cause to see themselves as more threatened than the tigers are.

Alaskans have some feel for the problem, as debates about wolf control always draw heated comments from people living in wolf-free zones of the lower 48.

Then there's the cuddle factor---cute critters are easier to save than ugly ones. One of the most endangered animals in Britain is the giant raft spider, yet somehow people don't flock to the cause of a four-inch arachnid. The World Wildlife Fund uses the panda, an appealing-looking endangered animal that lives far from most WWF donors, as its symbol.

The foregoing is a gentle way of warning that many people are going to have trouble supporting the… read more

Long ago, according to fossils preserved in rock, the world was a warm place all over. Alligators, amphibians, and tree ferns left fossil imprints in places where such warmth-needing organisms couldn't possibly exist now.

The evidence posed an annoying question. Why should it have been so hot just then, not earlier or later? Scientists tried some creative evasions; some thought plate tectonics provided the explanation--if the continents moved, perhaps the fossil-bearing rocks originated in warmer climes. But that would explain only some of the evidence. There was no avoiding it: during the Cretaceous Period, starting about 120 million years ago, Earth was indeed warmer than at any other time during the past 500 million years--and far warmer than the greenhouse effect will make it during the next century, even according to the most extreme scenarios.

According to Science magazine, some researchers now think they've figured out what happened. They've found… read more

Molecule of the Year: that was the cover headline on the December 21 issue of the journal Science. Suspecting the magazine's editors were praising some new and complex chemical, I set that copy aside.

But everything gets scanned before it's tossed, so I finally learned which molecule was honored. It's not new and it's not chemically complex. It contains just one element--carbon. The designated molecule of the year 1990 is diamond.

What Science magazine celebrated amounts to the domestication of diamond. The year just past, according to chief editor Daniel Koshland, marked technical advances "on a pathway of major importance:" producing inexpensive synthetic diamond, in both crystalline and film forms.

That may sound uninteresting to anyone not in the market for an engagement ring, but artificially produced diamond may change all our lives. This often-beautiful form of pure carbon has many extraordinary (and potentially very useful)… read more

Twenty-odd years ago, disposable diapers looked like a perfect boon to parentkind. By the end of the 1980s, this simple item had become a bane, conjuring up images of over-burdened landfills at least, a ruined planet at worst. The disposable diaper had become a kind of environmentalist battle flag, and regretful mothers and fathers were returning in droves to cloth diapers and laundry duty.

A good scientist will pursue the truth, no matter where that pursuit leads. Charles Gerba, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, reported on the work of a team that checked on one of the greatest fears attending use of the disposables: that they could preserve, alive, hordes of disease-causing organisms. Certainly many live germs leave the human body via feces, but no one knew how they fared in diapers buried in landfills.

The team exhumed more than 200 soiled diapers from landfills in New York, Florida, and Arizona. They tested fecal samples from each diaper for an… read more

Friends of mine used to raise two turkeys every year. Being practical and unsentimental people, they named one Christmas and one Thanksgiving. More sensitive souls may justify eating a domestic turkey with the idea that the bird has about the intellect---as well as the figure---of a sofa pillow. Seen in that light, consuming the traditional holiday bird is more like eating a stuffed rutabaga than dining on a real animal.

To undercut that dubious consolation, and in memory of Thanksgivings past, I offer the true story of how ordinary domestic turkeys played a key role in saving an entire species of tree from extinction.

The year was 1973. The place was Mauritius, the large and tropically warm island lying in the Indian Ocean. The problem was the decline of the tambalacoque tree, a once common and useful source of timber for the island residents. Only thirteen of the trees remained, and they were sickly specimens.

Stanley Temple, a scientist in the… read more

As football fills weekend afternoons, players and watchers both receive reminders that yesterday's hero easily becomes today's goat. Last week's game was saved by the kicker who today misses an easy twenty-yard field goal; the quarterback whose multimillion-dollar contract seemed fair in the preseason can be the one with the most interceptions by midseason.

It can happen to scientists as much as to football players. As evidence, I offer the sad case of Thomas Midgley.

Midgley was an American chemist given an important problem in 1930 by Charles Kettering, then the chief of research for General Motors. The problem was to devise a better refrigerant for GM's Frigidaire division. Until Thomas Midgley started work, gases such as sulfur dioxide and ammonia had been used for the purpose. These gases performed adequately in heat exchangers such as refrigerators, but had major drawbacks. They were poisonous and flammable. Kettering wanted a safer substance.

It… read more

Coincidence is a bane for scientists. When two apparently unrelated events occur in such a way that they imply connection, it's awfully easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. Yet fear of making the wrong jump may lead researchers to reject a valuable new idea.

Consider an odd detail reported after last year's Loma Prieta earthquake. That earthquake's source, the San Andreas fault, is one of the most studied geological features in the world. Laser beams shoot across it, measuring tiny increments in southern California's slow voyage toward Alaska Tiltmeters dot its flanks, registering minuscule bulges and subsidences in the stressed rock sensitive seismometers surround it, noting its every twitch.

Still, on October 17, 1989, geophysicists were as surprised as everyone else when a 32 kilometer-long section of the San Andreas suddenly broke free. Their studies had given them fair confidence that the section would break sometime within the next 30 years. That… read more

Secretly, most Alaskans are grateful when the tourists arrive. I'm not talking here about the busloads of folks on packaged tours, though we can be thankful for their support of the economy. I mean everyone's personal visitors, the aunts and uncles, cousins and school chums who arrive on doorsteps all across the state around this time of year.

Without them, we'd be missing an important excuse to jaunt off touring our own state. (Like birdsong, the summer apologies flow: "Honest, I'd love to stay and help with inventory, but Maude and George came all the way from Dubuque..." We all have variants of this useful speech.)

That's the good part. But once you set off with Maude and George to see the sights, they expect you to answer their questions about Alaska. All of them. And that's impossible, unless you bring along a staff of specialists.

I suggest instead a useful distraction: learn a few geological terms, memorize the location of a handful of… read more

Four hundred registrants from fifteen nations are expected to arrive for the International Conference on the Role of the Polar Regions in Global Change, a meeting to be held 11-15 June at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. That impressive turnout doesn't mean all scientists are convinced that global changes is an urgent problem, but the consensus is growing that change of some sort is under way, and that it will show up clearly in high-latitude regions like Alaska.

Change--specifically, a warmer planet--seems inevitable chiefly because human activity is leading to more of the so-called greenhouse gases present in Earth's atmosphere. Though scientists may argue justly about how much warming, it any, has occurred already, there's no arguing with the basic physics involved. More greenhouse gases in the air mean warming; the debate concerns only the accuracy of various computer models that specify whether counterbalancing effects will appear, how much warming will occur,… read more

Do you remember those old margarine ads--"It's not nice to fool Mother Nature?" It's not nice to fool Old Man River, either. In the long run, it's not possible. That's what might be concluded from the presentations in some sessions at the New Orleans meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this year. The scientists were considering how lower Louisiana has been affected as people have manipulated the Mississippi River.

Some of that manipulation was unintentional (whenever a parking lot is paved in Minnesota or Ohio, runoff changes in the Mississippi system), but much was deliberate, in attempts to control the river's damaging floods and eroding banks or to improve its navigability.

Each action was reasonable in light of economics and human safety. The inhabitants of riverside towns and cities did not want their works inundated or swept away when the river flooded. Neither did the farmers who cultivated the fertile floodplain soils. Of… read more

On March 18, voters in East Germany went to the polls. For the first time in decades, they were able to vote for candidates with different party affiliations and different views. Among the points of diversity was one accord: in their platforms, all the new political parties have incorporated promises to protect the environment.

It's a politically prudent decision. The first public opinion survey taken by Western pollsters showed that East Germans rank the environment highest among their concerns. They seem to have good reason for thinking that way.

East Germany was so tightly sealed behind the old Iron Curtain that the magnitude of its environmental problems was virtually unknown in the West until late 1989, although neighboring countries certainly had reasons to know something was wrong. Moving air and water don't respect political boundaries, and what moved out of East Germany was cruddy. But it was not a subject East German officials would discuss with… read more

Any Alaskan who lives south of the Brooks Range may encounter a singularly odd happening perhaps once every few years, or far too often in a single year. My experience last fall was typical: sound asleep, near three in the morning, when suddenly Whazzat? I'm wide awake, all systems flooded with adrenaline. Shortly came a familiar rattle-rattle-shake--oh, yeah, just another earthquake.

But why did I wake up before the shaking began?

Many people can report similar experiences. Something catches their attention, but it's not the heaving or quivering of an earthquake. Local residents in a more alert state than I was for last fall's local tremblor spoke of hearing a loud thump or thud-- "Thought a tree fell on the house," as one put it. "Then everything began to shake."

It turns out that what apparently warns us of an impending earthquake is actually the earthquake itself. More properly, our attention is caught by the arrival underfoot of the first of the… read more

Perhaps because they're so popular with illustrators of children's books, homes with thatched roofs occupy a special place in the hearts of people who wouldn't dream of living in one. These shaggy shelters look as if they should be occupied by elves or gnomes--maybe with a plastic stockbroker decorating the lawn.

The gnomes may soon be homeless. According to the specialized journal Aquatic Botany, something's gone wrong with these roofs. Reed thatchwork that once lasted (with occasional repairs) for 50 to 80 years now decays and loses its weatherproofing capability in 4 to 10 years.

Because thatch is still a popular roofing material in many places, this isn't a trivial problem. According to researcher S.M. Haslam, Britain alone imported more than 8 thousand tons of reeds in 1985--even though most roofing thatch in Britain is home grown. The imported reeds help make up for the loss of wheat straw that provided thatch for many English homes before about… read more

Once I performed an inadvertent experiment on how quickly garbage decays in cold Alaska soils. It's a tale with outlines familiar to many northerners: building the cabin, shopping at case-lot sales, stashing cans beside the trail because they're too heavy to carry all at once, misplacing the cache, something happens. Sometimes it's an early snow, or a clever bear. In my case it was an early-rising catskinner, come to put in the driveway along the trail's approximate route. Somewhere under his new berm lay four two-pound cans of coffee. So much for case-lot sales.

The lost coffee came to mind recently because garbage has been very much in the headlines. Some Alaska stores are earning points with the environmentally conscious by resuming to plain old-fashioned biodegradable brown paper bags for carrying groceries. There's discussion of banning or taxing the seemingly immortal disposable diaper. Landfills are filling up. Wise folk are warning that if we don't shape up, we'… read more

The idea of using methanol to replace gasoline as a fuel has been around for a while, but it inspired enthusiasm in few people. That's changing, and--for several reasons--Alaskans might want to be alert spectators, if not yet active players, in what promises to be a whole new game.

Methanol emerged from the also-rans officially in June 1989, when President Bush made using alternative, clean-burning fuels part of the clean air plan he presented to Congress. The plan is up for Congressional action in early 1990.

Methanol, a clear, odorless liquid is the leading candidate among possible replacement fuels because it is inexpensive and because adjusting cars to burn it costs comparatively little. Proponents say it will make quite a difference for the better in air quality. The Bush plan aims for having 9 million cars fueled by methanol in nine target cities by the year 2004. That would lower vehicular contribution to the ozone in the air above those cities from the… read more

Early in the afternoon of December 13, a fellow staff member of the Geophysical Institute stopped by the publications office. "You might want to visit the seismology lab," he said. "And bring a photographer. Redoubt's acting up, and it might be nice to have a few shots of the crew in action---just in case something does happen."

I knew Mt. Redoubt was one of Cook Inlet's active volcanoes, and that it could cause considerable damage if it erupted. I hustled right down to seismology. The normally quiet laboratory was packed with busy people. It looked like a well-prodded nest of hornets. But there was system in the seething, as I began to understand once volcanologist Juergen Kienle could grab a moment to explain what was happening.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO), which is a joint activity of the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, operates five… read more

The next time someone tells you that some point on the earth's surface is a certain height above sea level, you might ask "Sea level as measured when? On a geologic time scale, sea level is a shifty thing. Right now, the oceans seem to be creeping upward; that's one of the bits of evidence supporting current concerns about global warming.

Yet, judging by changes in shorelines, the rise doesn't seem to be uniform. In some places, it looks as if the sea is actually sinking. Uncovering the facts behind the appearances is keeping a lot of researchers reviewing tide-gauge records and boning up on local geology.

Harold R. Wanless, a researcher at the University of Miami who studies the consequences of rising sea levels, recently reported on some of the work in Sea Frontiers magazine. To understand what's happening now, he thinks we have to look back in time about 15,000 years.

Then, the last ice age was nearing its end. So much water was frozen, bound… read more

With the aftershocks from the latest earthquakes in San Francisco and China, millions of people received lessons about seismic events. Diagrams of faults and epicenters filled TV screens and newspaper pages; radio commentators lectured about plate tectonics and recurrence intervals. Amid the tragedies and terrors, no one had much good to say about earthquakes; yet, like the strains and pain of giving birth, the processes creating earthquakes are essential to the continuation of life.

For one thing, the sea would be poisonously briny without them.

Proving that requires considering first why the sea is salty. An old Scandinavian folktale says that a magic salt grinder was tossed into the ocean, where it functions eternally for want of the right charm to stop it. Oceanographers joke that the tale is quite true, except for details.

In the real world, the grinding is done by rivers and their tributaries. As rains wash the land, they carry some of it away.… read more

Arctic haze has an innocuous-sounding name, but it isn't innocent stuff. It's air pollution. Affecting some 9 percent of the globe, it's the most extensive system of atmospheric fouling yet found.

In a peculiarly modern way, arctic haze has recently grown up: it's going to be the subject of a TV special. The staff of KUAC-TV, the University of Alaska Fairbanks public television station, has produced a program on the subject. Alaska viewers will see the show during November, and the Public Broadcasting System will offer it nationally in the spring.

The passage of arctic haze from discovery to the public eye might play on Mystery Theatre. It's a kind of detective story, with false leads, subtle clues, and much dogged legwork (or at least lab- and fieldwork). Thanks to fingerprinting--chemical fingerprinting--the trail even leads behind the old Iron Curtain.

Though arctic haze had been named and reported in 1957 by military weather observers, the report… read more

A bottle of America's commonest tomato sauce can tell a lot about what happens in some of Alaska's relatively uncommon great earthquakes. It's the feature that physical chemists call thixotropy.

Back in high school chemistry, most of us learned about colloidal systems. Put most simply, that means fine pieces of one substance are dispersed evenly through something else so that everything wants to stay put. Whipped cream is a tasty example; the butterfat bits are held in place--suspended in a dispersion--by little air bubbles. Gelatin makes another edible colloid; the protein suspended in the liquid provides a semisolid Jello dessert. Commercial ketchup is another such system, behaving like a kind of gel with fine bits of solid tomato and seasonings dispersed through the liquid.

Not all gels behave the same under different kinds of stresses. Gelatin desserts don't hold up well when they're heated, for example. And thixotropy appears, as the dictionary puts it, as… read more

Because the timber industry is an important one in some of Alaska and neighboring parts of Canada, and since a fair bit of that industry is devoted to turning trees into pulp for paper, it seems worthwhile for northerners to keep an eye on what's going on in the paper-making trade.

Our transpolar neighbors in Sweden apparently have come up with something new: computer paper made by a more environmentally friendly method. The Swedish paper company Roffs Stralfors began selling the new paper in April of this year, but it is actually manufactured by the Holmen paper mill near Stockholm. That mill uses an unusual process to turn wood into pulp, and an even newer method of whitening the final paper.

The customary pulping method, known as the kraft or sulfate process, uses sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide to dissolve out some of the lignin that binds wood fibers together. Enough lignin remains so the paper made from kraft-processed pulp has a fine finish, but the… read more

From southeastern Alaska to northern California, the Pacific Northwest contains the most magnificent old-growth forests left on the continent. They are a natural wonder, a natural resource, and---naturally---a battleground for competing interests.

The debate usually takes the form of wood products (and jobs) versus wilderness. In Alaska, Congressional committees try to sort out the many opinions on the right way to treat the Tongass National Forest. In Washington and Oregon, the conflict has gone into the courts. Its symbol there is the spotted owl, a species that may be threatened, or even endangered, but maybe isn't. Until recently, no one really studied it.

If the owl is the symbol of the struggle between lumberjacks and environmentalists, the uncertainty of its status is a fair symbol for the state of scientific knowledge about our old-growth forests. But it's hard to blame the scientists themselves for this situation.

Once upon a time, forest… read more

Humankind seems forever threatened by natural disaster. By the tens of thousands of people die in floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and storms. Yet as soon as the flood waters recede or the volcanoes slumber, residents return to the scene. Why don't they learn?

Actually, we often live in harm's way for very good reasons. What drives us to live in dangerous places lies in our species' determination to survive--and in geophysics.

People range over the sea in pursuit of fish, and the sea has been swallowing fishing boats since before the dawn of history. Water bodies offer the most economical form of transport, and most vessels arrive safely at port. But some don't, and storms bred at sea or over large lakes take their toll of shoreside settlements as well.

We farm for our food, and farmers naturally seek the best soils. Many of those have been deposited by flooding rivers as they spread over flat valleys. Sometimes the… read more

To miners, getting the lead out is more than a metaphor for haste. Separating what you want from what you don't is a crucial problem.

Mineral industries use many processes to separate valuable products from waste rock. Hand sorting, one of the oldest techniques, is still the best in some applications. The human eye and hand team up well to distinguish differences in certain readily apparent physical properties, such as color or brightness. In Alaska, hand sorting is still used for recovering coarse gold from placer concentrates, metals from waste processing facilities, and coarse tin from coarse gravel on the Seward Peninsula.

Slightly more sophisticated is the sluice box, which takes advantage of the difference in density (mass per unit volume) between particles of gold and of rock. For a given volume, gold weighs about seven times as much as quartz.

Another separation process, froth flotation, takes advantage of how easily a mineral particles' surface… read more

During this past summer there was some worry about Mt. Dutton, near King Cove. Earthquakes in the area warned that magma, the melted rock and trapped gases from deep in the earth, might be moving under the region. Since Mt. Dutton is a volcano, there was a chance of magma moving under and up through the mountain in a volcanic eruption. Because of that possible danger, Mt. Dutton was quickly furnished with seismographs to telemeter the tremors to the Alaska Volcano Observatory and watching scientists.

The earthquake activity died away, and to everyone's relief, no eruption has occurred--yet, at least. But that doesn't mean nothing happened.

If magma is shifting and stirring but does not reach the surface, all of it won't necessarily drain back down to its deep sources. Nor is it necessarily biding time until a future eruption. The magma may stop and solidify in its tracks.

Should that happen, the residents of King Cove may encounter an igneous intrusion… read more

The time of year when fall slides into winter has always been the spooky season in the northern hemisphere. For our ancestors, it may only have been a matter of lengthening twilights and frosty breath hampering vision. In the peculiar evening light, a black cat and its shadow crossing one's path might seem a distorted little demon.

Logically, given how human senses interact, the setting could affect sound perception as well. Most people have experienced a sense of heightened hearing in dim light, to the point that familiar sounds are suddenly eerie.

But sometimes such tidy explanations are quite wrong. Let me share a childhood haunt with you, one that has plagued experts for hundreds of years: the Moodus Noises.

Moodus is an apparently unremarkable Connecticut town. except that it is the headquarters for peculiar subterranean noises. My childhood home lay a dozen miles to the north, and the noises were simply part of life's givens. I associate them… read more

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, although it may be changed from one form into another. (First Law of Thermodynamics)

In this century, the First Law, and a similar law that states that mass can be neither created nor destroyed, have been modified a bit -- we now know that it is possible to change small amounts of mass into large amounts of energy and vice versa. In fact, we now recognize that this conversion of some of the tiny amount of the mass that holds atomic nuclei together into energy provides virtually all of the energy we use.

No, I don't mean that we have a hidden atomic power plant in every city. We have only a few plants that generate a small amount of energy by splitting heavy, unstable atoms such as uranium into two or more pieces. A small part of the mass, the part that held the unstable nucleus together, is released and turned to heat energy in the process, and that heat is then used to generate electricity.

Our… read more

Much has been written lately about ozone and its role in protecting us from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. This is not, however, the only case where humans and ozone interact. For example, most cities produce substantial amounts of ozone from the combination of light and common air pollutants, and that's bad!

Ozone is a toxic and unstable gas that is sometimes formed from normal oxygen. It is composed of three oxygen atoms (instead of the two in an oxygen molecule). It can be produced in several ways, usually involving light or electrical discharges. Once produced in the atmosphere it will revert back to normal oxygen in about 10 days, but not before getting involved in a complex series of chemical reactions.

Ozone is sometimes intentionally made for its strong oxidizing nature; like hydrogen peroxide, and for the same reasons, it can kill bacteria and other microorganisms. A high-voltage electrical discharge produces ozone which can then be used instead of… read more

Fifteen years ago, on a small island near Iceland, a lava flow was threatening to block a harbor. Plans were made to use explosives on the hot lava, with the idea that allowing the cold seawater to come into contact with the hot interior of the flow would speed up the cooling and help stop the flow. Then, the day before the attack on the lava was due, someone did a quick calculation of what might happen if the energy stored in the hot lava was released in further mixing of hot lava with sea water. The experiment was canceled -- fast.

A goodly fraction of the world's volcanoes are situated on islands or coastlines, or erupt underwater. Hot lava and water meet each other in these regions rather often, yet violent steam explosions are rare. What usually happens when lava meets water?

Suppose hot lava flows into the ocean. Lava fluid enough to flow has a temperature well above the boiling point of water, and the water in contact with the lava will be heated to its… read more

The dunes were hazy under the sun. Sand grains, knocked loose by the rising wind, bounced up the long, shallow windward slopes, then plunged over the sandy crests to slide down the steeper slipfaces in the lee of the dunes. Smaller grains of dust, knocked loose by the bouncing sand, were swirled into the air, joining dust already picked up from the sun-dried bars and islands of the half-dry stream. The air darkened as the dust load increased, and the little family of horses, nervous at the increasing wind and darkness, left their grazing on the windswept knoll and moved down into the sparse growth of willows at the bottom of a small gully. A herd of bison found similar shelter, but the mammoths continued to feed on the increasingly dusty vegetation.

Dust sifted down in the sheltered areas, working its way through the blades of grass, sedge, and sage to the surface. In a beheaded gully where thunderstorm waters no longer eroded the dust away as fast as it built up, a… read more

Deep below the surface of the Yukon valley, the earth's crust is being compressed by the inexorable northward motion of the Pacific Ocean floor. The magnitude 6.8 Rampart earthquake of 1968 relieved some of the stresses, and for several years after that quake, small aftershocks continued to accommodate the slow deformation. Then, for some reason, the motion on a particular bit of the fault stopped. Small earthquakes continued, but they moved farther and farther along the fault away from this locked region. In 1985, almost four years after motion stopped, the fault broke again in the Dall City earthquakes of February (magnitude 5.6) and March (magnitude 6.0).

Not all faults in the earth's crust behave this way, but those that do appear to be fairly consistent about it. Dr. U. Inouye, a Japanese seismologist, first reported the pattern of small earthquakes disappearing before a large one in 1965. Another Japanese seismologist, Professor Kiyoo Mogi, pointed out in 1969 that… read more

One product of civilization is polluted air. Here in Alaska that is seen as arctic haze from Eurasia, ice fog from our cars, and public health warnings due to excessive carbon monoxide. Apparently the trees suffer as well.

Tree damage was first associated with air pollution about ten years ago in West Germany. Air pollution is heavy there, and residents are accustomed to the yellow-brown layer that extends from a few thousand feet down to the ground. Death of spruce and fir trees was traced to the tainted air. Yellow patches are now visible on survivors in Germany's famous Black Forest, particularly on hill tops where pollution effects are greatest. Forest health is now deteriorating all across Europe and some formerly skeptical foresters now believe that air pollution is the prime cause of tree damage.

Pollution-enhanced tree damage may be beginning in Alaska. Near Fairbanks, yellow patches have appeared on some spruce trees, for example those along the north… read more

There is an old story that tells of a philosopher who did a great service for a king. "Name your reward," cried the grateful monarch. "Anything in my kingdom is yours."

"Bring me a chessboard," said the philosopher, "and on the first square place one grain of wheat, on the second, two grains, on the third, four grains, so that each square has twice the number of grains as the square before, up to the sixty-fourth and last square of the board."

"What, so little?" asked the king. "Surely your service deserves more than this!"

"Oh king," replied the philosopher, "know that I have asked for more grain than exists in your entire kingdom, nay, than in the entire world."

In fact, the mass of grains of wheat to be placed on the final square of the chessboard would be of the same order as the mass of the entire biosphere of our planet -- jungles, forests, grasslands, animals, herbs, humans and bacteria combined.

If repeated doubling were no… read more

Everybody, it seems, knows that active volcanoes make poor neighbors. In Hawaii, they disgorge hot lava that starts forest fires and buries homes and highways. Here in Alaska, Mt. St. Augustine, which is on Augustine Island in Cook Inlet, spews clouds of ash into international air routes. The great explosive eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State and the accompanying landslide devastated thousands of acres within minutes.

What happens when such a landslide hits a sizable body of water? The answer can be a tsunami.

Popularly but erroneously called a tidal wave, a tsunami is actually a displacement wave. When a mass of land shifts under (or into) the sea because of submarine landslides, earthquake-caused slumps or uplifts of the sea floor, or volcanic activity, a mass of water must move. Anyone with a bathtub and a lively child is probably familiar with this general principle. Typically, Mt. St. Augustine's eruptions involve block and ash flows and debris… read more

Volcanoes have been much in the news this past year. The Mt. St. Augustine eruptions in Cook Inlet during the spring of 1986 is one example, but there were also other eruptions of Aleutian volcanoes which were not as well documented. The mysterious gas clouds emitted from an extinct water-filled crater in Cameroon during August killed at least 1,700 people, and the ooring lava flows on Hawaii destroyed the homes and fortunes of many people on the "Big Island" at the end of the year.

Scientists and laymen alike have often wondered what it would be like if it were possible actually to bore down to a magma chamber. (Magma is the molten rock that seethes beneath the surface before it finally emerges as lava.) Well, it has been done, although it was unexpected and unintentional.

Back in 1968, drillers in Iceland sank a borehole to a depth of over 3,700 feet to tap a hot-water aquifer for geothermal power near Namafjall. For nearly the next ten years, the hole… read more

After a quiet period since its major eruptions in March and April of this year, Mount St. Augustine Volcano awoke again in late August. The primary indication that the island volcano was once again the scene of eruptive activity was a nearly continuous background level of seismic activity, which was monitored by the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks. In addition, the long-suffering town of Homer (60 miles to the northeast of Augustine) again found itself the victim of a dusting of volcanic ash and muddy rains.

As a volcanologist with the Geophysical Institute since 1970, I was very interested in investigating the situation on the ground. On August 28, I escorted Maurice and Katia Krafft, a French husband-and-wife volcanologist team, to the island by helicopter. As it developed, this provided a rare opportunity to observe "pyroclastic flows" at close range. (The name comes from Greek roots--"pyro," fire; "clastic," broken--and refers to an avalanche of hot volcanic… read more

It was May, 1947, near Hekla Crater in southwest Iceland, an onlooker would have observed a curious scene. Workers were digging seemingly aimless ditches across the landscape, as if trying to drain invisible ponds. In fact, that is exactly what they were doing.

During the Hekla eruption of 1947-48, streams issuing from beneath the new lava flows began to precipitate lime. At the same time, bird and animal carcasses began turning up in low areas of the topography around the crater. The implications were clear: the volcano was exhaling carbon dioxide. In the water, the carbon dioxide was combining with calcium to produce calcium carbonate, or lime, and there were areas on the ground where the gas collected in concentrations strong enough to suffocate the animals. Being heavier than air, carbon dioxide will flow like water across the terrain and collect in low spots, forming "ponds" that are invisible and odorless, but lethal. (The largest pond associated with the Hekla… read more

Almost everyone has seen pictures of the famous San Andreas fault in California cutting across the countryside. After some earthquakes there, photographs have been taken of highways, fences and even buildings that don't square up the way they're supposed to, because the ground to either side of the fault has moved in opposite directions. This makes the fault line easy to observe.

We don't often see this in Alaska, even though the state experiences far more earthquakes than California. There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that the faults responsible for the majority of Alaska's largest earthquakes lie offshore. During the great earthquake of 1964, a gash was created from Prince William Sound to south of Kodiak Island, but it was mostly under water. The cracks that dropped Anchorage streets and buildings far below the original ground level were due to local slumping. The actual fault was far away to the east.

Large earthquakes also happen in the… read more

 

On a recent evening, our daughter and her friend Michelle Musick were walking along the shoulder of an Ester road when Michelle almost stepped into a hole hidden by the weeds. It was at once apparent that this was no "ordinary" hole, because they couldn't see the bottom. They came to our house to get a flashlight and we all trooped down to have a look.

It gives a positively eerie sensation to stick your head down into a hole maybe a foot and a half across, and not be able to see anything, even with a flashlight.

What could be determined (once a stronger flashlight was obtained) was that there was a cavern extending underneath the road. The roof seemed to be about two feet thick, and a rock on the end of a fishline revealed that the hole was about 25 feet deep. In any event, it looked large enough to gobble up any of the heavy service vehicles that use the road.

Jim Gilmore of the Ester road service commission wasted no time in blocking off the road and… read more

Legend records an incident that happened when a climber was scaling Mount Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains of what is now East Germany. At a particularly precipitous point, he glanced up and saw, in the haze before him, a human figure with a halo surrounding its head. Understandably startled by this apparition, he lost his hold and fell to his death.

If true, the unfortunate climber had jumped to a conclusion (pun intended). Glenn Shaw of the Geophysical Institute points out that what he saw had little to do with the sanctity of the beholder, or that of whatever being he thought he saw.

Because of the notoriety of the account and the frequency with which the phenomenon can be observed on that mountain, the spectacle has been accorded the various names of Brocken Bow, Brocken Spectre, or, more simply, Glory (the latter because of the halo around the figure). It is now known that what is actually seen is merely a shadow of the mountain climber… read more

Six weeks after its major eruption on March 26, Augustine Volcano continues to grumble and steam. Recently, however, it is displaying a type of behavior that is mystifying volcanologists.

It is characteristic for the ground to vibrate continuously during an eruptive cycle when magma from below is moving toward the vent and flowing out onto the surface. Indeed, this was observed at Augustine prior to all the larger eruptive events of the recent cycle, and it continued for several weeks afterward. During this time, seismograph records from stations on the island were never at rest; a typical record was an indecipherable mess of wildly swinging lines.

Beginning the last week of April, however, something different happened. The constant seismic background began to die away and was replaced by small, discrete seismic events which repeated with remarkable regularity. These small events (each equivalent to about a magnitude 1 earthquake) were occurring regularly at… read more

An indication of how effective modern communications have become is that Fairbanks, in the Alaskan interior 400 miles from erupting Mount St. Augustine in Cook Inlet, is home base for the primary agency monitoring that volcano.

Augustine continues to pose a serious threat to population centers and air traffic in southcentral Alaska, yet it is the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks that is maintaining an around-the-clock check on the volcano's pulse. It is a situation analogous to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, when the seismic monitoring was performed at the University of Washington in Seattle, while the endangered population center was Portland, much closer to the volcano.

Like St. Helens, Augustine should be watched. The worst hazard is a sea wave, which would be created if a large portion of the mountain were to fall away into the inlet. This did happen during an 1883 eruption. About 25 minutes after a heavy explosion was heard and dense clouds of… read more

Probably the most common report of earthquake phenomena that the Geophysical Institute receives is, "I heard it coming," or "I heard it before it hit." This is also the most difficult phenomenon to explain, because it is physically impossible.

Sound travels in air at about 1100 feet per second. The fastest waves to leave the source of an earthquake travel at a speed nearly twenty times that. The earthquake waves must therefore reach an observer before any air wave that might have been generated at the source. The catch is that the first-arriving earthquake wave is a type that is often too small to be felt. In other words, the earthquake has already arrived when the observer thinks he or she "hears it coming. The larger waves that are felt follow.

There are two types of waves that radiate outward from the source of an earthquake and travel within the earth (there are also types that travel along the surface, but we won't be concerned with those). The waves that… read more

More than 20 years ago, the first conclusive evidence was found on the sea floors that the earth's north and south poles have switched places repeatedly over the course of geologic time. The last reversal occurred some 710,000 years ago. For most of a million years before that, the north pole was the south pole and vice versa. Epochs of shorter duration on the order of 50,000 years can be found in the geologic record, but for the most part, each seems to last between 200,000 and 1,000,000 years.

No one knows how long it takes to make the transition. It may take a few years or it may take a few thousand (a few thousand years is about the shortest time interval that can be reliably measured from sediments and lava flows on the ocean floor). What is known from measurements of remnant magnetism in ancient pottery shards is that the earth's magnetic field has weakened by more than 50 percent in the past 4,000 years. In other words, we may be headed into another reversal.… read more

Dennis Cowles is an old friend from Fairbanks, now transplanted to Anchorage, who for years has had the unsettling habit of calling me up and asking me questions I can't answer. Last week, Dennis called and put his latest query this way:

"I'm putting together information for a survival guide. In explaining how to use the sun as an indicator of direction, I found that the time between sunrise and noon is not the same as between noon and sunset. As a matter of fact, there's up to 16 minutes difference. Why is that?"

Asking around, I found that few of the people I work with were aware that this was so, but we soon learned that Dennis was right. Checking the Naval Observatory Ephemeris and various time charts showed that the times for sunrise and sunset are, indeed, skewed about the noon hour. (This is true noon we're considering here, please note--the time when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, unaffected by too-wide time zones or Daylight Savings.)… read more

How strange it seems that the two elements that unite to produce the most important compound to life on earth--water--also united to produce that ghastly fireball at Cape Canaveral.

Hydrogen and oxygen compete with carbon as being the elements most vital to life as we know it. We seldom stop to consider that the oxygen we breathe is the most corrosive element in the universe. It combines with--rusts--almost everything. If we were to breathe pure oxygen at atmospheric pressure, it would be highly toxic. It is not just fortunate happenstance that the earth's atmosphere is diluted 79 percent by other gases (primarily inert nitrogen). That's the way the planet's atmosphere has evolved over a very long time, and we have adapted to its changes. But a creature accustomed to a methane atmosphere, for example, would probably take one breath of pure Rocky Mountain air and expire.

While oxygen is the most abundant element on earth, hydrogen is the most abundant element in… read more

For a week in November, the world's wandering attention was attracted by the eruption of the Columbian volcano Nevada del Ruiz. It reminded us again that we live on a restless planet. We quickly forget, though. How many people think about Mt. St. Helen's these days? Closer to home, I wonder how many Alaskans are aware that our own state hosts most of the volcanoes in North America.

For starters, every single Aleutian Island is, or was, an active volcano. That's a lot, right there. In the western part of the state, the Seward Peninsula is dotted with extinct volcanoes, as is southwest Alaska, St. Lawrence Island and Nunivak Island. Southeast Alaska has Mt. Edgecumbe near Sitka. The Interior has the group of volcanoes centered on Mt. Wrangell. The Alaska Peninsula is crammed with volcanoes, many of them active, and they extend all the way inland to Mt. Spurr, just 80 miles west of Anchorage.

It isn't until one of these monsters erupts that we pay particular heed… read more

They are small, black blobs that might pass for hardened bits of asphalt but they are actually walnut-sized glassy stones. They commonly take on distinctive regular shapes like teardrops, dumbbells, and strangely flanged buttons that look like the tops of large rivets with the stems melted off. They're called tektites, and they are found strewn about on the ground in widely separated "fields" around the world, the largest of which covers most of Australia.

The one thing on which most scientists can agree about tektites is the way in which they obtained their shapes. Flow structures seen on tektites examined under the microscope tell of a very fast trip through the atmosphere while they were still molten. The flanged lip of the rivet-head type was formed by air forcing the molten glass from the nose back around the outer edges where it solidified while the tektite was still in flight. The dumbbell types were created when the molten mass was spinning like a majorette's… read more

Sometimes nature seems to pack a one-two punch. If southern California has a drought with brush fires, for example, the next rainy spell is likely to bring flooding and mudslides. That's logical, if unpleasant: the vegetation that helped control runoff and stabilize slopes was destroyed by the fires, so the flooding is an understandable consequence.

Flood after fire can be seen as a natural pattern, but what about earthquake after flood? Some longtime Fairbanksans are sure that it happens, and seismologists think they may be right.

In June 1967, Fairbanks residents experienced an earthquake swarm which included at least four events between magnitude 5 and 6 during the first half-hour. During the following weeks, aftershock activity tapered off in typical fashion, and people felt only an occasional small earthquake (although many were being recorded by instruments).

In August of that year, the notorious "thousand-year flood" struck the city, forcing many… read more

The word "volcano" conjures up dramatic images. There are the fiery fountains from Kiluea and the threatening rivers of lava from Mauna Loa in Hawaii. There's the violent explosion and ashy devastation of Mt. St. Helens in Washington. Then there's the froth and dribble from the mud volcanoes in Southcentral Alaska.

Indeed, lying within sight of dormant Mount Wrangell volcano in the eastern Copper River basin, there are a number of features which, for lack of a better term, are called mud volcanoes. These form low cones generally less than a quarter of a mile across. The top of one of these peculiar objects may be covered by a single shallow crater lake, or it may be dotted with a number of smaller bubbling cauldrons. Turbulent gases sputter through the highly saline water and carry mud to the surface where it spills over, runs off and kills the surrounding vegetation.

The nature and origin of the gases from below continue to puzzle most investigators. To… read more

Shortly after the news of the Mexico earthquake broke on the morning of September 19th, the Geophysical Institute began receiving calls requesting clarification of some of the early headlines. One of the more sensational of these was the announcement by a popular national news commentator that "California had been raised an inch" by the event.

While the seismology staff at the Geophysical Institute would not have used quite those words, they could have pointed to records showing that the ground was also rising about an eighth of an inch right here in Alaska at the very time that they were talking on the telephone. As a matter of fact, it was rising and falling, and rising and falling. The ground surface all over the world was bulging in and out, and it would continue to oscillate like that for hours.

What the commentator neglected to mention (or, more likely, failed to understand) is that he was referring to only part of a cycle in the waves that accompany every… read more

The recent disclosure of fossil dinosaur finds on the North Slope adds another piece to a geologic and evolutionary jigsaw puzzle that will never be completed. Tantalizing puzzle fragments like these are what make the distant past so agonizingly close to scientists, although they know that they will never be able to solve the riddle entirely.

The fossil record provides ample evidence that at least 99 percent of all the species that have ever lived on earth are now extinct. For example, at the close of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, not only the dinosaurs, but a selection of primitive mammals, land plants, and fully one-fourth of the marine animal life that inhabited the shallow waters all vanished.

Yet the Cretaceous extinction was not the only one to have decimated life forms on the earth. Similar annihilations have struck numerous times since the first appearance of single-celled organisms in the ocean 3.5 billion years ago. The very punctuation of the… read more

What does it take to enforce a nuclear test ban treaty? First, before any other measures can be taken, the participating nations must be able to detect when other members of the treaty are cheating. During the past couple of years, there have been two instances of "sightings" that have remained unexplained, but which are thought by some to have been related to weapons tests. One of these was a flash sighted off South Africa by a satellite, and the other was an immense cloud seen from airliners over the sea off Japan. Neither of these sightings have been satisfactorily explained.

When nuclear tests are conducted underground, they are relatively easy to detect by seismographic means. Arms limitations talks with the Soviets appear likely in the near future, and it may be appropriate to take a look at what those detection capabilities are.

The limited test ban treaty of 1963 banned nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, under water, and in space. While this put an… read more

Although we are assured by the Weather Service that the Alaskan summer of 1985 has not been abnormally wet and overcast, many long-time residents refuse to believe it. Long, lazy summer days seem to persist in the memory, while those "other" wet summers are recalled as isolated incidents.

Things could be worse. The winter of 1815-16 did not differ noticeably from any previous winter in southern Canada and the northeastern region of the United States. Spring began as usual, and the lengthening days of April brought the customary flowers and flocks of birds from the north. In May, the weather had not yet warmed appreciably, and people began to grumble about the necessity of keeping the fire going, of breaking ice daily in the water buckets, and of the frosts that kept them from having fresh greens and stunted their field crops. But they were patient and confident that the weather would soon right itself. Old-timers retold with relish their stories of years when it had… read more

On Russia's Kola Peninsula, near the Norwegian border at about the same latitude as Prudhoe Bay, the Soviets have been drilling a well since 1970. It is now over 40,000 feet deep, making it the deepest hole on earth (the previous record holder was the Bertha Rogers well in Oklahoma--a gas well stopped at 32,000 feet when it struck molten sulfur).

It is not oil or gas that is being sought with the Kola well, but an understanding of the nature of the earth's crust. The United States began a similar investigation, called Project Mohole, in 1961. This project, which was intended to penetrate the shallow crust under the Pacific Ocean off Mexico, was abandoned in 1966 because of lack of funding.

It's possible to draw a reasonable cross section of the earth based purely on remote geophysical (largely seismic) methods, but unless on-the-spot checks can be made, there will always be a certain amount of guesswork involved. Digging down to take a look compares with studies… read more

It is a common misconception that the needle of a magnetic compass points to a particular spot on the earth's surface. In fact, there is no particular point that can be identified as the north (or south) magnetic pole.

This is true because the earth behaves as if the source of its magnetism was concentrated at its center. The external magnetic field of the earth is the same as that which would surround an inert sphere having a very small and powerful bar magnet at its center. The earth's magnetic poles are not centers of attraction at all, but simply blurry localities at which the field lines arising from the hypothetical magnet at the center happen to emerge perpendicular to the earth's surface.

Put another way, the field lines in the area around a pole rise straight up, curve to pass over the equator horizontally, and plunge back into the earth in an area that can be interpreted as the opposite pole. Compass needles align themselves with the field lines… read more

There's a famous old poem that blames the downfall of a kingdom on a missing horseshoe nail: "...for want of the nail the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost..." and so on through lost soldiers, battles, wars, and crowns. The poet's point was that little things indeed can mean a lot, and overlooking them can lead to big difficulties.

We also tend to shrug off quantities at the other end of the scale. The size of the United States' national debt, for example, is a true mind-boggler; we just can't comprehend what that enormous number means. Yet, as the newspapers and economic commentators tell us every day, we avoid confronting that number only at our peril.

It seems we catch it either way. We tend to relate to things on a scale that is commensurate with our perspective whether we happen to be an amoeba or an intergalactic monster. We are largely incapable of comprehending the big things, and we simply don't appreciate the importance of little… read more

 

In an earlier column I explained that the true ground motion 60 miles distant from a magnitude 8 earthquake would total only about an inch and a half of actual back-and-forth shaking. This statement spawned comments by several readers to the general effect that either: (a) there was a misprint in the article, or (b) I should enter some other line of work.

Having been through a number of fairly large earthquakes myself, I can sympathize with the feeling that the ground must be moving more than an inch or so when you can barely stand. What is it, then, that translates these relatively minor movements into such apparently gargantuan ones?

There are several reasons. One of the most important is that most instruments measure seismic waves that have traveled from the source to a seismograph located on solid bedrock. However, few structures actually have their foundations on… read more

Magnitude scales in general often seem to be devised with a devilish intent to mislead. Sometimes they don't even point in the same direction. The magnitude of a disaster, for instance, goes up as the disaster becomes worse, but the magnitude of a star goes down as the intrinsic brightness becomes greater. If someone mentions to a scientist that a quantity increases by an order of magnitude, he usually understands it to mean that it is… read more

Alaska bills itself as being the air crossroads of the world. Polar routes of many of the world's airlines converge on the state in passing from one continent to another. There is another sort of "traffic" that crosses the state of which few people are aware. These are the travel paths taken by seismic waves generated by underground nuclear tests in the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Although the news is hardly news any more, and it rarely makes the front page, both countries conduct nuclear tests on an approximately monthly basis. Seismic sensors in Alaska are particularly well situated to detect and compare the explosions from the different test areas. The Nevada test site near Las Vegas lies 2500 miles to the southeast. The Soviet Union's test site in Siberia lies 2500 miles to the northwest. Alaska lies in between.

Actually, the Soviets do not restrict their testing to one location, but utilize several. In addition to Siberia, they commonly use eastern Kazakh… read more

To a seismologist, it is sometimes distressing to hear the phrase "earthquake fault" bandied about so much. There are faults in the earth's crust and there are earthquakes, but the two are not always related.

Earthquakes can occur hundreds of miles deep in the earth where heat and pressure make it impossible for faults to form, and there are clear faults which cut the surface but which produce no earthquakes. At great depths, rock usually deforms plastically like silly putty left on a table, but it can produce earthquakes by shattering suddenly, as silly putty does when hit with a hammer. Closer to the surface, rock usually deforms more rigidly along a clearly defined plane during an earthquake (like sliding a book along a table).

On the other hand, some faults can be traced for miles at the surface, but any movement which takes place along them does so at such a slow rate that no earthquakes are produced. This type of deformation is known as "fault creep."… read more

If you sit still in the subarctic for long enough, you risk being run over by just about anything. Glaciers, volcanic ash falls, land slides, rock glaciers, land slumps, mud flows--you name it--if there is a source of detritus, a lubricant to smooth the way, and gravity to propel it, it'll move.

One of the more curious forms of earth movement which are common on the alpine hillsides of interior Alaska are solifluction flows. Solifluction lobes can be seen drooping downhill near many of the roads in the Interior, including the Steese and Taylor highways. A hillside covered with these reminds one of oozing, sagging makeup on an aging actor under the hot lights in a horror movie.

Solifluction is a combined flow and slip movement, involving the surface layers in areas of permafrost. The surface layers thaw to only a small depth during the short summer, and find themselves situated on very slippery footing. Meltwater and rain saturate the soil in the springtime… read more

As volcanic rocks cool after being erupted onto the earth's surface in flows or being formed into intrusive sheets below ground, they usually shrink. This shrinkage produces tensile stresses, and the resulting strain may accumulate to the point where the rocks fracture.

Cooling begins first where the eruptive body - which geologists call an "igneous mass" - meets its surroundings (whether it be air or another rock body) and proceeds inward. The opening cracks follow.

If the igneous mass is chilled uniformly in contact with a flat surface, the fissures will grow at right angles to that surface and develop in three directions, each at 120 degrees to the other two. This leads to the development of hexagonal (six- sided) columns. At the same time, joints form perpendicular to, or across, the axis of the columns. Under ideal circumstances, the resulting formation resembles a closely packed box of pencils which have been broken here and there across… read more

A maar is a peculiar sort of volcano, more of a sneeze than a pot-boiler as volcanoes go. It results when molten rock forcing its way up from the depths lacks the pressure to emerge at the surface, but approaches closely enough to come into contact with the groundwater table. This creates all sort of havoc, characterized by an explosive blowout of steam, smoke and ash, but no lava flow.

Several maars are located on the Alaska Peninsula. On April 6, 1977, two of them erupted near the south shore of Lake Becharof, blasting huge clouds into the sky. Impressive as the display was, no human casualties resulted, and the students at Naknek High School named the new features Ukinrek, which means "two-holes-in-the-ground" in Yupik Eskimo. The name stuck, and is used by scientists today.

Just 75 miles to the northeast, in Katmai National Monument, lies another crater which was formed when there was nobody around to record its birth. This feature is called Savonoski crater… read more

"Roughneck" drillers are all too familiar with the gunk that messes oil rigs up--they call it "drilling mud."

Mostly composed of ground-up rock and water, lubricating fluid is pumped down the center of the hollow drill stem, and emerges again at the surface, carrying the pulverized rock and other unspeakable things. This is necessary to lubricate the drill shaft, cool the hole, and carry away the detritus that the drilling has created.

And thereby comes the controversy. Namely: does this practice damage the environment, specifically, does it foul the ocean-bottom surface when applied to offshore drilling? It now appears that the answer is no.

Recently, a research council panel, formed at the request of the Department of the Interior, studied the question to determine just how serious a threat to the environment is posed by the "dumping" of approximately two million metric gallons of drilling fluid components now released annually on the outer… read more

Fortunately for humanity, gold, platinum and a limited quantity of silver have been being separated for millions of years from country rock and deposited into commercially useful concentrations. Such deposits are called placers. Their accidental discovery probably started people digging in the earth searching for them many thousands of years ago. Jeffrey St. John of Time-Life books gives a synopsis of the process, and several of his comments are printed below. Much of this will probably be considered old-hat to sourdoughs.

Placers are created by wind, running water and gravity. The sequence begins when wind, running water and temperature changes gradually break down the original ores. Weathering crumbles and dissolves the rock into a collection of loose grains that may range in size from boulders to microscopic particles.

When a slope erodes, heavier minerals, including the noble metals such as gold, platinum, and infrequently silver, move downhill more slowly… read more

Question: What did the flights of two Air Force F-4E Phantom jets on a training exercise from Galena to King Salmon on January 22, 1976, the flight of a Japan Airlines DC-8 cargo jet bound for Tokyo from Anchorage on January 25, 1976, the flights of two Japan Airlines passenger jets (a DC-8 and a Boeing 747) on the same route and at the same date, and the flight of a British Airways 747 en route from Java to Perth, Australia, on June 23, 1982, all have in common?

Answer: They were all flying near the lane of the famed "Pacific Ring Of Fire," they all encountered a volcanic ash cloud, and all were in some danger, either from reduced visibility or engine failure. All of them made it safely to their destination, and this is probably the most amazing fact of all. The following are excerpts from eye-witness accounts of the incidents.

Pilots of the F-4E fighters recounted that "The two jets were flying at 31,000 feet, when suddenly the clouds darkened… read more

When Charles Richter devised his now-famous magnitude scale for earthquakes, he chose the word "magnitude" in analogy with its usage in astronomy where it is used to relate the brightness of stars (never mind that the brighter the star, the smaller its magnitude). This analogy is a good one to use in trying to understand the difference among the various magnitude scales used by seismologists. The magnitude that is assigned to an earthquake depends in some cases upon the instrument which is used to "look" at the quake; just as the brightness of a star depends upon the kind of glasses we may be wearing.

Suppose that a certain star radiated twice as much red light as blue and you were wearing glasses that transmitted red light best, while your friend was wearing ones that better transmitted blue light. You would say the star was twice as bright as your friend would. Similarly for earthquakes and seismographs (the seismologists's glasses), some… read more

It is almost inevitable that people generally think of California as being the most earthquake-prone area of the United States. Certainly, this Doomsday image has been enhanced by the media in a number of movies, books and T.V. programs.

It must come as somewhat of a disappointment to the sensationalists to find that our southern neighbor is only a distant second in receiving the greatest number of significant shocks during any given period of time.

To illustrate, Dr. John Davies, Alaska State Seismologist with the Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, drew up the accompanying figure. The data are based on information reported in bulletins published by the International Seismological Center, which has contributors from over 20 nations. There is little need to comment. The diagram speaks for itself.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Alaska is roughly 3.7 times the size of California, meaning that the state can boast a "advantage" of… read more

On November 4, 1944, ninety-four B-29 Superfortress bombers were approaching Japan on the first mass bombing assault of the war on Tokyo. At altitudes between 27,000 and 33,000 feet, the planes turned east over Mount Fuji and began their bombing run. Suddenly, the startled pilots found themselves roaring past landmarks at a speed of almost 450 miles per hour, about 90 miles per hour faster than the theoretical top speed of the aircraft. It was too late for most bombardiers to make adjustments, and most bombs fell miles beyond the intended target. Of the more than 1000 bombs dropped, only 48 fell anywhere near the objective.

From the military viewpoint, the mission was a dismal failure, but meteorologists were fascinated. What could explain a river of air at high altitudes that was ripping along at some 140 miles per hour?

After the war, high-altitude aircraft and balloons confirmed the existence of ribbons of rapidly moving-air, normally 180 to 300 miles wide… read more

There has been a good deal of coverage in the media lately about the earth gradually warming up-because of the "greenhouse effect" caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Paradoxically, the past year has actually been a period of decreased direct radiation from the sun, caused by material in the air. On April 4, 1982, the Mexican volcano E1 Chichon exploded with a force that has been compared with the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. That explosion destroyed an island in Indonesia and was heard 3000 miles away. The material ejected into the atmosphere traveled around the globe, and resulted in spectacular sunrises and sunsets all over the world for three years.

The eruption of E1 Chichon is also having worldwide effects. Measurements made by the Geophysical Institute at Fairbanks reveal that between November 15, 1982 and May 31, 1983, the amount of direct sunlight reaching the ground on clear days was reduced by almost 25%. The reason that… read more

The Aleutian Islands and associated trench are products of the Pacific "plate" to the south being gradually forced beneath the North American plate in the Bering Sea. Many earthquakes result as a consequence, including some of the largest that have ever been recorded.

Typically, great earthquakes of magnitude 8.0 or more occur on an average of about 70 years' interval within different segments of the arc. During each of these large earthquakes, the accumulated strain is released along a certain length of the arc system, generally on the order of a few hundred miles (the 1964 Prince William Sound earthquake of magnitude 8.4 released strain along a total distance of over 400 miles, from near Valdez to south of Kodiak Island). It is believed that, over the years, the pattern of strain should fill in more-or-less uniformly along the entire system.

One segment of the arc that is arousing the concern of seismologists is in the area of the Shumagin Islands, off the tip… read more

Visitors to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Katmai National Monument are confronted with the startling sensation of emerging from a verdant forest into a stark moonscape. From Overlook, which is the furthest point that the ranger bus takes visitors, all that lies behind is green; all ahead is bleak and barren.

The Katmai eruption of 1912 was one of the most violent in recorded history. The resulting ashfall nearly buried Kodiak and other villages on the southeast side of the Aleutian Range, but it was not until 1916 that R.F. Griggs led a National Geographic party over the pass and discovered the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

Literature and brochures on the Valley abound, but I would like to focus here on only one small aspect that is frequently neglected--the Lethe River (in Greek mythology, the Lethe was the river of forgetfulness in the underground).

The Lethe is a marvel of erosion. At Overlook, near its lower end, the river is fairly wide and shallow,… read more

This column has reported previously on the phenomenon of abnormal animal behavior preceding earthquakes , including the fairly modest magnitude 5.0 event near Fairbanks on April 15, 1983.

But what about humans? Are there those who are sensitive enough to detect whatever it is that some of the lower animals sense?

A remarkable new book, When The Snakes Awake by Helmut Tributsch, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the Free University of Berlin, makes it appear that there are, and offers a possible explanation.

First, a few examples cited in the book of possible human recognition:

  1. Before the severe Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (in which 60,000 people were killed), many were suffering from nervous irritability and restlessness.
  2. The Italian earthquake scientist Luigi Bossi wrote after the earthquake of April 2, 1808, in the valley of Pelice, that… read more

Pollution is not a recent problem. It has been documented for centuries in metropolitan areas of the world. The emphasis has largely shifted from the mundane problem of disposing of tons of horse manure, human waste and garbage from the streets to the more esoteric one of what to do about mere ounces of chemicals such as dioxin. Some ancient problems remain basically the same. For instance, air is still polluted by burning sulfur-rich coal. Centuries ago in England, citizens were actually beheaded for burning such coal during pollution episodes, but this measure barely checked the practice. Today, the sulfur dioxide problem is labeled "acid rain."

Until about a decade ago, the only "solution" was to build taller smoke stacks, but taller stacks and more sophisticated cleanup procedures are not keeping pace with the overall increase in pollution. Neither is nature's ability to clean up our mess.

In another vein, consider what happens in modern societies when we… read more

Owing to growing understanding, over the past twenty years, of what has become known as "plate tectonics" (an outgrowth of what the German geologist Alfred Wegener called "continental drift" in 1912), it is no longer surprising that it is the Pacific coastal areas of Alaska that experience the strongest earthquakes. If the Aleutians are included, there have been at least nine magnitude 8.0 or greater earthquakes produced in these areas during this century. These result when the oceanic Pacific plate grinds against the North American plate along the coastal margins where they abut.

What is less well understood is why central interior Alaska, particularly in the Fairbanks area, produces so many earthquakes (albeit, generally of more modest magnitudes).

The Fairbanks area has a history of seismicity that is both interesting and perplexing. A major magnitude 7.3 earthquake occurred 40 miles southeast of the city in 1937. There have been others of equal or greater… read more

Once again, it is forest fire season in Alaska, and this year, as in every other, fires are destroying growth in forest and tundra areas and occasionally threatening to destroy homes and property.

Each year during the past decade, forest fires have burned an average of 600,000 acres of forested land in interior Alaska. So the few tens of thousands of acres swept by fires during early June represent a small part of what is likely to burn before summer is over. During the 30 years between 1940 and 1970 the average forest area burned annually was close to a million acres, so there actually has been a decrease in average area burned this past decade.

The worst fire year of all in Alaska was 1940. That summer, fires raged over 4.5 million acres of forests in the Yukon, Tanana and Porcupine watersheds and on the Seward Peninsula. The years before that saw some sizable fires, also. In 1935, a single fire near Lake Iliamna burned 1.9 million acres. Other notable fires… read more

While doomsday prophets gleefully proclaim that southern California will soon share the fate of Atlantis and "drop off into the ocean," there are still some skeptics around who doubt the possibility.

Admittedly, modern scientific measurements reveal that the Pacific coast west of the San Andreas fault is moving "North to Alaska" at the rate of a couple of inches a year, but a precipitous plunge into the briny does not appear imminent.

What this does mean, however, is that in about 12 million years, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be suburbs of each other. Beyond that, in another 60 million years, give or take a couple of weeks, Los Angeles and environs will arrive offshore Alaska, where the real fun begins.

When the northwestward migrating Pacific "plate," as it is called, reaches the Aleutian Trench, it is absorbed back into the earth. This downwelling process is what produces the earth's oceanic trenches in the first place. Los Angeles will take a… read more

On the morning of April 15, 1983, Fairbanks experienced a modest magnitude 5.0 earthquake at 8:31 which would have caused but minor irritation to residents of the area, had it not been for widely reported instances of spilled coffee and toppled vases and liquor bottles. Some minor structural damage, such as cracks in sheetrock joints were reported, but evidence of major damage to buildings or facilities resulting from the earthquake has not been identified.

But that is not the point of this article. What is significant is that the Geophysical Institute received a number of reports of abnormal animal behavior occurring up to half-an-hour before the earthquake occurred.

Speculation among scientists concerning the subject of animal awareness of impending, potentially disastrous geophysical events has long been a subject of controversy. Almost without exception, it has been scoffed at by American scientists.

But the fact is that, following Fairbanks' April… read more

Most people have heard of California's San Andreas fault, but few are familiar with the the Denali fault in Alaska which, on a topographic scale, is even more impressive than the San Andreas. Some Alaskan geologists even take the view that the San Andreas fault is merely a southern extension of the Denali--an opinion not overly popular with geologists in California.

In fact, the Denali and San Andreas faults are only two members of a major fault system extending all along the west coast of North America and into the interior of Alaska. Along these faults, offset is occurring as the North Pacific Ocean floor gradually inches its way to the northwest, sliding and grinding against the continent as it does.

In Alaska and Yukon Territory in Canada, there are innumerable faults along which this movement--up to two inches a year--is shared. Movement along these faults occurs in much the same manner that movement would take place between individual cards in a deck if… read more

Look at a map of Alaska. Note the great bend in the Alaska Range near Mt. McKinley. Mt. McKinley and the entire Alaska Range including the great bend, are the result of a process that has been going on for millions of years, namely: the jamming of a corner of the North Pacific floor into the south-central part of the state.

By a process which has become known as "plate-spreading" during the past twenty years, we now know that the northeast Pacific Ocean floor is actually a layer of the earth's outer shell that is gradually moving to the northwest at the rate of about two inches per year. The bend in the Alaska Range at Mt. McKinley marks its furthest encroachment into Alaska. Mt. McKinley is itself a product of this process as the oceanic and land masses collide. In fact, it may generally be said that every part of Alaska south of the Alaska Range once belonged to the Pacific Ocean.

It is understandable that when the crustal plates collide there is some… read more

The old saw about lightning never striking twice in the same place is about as true for lightning as it is for earthquakes: not very. As lightning repeatedly seeks out sites that are good conductors and elevated above ground level, so do earthquakes return to the same areas time after time. Although lightning strikes occur randomly in time, major earthquakes display a periodicity in their "return time" to the same location.

This is because after a major earthquake has occurred, it requires a certain amount of time for gradual crustal movements to build up enough stress to overcome the strength of the earth's crust where failure will reoccur. This length of time varies from place to place, depending on the relative amount of movement taking place and the nature of the crustal material involved.

After the great Alaska earthquake of 1964, it was commonly (and erroneously) believed that all the strain had been released in the area, and that another large earthquake… read more

It has now been well established that the continents do not remain fixed on the earth's surface, but wander around willy-nilly, sometimes bumping into one another and sometimes splitting apart. Of course, at the rate they move, it takes quite a bit of time for them to get from one place to another.

Professor David Stone and his co-workers at the Geophysical Institute have been working for a number of years trying to reconstruct Alaska from its original pieces, and to determine where the pieces came from.

Stone uses the principles of paleomagnetism. This science relates to the fact that most rocks contain grains with magnetic properties. When the rocks solidify, either from a molten state or by the slow compaction of sediments, the magnetic minerals which they contain assume a orientation parallel to the lines of the earth's magnetic field at that place and time.

It is reasonably certain that the magnetic poles of the earth have always been in fairly… read more

One would naturally tend to assume that the Arctic has clean air. As long ago as 1956, however, weather reconnaissance flights started reporting layers of reddish haze in the atmosphere over the northern polar regions, particularly during the winter months.

For the past five years, Glenn Shaw and members of the meteorology group at the Geophysical Institute have been involved in studying this phenomenon, called "Arctic Haze." It has been found that the component particles making up the aerosols passing over Alaska differ widely, depending on the direction of air flow. Although the main components of arctic haze are always compounds of sulfur, presumably derived from the burning of fossil fuels, other trace elements that have been identified bear a more direct relationship to the source region.

When air enters from the Gulf of Alaska, it is usually relatively clean and bears traces of sodium and chlorine, components of sea water. When it enters from over… read more

One of the most perplexing aspects of observational seismology is trying to reconcile eyewitness reports of earthquake phenomena with physical factors which seem to render them impossible.

The most common example is the "I heard it coming" report. Most often, these take a variation of the theme: "I heard the earthquake coming several seconds before it hit the house" or "I heard it go by" (words to that effect).

Reports of this type are so common, and rendered with such conviction, that they cannot be dismissed as mere illusion. The problem is, they cannot be rationally explained. The fastest (and therefore, first arriving) earthquake waves travel in the earth at about 5 miles (8 km) per second. Sound waves in the air travel at only about 0.2 miles per second. Therefore, the earthquake waves must reach the observer before any sound wave it might create. Further, it would be almost impossible for anyone to track, by means of sound alone, a wave which is traveling… read more

There are about a dozen trace chemical components of the atmosphere which affect the heat balance of the earth's surface. Carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) is the most important of these trace constituents because of its ability to behave in a manner similar to a greenhouse. Both convert light energy into heat energy and trap it. Most of the atmospheric CO 2 exists below the higher clouds; thus the energy it converts to heat is temporarily trapped near the earth's surface. If the average global air temperature increases by even 2°C for a few years, drastic changes in weather patterns will occur, partly in a natural attempt to shift the climate back to the status quo. Glaciers will begin to melt faster than they are formed, and sea level will rise several to tens of meters over a period of about a century. It has happened in the past. On the other hand, if world average air temperatures decrease about 2°C, the climate will revert to an ice age. Repeated volcanic… read more

In June of 1967, Fairbanks experienced an earthquake swarm which included at least four events between magnitude 5 and 6 during the half hour. During the following weeks, aftershock activity tapered in typical fashion, and only an occasional small earthquake was felt (although many were being recorded by instruments).

In August, the notorious "thousand-year flood" struck the city forcing most families to evacuate their homes and move to higher ground. Packed together in places such as the university campus, people began commenting to each other that there seemed to be an increase in the number of earthquakes they were feeling. In fact, during the period that the flood was cresting, it seemed to many that there must have a hundred or more perceptible tremors.

Unfortunately, the Geophysical Institute was not able to gauge the accuracy of this figure, because the lower-lying local seismograph stations had been wiped out by the flood, and the data telemetry lines… read more

On May 16, 1960, radio astronomer James Warwick of the University of Colorado noted a strange signal recorded at widely separated receivers in Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico and Hawaii. Charts of the signal were similar at all the sites, and astronomers concluded that the source was not extra-terrestrial, but that it must surround the earth or hang over it like a cloud. At any rate, they knew that it was large in extent and not just a point source.

Six days later, on May 22, one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history struck Chile. This magnitude 8.9 earthquake was accompanied by fault breakage along a line 540 miles (900 km) long.

Twenty-odd years later, the same astronomers who made the original observations have now concluded that the radio signals they recorded in 1960 were likely due to stress-induced microfracturing in quartz-bearing rocks of the Chilean epicentral zone.

Some minerals, notably quartz, are piezoelectric--that is, they… read more

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank."
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best--
A perfect and absolute blank!"

As Lewis Carroll of "Alice in Wonderland" fame observes in this passage from "The Hunting of the Snark," mapmaking does not always have to be a tedious chore. However, in another of Carroll's works, he demonstrates that it may not always be easy, either. In "Sylvie and Bruno Concluded," a German professor explains that his country's cartographers experimented with maps of larger and larger scale until they finally made one at a scale of a mile to the mile. "It has never been spread out yet," he says. "The farmers objected:… read more

When the earth's crust is stressed until failure occurs, the ensuing seismic activity often exhibits a tendency to spread out from the initial point of rupture into surrounding areas. Sometimes the activity progresses along a fault, as is common on certain segments of the San Andreas fault in California. Where a well-developed fault system is not present, earthquake activity may spread out radially, while the area undergoes what is known as "relaxation." In still other areas, activity may hop haphazardly from one point to another, filling in "gaps" in the overall pattern of seismic energy release.

Interior Alaska, particularly in the Fairbanks area, exhibits characteristics of the latter kind of seismicity. Continuing earthquake activity attests that the crust here is in a highly stressed state, but it is difficult to speculate, much less predict, where the next large earthquake might occur. On December 30, 1981 there occurred the largest earthquake near Fairbanks since… read more

The Geophysical Institute has been receiving inquiries about dire events, including earthquakes, that are supposed to plague the earth in 1982 because of something to do with alignment of the planets. This leads us again to comment on the "Jupiter Effect," a name taken from the book published in 1974 by astronomers John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. While the book was undoubtedly a financial success, it has caused much needless concern and has proven to be a scientific flop.

Briefly, the authors proposed the following bizarre chain of events: When the planets are aligned on one side of the sun, the tidal forces create sunspots which create solar flares which create streams of solar particles which enter the earth's upper atmosphere which changes the weather which slows the rate of the earth's rotation which triggers earthquakes. Got it?

Among other unpleasant happenings would be the modification of rainfall and temperature patterns and the disruption of radio… read more

Mining is a process we generally think of as applying to the extraction of nonrenewable resources. What happens when people begin to mine the soil upon which agriculture depends? The answer is obvious; they convert agriculture from a renewable to a nonrenewable resource.

Unfortunately, the mining of soil has been going on in recent years in the United States and elsewhere in the world, according to Lester R. Brown, an acknowledged American expert in world food production. In an article in the November 27, 1981 issue of Science Brown notes that soil forms by natural processes at a rate of about two to five tons per acre per year. If agricultural practices cause erosion of more soil than is being formed, then the soil is being 'mined'.

Typical topsoil may be about eight inches thick and weigh about 160 tons per inch of thickness per acre. Hence, a typical acre would contain about 1,280 tons of fertile topsoil. Measurements made in Missouri indicate that… read more

Just the fact that the Tanana River hugs the north side of its broad valley is a hint that something peculiar is going on. Add to that the observation that trees on the north side of the valley, in the Minto Flats show signs of drowning and one has the strong suggestion that the Tanana Valley is slowly tipping northward.

Additional suggestion that the whole valley, and even the Alaska Range to the south, is tipping northward comes from the strange paths followed by the Nenana and Delta Rivers. Rivers are supposed to head in the summit valleys of mountain ranges and not cut across the mountains as these two rivers do.

By rights, the summit near the head of the Delta River should be in the heart of the Alaska Range. Instead, it is well to the south, adjacent to Summit Lake. Hence the Delta River cuts right across the heart of the Alaska Range on its northward flow into the Tanana Valley.

Even more peculiar is the path of the… read more

What do you do when you are President of the United States and you suddenly find you have a brand-new island poking up out of the sea, 20 miles off your shoreline? You claim it and make a bird sanctuary out of it, at least that is what Theodore Roosevelt did in 1909.

The beginnings of the island, Bogoslof volcano, actually existed in 1768 in the form of a rock, called Ship Rock, rising sharply out of the sea. Captain Cook saw it when he sailed by in 1788. Recognition that a new volcanic island was being born came during May 1796. That month an observer standing on Umnak Island, half-way out along the Aleutian Chain, saw a new black object appear in the sea, 20 miles off to the north.

As the new island poked up, there were brilliant flames that turned night to day, and many earthquakes and loud thundering noises. Pumice and even stones fell on Umnak. Three days later the flames and the earthquakes subsided to leave a cone-shaped island centered to the south of… read more

Some years in the future, Alaska and northwestern Canada may face some interesting policy questions created by what appears to be a warming up of the world's climate. The effects of the predicted change are likely to be greatest in this part of the world, and, being suppliers of fossil energy to the world, we northerners may be contributing to the change.

The overall global temperature is determined by the requirement that, in the long run, the earth must radiate to space as much energy as it receives from the sun. If the amount of energy coming in increases, the global temperature will increase so that the outward radiation increases--the outward radiation is proportional to the earth's temperature. Alternately, changes in the earth's radiation characteristics can create temperature changes without there being any change in the solar energy coming in.

Carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere traps outgoing radiation. This is the so-called greenhouse effect… read more

Unlike petroleum and natural gas which form from plant life in the marine environment, coal derives from plants that grow on land.

Much of the world's coal is thought to have developed from plants growing in swampy areas near ancient shorelines. Some scientists have suggested that there is evidence of occasional intrusion of the seas into areas where coal is starting to form and that part of the coals may actually have derived from plant debris, marine or terrestrial, laid down by these shallow encroaching seas. But it seems clear that some coal beds are strictly terrestrial, that is, formed entirely on land. The coal fields of central Alaska in the Nenana area are examples of strictly terrestrial coals.

The first requirement for forming a coal bed is to accumulate peat like plant remains in a strata. Then the peat-like deposit must be covered up by a layer of inorganic material such as clay, silt, sand or gravel which might be laid down by a lake or stream. If… read more

A few years ago, estimates of Alaska's coal resources placed them at approximately 130 billion tons. Now, largely because of better knowledge about the coal beneath the North Slope and the offshore area beyond, the estimates range from 1,860 billion to 5,000 billion tons.

This, of course, is a huge energy resource if it could all be recovered for use. Full recovery is unlikely because much of the coal is deeply buried, of not the best quality or is at locations where transportation is lacking.

In estimating what portion of an identified coal resource is recoverable, experts considering reserves elsewhere in the United States pick figures ranging from one percent to over twenty percent. And that percentage generally is applied only to known resources, not those which are hypothesized to exist on the basis of surface outcrops or sparse drilling information. Nor does the percentage apply to resources speculated to exist, such as off Alaska's northern coast, on the… read more

Large jet aircraft are not the only sign of civilization penetrating the high Arctic on a daily basis. Distinct reddish-brown layers of manmade pollution haze now add color to the Arctic's whiteness.

Suspected for some years, it is now confirmed that industrial pollution from Europe, North America and Asia finds its way into the Arctic atmosphere via normal air circulation patterns. Measurements made at Barrow, Alaska, and at Mould Bay and Igloolik in Northwest Territories, Canada, show that the Arctic pollution is not as bad as near most cities. Peak values are about one-third the average air pollution measured in Berkeley, California. This Arctic pollution is bad enough to concern scientists because it might alter the polar climate if the current rate of pollution input to the Arctic persists.

The pollution tends to accumulate in the Arctic air because there is little rain or snowfall to strip out the pollutant particles during much of the year. The pollutants… read more

A source of cheap, sometimes mind bending, entertainment is a new roadcut. From the car window a cut may not look especially exciting, but closer inspection often reveals the fresh cut to be a revealing window into the past--if one can understand what there is to see.

Recent roadway improvements on the University's Fairbanks campus opened up a 40,000-year record of windblown silt (loess) deposition, volcanic ash falls, soil formation and disturbances caused by frost action. Several knowledgeable geologists, including Robert M. Thorson and Richard D Reger, were close at hand so it was possible to develop a fair interpretation of the sequence of events that caused the complex layering seen in the cut bank.

The picture is one of changing climate. Silt exposed near the bottom of the cut appears to be laid down by winds blowing off the glacial outwash plains to the south during a period of extensive glaciation that occurred more than 40,000 years ago. Afterwards,… read more

One of the ties between Canada and Alaska is the great Denali fault system that cuts across the whole of southern Alaska, extends on eastward into Canada and then dips back into Alaska near Haines. Its path through Canada and on into Haines is pretty much followed by the Alaska Highway from Koidern, Y.T. (just south of Boundary) to Haines Junction and then by the road on into Haines.

Not obvious to the casual observer, the trench of the Denali fault through the heart of the Alaska Range is easily picked out on topographic maps and is more than obvious in photographs taken from high-altitude aircraft or satellites.

It is now known that there has been major westward displacement of the land on the south side of the fault relative to that on the north. The highest estimates of the displacement give a figure of 400 km (250 miles) during the past 60 million years. Over this time span, this averages out to a motion of about 2 feet a century or six-tenths of a… read more

Alaska's fuel peat resource, like everything else Alaskan, is impressive. In fact, Alaska has slightly over half of the estimated peat resource in the United States. Canada has an even larger peat resource, but then Canada is bigger than Alaska.

According to a recent report available from the Division of Energy and Power Development, 338 Denali Street, Anchorage, 99541, Alaska has an estimated 27 million acres of peat resources. Assuming, as the report does, that the peat in those resource areas averages seven feet thick, that each cubic foot of dry peat weighs 15 pounds and that each cubic foot can provide 6,000 BTU, the total reserve amounts to 741 quadrillion BTU.

A big number like that needs to be converted to something one can understand. Knowing that a barrel of oil produces about 5-1/2 million BTU, it is easy to calculate that the Alaskan peat resource is about equal to an oi1 reserve of 100 billion barrels, 5 to 10 times larger than the known North Slope… read more

Just about everywhere one cares to look, Nature has placed objects to fascinate the mind. Even in the dirt particles beneath our feet there are many intriguing stories about the present and the past; the trick is to be observant and to question what one sees.

Several years ago, archeologists sieving Fairbanks area dirt in search of small prehistoric bones and human artifacts found in their screens many highly-polished small pebbles of quartz and chert. Puzzling over the origin of these usually rounded but sometimes angular shiny stones, the scientists considered several possibilities.

They decided that wind-blown sand or ice crystals could not be the answer because these agents would carve facets on the polished stones. Nor did polishing from natural tumbling of the soil by frost action seem to explain the combination of rounded and angular shapes found, since tumbling causes all stones to become round.

Then Charles Hoskin and his coworkers realized… read more

Do fish have the ability to sense the occurrence of very small earthquakes, earthquakes that might be forewarning of bigger events to come? It seems that they might, according to an article in the August 1980 issue of Geophysical Research Letters written by University of Texas researchers, Cliff Frohlich and Ruth Buskirk.

Experiments with codfish, goldfish and other fish have shown that fish are able to sense very small changes in pressure and motion within the water where they live. That is, they are able to hear very weak sounds. As in air, a sound heard in water is the result of compressional waves traveling through the medium, except that sound waves travel about five times faster in water than they do in air.

In addition to sound detection in the inner ear, a fish is able to sense sound stimuli with extensive arrays of hair cell receptors along its body and also with sensors that detect changes within the swim bladder. These multiple sensing… read more

The question of who owns the land uncovered by a retreating glacier near Juneau came into the news recently. Since we tend to think of geological changes as being slow, questions such as this might seem, at first glance, to be relatively unimportant. Yet, Alaska's high level of tectonic activity, coupled with the effects of climatic change, can alter the geography rather rapidly. New land created by some but not all of these changes belongs to the public rather than to those who own adjacent property.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, of course, can create big changes in a short time. The violent earthquakes of September 3 and 10, 1899, created major changes in the shorelines around Yakutat Bay. In some places the beaches subsided, in others they raised; the earthquake created the world record for uplift--47 feet, 4 inches--at a location on the west shore of Disenchantment Bay, which lies at the head of Yakutat Bay.

During the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, much… read more

Now that helicopters are readily available for travel in northern bush areas, seeing a geologist out mapping on horseback seems about as likely as a summer day without mosquitos. Who, in this modern era, would consider slogging along through the valley bottoms on a smelly old horse when they can flit from outcrop to outcrop by helicopter and then go back to the nearest lodge at night for supper and a warm bath?

With these thoughts it comes as a surprise to me to learn that horses are now being used on geologic mapping projects in the north. The biggest advantage comes from using horses in bad-weather areas where helicopter parties can be kept grounded days on end. Not only is the work stopped by weather, expensive standby costs of the helicopter still must be paid.

Alaska's Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys (DGGS) in its June 1980 edition of Mines and Geology Bulletin gives some of the pros and cons of using horses in the field. Some are… read more

Acid rain was thought to be a European problem ten years ago. The loss of fish populations in eastern portions of Canada and the United States showed that damaging acid rain was more widespread. So far, there is not much acid rain in Alaska and northwestern Canada, but the Rocky Mountain states and even the West Coast from Washington State southward are beginning to see some signs.

The worst American locality seems to be the Ohio Valley. Rain more acidic than vinegar, actually nearly as acidic as stomach acid, has fallen there. Besides killing fish, acid rain can cause soil to lose quickly the valuable plant nutrients that have built up over the ages. Thus its effects can be very serious and long-lasting.

The Geophysical Institute's Dr. Glenn Shaw voices concern that as industrialization spreads northward through Canada, Alaska and Siberia, the accompanying increased ejection of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide will cause more acidic rain and snowfall in the… read more

Predictions of doom are so common that most of us treat them like cries of wolf. Contributing to our disbelief at times is the long-term nature of some predictions, especially those of geophysical nature, such as the warning about the effects of spray cans on the ozone layer. Though scientists consider valid the warning that the world must cut down on its release of fluorocarbons to the atmosphere, it's hard for us to maintain for years a high level of excitement about such issues.

Unfortunately, here is another issue of special concern to northerners. It is the steady rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a change that is most likely to affect the high latitudes more than other regions of the world. Just prior to the age of industrialization, the earth's atmosphere contained 288 to 295 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide. By 1958, the carbon dioxide content had risen to about 314 ppm, and by 1978 it was near 330 ppm.

The increase in atmospheric carbon… read more

Although most of the ash injected from the Mt. St. Helens eruption fell to the surface within a day or so, a tiny fraction was thrown high enough to be above the clouds and weather system. This dust, and secondary particles which form from sulfur gases also injected from the volcano into the atmosphere, can linger in the atmosphere for months. The resulting high-altitude cloud of volcano debris is blown around the world in the jet stream to be eventually spread out to cover the entire northern hemisphere.

In the past, such veils of dust in the stratosphere have created very unusual effects. The most obvious are spectacular sunsets, tinged with violent streaks of red and purple and caused by sunlight reflected from the high-altitude dust layer. The most spectacular sky colorations appear when the sun is three to four degrees below the horizon. Consequently, those people living in central and northern Alaska and in northern Canada will not see the prettiest sunsets until… read more

Seismologists are eager to grasp at any straw that might help identify active faults and the dates when motion has occurred along them. At least minor successes have been accomplished by examining the shape and condition of trees and the annual growth ring asymmetries in trees along known faults.

When a fault splits a tree in half, the effect is obvious. Where the ground motion is particularly violent, within a few feet of the surface trace of the breaking fault, limbs are broken from trees and the trunks of tall trees break off, typically some intermediate distance above ground. A swath of dead, tilted and broken trees now makes obvious the trace of the Fairweather fault that broke in July 1958 to devastate Lituya Bay and nearby parts of southeastern Alaska.

Sagging or tilting of the ground along a fault trace causes trees there to tilt or even fall. If these trees continue to grow, their new annual rings show an extreme asymmetry--the rings on the down-tilted… read more

Zeolites are a curious group of crystalline compounds that occur naturally and also can be synthesized. An extensive natural deposit occurs in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage, and there is another near Lake Illiamna on the Alaska Peninsula.

Zeolites have so many uses that University of Alaska geochemist Dan Hawkins likens them to the "Schmoos" that some years ago graced the "Lil' Abner" comic strip. Older readers will remember that a schmoo could do many useful tasks and, when eaten, tasted like fried chicken.

In part, zeolites owe their utility to their ability to absorb and give off water. The word zeolite literally means rock that boils; when strongly heated, zeolites froth and give off water. Another curious characteristic is that zeolites, though rigid in structure, are like sponges in that they contain many holes. One of the significances of this open structure is illustrated by new developments of value for energy storage. The amount of natural… read more

One of the more frightening of volcanic eruption phenomena is the nuee ardente, or glowing cloud. It happens quickly and is hard to escape from; one of the reasons why it is wise to evacuate people from volcanoes that erupt explosively.

Nuees ardentes are billowing masses composed of incandescent dust and ash buoyed up by hot gases. A nuee starts with an explosive volcanic eruption that spews the hot material upward or obliquely outward from a vent. After expanding upward hundreds or thousands of feet, the boiling, angry-looking cloud spreads out and falls downslope with ever-increasing speed and, "at the same time," one viewer said, "developing upward in cauliflower convolutions of dust and ash. These convolutions grow with an indescribably curious rolling and puffing movement which at the immediate front takes the form of forward-springing jets, suggesting charging lions."

With searing temperatures that may exceed 500°F the nuee races downhill at speeds in… read more

One can wonder how practical it is to satisfy the human demand for energy with some of the suggested alternatives to fossil fuels. Aside from how practical it may be to use the alternative sources, there is even the more fundamental question of just how much energy is available in each suggested source.

The rate at which the entire human race burns energy in food eaten is about equal to that required to keep a billion 100-watt light bulbs burning. The current worldwide power demand to meet all needs of civilization is about one hundred times larger. To avoid hard-to-visualize big numbers, it is useful to talk about the size of potential power sources in terms of the current worldwide demand.

In those terms, some renewable sources of energy clearly are lacking in the ability to solve the world's energy problem, even though they can be important local sources. An example is the power available in tidal flow that could be extracted at places like the Bay of Fundy… read more

The subject of volcanoes is a hot topic in the Pacific Northwest as a result of the March 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Curious how much more attention a volcanic eruption in the Lower 48 gets compared to more spectacular ones such as we get on the Alaska Peninsula, in the Aleutians, or elsewhere around the Pacific's "ring of fire."

Of course, the Mount St. Helens eruption might become rather spectacular and dangerous before it's all over since a number of substantial eruptions have occurred there during the past 30,000 years. Actually, Mount St. Helens is the most active volcano in the conterminous United States; its last event ended in 1856.

There is a record of St. Helens eruptive events in flow deposits on the southeast side of the mountain. Erupting ash and rock debris with entrapped hot air has created hot dry flows--called pyroclastic flows--that have carried large rocks downslope and occasionally blocked rivers near the volcano. Another type of flow… read more

Just in the last year or so, we all have become very conscious of the advantage of self-sufficiency in energy and other needs. It's comforting to know that the house will not freeze up if the power goes off because one has a backup wood-burning heating system, or that one has figured out a way to get back and forth to work even if there is no gasoline.

On a larger scale, we are learning how costly it is to import fuel for powering generators or sewage systems in northern villages and towns. Should there be a World-Wide catastrophe of some sort we easily see the advantages that northerners hold if they can have their own sources of food, fuel and other similar needs.

Beyond the obvious technical advantages of self-sufficiency there is a more subtle political advantage that self-sufficiency brings, a point which Amory B. Lovins brings out in his book Soft Energy Paths. In a sense, it is an obvious thought: the more self-sufficient is a family, a village or… read more

The air was nearly calm at Lake Minchumina that midwinter day when dirt, moss and other debris fell from the sky to dust the snow covering the lake ice. Nevertheless it was obvious to resident Florence Collins that the material raining down derived from the high Alaska Range 80 miles to the south or perhaps even the region of Cook Inlet beyond. Mrs. Collins could see plumes of snow blowing off the top of Mt. McKinley so she knew the wind was intense there. Further, reports on winds aloft that day, January 18, 1980, confirmed what she could see: 25 mph SE wind at 3000 feet, 45 mph S wind at 6000 feet, 61 mph S wind at 9000 feet, and 110 mph winds in the hills near Anchorage.

Recognizing the possible implications that observations of long-distance transport could have for studies of past climates and plant distributions, Mrs. Collins collected an envelope of the material that rained down and carefully recorded the circumstances. She delivered it to her friend Florence… read more

One of the suggested methods to reduce the need to import petroleum is to produce fuel from agricultural crops. Gasohol, a mixture of 90% unleaded gasoline and 10% ethyl alcohol, can be used in autos without making carburetor adjustments. Whether better or worse mirage results is debatable; most results so far indicate it is worse compared to burning gasoline.

However, the crucial question is if a net energy gain results when gasohol rather than gasoline is used as fuel. Analyses of the energy costs of producing the ethyl alcohol component of gasohol take into account the energy consumed in agricultural production and the subsequent cooking and fermentation processes that yield the alcohol.

Studies reported recently in Science indicate that about half of the agricultural energy cost is in the fuel to run the tractors and other machinery. Fertilizers and machinery production make up most of the rest. Much more energy is required to cook and distill the… read more

When the irresistible force of the North Pacific tectonic plate meets the immovable object Alaska, the result is an interlinked assemblage of volcanoes and earthquakes. Moving steadily to the northwest at about 6 cm (2.4 inches) per year, the North Pacific plate rubs against British Columbia and southeast Alaska and then slides down under the western Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Rocks at the boundaries between the moving plate and the fixed continent try to absorb the differential motion by bending. The rocks in the Gulf of Alaska region seem to have enough strength to accept 3 to 5 meters (10 to 16 feet) of bending before they break to initiate the event we call an earthquake. The seismic waves created in the impulsive snapping of the rocks are stronger the greater the slippage is along the fault. In a large earthquake the slippage might be roughly 5 meters along a fault that may extend horizontally 100 hm to perhaps more than 1000 km.

The time… read more

Distinct reddish-brown layers have been observed many times by jet pilots flying across the Arctic on the transpolar air route. Especially pronounced in winter, these haze layers were first reported more than twenty years ago. When an aircraft is within a layer of Arctic haze, pilots report that horizontal visibility can drop to one tenth that of normally clear sky.

Much of the haze seen in the air is of natural origin, but Arctic haze evidently is man-made. Measurements made by sampling air at Point Barrow, Alaska and other Arctic locations show that the haze contains small amounts of vanadium. The vanadium, being a natural component of crude oil, is injected into the atmosphere in areas of heavy industrial activity.

The Geophysical Institute's Glenn Shaw and his coworkers at other research institutions around the country who are making the measurements are fairly certain that their results imply that the Arctic haze originates in the industrialized portions of… read more

A recent earthquake near Hollister, California may have done more damage to seismologists' hopes than to the surrounding countryside.

North of the city, the Calaveras and San Andreas fault zones intersect. A dense network of seismic and other instrumentation had been established there in hope of picking up any precursors to the next big earthquake. The earthquake came, one of magnitude 5.7, but no identifiable precursors came before it.

There were no foreshocks, no bulging or tilting of the earth, and no observed electric or magnetic field changes that could have been used to predict that a moderate earthquake was imminent. Even in retrospect, the only possibly significant events prior to the earthquake were a surge in flow rate from a spring some distance from the epicenter and reported unusual animal behavior. Still, it is uncertain that either of these was actually related to the earthquake's occurrence.

This failure to find definite precursors is… read more

It is said that if you get a group of Alaskans or northern Canadians together for an evening's conversation, the talk will, sooner or later, turn to sewage.

Sewage is a topic dear to the northerner's heart; it, like the weather, is something that concerns everyone and gives each at least occasional trouble. Low ground temperatures, water-impervious soils, deep seasonal freezing and permafrost can act individually or collectively to make sewage disposal a messy problem in both rural and urban areas.

One reason sewage gives us so much problem is that we insist upon thinking that sewers and water supplies must always go together. Worse yet, we are inclined to believe that the only way to handle sewage is in a water solution. There are other ways, lecturer Sim Van der Ryne told attendees of the First Alaska Alternative Energy Conference held in Anchorage, November 9-11, 1979. In a conference workshop he held on waste disposal, Van der Ryne described water-free… read more

A maar is to a volcano as is an inverted mole hill to a mountain. It's an eruption that started off with a bang but then ran out of steam and sort of collapsed back into itself.

A maar forms when a pipe of molten lava eats its way up from the depths to breach the ground surface. In most or all instances there is a violent initial explosion just as the maar vents to the surface. This explosion occurs when steam is formed by the molten rock contacting near-surface ground water. Then the resulting steam pressure becomes great enough to blow away the overlying rocks.

Early inhabitants of the Seward Peninsula had several opportunities to see maars form. These maars were created on the low plain between Shishmaref and Cape Espenberg at the northeast tip of the Seward Peninsula, just across the sound from Kotzebue. One maar formed about 9,300 years ago. Another erupted 13,000 years ago, and others were created as early as 200,000 years ago.

All that remains… read more

According to recent media accounts PCB is the latest chemical insult to the Alaskan environment. PCB (shorthand for "polychlorinated biphenyls") is not a single chemical but a complex mixture of substances produced from petro-chemicals and chlorine gas. The PCBs are chemically stable, and this property enhances their utility as heat exchange fluids, fire retardants, and plasticizers.

Chemically and biologically, PCBs are similar to DDT. Both are inert chlorinated hydrocarbons which persist in the environment, concentrate in most organisms (including man), and exhibit toxicity. The biological effects of PCBs are sufficient to raise concern. They allegedly contribute to reproductive failure, induce mutations, and cause chloracne (a severe skin disorder).

What will happen to the PCBs which have been introduced to the Alaskan environment? Recent research at the University of Alaska has shown that the waters of Port Valdez contain microorganisms which convert PCBs to… read more

An interesting advertisement sponsored by General Motors appeared recently in American Scientist and perhaps other periodicals. Overtly the ad describes a method for comparing the effects and costs of programs or policies intended to extend or save human lives. But a not so obvious purpose of the ad appears to be an attack upon the federal government's standard of carbon monoxide (CO) emission to be enforced in 1981.

The information leading to the possible conclusion that the 1981 Automotive CO standards are ridiculous emerges upon examination of a graph within the ad. Since the conclusion comes only as a result of the reader studying the graph, General Motors itself makes no direct claim, a claim that might irritate the reader if directly stated.

The General Motors graph says that it would be terribly expensive to follow the 1981 CO emission guideline and that doing so would only have the effect of increasing the average longevity of Americans by… read more

Plowing his field at Salcha, south of Fairbanks, Richard Roberts' tiller came up hard upon a rock. As Mr. Roberts picked up the foot-long rock he realized that there were two peculiar things about it. For one thing it was the only rock around of its size, it had been found in fine-grained, windblown soil. Secondly, it was dark and pitted like a igneous rock, but Mr. Roberts knew that there was no evidence of volcanic activity in the area.

A stony meteorite? Mr. Roberts thought it might be, so he brought it to the Geophysical Institute for evaluation. There, through the mouths of several geologists, the rock told some of its history.

The rock is not a meteorite but is, in fact, what is called a vesicular basalt because of its swiss-cheese appearance. Petrologist Dr. Sam Swanson pointed out that the vesicles, remnants of gas bubbles left when the rock solidified from a liquid magma, were flattened into exaggerated egg shapes. This showed, he said, that the rock… read more

When great destructive earthquakes strike heavily populated areas it comes as no surprise that hundreds or thousands of people are injured or killed. But when great earthquakes happen in unpeopled areas the few deaths that sometimes occur can seem like strange twists of fate.

So it was with three Yakutat, Alaska residents standing on Khantaak Island, just 2 miles across the sheltered Morti Bay from the town. Mrs. Jeanne Walton and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tibbles had landed on the tip of the island to pick wild berries. Accompanying them in another small boat were the Yakutat postmaster and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. John Williams. The date was July 9, 1958.

About 9:30 p.m. the Williamses decided to leave for home; Mr. and Mrs. Tibbles and Mrs. Walton decided to stay a while longer. They waved goodbye and the Williams' boat left to run back to Yakutat. A few minutes later Mrs. Williams saw trees on the island whipping back and forth. She looked back toward the beach they had… read more

It was a pleasant summer evening on the Yakutat Foreland until the few people there felt the first earthquake motions. Most ran outside and then were thrown to the ground by earth motions of increasing severity. Unable to rise for several minutes, people heard rumbling and grinding noises in the mountains behind the Foreland and saw the earth ripple into waves that raced across the nearby ground. In the soft, wet soils of the Foreland the waves opened fissures in the ground and cast up volcano-like eruptions of water and sand.

These so-called sandblows were one of the more spectacular consequences of the great Lituya Bay earthquake of July 10, 1958, though few people saw them, and time soon obliterated evidence of their existence. Tens of thousands of sandblows occurred during the earthquake in the flat coastal region (the Foreland) between Lituya Bay and Yakutat. Some erupted from obvious fissures in the ground. Others were aligned in rows marking out unseen cracks, and… read more

Named after Japanese seismologist K. Mogi who suggested the idea in 1969, the Mogi Donut is a catchy name for an earthquake prediction scheme. Speaking punningly, the whole idea is based upon the current understanding of why earthquakes occur where they do.

Earthquakes are thought to occur where there are the greatest concentrations of strain in the earth's rocks. Strain is the elastic deformation of material that occurs when stress (pressure) is applied to it. If the strain is too great, the material must break or else flow in-elastically, that is, without rebounding to its original form when the stress is relieved.

The rock breakage that creates an earthquake relieves the strain where the fracturing occurs. However, the movement of the rocks near a breaking fault may place increased stress on rocks out away from the fault. In a sense, it is like tearing a piece of cloth. By pulling the cloth at an edge, one can apply enough stress there to break a single… read more

Men tend to plant trees evenly spaced in rows, but Nature uses a seemingly more random pattern. Therefore, most fixed objects we see in nature are irregularly distributed, and when a regular pattern emerges, it tends to catch our eye.

One such pattern--and a mysterious one--is the rather even spacing of volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula and elsewhere out along the Aleutians. The Aleutian Islands themselves are just the upper parts of volcanoes perched on the sea floor.

On the west side of Cook Inlet, Spurr, Redoubt, Iliamna and Augustine stand like a row of well-drilled soldiers spaced roughly 70 km (42 miles) apart. Down the Alaska Peninsula to the southwest, the volcanoes are closer ranked but still relatively evenly spaced about 50 km (30 miles) apart.

A possible cause of this remarkable evenness of spacing has been offered by geoscientist Bruce D. Marsh of Johns Hopkins University in an article appearing in the March-April issue of American… read more

For the most part, the shallows of the Beaufort Sea have a mud and silt bottom. The one known exception is just east of Prudhoe Bay in the shallows of Stefansson Sound. There, in a 160-square-mile area between the shore and Cross and Narwhal Islands, is a group of boulder patches.

Rocks up to a meter (3 feet) litter the seafloor. Where they came from and how they got there no one knows. Possibly they were carried out of the mountains to the south by glaciers during a past glaciation. Or perhaps they were rafted into their location on top of ice fragments originating in the Greenland or Ellesmere Island ice sheets, thousands of years ago.

Compared to most of the rest of the floor of the Arctic Ocean, the boulder patches are teeming with life. Like a tropical coral reef, each boulder patch supports a community of kelp and other attached plants and animals, along with various fishes and invertebrates that move around among the boulders.

Originally, the… read more

It is quite obvious that earthquakes are not always random events. In other words, the occurrence of one earthquake often is related to another earthquake. There are patterns of earthquake occurrence that, if understood, can tell us something about the nature of earthquakes and the rocks wherein they occur.

Following almost any sizable earthquake, there is a train of many lesser earthquakes. Simply for the reasons that they occur after the big shock and appear to be related to it, these earthquakes are called aftershocks. Usually, the bigger the main earthquake, the more numerous and bigger are the aftershocks. Following a magnitude 7-plus, tsunami-generating earthquake in the Aleutian Islands in 1965, there were more than 750 substantial aftershocks within the first 24 hours. Sometimes these aftershock trains continue on for months. As time goes by, the frequency and the size of the aftershocks tend to decrease.

The characteristics of aftershocks indicate that… read more

Following a major earthquake in southern California some years ago, one of the seismological laboratories there decided to investigate the expected aftershock sequence. They got permission to establish an array of seismometers on a large ranch near where the earthquake had occurred. The seismologists set up the array which fed signals by wires into a large, wrist-sized cable that led into a portable recording van.

They soon got everything working, and signals were humming into the van to show the occurrence of many small aftershocks and some large enough to be felt. Then, suddenly, all the signals ceased. Seeking the cause of the termination, the seismologists went outside the van to find a woman standing with axe in hand beside the seismograph cable which she had just chopped neatly in twain. Defiantly, she explained "we've had enough earthquakes around here lately without you guys making any more."

A similar approach to the problem has been reported by… read more

Chinese seismologists have underway a major program of evaluating animal behavior as a means of earthquake prediction. They got serious about the matter in 1966 when it was discovered that all the resident dogs left their kennels at a village in Hopei Province just before a large earthquake originated in the rocks below the town.

The Chinese scientists soon collected more than 2,000 eyewitness accounts of unusual pre-earthquake behavior, mostly involving domestic animals. The strange behavior was reported to peak in the 24-hour interval just prior to the earthquake; sometimes strange behavior in animals was observed several days before an earthquake. The bigger the earthquake, the more reports there were of unusual behavior.

Several centers now have been established in China to make earthquake predictions by various methods including observation of animals. These centers have set up operational networks to report and evaluate the observations of animal behavior… read more

Any person living for a period of a few years or more in the Aleutians or in southern or central Alaska is likely to experience a strong, possibly damaging, earthquake. One's chances of getting hurt in a strong earthquake really are fairly small, but the chances can be made even smaller by taking the right actions.

Above all, stay calm. If inside, stay inside, or if outside, stay outside; entering or leaving a building can be dangerous, especially one of masonry with attached exterior objects that might fall during the shaking.

The safest places to stand indoors usually are near interior walls or within interior doorways. Office desks or other heavy pieces of furniture give good protection if one can get under them. Stay away from windows and outside doors.

If outdoors, avoid overhead electrical wires or objects that might fall. If driving a car, stop the car and remain inside until the shaking ceases.

Collapsing dams, sloshing of water in lakes… read more

An active rock glacier is a stream of blocky rock containing ice in the interstitial spaces (the voids between the rocks) that flows downslope by virtue of viscous (molasses-like) flow within the ice component. The top of an active rock glacier flows faster than its base. Consequently, near the toe of a rock glacier, material from the top rolls or slides down the front of the rock glacier to form a slope lying at the angle of repose of the loose rock composing the glacier. By means of this characteristic slope at the toe, one can recognize the rock glacier and that it is active and moving.

Rock glaciers occur by the hundreds in the Alaska Range. They occur in the Wrangells and many other mountain ranges around the world including the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and the Sierra Nevada of California.

For a rock glacier to exist several conditions must be met. There must be a source of blocky rock such as a weathering cliff or mountain slope or perhaps even the… read more

So far, Savonoski Crater is one of life's deep dark mysteries.

From the air, Savonoski Crater in Katmai National Monument has every appearance of having been caused by a meteorite impact. It occurs high on a sandstone ridge between two valleys, it is nearly circular and it is deep. Savonoski Crater is about 500 meters (1600 feet) across, the lake inside is 50 meters deep and the rim rises up to 60 meters above the water.

Despite the superficial appearance of being a meteorite crater, extensive investigation by geophysicists failed to find evidence linking Savonoski to a meteoritic origin. Proof, if it could be found, would consist of locating meteoritic material or some evidence in the crater's rock of it having been shocked by a meteoritic impact. Microscopic examination of rock can identify such evidence.

Much of the problem is that Savonoski Crater was formed during or before the last time glaciers covered the area. Any evidence of the crater's… read more

The Tolsona Number One mud volcano lies just a tenth of a mile north, and within easy walking distance, of Mile 173.2 of the Glenn Highway. This is roughly ten miles west of Glennallen, on top of the bluff just east of the Tolsona Creek crossing.

The mud volcano is about 8 meters high (25 feet), 180 meters wide and 270 meters long. Except for a bare region at the crest, the volcano is covered by brush and trees. At the crest, thirty to forty vents bubble out methane gas and water laced with sodium chloride and calcium chloride salts. The turbulent bubbling of the gas causes mud to be carried up with the water for deposition around the edges of each vent. An increase in the overall activity sometime in recent years has spilled a new layer of mud and salt down from the top of the volcano where it has killed brush and trees growing near the crest.

The seething cauldrons atop the Tolsona mud volcanoes (there are four of them in the area) hide a mystery, since no one… read more

Tors are craggy spires seen on high slopes or hilltops of interior Alaska and elsewhere in the world. They have a special significance, for they are monumental proof that Pleistocene glaciers did not cover the areas where the tors are found. If glaciers had covered the areas, the tors would have been scraped away by the ice. Thus, the tors demonstrate that central Alaska was open to the migration of plants and animals even during the height of the last glaciation.

The most accessible tors in Alaska are those seen on the right-hand side of the road as one nears Chena Hot Springs, northeast of Fairbanks. These granite spires rise up as high as 30 meters (100 feet) above the slopes and table-like terraces upon which they sit. Tors occur on Wickersham Dome where they can be seen from Livengood Road, in inaccessible parts of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands, and on a plateau near the Gerstle River crossed by the Alaska Highway southeast of Big Delta.

Tors are created by… read more

Ten thousand years ago, when the last major glaciation occurred (the Wisconsin glaciation), the Tanana Valley was glacier free. Still, it probably looked quite different than it does today. There were fewer trees and probably a lot more sand dunes.

As they ground the Alaska Range to the south into flour-sized particles, glaciers carried the debris northward and delivered it to the winds sweeping up the Tanana Valley. The winds, in turn, deposited the silt onto the hills fronting the valley--33-Mile Bluff, Moose Creek Bluff, Birch Hill, College Hill, Chena Ridge and the Nenana Bluffs.

Most of the time the silt deposited so fast that extensive humus layers did not build up. In places though, one can dig down to find thin dark layers, an inch or so thick, representing times of low wind deposition rates.

Active sand dunes probably moved across the lowland areas, just as they still do today west of Huslia in the Koyukuk Valley and along the Kobuk River. Low,… read more

When scientists are skeptical about the existence of reported phenomena, they often try to cover up under a layer of humor. Such an attempt by one seismologist led him to remark that "the chapter on earthquake lights is the darkest in seismology."

No longer does this subject lurk in the shadows of scientific skepticism. Among the more illuminating observations that have brought this topic out into the scientific light of day are those acquired by a Japanese dentist. He managed to photograph earthquake lights occurring during a ten-year earthquake swarm starting in 1965.

While seismologists are not yet certain of the cause of earthquake lights, they now are highly interested. Not only is it certain that earthquakes can cause lights in the sky; it seems possible that the lights sometimes occur before earthquakes and so serve as warning precursors.

One of the more logical explanations of the cause of earthquake lights is the piezoelectric effect. Certain… read more

Of more than a normal interest is the heating up of the summit region of Alaska's Mt. Wrangell the past 20 years. The increase in upward heat flow in a small crater on the rim of the volcano's summit caldera at altitude 4000 m (14,000 ft) does not necessarily mean that an eruption is imminent. But an eruption is an obvious possibility. Mt. Wrangell has been far from inactive in historic times. During the major Yakutat earthquakes in September, 1899, Wrangell increased its output of smoke and ash. The summit caldera, which has a diameter of 6 km, may have been formed as recently as 2,000 years ago.

In addition to the usual hazards associated with volcanic eruptions, ice-clad volcanoes like Mt. Wrangell present other hazards to the surrounding areas. Catastrophic flooding by waters from rapid melting of ice and snow on a volcano's flanks have occurred in Alaska as well as in Iceland and the volcanic Cascades of Washington and Oregon.

Mudflows pose another serious… read more

The world's air now is increasing its carbon dioxide content by about 1 percent per year. If the trend continues another decade or so, we may be headed rapidly into climatic change that will increase the world's deserts and reduce the areas suitable for agriculture.

Carbon dioxide, unlike its deadly sound-alike carbon monoxide, is a harmless minor constituent of air (0.03%). Most of the world's carbon is locked up either in carbon dioxide (C0 2 ) molecules or in rock and mineral compounds.

In sunlight, green plants photosynthesize water and C0 2 from the air into starches and sugars required for plant growth. Sooner or later the C0 2 is returned to the air by the plants themselves or by the bacteria, yeasts and animals that consume the plants as foods. Another way for the so-called biological "carbon-cycle" to be completed is through combustion, either slow (rot) or fast (fire).

Just in the last few years,… read more

Twenty-five miles offshore from Nome's gold beaches, natural gas now bubbles up through the ocean floor.

Found by shipboard water sampling during 1976, the seepage is not the first sign of oil and gas near Nome. Oil films have been reported on the lagoons near Nome and Cape Nome. Sometimes when a southerly (onshore) wind blows, a parafin-like foam is seen on the beaches.

As early as 1906, there was prospecting for oil on Hastings Creek near Cape Nome. Of two shallow wells drilled, one showed a trace of oil and the other a head of flammable gas under enough pressure to blow the tool stem back up the hole.

Oil seeps have been found in the Sinuk River Valley 30 km northeast of Nome and at the mouth of the Inglutalik River between Nome and Unalakleet

The light hydrocarbon (hydrogen and carbon) compounds of which natural gas is composed easily dissolve in water. Consequently, a technique of prospecting for marine seeps or… read more

About the size and shape of a small ham, Alaska's Aggie Creek meteorite weighs a hefty 58 pounds. Its metallic nature is obvious from the appearance of the two faces from which samples have been cut away, otherwise it looks like a rusty orange rock.

The Aggie Creek meteorite was lifted by a gold dredge in 1942. From its original location, 15 miles east of Council on the Seward Peninsula, it was taken to Nome by Eskil Anderson and sent on to the University of Alaska Museum. The listed donor is F. K. Dent.

The meteorite is about 90% iron and 8.5% nickel, a composition typical of iron meteorites. Six other meteorites found elsewhere in the world share the exact same composition. That identity has led to the suggestion that the seven objects may be fragments of one original cosmic mass, parts of which have fallen at different places and times.

Proof that the Aggie Creek object truly is a meteorite comes from the pattern exhibited by its cut faces. This is… read more

Electrically driven family autos capable of carrying six passengers over a range of 200 miles, and which are cost competitive with conventional cars, still are 25 years or so away, according to a recent statement by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences. For use in cold climates, such cars may even then be impractical.

Nevertheless, increasing air pollution from autos and other sources and the need to conserve energy are making it essential to develop better means of family transportation than we have now. Of Alaskan cities, Fairbanks, with its pollution-trapping air inversions, seems most likely to be the one to first have to abandon conventional autos.

If electric cars are not the answer, what is? The National Academy report offers one possibility--a car with a very small gasoline engine that can be coupled to a flywheel. Such a device could preserve the range and flexibility of the gasoline-powered vehicle while markedly improving mileage and… read more

Spewing forth an 8, 000 foot plume of gas clouds and hot ash, Mt. Augustine awoke from a 10 year sleep in January 1976 to remind Alaskans that we are very much part of a growing land. And while the major activity seems to have abated a bit, intermittent activity has continued and is expected to continue for several months.

Some relics brought back from the Geophysical Institute's scientific hut on the island are grim evidence of one form of death-dealing destruction that sometimes accompanies volcanic eruptions. Sometime on January 23 or 24, 1976, one or more hot gas clouds rushed down the slopes of Mt. Augustine and engulfed the hut. Called nuees ardentes, the French name for glowing avalanches or clouds, such downward flows travel as fast as 100 miles or more per hour.

From them there is no escape; the metal hut on Augustine withstood a blast no living thing inside or in that area could have survived. Temperatures rose, perhaps only for a second or two, to… read more

We never have to worry about being overwhelmed by science. The human capacity to believe or disbelieve is too potent a force to be overcome by knowledge.

I reached this view with mixed gloom and glee after climbing Mt. McKinley with explorer Frederick Cook. Cook claimed he did it in 1906. For the last few months I have followed the literary trail left behind over the seventy odd years since.

The record is amazing. It is little wonder the mountain hides its face in mist and shame. So many lies have littered its slopes.

In 1909 the Explorers Club of New York and the American Alpine Club looked at Cook's claims and dropped him from membership. Yet Cook, a highly respected member of the exploration establishment, had been elected President of the Explorers Club and had helped found the American Alpine Club.

At the time Cook accused his foes of lying, taking bribes, and slander. After the dust settled, sober men studied Cook's mountain narrative,… read more

A 12.4 km (7.7 ml.) wide bowl-shaped depression south of Bettles has been identified as a meteorite crater by University of Alaska teacher Dr. P. Jan Cannon. Pilot-geologist Cannon used his own low-altitude aerial reconnaissance to help verify the identity of the feature that he first discovered using Landsat satellite images.

The meteorite crater is about 500 meters deep. Its center is occupied by Sithylemenkat Lake; sithylemenkat has the meaning "lake in the hills" in the Koyukon Indian language of the area. The crater is thought to have been formed during the latter part of the last ice age, about 100,000 years ago. The huge meteorite that struck the earth at this location 90 km south of Bettles may have weighed as much as 55 million tons. If there were any people in Alaska then, they must all have strongly felt seismic waves emanating from the impact.

Working without the benefit of satellite imagery, geologist Gordon Herreid had earlier investigated… read more

When petroleum-based solvents like paint thinner and jet fuel are combined with chlorine a number or useful products result: dry cleaning fluid, pesticides, and electrical transformer oil, to name a few. Pure petroleum distillates flushed into our oceans are digested by bacteria as are all naturally occurring products of photosynthesis. But chlorination prevents digestion because the unusual compounds formed resist enzymatic attack. So compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB'S) eventually find their way into the ocean where they accumulate.

PCB's are easy to find in water because they prefer not to get wet. They will penetrate plastics just to dry off. Scientists can easily obtain PCB samples from the ocean by letting pieces of styrofoam cup soak them up. The problem with PCB's is that they are collected in the fatty parts of microorganisms. This concentration factor between the organism and the water can be as much as a million. Concentrations may be further… read more

Tsunamis, commonly called tidal waves, are really seismic sea waves generated by earthquakes. In the open sea they travel very fast, perhaps 600 miles per hour, but have almost no effect there because of the low height and great length of the waves.

But as the waves approach land, it is a different story. The waves pile up as the ocean depth lessens; destructive surges as much as 100 feet high can result. Sometimes sea level drops in the minutes before a tsunami strikes, but since it doesn't always, this is not a satisfactory warning of an approaching tsunami.

The Pacific Ocean has many tsunamis; in the Atlantic only one has been reported. It accompanied the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Its devastation to a portion of this best of all possible worlds formed an episode in Voltaire's Candide.

One of the worst tsunamis of recent years was generated by an Aleutian earthquake in 1946. The tsunami killed 159 people in Hawaii and destroyed nearly 500 homes… read more

What is an earthquake like at sea? Almost universally, reports by people on ships tell of having thought that the ship had run aground. Rumbling, grating sensations and horrifying rattling of ship superstructures are reported. The noises often appear to come mainly from the bottom of the ship, and there is fear that the ship is breaking up.

Evidently, strong earthquake waves traveling below the ocean floor start compressional wave trains (like sound waves in air) that travel upward through the water at a steep angle. Striking the ship bottom, these waves apparently cause no real damage to the ship.

Much more to be feared by seamen traveling near a shore are the giant tsunami waves generated by nearby or distant earthquakes. In 185S, while traveling near Peru, the unfortunate captian of the U. S. gunboat Wateree was forced to abandon ship after a tsunami deposited his vessel on its flat bottom, two miles inland.

During March 1977, a volcano-like eruption was sighted near Becharof Lake 70 miles south of King Salmon. Geologists visiting the area found two holes, the largest about 1,000 feet across, on the near-level plain beside the lake. From these holes clouds of steam and ash billowed forth, and lava and rock fragments could be seen spurting upward occasionally.

At first it was not obvious whether the new activity was the beginning of a volcano or a transient breaching of the surface that would eventually lead to the formation of water-filled pits called maars. Maars are found elsewhere in the world, including the north side of the Seward Peninsula, near Cape Espenberg.

Not far from Skagway, just over the border in Canada, precipitation that falls does not run off the few tens of miles directly to the sea. Instead, the mighty mountain barrier which rings Alaska's southern coastline causes the water to flow downhill to the north into the Yukon River watershed. This water must flow north and finally west a distance greater than 1500 miles before reaching the Bering Sea.

Why such a circuitous route? The answer lies in the high degree of tectonic activity of southern Alaska. The mountains there are rising up faster than they are being eroded away by weathering processes.

That the uplifting is very rapid is demonstrated by the troubles a surveying crew had some years ago. One summer they ran level lines from the southern coast to Big Delta. The next year they ran the level lines from Big Delta back to the coast only on find that their survey failed to close. As they discovered during a rapidly repeated survey in the following year,… read more

February 1977 seems to be adding one more positive data point to the apparent ten-year cycle of earthquake activity in the Fairbanks area.

The News Miner headline on July 22, 1937, read "Fairbanks hit by its worst quake." At the bottom of the same page and extending clear across the page was an ad, "Earthquake Insurance--Alaska Insurance Agency--call John Butrovich, Jr." This magnitude 7.5 quake blocked the Richardson Highway at 33 Mile Bluff and ruined many bottles of liquor in Fairbanks.

The magnitude 7 earthquake of October 16, 1947, was less severe and fewer bottles were broken in Fairbanks stores. From the previous earthquake, area merchants had learned the value of containment wires across open shelves. One wonders if they also followed up on John Butrovich's ad. Earthquakes of May 1958 were strongly felt in Fairbanks but they actually were located nearer Manley Hot Springs.

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake on June 21, 1967, caused minor damage and the… read more

During a felt earthquake the adrenaline flows and the heart may palpitate. When the shaking stops, one wonders if that was it or if a worse earthquake is on the way. Many Fairbanksans during February 1977 must have had such thoughts. Many small earthquakes occurred in the area. At 11:14 a.m. on Sunday, February 27, there was a magnitude 4.2 shock and more than 30 lesser recorded earthquakes occurred during the next half hour.

Unfortunately there is, as yet, no way to tell if a particular earthquake is or is not a warning of a larger earthquake to follow. There have been instances of damaging earthquakes that have been followed within hours or days by great and destructive earthquakes. Once a large earthquake has occurred, it usually is followed by many lesser ones. These aftershocks are thought to result from rebounding of rocks that have been caused to move past an equilibrium position during the main shock.

For Fairbanksans there is some consulation in the… read more

China's October and November atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs have increased the interest in measuring radioactivity levels in interior Alaska and elsewhere. This led to measurements of radon gas in the air over the University campus at Fairbanks. Radon is a radioactive decay product of radium which is found in association with uranium, thorium and other naturally occurring radioactive materials.

When the wind blows the University's heating plant gases over the campus, the measured radon level goes up. The explanation is that the Healy coal burned in the heating plant is relatively rich in uranium and thorium minerals. Seems like no matter what you eat, drink or breathe, someone can find a reason why it is not good for you. But take heart, even with the radioactive Healy coal, EPA says our radioactivity levels here are lower than many places in the lesser states.

Increased heat flow at the summit of Mt. Wrangell during the past few years has radically altered the appearance of the summit. Dr. Carl Benson, who with coworkers has mapped and studied the summit area over the years, says that 40 million cubic meters of snow and ice has melted away from the caldera in recent years. The two accompanying photos taken in 1965 and 1976 show this remarkable change. The volcano bears watching because the increased heat flow can lead to heavier water runoff and perhaps flooding and it may signal new eruptive activity.

Recently we have been warned that the favorable weather of recent years which we have come to think of as being average, is not average at all. It is suggested that harder times are ahead. What will the effect be on global food production which already seems to be running a losing race with consumption?

Worldwide, the most important crop is rice. Even minor decreases in mean temperature are thought likely to reduce the crucial yield of rice. Other important crops are soybeans, wheat and corn, all widely grown in the U. S., Canada and U.S.S.R. Since these crops grow under more varied conditions than rice, minor climatic changes are likely to affect them less. But despite the versatility of these and other crops, the combined production in a bad year seems unlikely to affect the expected reductions in rice.

What does all this mean to Alaska's future? Will Alaska grow more of its food resources in the years to come? Will changing climate affect Alaska's ability to… read more

Working with researchers from the University of Rhode Island, the Geophysical Institute's Dr. Glenn Shaw has discovered that the air over Alaska may regularly receive large injections of dust originating with sandstorms in the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts of Asia.

As much as a half-million tons of desert dust may pass over Alaska during a five-day event. The dust is carried in horizontal bands of "Arctic haze" blowing over the Pacific Ocean and into northern Alaska. Dr. Shaw and his coworkers are now beginning to take ground-level air samples at Fairbanks and Barrow to learn how much of the dust falls on Alaska and what effects the airborne dust might have on Arctic climate.

During the eruption of Redoubt volcano in January, 1969, Ray Collins of McGrath was running his snow machine near Nikolai. He and a friend saw a brownish cloud moving down the valley. It precipitated out on the snow leaving a layer 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep. Mr. Collins noticed the volcanic ash sprayed into the air as his Arctic Cat machine ploughed along, but he hardly gave it a second thought. After running some miles, the Kohler engine began to lose power and overheat. Mr. Collins opened the cowling to find ash packed around the air intake and on the cooling fins. After cleaning, the engine was still without much power, but it was able to take the snow machine over the packed outward trail back to Nikolai. Disassembly of the engine showed it to be destroyed internally by the corrosive, talc-like ash particles.

Jet aircraft flying through ash clouds from volcanoes have had similar problems. Jets that inadvertently flew through the eruptive cloud from Augustine volcano in… read more

The Mt. Augustine eruption of last January sent huge clouds of dust high into the atmosphere. Winds in the jet stream near 20,000 feet carried the dust great distances. As the winds were toward the southwest at the time, the Augustine dust traveled down the Alaska Panhandle to Seattle and finally to Arizona before the wind changed, causing the dust to veer up toward the central United States.

The actual paths, deduced mainly from meteorological observations, of two known eruption clouds are shown on the map. At the time the dust cloud was predicted to pass over Arizona, Prof. Aden Meinel, the founder of the Kitt Peak Astronomical Observatory, and his wife, Majorie, saw, at Tucson, a strange-colored, billowy cloud passing over the sky. They took several photographs of the cloud. Later, they saw a colorful red, glowing sunset, that indicated the cloud was a high altitude one. They suspected then, but did not know, that a volcano had erupted somewhere.

Other… read more

Many of the phenomena which precede a earthquake and are now of aid in earthquake prediction are thought to be caused by another phenomenon called dilatancy. Unlikely as it sounds, the idea is that rocks expand when squeezed.

To see how this is possible, consider a well-shaken box of marbles. The marbles settle in a configuration, leaving minimum spacing, as shown in A. But then if two opposite sides of the box are pushed together, as in B, the marbles move such that larger air spaces exist between them. Hence the total volume increases.

In the theory of dilatancy, rocks are considered to be composed of tiny grains. If the ground surface starts to rise or if water rises in wells, it means that the rocks are being deformed and the rock grains are being dislocated from their minimum volume configuration. The deformation seems to be greatest just before the rocks break&emdash;that is, in the hours just before the earthquake.

Only a few years ago geologists thought that the water ejected by hot springs was primary water released from molten magmas far below the surface. Now new lines of evidence, including measurements of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, shows that nearly all of the water is recirculated groundwater.

The accompanying diagram shows this concept and how a geothermal well might be obtained.

Located north of Fairbanks in the Yukon-Tanana Uplands are a number of hot spring localities. These extend from the Salcha River watershed westward to the Seward Peninsula. The better known hot springs in this region are Chena Hot Springs, Circle Hot Springs and Manley Hot Springs, all accessible by road.

Famous in the annals of weather is the year 1816, during which the temperature dipped to freezing every month in Madison County, New York. It was a bitter year for farmers in both America and Europe as their crops froze, were replanted and froze again. On the Fourth of July, men of Plymouth, Connecticut wore heavy overcoats as they played quoits in the bright sunshine. Snow fell in Montreal on June 6 and 8 and Quebec City had a 12-inch accumulation on June 10.

In fact, 1816 was just the worst of a series of cold years from 1812 to 1817, years that were cold worldwide. The accepted explanation is that several major volcanic eruptions in those years loaded the atmosphere with dust which girdled the globe. The dust does a better job of keeping the sun's radiation out than keeping the Earth's in and so causes the average temperature to lower by a degree or so. Local effects can be much more severe, as unfortunate farmers have found out.

Extensive volcanic dust… read more

Once upon a time, two families lived on the same block--the Smiths and the Jones'. The Smiths were always trying to keep up with the Jones', but the Smiths had no automobile and the family had to walk everywhere. There were six Smiths--and each day they would leave the house, walking, to fulfill their daily tasks, and every morning the Jones' shiny new automobile would roar past, leaving them in a cloud of dust. The Smiths knew that walking was healthy and indeed they were healthy for each walked an average of two miles a day which amounted to about 4,380 miles per year. And because they had gotten quite good at walking and sometimes jogged, the average time it took each Smith to travel a 2-mile daily course was 20 minutes. One day Mr. Smith divided the family's total mileage by the total time spent walking or jogging and found that the average speed of the family was 6 miles per hour.

Mr. Jones had been doing some figuring of his own. He found that it cost him about $2,… read more

Do you think that Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain in America? It is if you measure the height above sea level. Yet Mauna Loa in Hawaii, measured from its base, rises higher than any mountain in the world. It rises up through 18,000 feet of ocean to a total elevation of 32,000. Yet, don't despair! Mt. McKinley still sets a record--a world record in fact. It is the highest land-based mountain in the world measured from its base to its summit. Even Mt. Everest, although 29,028 feet above sea level, only rises about 11,000 feet above the Tibetan Plateau.

It isn't as easy to tell a mountain's height as you may think. Calculations using the known distance to Mt. McKinley and its known height indicate that the summit of the mountain should not be visible; it should be below Chena Ridge. The reason for this discrepancy is because the rays of light from McKinley's summit are bent (refracted) as they pass through the atmosphere. This effect is basically responsible for the… read more

Not even one person was killed during a major earthquake that struck a heavily populated area 400 miles northeast of Peking, China, on February 4, 1975. Ninety percent of the buildings in some areas were destroyed as was the entire town of Haicheng. Death was avoided because the government evacuated the nearly one million people who lived in the area.

The Chinese government had mounted a major seismological research program some years earlier. It involved geologic field work, gravity and magnetic studies and observations of crustal deformation using seismic nets and hordes of trained amateur observers. By 1974 Chinese seismologists were convinced that a potentially disastrous earthquake would occur in the Haicheng area. Then sudden changes in water well levels, abnormal behavior of domestic animals and even snakes emerging from below ground in subzero weather plus instrumental indications implied the earthquake was imminent. Massive evacuations were completed just hours… read more

Jutting curiously out of the level floor of the Tanana Valley, near Fairbanks, are several small hills. Four of these, including Lakloey, Brown's, Sage and Birch Hills consist partly of basaltic rocks. These rocks were erupted through volcanic vents which cut through older rocks (Birch Creek schist) over 90 million years ago. Some of the basalt contains football-like structures called "pillows" which tell us that these lavas were erupted on the floors of prehistoric lakes or seas. These isolated hills are remnants left from erosion that has carried away surrounding rocks over the years.

Most of the hills composing the uplands between the Chatanika, Chena and Salcha Rivers are composed of Birch Creek schist and younger granitic rocks (60-120 million years old). Clear Creek Butte, Blair Lake Buttes, Moose Creek Bluff and Birch Hill are mainly composed of Birch Creek schist. Rocks composing the Birch Creek schist formation are chiefly recrystallized sedimentary rocks which… read more

The recent eruption of Mt. Augustine recalls that of Mt. Katmai in 1912. Katmai's explosion was one of the most powerful to occur in recorded history. Fortunately, its remote location on the Alaska Peninsula, far from major population centers, prevented loss of human life. An eruption of such great force would have buried a nearby city and destroyed its inhabitants.

Residents of Kodiak, 100 miles from Katmai, were among the first Alaskans to observe the eruption phenomenon. A heavy fall of volcanic ash blanketed the town and created considerable apprehension. Initially, no one knew what caused the ash to fall. It was June 6, yet by 6:30 p.m., the town was obscured in total darkness. At the time of the eruption, lightning struck the Kodiak radio station. The station burned down and all communications with the outside world were severed.

On the morning of the third day after the eruption, the people of Kodiak still groped around in darkness. Ash continued to fall… read more

Windblown loess (pronounced "luss") forms the surface layer on many of the hills surrounding Fairbanks. The layers of silt-sized dirt particles feather out near the tops of the hills but may be more than a hundred feet thick near the bases. The layers of loess often are frozen. These contain lenses of pure ice and the remains of many mammals: bison, horse, camel, mastodon, mammoth, saber-toothed tiger and even the Fairbanks Lion.

Tall exposures of the loess remain beside the tailing piles on the roads to Ester and Fox. In earlier years the loess was washed away by hydraulic giants so that gold dredges could mine the gravels below.

Little studied, the loess is thought to have been laid down by winds during the last glacial age ending about 6,000 years ago. The loess had its source in the broad outwash plain north of the Alaska Range. Though glaciers never covered Fairbanks, they probably extended well north of the Range and carried eroded material far out from the… read more

We have been asked the meaning of the Richter magnitude scale now commonly used to report earthquakes.

Some years ago, before seismographs were widely deployed, the Modified Mercalli intensity scale was used. It measured, not how strong an earthquake was, but rather how strongly it was felt or how much damage it caused. The Mercalli scale ran from I to XII; I being an earthquake felt only by a few persons under favorable circumstances and XII meaning total destruction.

The Richter scale uses seismographs to measure actual ground motion at a specific distance (100 km) from the earthquake epicenter (origin). Earthquakes smaller than Richter scale 3 are not usually felt even by persons near the epicenter. The Richter scale is logarithmic, which means that a Richter scale 4 earthquake has ten times more motion than a scale 3 earthquake; Richter scale 5 means ten times as much motion as scale 4, and so on.

The largest earthquakes have Richter magnitudes 8.0… read more

The Continental Divide trends roughly north-south through the United States along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains. It divides the country into watersheds emptying westward into the Pacific Ocean or eastward into the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

One would think that extension of the Continental Divide into Alaska would bring it along the lofty Alaska Range and across Mt. McKinley. Instead, as the map shows, the Continental Divide through Alaska runs along the Brooks Range and into Seward Peninsula where it terminates at Cape Prince of Wales. Thus it separates the watersheds draining north and west into the Arctic Ocean from those draining west and south into Bering Sea.

The curious track of the Continental Divide from the Rockies into the Brooks Range led geologists until recently to assume erroneously that the Brooks Range was a structural extension of the Rocky Mountains. But just within recent years geologists have determined that the Brooks Range… read more

When Augustine erupted on January 23 much of the new dome built at the summit during the past few years disappeared. It left a crater with a floor some 1250 feet below the previous dome top. Then, during the new eruption starting February 11, a new dome structure began building from the crater floor. In one or two days it rose 850 feet.

Dr. Juergen Kienle, who has been studying the volcano's activity for some years expects more gaseous eruptions. There may be another sizable eruption in the near future that could blow away the new dome structure. Also, the volcano may become quiescent so that the new dome remains in place for some years. In short, it is not possible to estimate just when the next major eruption will occur.

Still, there should be warning of major new activity from the expanded seismic network Dr. Kienle has recently installed on the island. In the days prior to each eruption there is a rapid increase of seismic activity within the volcano.

Augustine Volcano's known eruptive history dates back to 1812 but little is known about the activity occurring that year. Captain James Cook named and charted the volcano in 1778. He described it then as having a conical shape. In 1880 the mountain was described as a "low rounded dome without a peak".

A violent eruption occurred on July 6, 1883 during which the summit was destroyed. Afterwards there was a crater at the top of the mountain, the shape of the new summit being quite jagged. During that eruption large seawaves were created. These carried away boats and deluged houses at Port Graham, 50 miles away.

Lava and ash flows accompanied an eruption in 1935. During this eruption a new dome began to grow in the floor of the crater created in 1883. Growth of the dome renewed during explosive eruptions in 1963 and 1969. Since 1958, the dome has grown about 245 feet.

Because of its continuing activity, Augustine is probably the most dangerous of the Cook… read more

Major earthquakes have been a part of Alaskan life throughout historic time. The first one for which we have specific information occurred on July 27, 1788, somewhere near the south side of the Alaska Peninsula. "Tidal wave; lives lost" is the cryptic entry in a catalogue of Alaskan earthquakes. Ninety years later, on August 29, 1878, the town of Makushin, on Unalaska Island, was destroyed by an earthquake and an accompanying tidal wave.

Perhaps still within memory of some Yakutat residents were the terrible earthquakes of 1899. The town had just spent a week recovering from a Richter magnitude 8.3 earthquake on September 3, when the area was rocked by an even larger 8.6 shock, the biggest ever recorded in North America. Southeastern Alaska experienced several severe earthquakes in subsequent years. Then the magnitude 8.0 earthquake of July 10, 1958, struck, causing five deaths at Lituya Bay and Yakutat.

For death and destruction, no Alaskan earthquakes compare… read more

Clay suitable for use in pottery occurs in many places in Alaska, but clay from only a very few localities has actually been used in modern Alaskan pottery. Important sources are the extensive clay layers intermingled with the coal beds near Healy. A mixture of Healy clay and clay from near the Chulitna River crossing of the Parks Highway has been found by Fairbanks area potters to be suitable for making thrown clay objects.

In throwing clay, one forms the material on a rotating wheel. Slippage along the flat platelets of the clay particles allows the clay to be formed into bowls and more complex circular shapes. The Chulitna and most of the Healy clay is grayish, but when fired it turns white. Some of the Healy clay that is yellow when found turns brick red when fired.

For sale in many Alaskan shops are brown and cream ceramic pieces made by the slip casting process. In slip casting, a very fluid blend of several clays is poured into a plaster mold. The mold… read more

The disastrous earthquake in Guatemala reminds us that Fairbanks, too, is in a seismically active area. Significant earthquakes have occurred in Interior Alaska about every ten years. Relatively large earthquakes occurred in 1937, 1948, 1958 and 1967. None of them caused injury or death, but the 1948 earthquake was remembered for its damage to liquor stocks in Fairbanks.

Many tiny earthquakes occur each month in the Fairbanks area. Right now the main center of activity is to the south of International Airport, across the Tanana--a shift that has occurred in the last five years. Previously the center of activity was in the Badger Road area.

New commercial buildings in Fairbanks are required to conform to the 1973 Uniform Building Code which places the city in a high seismic risk zone.