Twenty-eight years after scientists spilled hundreds of plastic disks on ice in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska to determine ocean currents, another one came home to roost at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
In the summer of 2007, graduate student Nathan Coutsoubos of UAF’s Resilience and Adaptation Program found a yellow plastic disk on the tundra in Barrow, just 60 feet from a salt-water lagoon. He picked up the disk and saw a printed message: One Dollar Reward on Return of Serial Number with Date Found, Location, Your Name and Address to Geophysical Institute, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Coutsoubos, who was studying shorebirds on the North Slope, brought the disk back to Fairbanks, where he returned it to Roberta Greenlee of the Geophysical Institute’s Business Office. Greenlee has handed… read more
On or within a few days of September 15, sea ice experts will make the call declaring that sea ice floating on northern oceans is covering its least amount of ocean surface in 2010. The great northern winter is about to begin, and sea ice will soon be growing instead of shrinking.
“It’s the turn of a new season, like the beginning of a new semester,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.
Serreze estimated that 2010 would rank third on the list of years with the lowest sea ice extent at the end of the northern summer. Since the satellite era allowed a view from above since the late 1970s, the technology has show that 2007 was the record low year of sea-ice extent, followed by 2008 and 2010. Last fall, the arctic sea ice was a bit more widespread than this year.
“The four… read more
In 1967 the Chena River spilled over its banks and flooded Fairbanks. For more than a week, the city core was underwater, and the town became a lake more than five miles wide. The flood forced thousands of people to leave the city and caused more than $180 million in damage to homes and businesses.
Though a 1967-type flood will probably never happen again thanks to the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, August continues to be the wettest month in Alaska's Interior. The jet stream is to blame.
Eric Stevens, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, describes the jet stream as a high-speed ribbon of air circling the globe. The jet stream whips around the planet at speeds that reach 100 mph, sometimes dragging weather systems with it.
In August, the jet stream shifts position; instead of belting… read more
KOLIGANEK — This village in southwest Alaska, so small it doesn’t have its own zip code, is of great interest to Kenji Yoshikawa. It once had permafrost, but he’s not finding it now.
“This is a model town,” he says to 14 students in the school who have gathered for the University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist’s presentation. “How Koliganek changes in the future might be like how other parts of Alaska change.”
Yoshikawa, a scientist and adventurer who has walked on every continent, is on a chartered Cessna trip around southern Alaska monitoring ground temperatures and speaking to students. Some students know him better as his alter ego “Tunnel Man,” who stars in a video he shows to Koliganek students.
While watching the movie, students shoot glances between the caped superhero on the screen and the broad-shouldered Japanese man with the… read more
Stephen Jewett has dived in ocean waters from one end of Alaska to the other, but he has never seen an underwater landscape as barren as one he saw last summer.
“Diving off Nome where they were doing offshore dredging (for gold) was close, but nothing compares to what we found around Kasatochi,” said Jewett, who dives as part of his job with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
Kasatochi is an 800-acre island in the Aleutians that destroyed itself with an eruption in August 2008. Its 40,000-foot ash cloud disrupted Alaska Airlines flights from Seattle to Anchorage. Almost nothing on the island survived its transformation from lush and green to gray and muddy.
Jewett visited the island twice in 2009, once in June and once in August, to perform dives around the island and see what became of the lush kelp… read more
SAM CHARLEY SLOUGH — Winter travelers on the Tanana River can save a mile by taking the shortcut through this serpentine channel rather than following a lazy bend of the big river, but experienced dog mushers and snowmachiners avoid Sam Charley Slough. After driving here with a fleet of six snowmachines, we can see why.
Black, open leads yawn throughout the slough, and the gurgle of water holes sounds eerie in late winter. This bad ice has today drawn a team of ice-savvy travelers, scientists, and videographers. They are trying to find out why some river ice breaks beneath people and machines while other ice stays firm.
Sam Charley Slough is like other puzzling sections of the Tanana River that have patches of open water despite the kiss of sub-zero air all winter long. From his experiences out here dog mushing and snowmachining, Knut Kielland… read more
Born in Florida and raised in New Mexico, Matthew Sturm somehow became an expert on snow. During the past 30 years, he has traveled thousands of miles on the substance, counted how many grains it takes to cover a football field to a depth of two feet (1 trillion), and has spent so much time lying on his side and squinting through a hand lens that he swears he has seen molecules of water moving through the snowpack.
Now, he has written and illustrated a children’s book on snow.
“Apun: The Arctic Snow” and its accompanying teacher’s guide are Sturm’s attempt to “bring snow to the kids.” He works at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Fort Wainwright.
A few years ago, he rode a snowmachine from Fairbanks to Hudson Bay, studying snow along the way. While working with editors at the University of Alaska Press for a book of essays about that journey, he proposed an idea that had long tugged at his heart — a book for kids… read more
More than 200 villages are spread throughout Alaska, many of them on river systems and low-lying tundra with permafrost beneath it. These conditions have contributed to the problems many villages have with waste disposal; village dumps are often sprawling mounds of garbage spilling into ponds or sloughs. A University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student is sampling the water and soil around village dumps to see how, or if, pollutants are migrating into the surrounding environment.
Edda Mutter visited seven villages in rural Alaska last summer. She talked to people there and then pulled on her rubber boots and heavy raingear, even though it wasn’t raining. She then walked through village dumps and collected water and soil samples. She found elevated levels of aluminum in the water samples from all seven communities (the civic leaders of which don’t want the village names published), along with high levels of E. coli and other bacteria.
It’s a dirty job (“I… read more
Researchers plan to expand the Fox Permafrost Tunnel during the next few years, drilling or blasting a new shaft 450 feet into a frozen hillside to parallel the existing tunnel.
“We want to begin digging (a new) permafrost tunnel next winter,” said Matthew Sturm of the U. S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Fort Wainwright. He and others envision a new “Alaska Permafrost Research Center” that will better serve scientists and non-scientists.
With start-up federal funding of $500,000 this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will carve out a new tunnel as well as build labs, offices, and a learning center. Other improvements include a walkway on top of the frozen bluff where scientists can do permafrost experiments from the forest and tundra above the tunnel, and side rooms within the new tunnel for permafrost-warming experiments. The improvements would replace infrastructure at the tunnel that has endured for four decades.
“Our current… read more
Like millions of tiny paratroopers, snowflakes are falling through the Interior Alaska sky, touching down on a blanket a dozen inches thick. Now seems a good time to ponder the cold, white substance that covers Alaska most of the year.
Snow forms high in the atmosphere with the help of particles, such as dust, volcanic ash or sea salt. These flecks serve as condensation nuclei—something for water vapor to cling to. Without these little particles, water vapor can remain unfrozen down to minus 40 degrees. The meeting between a supercooled cloud of water vapor and a sprinkling of dust often results in a snowstorm. Seeded with dust, supercooled water vapor turns into ice crystals. These ice crystals then latch onto surrounding molecules of water vapor as they float around within the cloud. As the crystals grow, parts break off and act as nuclei for other crystals. As the crystals fall through warmer layers of air, they link up by the thousands to form snowflakes.
… read more
Recently, several people have contacted an editor at the daily newspaper in Fairbanks about Alaska glaciers. The editor reports that a few people claim that almost all of Alaska’s glaciers are getting bigger.
Glaciologists who have studied Alaska’s ice for years say the opposite is true. A handful of Alaska glaciers are advancing and a few of those are getting bigger, but those are the exceptions. Most are getting smaller, fast.
Part of the confusion may come from recent news of glacier advances in places like Icy Bay, where masses of ice have spilled deeper into the bay than they have for years. But an advancing glacier might not be a growing glacier. Such is the case in Icy Bay, according to Chris Larsen of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.
“Even though they are advancing, we have precise, recent laser data that shows the glaciers in Icy Bay have the greatest thinning rates of anywhere in Alaska,” Larsen said.
For example,… read more
Each fall, beginning in the early 1970s—decades before the actions of Christopher McCandless made a gravel road in central Alaska the setting of a bestselling book and movie—Tom Osterkamp was driving the Stampede Trail near Healy to reach his favorite moose-hunting areas.
In 1985, Osterkamp, a professor emeritus and permafrost researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, remembered a lake with a view of Denali when he was searching for sites to study permafrost. He returned there, a few miles up the Stampede Trail, drilled a deep borehole in the tussock tundra near the lake, and set up a system to measure the temperature of the ground at different depths.
Every study site is a calculated gamble, where researchers guess from where, over time, the best information will emerge. The spot Osterkamp chose near Eightmile Lake has turned into one that is giving scientists insight on how thawing permafrost could cause the world to become warmer.… read more
Esook Trading Post appears as a few dots on United States Geological Survey maps of northern Alaska, but if you travel to its location today, you’ll be standing in the ocean. The sea has eaten the former structures and graves that made up the turn-of-the-last-century place of business about 120 miles west of Prudhoe Bay. The demise of Esook Trading Post is a story somewhat typical of the northern coast of Alaska, where the sea is consuming land at rates among the highest in the world.
Benjamin Jones went to look for Esook Trading Post not too long ago. A research geographer with the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage, Jones knew of the trading post and was curious to see if anything was left of the site, which once included five buildings and several graves with wooden markers.
Looking back over historical photos and other records, Jones found that another researcher had calculated that the trading post site had lost more than 1,200 feet to the Beaufort Sea from… read more
SAN FRANCISCO—Last August, a group of scientists flew to Kaktovik, Alaska, hoping to catch a flight from the small village to study permafrost features off the Jago River. But foggy weather pinned them in the village, and their change in plans led them to a glacier that no one knew about.
Torre Jorgenson of ABR Inc. was one of the scientists who wandered the beach near Kaktovik to check out a massive chunk of shoreline that fell into the sea during a storm on July 1, 2008. The storm exposed about 1 kilometer of ice and soil.
“The Kaktovik residents had never seen such undercutting of the bluff,” Jorgenson said in San Francisco, as he discussed the buried glacier at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which draws dozens of scientists from Alaska and thousands more from the rest of the world.
While Jorgenson and his colleagues from the University of Alaska Fairbanks—Yuri Shur, Misha Kanevskiy, and Matt Dillon—walked along the fresh ice bluffs 15… read more
A five-man team just returned from a walking tour of Alaska Range glaciers where they had hoped to spot the mythical ice worm, a fingernail-clipping size creature that lives on ice and dies away if from it. After 11 days of moving, they found no worms.
Before the team left Talkeetna on an air charter a few weeks ago, Dan Shain of Rutgers and Alaska Pacific University professor Roman Dial grilled a few mountaineers to find where they had seen ice worms in the past. Longtime Denali National Park Ranger Roger Robinson told them his spots. Dial then called mountaineer Brian Okonek in Washington, who backed up Robinson’s stories about encountering ice worms on climbing trips long ago.
“We put together a route that hit all the hot spots,” said Shain, who studies leeches and earthworms when he’s not looking at ice worms. “It’d be hard to search more extensively than we did.”
At dusk, when ice worms usually head to the surface, the team searched Pika, Crown, Kahiltna,… read more
Fifty years ago, Charles Bentley and five other young men chugged across the ice of Antarctica in three tracked vehicles, exploring the mysterious white continent. In those days when frontiers existed on the planet, Bentley and his comrades saw a mountain range ahead of them that had Rocky-Mountain-size peaks with no names.
“We were the first ones to see almost all those mountains,” Bentley said during a recent trip to Fairbanks. “We were traveling about 24 miles a day, and we thought each day, ‘tomorrow, we’ll get to the mountains.’ But they were 200 miles away. It was quite a sight to watch these magnificent mountains gradually come up on the horizon.”
He and his traveling companions gave a few of the peaks their names, which remain on today’s map
“I thought we were playing a joke (naming the mountains after themselves),” he said. But the names stuck. Bentley, now 78 and a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, now has two features named… read more
Fifteen days, 15 villages, more than 800 miles traveled by snowmachine, and Kenji Yoshikawa’s spring permafrost tour, phase 1, is complete.
From Emmonak, a village at the Yukon’s mouth where he found no permafrost, to Shishmaref, a village just south of the Arctic Circle with what he considers “cold” permafrost, Yoshikawa now has a better idea of what lies beneath western Alaska. This understanding is just in time to help other permafrost researchers flesh out a permafrost map of Alaska in time for a summer conference here in Fairbanks.
For the record, Yoshikawa found no permafrost where he drilled in villages at the mouth of the Yukon—Emmonak and Kotlik. Farther north, in Stebbins and St. Michael, he found permafrost, including “very warm” permafrost at St. Michael.
“This will be a perfect location to watch for changes in the next 10 to15 years,” he said of St. Michael.
Continuing up the coast of Norton Sound and beyond, Yoshikawa found permafrost—… read more
WHITE MOUNTAIN, Alaska—The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Kenji Yoshikawa is making a snowmachine journey from Emmonak, at the mouth of the Yukon, to Kotzebue, about 800 trail miles away. Tohru Saito of the International Arctic Research Center and I are traveling with him. Here’s how Kenji’s day went today:
7 a.m.—He wakes on the floor of the Elim school library, under a sign that says “You will not get your way when you: holler, whine, yell, ignore, demand, or lay on the floor.”
9 a.m.—Kenji tells the three junior-high-age students in a science class about permafrost, then takes them outside to look at a “frost tube,” clear surgical tubing with blue water inside that fits inside a borehole and turns cloudy when it freezes. Students will use it to tell how deep the ground freezes.
9:30 a.m.—The wind is blowing from a cliff near the ocean as Kenji finishes his talk and the students rush back inside. Kenji slides a leg over his snowmachine seat and leads… read more
STEBBINS—“There’s no permafrost here, like there was none in Emmonak,” Kenji Yoshikawa said earlier today, when he was in the village of Kotlik. “Isn’t that interesting?”
The adventuring permafrost scientist was in that small Yupik village near the mouth of the Yukon River, drilling a hole in the soil on the treeless tundra near the school. Though the top layer of soil was frozen, a few feet down it was as gooey as cold pudding.
Yoshikawa, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was on a spring snowmachine traverse of western Alaska, from Emmonak at the mouth of the Yukon River to Native villages on Norton Sound and up to Kotzebue, tracing the nose of the Seward Peninsula. He and his helpers and traveling companions—Tohru Saito of the International Arctic Research Center and me—will try to drill 15 permafrost-monitoring holes in two weeks. After starting in Emmonak a few days ago, we’ll make our way by snowmachine to Kotzebue, putting more than 800 miles on them.… read more
Not too long ago, a lake sprung a leak in the high country of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. The lake drained away, as glacier-dammed lakes often do, but this lake was a bit different, and seems to be telling a story about a warmer Alaska.
The lake, known as Iceberg Lake to people in McCarthy, about 50 air miles to the north, had been part of the landscape for as long as people could remember. Pinched by glacial ice, the three-mile-long, one-mile-wide lake on the northern boundary of the Bagley Icefield was remote but notable enough that it was the cover photo for a recent book about hiking Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
When McCarthy guide Richard Villa visited the area with a client in the summer of 1999, he was stunned to see the lake, which had lost much of its water. Villa later told Mike Loso, a Kennicott resident part of the year and now a professor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.
Loso flew to the lake the next summer with Bob Anderson… read more
As you read this, a rogue glacier is again threatening a small town.
Hubbard Glacier crept to within a football-field distance of ramming into Gilbert Point last June, and some scientists say that a spring 2008 closure of Russell Fiord “may be imminent.” Roman Motyka, a research professor with the University of Alaska Southeast and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gives Hubbard a 50-50 chance of plugging the entrance to Russell Fiord this spring.
Hubbard Glacier dips its tongue into salt water about 40 miles north of Yakutat, Alaska, home to about 600 people. Fed by fields of ice so immense that the glacier will rumble forward regardless of how warm the planet gets in the near future, Hubbard Glacier made headlines in 2002 when it bulldozed gravel into Gilbert Point, pinching off Russell Fiord’s link to the sea and creating the largest glacier-dammed lake in the world. Before the gravel dam broke, water within the lake rose more than… read more
SAN FRANCISCO—For the past few years, vanishing northern sea ice has been a theme of many talks and posters here at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which draws about 15,000 scientists to the Moscone Center during the weeklong conference. At a press conference here on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007, scientists revealed that the ice on top of the northernmost ocean took a punch in the summer of 2007 that might be a knockout blow.
In 1980, the dense ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean like a large, moving jigsaw puzzle took up about the same area as the entire Lower 48 states; in September 2007, it was about as big as the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, said Don Perovich of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire. The ice loss in 2007, 23 percent greater than the previous record in 2005, has some scientists here predicting that the northern sea ice will vanish in summer as soon as five years from now. Perovich agreed… read more
Alaska’s landscape has an unusual feature that allows us to enjoy cheap bananas in Fairbanks and other things that make life better 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 recently 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… read more
A glacier is poised to dam the only river that cuts through a rugged 500-mile span of the St. Elias Mountains.
Tweedsmuir Glacier, born in the Yukon and following gravity’s pull through northern British Columbia, has surged to a point where it might pinch off the Alsek River, which flows into the Gulf of Alaska at Dry Bay.
Chris Larsen, a professor who studies glaciers and the uplift of the landscape resulting from glacial melt at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, flew over the glacier on Oct. 10, 2007. He saw that the Tweedsmuir was within 1,000 feet of reaching the Alsek River. Now, back at the institute, Larsen said Tweedsmuir is surging and advancing.
As part of a study of the region’s glaciers, Larsen and his colleagues first flew above Tweedsmuir Glacier to check its elevation in 2006. In one short year, things have changed.
“It was just a normal melting glacier back then,” he said.
Bodies of ice like the… read more
The news from the top of the world, according to William Chapman, who follows the fate of sea ice from his office at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “September 12, 2007…The (northern hemisphere) sea ice area is currently at its historic minimum (2.92 million square kilometers) representing a 27 percent drop in sea ice coverage compared to the previous (2005) record (northern hemisphere) ice minimum.”
The ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean is now the smallest conglomeration of frozen jigsaw puzzle pieces that people have seen in the era of satellites. That record is short, only going back to 1979, but the ice loss has been outracing some conservative computer models. According to an Alaska scientist just back from the ice pack, northern ice is not what she had seen before.
Jenny Hutchings is a sea-ice researcher for the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She cruised the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska for more than a… read more
Twenty-eight years after scientists spilled hundreds of plastic discs on the ice of the Beaufort Sea to determine ocean currents, another one has come home to roost at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
In summer 2007, graduate student Nathan Coutsoubos of UAF¹s Resilience and Adaptation Program found a yellow plastic disk on the tundra in Barrow, just 60 feet from a salt-water lagoon. He picked up the disc and saw a printed message: "One Dollar Reward on Return of Serial Number with Date Found, Location, Your Name and Address to Geophysical Institute, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks."
Coutsoubos, who studies shorebirds on the North Slope, brought the disc back to Fairbanks, where he will return it to Roberta Greenlee of the Geophysical Institute's Business Office. Greenlee has handed out these dollars for years, but not since 1998, when two brothers in Scotland returned a disc they had found in the rocks there.
In 1979, scientists… read more
As a half-dozen canoeists paddle down the Yukon River on what they call a healing journey, they tow behind them a water-quality probe to check the health of Alaska’s largest waterway.
Jon Waterhouse is a member of a six-person team that began boating from the village of Moosehide, near Dawson City in the Yukon, on June 22, 2007. The team will continue to the village of St. Marys in Alaska, about 1,500 miles down river. Waterhouse is assistant director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council and is manning the stern of a canoe that pulls a torpedo-like water-quality probe through the silt-brown water of the Yukon. The instrument weighs about 15 pounds.
“It’s like towing a boat anchor,” Waterhouse said. “We go about a mile per hour slower than the other canoes. When they’re coasting, we have to
Matt Hage, Agnes Stowe, Danielle Pratt, David Pelunis-Messier, and Kevin Solomon from Fort Yukon are in three other canoes. Bryan Maracle, Karin… read more
Until this spring, pilot Paul Claus would land a Supercub on a gravel bar in Icy Bay to give people an up-close look at a calving glacier. This year he can’t land there because a glacier has rumbled over the gravel bar. The main glaciers in Icy Bay crept forward up to one-third of a mile sometime between August 2006 and August 2007.
“At least three glaciers in the same bay have advanced in one year,” said Chris Larsen, a scientist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studying the ever-changing landscape of the area. “To have them advance right now is kind of weird.”
Icy Bay, located just west of Malaspina Glacier on Alaska’s dynamic southern coast, is like a smaller version of Glacier Bay. Like Glacier Bay, Icy Bay didn’t exist when captain George Vancouver sailed past in the late 1700s. Vancouver’s ship artist painted a portrait of an ice wall where the mouth of the bay is currently.
With salt-water fingers, Icy Bay reaches about… read more
A scientist wearing plastic boots and crampons knelt on Gulkana Glacier and pointed at the king of beasts, a snow flea.
“He is the top of the food chain on this glacier,” said glacial biologist Nozomu Takeuchi.
The snow flea, a tiny wingless insect also known as a springtail, sprung away at the advance of Takeuchi’s finger, landing near a stream of meltwater. Takeuchi opened a notebook and scribbled with a pencil. He was on the Alaska Range glacier on a rainy day to study algae, the food of the snow flea and the key to life on the surface of glaciers.
Algae are microscopic plant-like organisms that use the energy of sunlight to make their own food. The many species of algae on Earth capture more of the sun's energy and produce more oxygen than all plants combined. In adapting to life on ice, algae have provided food for the snow flea and many other wee creatures of the ice.
On that day, Takeuchi, a professor at Chiba University in Japan, was collecting… read more
Since 1979, the first year we were able to look at sea ice from above with satellites, scientists have never seen less ice floating on the northern oceans at this time of year.
“This April (2007) has the lowest sea ice extent on record of any April we’ve seen before,” said Mark Serreze, a sea-ice specialist and senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. “We’re setting ourselves up this summer for a very large ice loss.”
Serreze’s observation comes at a time when he and his colleagues have written a paper in which they concluded that northern sea ice could disappear much earlier than computer models suggest.
“We’re a good 30 years ahead in ice loss than what the models are showing,” said Walt Meier of the University of Colorado. “Instead of losing ice in summer near the end of this century, it might occur before 2050.”
Meier’s colleague Julienne Stroeve is the main author on a paper titled “Arctic sea ice… read more
On late winter nights in the Goldstream Valley north of Fairbanks this past winter, a woman named Hilary went for walks on the snow-covered trail outside her house. During a time of year when silence dominates, she heard something strange—the sound of running water.
Water was percolating up through the ice of nearby Goldstream Creek, and flowing in fan-like channels over the ice. Not long after it hit the surface, the water froze. Ice accumulated over the days until it created a small glacier that crept to within a few feet of a woodpile on Hilary’s porch. At about the same time, water began seeping into the first story of her house.
“I’m someone who appreciates nature, but there’s a certain line where what’s beautiful and awesome becomes a threat,” Hilary said.
Hilary and her landlord installed a plastic pipeline to divert the water from her house. It flowed like a river back to the frozen creek and eventually slowed to a trickle. Her little glacier continued… read more
Kenji Yoshikawa has seen a good portion of the planet he calls home. Born in Tokyo, he has biked across Australia, walked the Sahara, skied across Greenland and to the South Pole, and he made his way to Alaska by sailing to Barrow from Japan.
In Barrow, he let his boat freeze into the sea ice. He spent a dark winter on the tilted boat, enjoying solitude and working on his college degree. He calls that period “the greatest time in 43 years of life.”
Yoshikawa is a permafrost scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who will soon head down the Yukon River by snowmachine to visit village schools. Along the way, he hopes to establish permafrost observatories at the schools by drilling through soil that has remained frozen for at least one year. Much of the permafrost along the Yukon River is within one degree of thawing.
Yoshikawa wants to include villages on the Yukon in a “permafrost health monitoring program” and work with students and teachers on the… read more
One hundred years ago, when explorer Robert Peary picked his way over the northern coast of Ellesmere Island, he mapped unusual fields of ice that were both floating in the ocean, and attached to the shore. These ice shelves totaled about 3,475 square miles, which is almost enough ice to cover Rhode Island.
Today, the ice shelves in Canada’s Arctic now measure about 386 square miles. That’s a 90 percent ice loss since Peary’s time, and scientists recently announced the 2005 separation of another large chunk, known as Ayles Ice Shelf, which is now a Manhattan-size iceberg floating in the Arctic Ocean. Winds and ocean currents might carry that iceberg near the northern coast of Alaska sometime within the next decade.
Some Alaska scientists have spent time on the ancient and remote fields of ice on Canada’s northernmost islands. Martin Jeffries of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks camped for weeks on Ellesmere ice shelves in the 1980s. Today… read more
SAN FRANCISCO—Sea ice coverage on top of the world shrank again in 2006, and experts are predicting that the polar ice cap may disappear in summer soon.
At a Dec. 11, 2006 press conference about northern warming here at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting, Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado said that by the end of November 2006, the floating ice pack on top of the world was two million square kilometers smaller than it has been on average during the recent past.
“That’s an Alaska-size chunk of ice missing,” he said. “When we looked at it in November, we were just astounded.”
The low ice year in 2006 followed a slim 2005, when scientists recorded a new record low in northern sea-ice extent. The sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean waxes and wanes with the seasons, growing in winter and shrinking in summer. Serreze and other scientists who keep an eye on its size using satellite images say the icepack… read more
If you've ever seen a man with electrical wires coming from his skis, you probably passed Sam Colbeck. Colbeck, a retired geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire, studied the physics of skis and ice skates.
People sometimes think pressure is the force that propels skis and skates, but Colbeck said that's not so. To demonstrate the real driver of the system, Colbeck rubbed his hands together. The warmth of friction he felt is the same warmth that enables the movement of skis, snowboards, dog sleds, and ice skates.
When skis or steel blades move against ice crystals, they melt a layer of water that's incredibly thin, about one-millionth of a meter. That diminutive pool allows a skier or skater to glide like a surfer. Colbeck said a 100-pound downhill racer going about 60 miles per hour generates the same heat as if he had three 100-watt light bulbs under each ski. The shiny tracks he leaves behind are the collective… read more
Traveling from all over the world to study at the Geophysical Institute at UAF, graduate students liven up the place for a few years before dispersing and taking their new, larger brains with them. Anthony Arendt grew up in Edmonton, but during the last five years he has pedaled Alaska on his road bike, climbed mountains in the Wrangells, and studied glaciers all over the state. He recently defended his doctorate thesis in front of an auditorium of his peers and professors, and gave a conclusion that’s worth repeating: Alaska’s glaciers are getting smaller, fast.
The news has been out for a while. In 2002 the journal Science printed an article that became the first chapter in Arendt’s thesis. Back then, big-time reporters quoted him and other members of the Geophysical Institute glacier team, which currently includes Keith Echelmeyer, Will Harrison, By Valentine, Sandy Zirnheld, Craig Lingle, Brent Richie, Chris Larsen, and Reggie Muskett.
The team has… read more
Each spring, when sunlight returns to the Arctic in a blinding burst, it also triggers chemical reactions that release mercury from the atmosphere. A group of scientists is finding that this mercury is falling into arctic lakes but the sun also changes the mercury into a form that fish don’t pick up.
Mercury enters the atmosphere in natural ways as Earth’s crust degasses, and from the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. The toxic element often swirls in the air for about a year until it falls out with the help of rain, snow, or dust particles. Mercury can find its way to the Arctic from across the globe; a coal fire in Ireland may release mercury that ends up in Toolik Lake on Alaska’s north slope.
Chad Hammerschmidt, a biogeochemist doing research with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, has studied Toolik and three other lakes near Toolik Field Station, off the Dalton Highway about 120 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. He and William… read more
Tim Cronin of Fairbanks wanted to climb McGinnis Peak in the Alaska Range recently, but on his approach to the mountain he and his partner ran into a giant wall of ice that wasn’t there a year earlier. Over the winter, McGinnis Glacier had surged, changing from a smooth white belt to a rumpled ice sheet fractured with crevasses.
With its violent winter transformation, McGinnis Glacier becomes the latest of several glaciers in the Alaska Range that get up and go after long periods of sloth. Ice experts call these “surging” glaciers. Surging glaciers build up snow and ice in their upper portions for years until all that weight flows downhill in dramatic fashion. Surging glaciers aren’t necessarily growing glaciers; when a glacier surges, ice mass that was at high elevations moves to lower elevations, making a mess of the glacier in the process.
“There’s about a dozen of them in the Alaska Range, but if you think about all the glaciers worldwide, surging glaciers are… read more
During the last 11,000 years, Glacier Bay has been filled with ice and has lost its ice at least three times, according to scientists who sample the remnants of ancient forests first identified by naturalist John Muir in Glacier Bay National Park.
Daniel Lawson and David Finnegan have collected hundreds of samples from trees that grew within the bay between advances of the ice. Both men work at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, New Hampshire.
In 1989, Lawson started traveling to Glacier Bay in the summer, averaging about three trips each year. Finnegan joined the research group several years later. To get to their study sites, they drive a boat to the many inlets in the bay, go ashore, and hike up the newly exposed valleys in search of tree stumps. Some gray stumps are standing in positions they’ve held for thousands of years; advancing glaciers buried the bases of the trees with sediments, preserving them. Lawson and Finnegan core some trees… read more
Truck-size wedges of underground ice that have remained in place for thousands of years on Alaska’s North Slope seem to be thawing, according to a scientist doing work for an oil company there.
Permafrost scientist Torre Jorgenson of Alaska Biological Research, Inc. was checking out an area west of the Colville River recently when he noticed water-filled pits that weren’t in Navy photographs of the area from 1945.
“We were doing baseline studies on permafrost stability for ConocoPhillips and were looking at lake erosion, but when we saw the historical photos we said ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on here,”’ Jorgenson said.
Walking in hip boots on the tundra surface of the North Slope, Jorgenson and his colleagues—Erik Pullman of Alaska Biological Research and Yuri Shur of the University of Alaska Fairbanks—saw many waterholes on the tundra. Some were new pits with bright green tussock heads nodding into them; the vibrant color indicated the tundra plants were… read more
This summer, John Jangala will raft down the west fork of the Gulkana River. He’ll be looking for good campsites with a nice view, high enough to get away from bugs, but still close to the water. When he gets there, he’ll search for signs of people who stood in the same place a long time ago.
An archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management office in Glennallen, Jangala will spend much of his summer trying to find traces of the earliest residents of the Copper River Valley. What he finds might shed light on the mystery of ancient Lake Atna, which filled the Copper River Basin thousands of years ago.
In 1898, Frank Schrader of the U.S. Geological Survey found fine sediments in the center of the Copper River Valley that suggested that an “inland lake” or an “arm of the sea” drowned the lowlands that now include the towns of Glennallen, Gulkana, Copper Center, and Tazlina. Since Schrader’s exploration, geologists have found traces of old shoreline at today’s 2,400-to-… read more
The difference between Merrick Johnston and most scientists who study the atmosphere is that she’s walked a lot higher into it.
A decade ago, Johnston became the youngest female to reach the summit of Denali when at age 12 she and her mother Jennifer Johnston climbed the mountain. Now 22, Johnston is a senior at Dartmouth College and a mountain guide in the Tetons during the summer. This May she’ll present at a conference the results of her unique undergraduate project – a 400-mile ski traverse in northwest Alaska during which she scooped up snow samples to test for pollutants.
In March of 2003 Johnston traveled to Kotzebue with snow-sampling equipment, a few friends, and “shorty” skis that were good for both classic and skating techniques. Dartmouth student Eben Sargent and her mother Jennifer Johnston joined her on skis, Mellon Shea of Anchorage mushed a team of dogs, and Tim Remick and Wayne Oxford provided snowmachine support as they traveled a network of village… read more
Spring breakup just ain’t what it used to be, according to a long-time hydrologist at the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center in Anchorage.
Larry Rundquist has helped forecast the transition of Alaska’s rivers from solid ice to liquid water for the past 18 years. The change can be damaging for villages as large pulses of snowmelt hit river channels or huge chunks of ice form dams that back rivers up, but the past few breakups have been mild ones.
“For the first decade that I worked here, we had watches or warnings for flooding going on at several locations every day for two or three weeks as the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers were going out,” Rundquist said. “It was a given we’d have flooding somewhere. The only question was how much damage would be done to villages.”
“In the last decade, there’s almost been a complete reversal,” he said. “The number of threats due to ice jamming and snowmelt have reduced to the point where during one year we put out no flood (… read more
In a Fairbanks lab not too long ago, a man squinted through a microscope at a slide of melting ice from the Fox permafrost tunnel. Richard Hoover knew he was looking at organisms that were alive when the wooly mammoth and saber-toothed cat roamed Alaska, but he didn’t expect to see them born again.
“When they thawed out, they immediately started swimming,” said Hoover, an astrobiologist with NASA’s National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “These guys had been frozen since the Pleistocene, and here they were swimming around.”
Resurrected after 30,000 years, those bacteria may be proof that life can exist on Mars and other planets, Hoover said. He and his colleagues recently authored a paper in which they introduced the world to Carnobacterium pleistocenium, bacteria known to exist only one place in the world—the Fox permafrost tunnel.
The Fox permafrost tunnel dates back to 1965, when engineers for the Army’s Cold Region Research and… read more
Pete Wilda, a Fairbanks reader of this column, wants to know how the snow here can bend off railings and loop from power lines without breaking. He grew up in eastern Wisconsin and doesn’t remember the snow defying gravity there.
Snow tilts and bends in Interior Alaska because there’s not much wind and because it’s cold, said Matthew Sturm of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks. Sturm is one of a handful of Alaska scientists who study snow. He enjoys it so much that a few years ago he made a snowmachine traverse from Nome to Barrow, digging snowpits and taking samples along the way.
“At low temperatures, the snow deforms slower,” Sturm said of the bending snow phenomenon. “In warmer places like Colorado, a dollop of snow that begins to lean may topple in a shorter time than the snow here.”
A few other variables are responsible for our leaning towers of snow, Sturm said. The snow in Interior Alaska contains a lot of air, so gravity… read more
A recent “water bottle airlift” from Bethel to the western Alaska village of Nunam Iqua showed how precious clean water can be in the Alaska Bush. A team of scientists is now studying how changes in climate might impact the water supplies of some Alaska villages.
Nunam Iqua is like many Alaska villages that use a variety of fresh water sources. The 35 families who live in Nunam Iqua rely on a nearby river for water that they store during the winter in a 200,000-gallon tank. When a December 2004 storm fouled the river with salt water and a tank fitting failed, draining their stored water, residents asked for help. The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services began flying 500 gallons of water each day to Nunam Iqua. When the river cleared later in the month, residents were able to begin storing water again and officials called off the water airlift.
Farther north, villagers on the Seward Peninsula gather their water in many ways, from pumping wells to… read more
SAN FRANCISCO—People picked up their newspapers on thousands of doorsteps of this city today and saw two pictures of Glacier Bay on the front page, under the headline, “Alaska’s retreating glaciers seen as evidence Earth is warming.”
One photo provided by glaciologist Bruce Molnia showed Muir Glacier in 1941. Molnia compared it to a photo he took in 2004 that shows Muir Glacier’s retreat out of the picture in 60 years. About 15 national reporters attended a press conference on the disappearing glaciers and other changes in Alaska’s landscape at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco, which this year attracted more than 11,000 scientists. Joining Molnia on the podium were Matt Nolan of UAF’s Water and Environmental Research Center and Ken Tape of the Geophysical Institute. Nolan showed his photos of shrinking McCall Glacier in the Brooks Range and Tape showed photos of how the Arctic has gotten shrubbier from the 1940s to… read more
Before the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge existed, the northeast corner of Alaska drew scientists’ interest with a resource more obvious than oil—the ice held within the mountains high above the coastal plain.
In 1958, glaciologist Austin Post took a snapshot of McCall Glacier, one of a handful of Brooks Range glaciers, and stored the negatives from his trip in a shoebox. In 2003, Matt Nolan printed Post’s photo of McCall Glacier and carried it on a trip north. After landing on the glacier and setting up a base camp, Nolan, an associate research professor at UAF’s Water and Environmental Research Center, hiked for six hours up side drainages until he found the same spot where Post stood. Nolan took a shot with his tiny digital camera and captured a solid argument for climate change in the Arctic. When compared to Post’s photo, Nolan’s shows an impressive ice loss in the 45 years that elapsed between clicks of the shutter.
“Something’s changed… read more
China may be fertilizing Alaska.
Some of Alaska’s high mountains might have been ice-free as recently as 1000 B.C.
Mount Churchill might not be the source of two immense volcanic eruptions that left blankets of ash over eastern Alaska.
These are some of the curiosities emerging from ice cores pulled from a high saddle in the St. Elias Mountains in eastern Alaska. In summer 2002, Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University completed a mission to drill ice from a platform 14,500 feet above sea level in a pass between Mounts Bona and Churchill.
Two summers ago, Thompson and his crew trucked six tons of drilling equipment from Columbus, Ohio to Chitina, Alaska. With the help of a helicopter piloted by Lambert DeGavere of ERA Aviation and a turbo Otter piloted by Paul Claus, they returned home with 10 tons of freight, including more than one-quarter mile of Alaska ice. Within that ice is a record of what floated in Alaska air during the last 2,500… read more
This spring, Cathy Martin spent her April mornings 500 feet above Alaska, cruising at 140 miles per hour. As she hugged the terrain of the Alaska Range and Tanana hills, caribou and moose scattered below and an instrument on her plane measured how much water was stored in the snowy landscape.
Martin is a pilot for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who visited Alaska for a few weeks to measure snowfall amounts in selected drainages. She and another NOAA pilot, Dave Savage, took turns flying a sleek, twin-engine Turbocommander AC-690 from the Brooks Range to the Kenai Peninsula while an instrument onboard calculated the water content of the snow beneath them. The information will someday help Alaska hydrologists predict the likelihood and severity of flooding on rivers and streams.
Martin lives in Minneapolis, where she and three other NOAA pilots fly similar missions around the country to help estimate the… read more
Hanno Meyer smiled like a little boy when he emerged from a 30-foot hole drilled into a forested mound in Interior Alaska.
“Even though I am studying permafrost, it’s the first time I’ve been in a pingo,” said Meyer, who had the day before flown to Fairbanks from Potsdam, Germany, where he works at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.
The guide to Meyer’s tour inside an Alaska pingo was Kenji Yoshikawa, an assistant professor of water resources at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While Meyer was en route, Yoshikawa had supervised the drilling of a 30-foot deep, two-foot wide hole into the solid ice west of Fairbanks.
Pingos are mounds with cores of ice that pimple the landscape of Arctic and Interior Alaska. The mounds can range from the size of a Volkswagen Bug to a domed stadium, and the one Yoshikawa drilled into is large enough to provide the foundation for a castle. But no castles sit atop Yoshikawa’s pingo; there are… read more
After crunching the numbers from a summer of fieldwork, scientists have found that two areas in southeast Alaska are rising an inch every year.
If that doesn't sound like much, picture this: the ground at those two places will rise about one foot every 12 years. One hundred twenty years from now, those hills and shorelines will be 10 feet higher than they are today. Bays will become beaches. Beaches will become forests. Should climate warming continue, oceanfront property there has the security of rising more than 10 times faster than global sea level.
To see the probable cause of this uplift, take a kayak trip through Glacier Bay. The deep fiords into which you dip your paddle were not there 210 years ago, when a mass of ice-almost one mile thick in places-filled the entire bay out to Icy Strait. In 1794, George Vancouver saw a wall of ice at the bay's mouth that looked like the calving face of Columbia Glacier.
The ice that pressed down on Glacier Bay was… read more
Off the northern coast of Canada, a chunk of ice larger than Chicago has fractured for the first time in several thousand years.
The Ward Hunt ice shelf, the largest of its kind in the Arctic, broke in two and developed many other cracks within the last three years. Scientists including Martin Jeffries of the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute made this discovery during visits to the mass of ice and by reviewing satellite images received at the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Satellite Facility.
The crackup of the ice shelf has attracted comparisons to the drastic calving of ice shelves in Antarctica, which many scientists believe is compelling evidence of global warming.
Martin Jeffries knows the Arctic’s largest ice shelf better than most people; he has camped for weeks on the 270-square-mile mass of ice, which is frozen onto the northern shore of Ellesmere Island. In the 1980s, Jeffries earned his doctorate degree while studying the formation of… read more
Iditarod mushers and other Alaskans who love snow didn’t see much of the white stuff during the winter of 2002-2003, but they don’t live on Gulkana Glacier. This spring, scientists measured the largest seasonal snowpack in almost 40 years on this Alaska Range glacier.
Rod March and other researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey visited the glacier in May 2003 to dig snow pits and measure how much had fallen during the winter. At 6,000 feet elevation, more than 14 feet of fresh snow covered the glacier. More than six feet of snow coated the glacier at the 4,448-foot level. The snowpack was the largest measured by USGS scientists since they began charting the depth of fresh snow on Gulkana Glacier in spring 1966.
Glaciologists use the term “dying” to describe the majority of Alaska glaciers, including Gulkana, because over the past few decades most Alaska glaciers have melted more than they have grown. Gulkana’s impressive weight gain in the winter of 2002-2003—… read more
LITUYA BAY—With every distant roar, be it from Pacific surf crashing into rocks or jets flying overhead, we thought of 1958. That was the year a massive earthquake ripped through the back of the Lituya Bay, a mountain collapsed into deep water, and a giant wave swept through the bay.
The wave stripped the shores of rainforest spruce and hemlock, creating trimlines throughout Lituya Bay that look like recovering clearcuts. Two scientists and I were camped in the cottonwoods and alders that have colonized the bare soil the wave left behind.
Chris Larsen, Adam Bucki and I were in Lituya Bay to learn more about the trigger of that incredible event--movement on the Fairweather Fault. Larsen is a post-doctoral researcher at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Bucki is an Institute research technician who works out of Juneau.
We were camped on Cenotaph Island in the center of the bay, three miles from the giant trench that marks the… read more
Home of the trans-Alaska pipeline, Alaska has been the setting for a few epic engineering battles rendered against nature. The Million Dollar Bridge, standing almost intact on the lower Copper River, is a reminder of another improbable Alaska construction project.
Completed in 1910, the Million Dollar Bridge was the crux of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, built to carry copper oar 196 miles from Kennicott to Cordova. Along that route were some of the greatest obstacles Alaska offers-steep canyons, rivers, hurricane-force winds, mosquitoes, and dozens of glaciers.
A fortune in high-grade copper locked deep in the Wrangell Mountains inspired Outside investors, including the Guggenheim family and J.P. Morgan, to risk building a railway from an ice-free port on Alaska's southcentral coast to the rich copper deposits at Kennicott. In 1906, planners recommended four possible routes to the copper-including two from Valdez to the Copper River via 2,000-foot… read more
Max Brewer was 26 years old when he began measuring temperatures in abandoned oil-well boreholes on Alaska's north slope in 1950. Brewer was 77 when he returned last year to help scientists revive one of the longest-running permafrost-temperature experiments in Alaska.
Brewer, who now lives in Anchorage, spent 21 years in Barrow at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. Later, he was chief of operations for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska for 17 years. While he held the latter position, Brewer arranged for the preservation of 21 oil-well boreholes in the petroleum reserve, which covers a good chunk of Alaska's north slope. Those boreholes, coupled with earlier ones and several around Prudhoe Bay, provide what some scientists consider the world's premier permafrost-temperature monitoring program.
Scientists today realize the value of permafrost measurements as a rock-steady indicator of past climate change, but scientists in the 1950s were more interested in… read more
Matthew Sturm may be the only person in Alaska who gets up every day and checks the weather in Buckland, Selawik, Ambler, and Atqusuk. He's rooting for a good snowfall in northwest Alaska before March 20th, when he will begin a science-driven snowmachine trip from Nome to Barrow. Sturm works for the Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at Fort Wainwright. He and five others will attempt the snowmachine crossing of the Brooks Range to study the nature of northern snow. Over the course of 465 miles, they hope to sample snow at more than 100 locations and stop in villages along the way to resupply and meet with teachers and students.
Windstorms that can whip up ground blizzards are one of many travel hazards in the Arctic, but Sturm has plenty of miles under his snowmachine track. During the past several springs, he's escaped the office on similar treks across the Arctic to sample snow. Most of his partners on the 2002 trek have joined him in the past.… read more
Each December, the flock of scientists in Alaska gets a bit smaller as many fly to San Francisco to join thousands of other scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting. Keith Echelmeyer is one of those Alaska scientists, and he's carrying to San Francisco compelling evidence of Alaska's disappearing glaciers.
Echelmeyer is a glaciologist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He and his colleagues, including Will Harrison, Anthony Arendt, By Valentine, Sandy Zirnheld, Craig Lingle and Reggie Muskett, have found that most Alaska glaciers have melted at an incredible rate since the 1950s, and the rate of volume loss has doubled since the early 1990s. Former mountains of ice have become relative molehills in the last four decades.
"Most glaciers have thinned several hundred feet at low elevations in the last 40 years, and about 60 feet at higher elevations," Echelmeyer said.
The group of glacier scientists at the… read more
Hubbard Glacier may be creeping back into the spotlight.
Located near Yakutat, where Alaska’s panhandle connects to the mainland, Hubbard Glacier in 1986 nosed up on land to pinch off the salt-water channel between Russell Fiord and the Gulf of Alaska. Before the ice dam broke a few months later, Russell Fiord became a lake, trapping harbor seals and other ocean creatures and attracting the attention of national media.
This summer, area residents say the 200-foot tall face of Hubbard Glacier seems to again be closing the narrow waterway that connects Russell Fiord to the ocean.
Patricia O’Connor, a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in Yakutat, has been receiving phone calls from residents who want to know if Hubbard Glacier will seal off Russell Fiord soon. Dan Elsberg, a glaciologist at the Geophysical Institute, recently wrote a letter to a representative for an Alaska Native corporation who had the same question.
In May 1986, Hubbard advanced to… read more
In early June 2001, six mountaineers were stuck in bad weather near the summit of Canada’s highest mountain. To pass the time, they swapped stories, read paperbacks, and preserved their strength for the task ahead. Stuck at 17,000 feet, these climbers were not waiting for a push to the summit; they were awaiting the arrival of a drill that would allow them to sample snow that had fallen more than 10,000 years ago.
The climbers, three of them scientists, were part of an expedition to recover the ancient ice held by Mount Logan, a 19,551-foot peak in the St. Elias range, in the Yukon Territory just east of the Alaska border. If weather permits helicopter travel within the next week, researchers from Canada and the U.S. will extract a 600-foot core of ice from the mountain. Pollen, volcanic ash, sea salt, and other remnants from prehistoric atmospheres are trapped within the snow beneath the scientists’ tents, at a level on Mount Logan where the average temperature is 20 below… read more
Heard Island is a volcanic bump in the Southern Hemisphere surrounded by thousands of miles of cold salt water. The island's only inhabitants are fur seals, penguins, and researchers visiting one of the island's glaciers for a few weeks.
Martin Truffer is in the last category. He's a glaciologist from Switzerland who has lived in Alaska the past few years while finishing his doctorate degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He recently had the chance to study a southern-hemisphere glacier for the Australian Antarctic Division. He was surprised to discover the glacier was thinning at the same alarming rate as many Alaska glaciers. His finding helps to fill in a gap in scientists' knowledge of how climate change is affecting the Southern Ocean region.
The Southern Ocean is the body of water that encircles Antarctica on the bottom of the globe. Researchers don't have much evidence for climate change in the area because most clues come from enduring objects… read more
When Geophysical Institute researchers traversed the Alaska Range on skis last spring, they didn't know they were blazing a trail no one could follow. After their trip, the skiers' pathway out of the mountains, Yanert Glacier, rushed forward and blossomed with crevasses. Glaciologists say Yanert surged, which means it moved after years of relative sloth.
Last spring, the skiers avoided cracks in the middle of the Yanert Glacier. Five years earlier, Geophysical Institute Glaciologist Keith Echelmeyer skied on the same glacier and saw no crevasses. A helicopter pilot based in Denali Park echoed the recent skiers' observations. While flying tourists over the glacier in the summer of 2000, he noticed the smooth face of the glacier was buckled and cracked.
Yanert is experiencing the complexion problems characteristic of surging glaciers, which differ from most glaciers in Alaska. After grinding along for decades, surging glaciers suddenly move with unexpected speed… read more
Permafrost, the frozen ground that provides a solid foundation for much of the world's northern regions, is not what it used to be. In many areas of both interior Alaska and Siberia, permafrost has warmed to within one degree Celsius of thawing. A researcher who compared permafrost in both areas said widespread permafrost thawing could change much of the northern landscape in the first few decades of the 2000s.
Vladimir Romanovsky studies permafrost at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. At a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Romanovsky unveiled a permafrost record of Siberia along a 1,200-mile transect and compared it to a network in Alaska. Permafrost warming in the two areas was quite similar. In Fairbanks and the eastern Siberia city of Yakutsk, for example, permafrost has warmed about 1.5 degrees C during the past 30 years.
An increase in temperature of less than two degrees might not seem like… read more
While driving back from a recent trip to Circle, a friend frowned at the suggestion that the Yukon River, the near-frozen waterway into which we had just tossed chunks of ice, was not the longest river in the United States. He wasn’t satisfied until his wife held up a map with Alaska superimposed over the Lower 48. With some dejection, he noted that the Mississippi was indeed longer than the Yukon, as is the Missouri.
Alaska’s longest river is no slouch (or slough) though, carrying water almost 2,000 miles from its birthing place high in the Yukon Territory, across Alaska from east to west, then finally to the Bering Sea. Hydrologist Timothy Brabets and a few of his colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage took a good look at the Yukon River Basin in a paper published in 2000. I siphoned the following facts from his paper:
•Counting its headwater basins in Canada, the Yukon River drains 330,000 square miles, an area the size of Turkey. In Alaska proper… read more
A little more than 100 years ago, the top of the world was one of the planet's great mysteries. Geographers guessed that a solid, unmoving cap of ice covered the northern end of the globe. Fridtjof Nansen and a crew of Norwegian sailors changed that view in the late 1800s, when sea ice entombed their ship for three years.
Nansen was one of Norway's great explorers and later a diplomat who won the Nobel Prize. With the support of Norway's rulers and an atmospheric scientist who speculated that winds should keep massive chunks of northern ice moving in a certain pattern, Nansen and a crew of 12 others sailed north in September of 1893. Their goal was to allow their ship, the ice-resistant Fram, to freeze into the arctic pack ice until winds and ocean currents spit them out into warmer waters. The crewmen loaded the Fram with enough supplies to last five years.
An American misadventure a few years earlier gave Nansen confidence in his mission. The U.S. Navy ship… read more
I told you, for years I told you: Read "Science News." If you regularly scan this column-that is, if you're someone who has at least a passing interest in matters scientific-you'll like it (and no, they haven't paid me to say this). It's accurate, concise, clear, and one painless way to keep up with what 's going on in northern research. The home team hereabouts plays in the big leagues, which is why you can find the work of friends and neighbors discussed in the pages of national publications like Science News.
For example, the name of Hajo Eicken featured prominently in a recent issue, where the UAF geophysicist was asked to comment upon others' work in his field, the study of sea ice. One quote made Eicken seem a bit stuffy-"It will be interesting to have a closer look at some of the processes that help maintain connected pore space even at low temperatures"-but that effect is misleading. Eicken is no stuffed shirt. He has the slightly tousled, healthy look and… read more
Dennis Trabant saw a lake disappear this summer. Hidden Creek Lake near McCarthy vanished in late July, losing 10 billion gallons of water in two days. Trabant, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was part of a team studying the annual event that doubles the flow of the Kennicott River and moves more silt than 1,000 dump trucks.
The yearly draining of Hidden Creek Lake is what glaciologists call an outburst flood, when a body of water blocked by a glacier drains rapidly through a mysterious network of conduits beneath the glacier. Hidden Creek Lake is one of hundreds of Alaska creeks and rivers dammed by glaciers. Kennicott Glacier is the impressive plug to Hidden Creek, rising the height of a 20-story building to provide a wall that doesn’t leak until mid-summer.
When the lake leaves, the people of McCarthy and Kennicott notice. The bridge crossing to McCarthy over the Kennicott River is about 12 miles from Hidden Creek Lake; its waters have threatened… read more
Floating in every body of water on Earth, diatoms are microscopic algae so plentiful that you swallowed millions of them the last time you a gulped a mouthful of lake water. Though among the world's smallest organisms, diatoms have a large role in helping scientists reconstruct the climate of the past. With more than 10,000 species that thrive in both fresh and salt water, diatoms are the favorite meals of water fleas and other tiny aquatic organisms.
Diatoms are single-celled algae with cell walls made of silicon dioxide-glass. Their construction makes them heavy enough to sink when they die, sometimes after a life that lasts only 24 hours. Graveyards of diatoms are the main ingredient of the muck at lake bottoms. Besides their resiliency, another useful feature of diatoms is their finicky nature-different types of diatoms prefer different levels of water acidity, temperature, or nutrient content. By checking what species of diatom lived in a lake during a certain time… read more
During the last four billion years, Earth has many times flip-flopped from a cold, icy sphere to a greener, warmer place. We’re currently in the latter state, a time scientists call “interglacial” because they expect another ice age to follow. Or will it? Sea level is the highest it has been in 250,000 years, and a warming climate may be stalling Earth’s natural cycle of hot and cold periods.
Robert Bindschadler’s goal is to find the culprit in the rising of the world’s oceans, which have crept up more than 375 feet since the last ice age. Bindschadler, a glaciologist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who visited Fairbanks last week, said oceans have swelled since the last ice age because glaciers and immense sheets of ice have melted. While drastic sea level rises between ice ages are normal, Bindschadler said the planet might never have seen a warm spell like the present one. He wants to learn more about the current sea level rise by looking at Earth’s ice from… read more
At the top of Alaska’s panhandle, Malaspina Glacier spills from a funnel of rock in the St. Elias Mountains and spreads to form a huge pancake between the mountains and the sea. That pancake is as large as Rhode Island, but Malaspina is thinning fast.
Since the early 1970s, Malaspina and its main source of ice, Seward Glacier, have lost the snow and ice equivalent of about 15 cubic miles of water. To put that number in perspective, Craig Lingle of the Geophysical Institute says that’s roughly the amount of water Canada’s Mackenzie River pumps into the ocean during a month of spring breakup. The Mackenzie, Canada’s largest river system, drains an area almost the size of Mexico.
Lingle, a glaciologist, tallied up Malaspina and Seward glaciers’ ice loss by finding glacier heights on a USGS digital elevation model made from 1972, 1973, and 1976 air photos. He compared those with a 1995 satellite radar image and laser height measurements taken by Keith Echelmeyer, a… read more
Sailing up Alaska’s Icy Strait in 1794, British Captain George Vancouver passed the tongue of a glacier that rose 4,000 feet from the sea. Today, after retreating 65 miles, that glacier is gone. In its place are the scraped-rock cliffs and deepwater fjords of Glacier Bay, the beautiful evidence of the fastest glacial retreat ever recorded. The loss of ice in Glacier Bay and other nearby areas may be why northern Southeast Alaska is one of the fastest-rising regions on Earth.
When the land bounces back after centuries under the oppressive weight of a glacier, scientists call it “post-glacial rebound.” The land around Lynn Canal and Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska is rising as fast as human fingernails grow (about an inch each year). That’s one of the fastest rates in the world, according to Chris Larsen of the Geophysical Institute.
Larsen, who works on the project with Juneau-based researcher Roman Motyka, is a graduate student who spends his summers boating and… read more
The polar ice cap is melting, and the fresh water released into the ocean could cause another ice age, according to several scientists who authored recent studies.
In the December issue of Geophysical Research Letters, researchers using sonar aboard nuclear submarines reported the floating ice covering the Arctic Ocean has become about 40 percent thinner than it was 20 to 40 years ago. In another study, Ola Johannessen of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Norway used satellite data to determine the perennial ice cover of the Arctic ice sheet has shrunk by 14 percent over the last 20 years. In a third study, nine researchers used five different sources to determine that sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by about 7 percent in the last 46 years. All numbers point to a drastic decrease in the amount of sea ice on top of the world.
Another study done with computer models suggests that the melting is too severe to be created by natural… read more
The Chinese research boat Xue Long met an immense, frozen wall last summer while picking its way through rafts of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Dense fog prevented the ship's captain from finding a route around the ice dam. The fog also grounded the ship's other navigational tool, a helicopter on deck. Feeling lost, the captain needed a guide through the maze. Help came from 500 miles above, where a Canadian satellite named Radarsat orbits Earth 14 times a day.
Radarsat, launched in 1995, can detect bumps and valleys on the ground through clouds, fog and darkness. Known as a synthetic aperture radar satellite, Radarsat sends out microwave pulses that penetrate clouds and darkness to sense differences in Earth's surface. The microwave pulses return to the satellite, which converts them to data bits and sends them to tracking stations on the ground. During the six-week expedition of the Xue Long, which marked the first time the Chinese explored the Arctic with an icebreaker, 40… read more
The word spread quickly around the Geophysical Institute on a recent Thursday: Drop what you're doing and go to the roof. Those who made the trip were rewarded with seeing crystal art in the sky: two bright spots on either side of the sun, a faint halo circling the sun, another halo farther out, and two upside-down rainbows above the sun. Even scientists who have worked at the institute for decades were voicing appreciation for the rare display.
The display was caused by sunshine and high, nearly transparent clouds, according to Walter Tape, who shot three rolls of film trying to capture the halo. A math professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Tape has studied the arcs in Alaska and in Antarctica, where the displays occur frequently. "The crystals are beautiful, the halos are beautiful, and the math and physics that link them are beautiful," Tape said.
The two white spots decorating either side of the sun are called sun dogs, also known as parhelia,… read more
If you've recently seen a man with electrical wires coming from his skis, you've probably noticed Sam Colbeck. Colbeck, a geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire, studies the physics of ski and ice skate motion. He was in Fairbanks recently to visit with colleagues and to talk about what's going on where skis and skates meet snow and ice.
People commonly think pressure is the force that propels skis and skates, but Colbeck said that's not so. To demonstrate the real driver of the system, Colbeck rubbed his hands together. The warmth of friction he felt is the same warmth that enables the movement of skis, snowboards, dog sleds, and ice skates. When skis or steel blades move against ice crystals, they melt a layer of water that's incredibly thin, about one-millionth of a meter. That diminutive pool allows a skier or skater to glide like a surfer.
Colbeck said a 100-pound downhill racer going about 60 miles… read more
The greens of summer have disappeared from most of Alaska, as have the vibrant yellows, oranges and reds of autumn, leaving us with a black-and-white world for the remainder of the winter. But our ashen winter environment is occasionally splashed with color when the dogs come out. Sun dogs, that is.
Sun dogs are two colorful bursts of light that appear on either side of the sun. Besides spicing up the skyscape, sun dogs indicate the presence of falling ice crystals, which also produce neat effects such as halos around the sun and moon. The ice crystals falling through the Alaska air, known as "diamond dust," also create pillars of light that extend upward from outdoor lights and occasionally downward from the sun.
Sun dogs form when ice crystals act as a prism, according to the excellent text Meteorology Today. Ice crystals sometimes take on flat, hexagonal shapes, looking like microscopic stop signs.
The six-sided, platelike ice crystals… read more
A move to a new office at the Geophysical Institute has given me the opportunity to observe a species I had not seen before--young scientists. To enter my office, I pick my way through partitions of graduate students who study glaciers. On the journey, I dodge bags of food, drying tents, the jaws of ice crampons, and the occasional sled dog puppy. If I didn't know what these guys studied, I could probably guess from their tans. If that wasn't enough of a clue, I recently counted the pictures of glaciers on the path to my office. There are 44.
These guys enjoy immensely what they do, and they do research. Before I worked here, I held what I suspect is the popular view of scientists--the nerdish types who always excelled in the math classes but weren't very active outside the classroom. These guys don't fit the stereotype.
Grad student Martin Truffer has more than a dozen snow-related photos in his cubicle. Truffer, 30, is from Switzerland. He came to the… read more
You know Alaska has a lot of glaciers when Icelanders travel here to study them.
Gudfinna Adalgeirsdottir, who just earned a masters degree from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, traveled to Alaska from her home in Iceland to research a sample of the 29,000 square miles of glaciers that cover Alaska. Her close look at Harding Icefield showed that it has shrunk perhaps the height of a five-story building during the past 40 years.
Harding Icefield, named for former U.S. President Warren Harding, is an ice cap in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula. More than 35 glaciers reach out from the frozen mass like tree roots, some touching the ocean, some terminating on land. If you count the glaciers, Harding Icefield covers 1,100 square miles. That's enough ice to blanket Rhode Island. Adalgeirsdottir and her academic advisors Keith Echelmeyer and Will Harrison, both glaciologists at the Geophysical Institute, wanted to see how much of… read more
In last week's column , an oceanographer described the path of a yellow disc scientists set adrift at Prudhoe Bay in 1979. That same disc emerged at the feet of two brothers on a Scotland beach in early 1998. Ocean currents carried the disc more than 5,000 miles in its 19-year odyssey, which included a decade of floating on the Arctic Ocean.
The ocean on top of the world is getting plenty of attention from scientists these days, including two who believe they have found the Arctic Ocean's pulse: five- or six-year cycles during which the water level in the central Arctic Ocean is about one meter higher than it is during the following five or six years.
Two UAF oceanographers, Mark Johnson and Andrey Proshutinsky, thinks that understanding more about this ocean cycle could ultimately help scientists predict changes in the climate.
The Arctic Ocean is an ice-covered pool… read more
"No, dear," I said to my then-young daughter. "The past tense of pingo is not pingwent." It's the sort of comment likely to be needed in a household with an eager new reader and an array of books on subjects from the trivial to the technical. It led to a conversation about nouns and verbs, tenses and numbers, pingos and volcanoes.
That long-gone conversation came to mind the other day when I read of recent studies that question the customary views of what pingos are and how they grow.
More people have seen pingos than have ever visited the Arctic, for they make photogenic features. A pingo can rise a hundred feet or more above the flatland surrounding it, which makes it useful to the game-seeking Native hunters from whose term for "hill" its name supposedly derives. Though the classic pingo does look a little like a small volcano, a conical protuberance above the surrounding terrain and sometimes with a crater-like hollow on top, it has a completely different… read more
Even though fall this year was as gentle and gradual as any I can remember, the first freeze caught me not quite prepared for winter. I was reminded of that recently when I dug out the last jugs of rainwater saved for irrigating the garden. The garden is now only a few brown stalks poking above the snow, and the water jugs are bulging, wobble-bottomed globs of ice. They'd make good roly-poly toys for snowmen.
Why water won't fit in once perfect-size containers--whether pipes or jugs--after it freezes seems wrong somehow. Most substances contract when they change state from liquid to solid; water is one of the few that expands. I've encountered many explanations for the phenomenon, but they've never quite convinced me. The problem is that scientists speak in precise, exact terms, whereas I listen in metaphoric, relative terms. I'm always trying to relate what I don't know to something I do know, or at least can envision.
Thus I was delighted to come across a… read more
Most Alaskans warned about global warming have a standard reaction: Bring it on! That's for those who take the scientists' warnings seriously. Others sneer, as people are wont to do when confronted with bad news: Burn less fossil fuel? Hah! I'll give up my high-powered gas-guzzling V-8 when they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers--you know the routine.
All right, for you enthusiasts who look forward to the temperate zone relocating somewhere beyond Barrow, I have some really bad news. It involves global warming, ocean currents, and---at least peripherally---Egyptian antiquities.
It also involves going back about 120,000 years to the onset of the last ice age. The usual theory explaining the glaciers' arrival has been a lessening of summer insolation thanks to the interplay of solar cycles with terrestrial ones. Less strength in the sunlight meant less melting of leftover winter snow, particularly in the crucial zone of far northern Canada from which the… read more
My girlfriend stopped me last spring as we walked through a hallway in the Geophysical Institute's Elvey Building. She pointed to an aerial photograph of the North Slope near Prudhoe Bay. "Look at those lakes," she said. "They all point the same way."
I looked at the photograph, taken from a U2 surveillance plane. Sure enough, every lake in the photo was long, narrow, and pointed in the same general direction. Like dozens of salmon returning to their spawning stream, all of the blue and black lakes lined up northwest and southeast, parallel to each other.
Since the natural world doesn't often appear with such symmetry, I thought someone must have a hypothesis for the shared shape and orientation of the lakes. Someone did. The mystery intrigued Charles Carson so much that he earned his Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 1962 by exploring the orientation of the lakes.
Carson traveled to Barrow in the late 1950s and early 1960s and spent many hours on the… read more
Behind Donnelly Dome, Pipeline Mile 560--When I bump off the mosquitoes, the front screen of the tent provides a clear view of a favorite Richardson Highway landmark--Donnelly Dome. I camped near the Donnelly Dome reflection pond to get acquainted with the mountain, which from here looks like a 3,910-foot loaf of stone with green stubble on the bottom third.
Standing alone in the Delta River Valley 18 miles south of Delta Junction, Donnelly Dome always sparks a few questions by those who drive past; I've heard people muse over whether the Dome is a lonely volcano.
Before I took my dog for this long walk, I called Tom Buntzen to find out the facts about Donnelly Dome.
Buntzen is a state geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Donnelly Dome is a bit odd, he said. In fact, it shouldn't even be here.
"It is out of place," he said. "A glacier went down the (Delta River) valley. It should have sheared Donnelly Dome… read more
Though other Alaska glaciers seem to get all the press these days, Black Rapids Glacier in the Alaska Range was a star when Alaska was still a territory.
Black Rapids Glacier crept its way into national news in 1937, when a writer for Time magazine documented the glacier's actions in the article, "Runaway Glacier." Here's an excerpt:
"Out of Central Alaska last week came an exciting story. The Black Rapids Glacier, long dying in its valley 125 miles south of Fairbanks, had come to life. Its mile-and-a-quarter face was shoving toward the Delta River and the Richardson Highway (sole motor road from Fairbanks to the coast), rearing ice crests to 500 feet, breaking off great land icebergs which tumbled thunderously ahead onto the mossy valley floor. Geologist Ernest N. Patty at Fairbanks declared this week that if the Black Rapids Glacier is moving as reported, it is traveling 220 feet per day, a world record."
Though the glacier never advanced past the… read more
Is Kipnuk sinking?
Eskimo elders in the coastal Alaska village think it might be. Tom Osterkamp thinks he might know one of the reasons why--Alaska's permafrost is warming.
Osterkamp, a Geophysical Institute professor of physics who has studied Alaska's permafrost for 25 years, recently received an e-mail message from a colleague who told him of the Kipnuk elders' concerns.
Kipnuk, located about 100 miles west of Bethel, is a treeless village where about 500 people live. The topographic map for the Kipnuk area looks like Swiss cheese because the village sits amid hundreds of lakes. Kipnuk's elevation is only about five feet above the level of the Bering Sea.
Ian Parks, the principal of Chief Paul Memorial School at Kipnuk, said buildings in the village show signs of an unstable ground surface--walls develop cracks, doors stick, and floors rise and fall.
"If you put a marble on the floor, in one year it'll roll in one direction; in the… read more
Flammable ice is becoming a hot topic in Alaska.
Methane hydrate, a chemical combination of methane and water that looks like dirty ice, will ignite when touched by a lit match. This curious contradiction has fueled hopes that methane hydrate may be the world's great untapped energy source. With those hopes also come fears that these dirty ice deposits may contribute to global warming.
Methane hydrate is found in and around Alaska because it forms naturally in the deep ocean and below or in permafrost. At low temperatures and under high pressure, water molecules form "cages" that contain molecules of methane gas, said Keith Kvenvolden of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. When methane hydrate is warmed, the cage walls disintegrate, liberating methane, the main ingredient in natural gas. Methane is the product of bacteria that consume organic matter in non-oxygenated places, such as in the sea floor, in the earth under permafrost, and in the… read more
While taking the dogs on a run through the hills above Fairbanks recently, a severe thirst attacked me and I wasn't carrying any water. Although water puddled everywhere along the trail (and in my sneakers), I was afraid to drink any for fear of gulping down any organisms, such as Giardia. Giardia lambia is a microscopic organism that lives in the intestines of mammals and causes diarrhea and lethargy, sometimes for weeks or years.
Drinking untreated water is asking for trouble, even in the wildest areas of Alaska. If all our lakes, rivers and puddles are unsafe because of the parasites they may carry, where do we get all the gallons of fresh water we use every day to shower, wash our clothes, and quench our thirsts?
For an answer I biked to the University of Alaska Fairbanks' lower campus to see Larry Hinzman, an associate professor of water resources with the Institute of Northern Engineering.
Our safe drinking water comes from aquifers, which… read more
The greens of summer have disappeared from most of Alaska, as have the vibrant yellows, oranges and reds of autumn, leaving us with a black-and-white world for the remainder of the winter. But our ashen winter environment is occasionally splashed with color when the dogs come out. Sun dogs, that is.
Sun dogs are two colorful bursts of light that appear on either side of the sun. Besides spicing up the skyscape, sun dogs indicate the presence of falling ice crystals, which also produce neat effects such as halos around the sun and moon. The ice crystals falling through the Alaska air, known as "diamond dust," also create pillars of light that extend upward from outdoor lights and occasionally downward from the sun.
Sun dogs form when ice crystals act as a prism, according to the excellent text Meteorology Today. Ice crystals sometimes take on flat, hexagonal shapes, looking like microscopic stop signs.
The six-sided, platelike ice crystals… read more
Sometimes it seems a little odd to curse the sky for being cloudless, but I do. High-pressure systems hanging over the Interior have made for beautiful clear orange sunrises and sunsets lately, but I'm a snow fan, and we don't have enough to play on yet without transforming new skis into "rock skis."
Some organisms living in Alaska have greater concerns with a lack of snow than trashed ski bottoms. Snow's insulating capacity allows some life forms to survive life in the north.
Pat Holloway, an associate professor of plant sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, lists lowbush cranberries and bearberries as examples of Alaska plants that need snow to make it through an Interior winter. She's frosted low bush cranberries in the lab and has found that they die when the temperature drops below about -12 degrees Fahrenheit. Since 12 below could easily be the high temperature during an Interior winter day, lowbush cranberries wouldn't survive without a warm… read more
As I was looking over the past few Science Forums, I noticed each had something to do with climate change. I didn't consciously decide to go on a global warming binge; it just seems we have unique indicators here---such as stressed upland spruce trees and receding permafrost ---that hint our planet may indeed be getting warmer.
Another far northern (and southern) heat gauge is sea ice that forms in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas and around Antarctica. According to a report in Nature, Norwegian scientists recently found what they believe to be a significant reduction in the amount of sea ice in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
By analyzing satellite photos of sea ice at the top and bottom of the globe, researchers saw the area of water covered… read more
In much of Alaska we've felt the last of temperatures warm enough to change snow into water, at least for 1994. But many of us melt snow all the time, using nothing but a bit of muscle and our cross-country skis.
According to Samuel Colbeck, a geophysicist with the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire, gliding on skis is actually like surfing on a microscopic layer of water. It's hard to picture surfing when your hair is covered with frost, but the rubbing of ski on snow makes it possible.
Although friction is one of the major forces interfering with a skier's glide, it also allows a skier to move efficiently because it creates heat. As a skier slides over snow, weight and friction combine to melt the surface of the ski trail, a process that's easier to understand close up.
Although the waxed bottom of a ski and well-packed snow look flat, on a microscopic level they're both as bumpy as the Alaska Range. Each… read more
We had a close squeak in this research neighborhood the other day. In its frantic need to cut costs, the University of Alaska Fairbanks proposed doing away with the Department of Geology and Geophysics, with special budgetary-axe attention to the section commonly called Snow, Ice, and Permafrost. Cool heads prevailed , however, (with vociferous help from some hot-under-the-collar students, and telephone calls and faxed messages from around the United States) and the department stays...so far.
Mind, I wasn't much surprised by the proposal. It's the sort of thing you can expect when people get to working so hard on a problem they forget to look out the window once in a while. Hereabouts the view usually includes snow and ice, and it always holds geology.
Sometimes the combination provides more drama than one might expect. For example, though everybody usually thinks of glaciers as very slow-moving objects, Alaska and the adjacent Yukon Territory have an uncommonly… read more
The last time I saw Willy Weeks, he was at the airport heading to a batch of meetings and an eventual vacation on the Turkish coast. This itinerary indicates that Weeks is remarkably level-headed for a glaciologist, because ice experts often seem to become ice addicts. They can go for years catching mere glimpses of the snow-free season we ordinary folks call "summer," spending June on Greenland's ice cap and December on Antarctica's ice shelves. Professor of Geophysics Weeks' willingness to spend time enjoying warmer places speaks well for his mental health.
As former chief scientist for the Alaska Synthetic Aperture Radar Facility at the Geophysical Institute, Weeks studies ice mostly at a distance, but he still gets into the chilly stuff, now and then, as indicated by the most recent issue of the journal Arctic Research of the United States. Among a collection of articles devoted to arctic contamination, Weeks provided "Possible Roles of Sea Ice in the… read more
We're taught that salmon return to the shores and streams (or--nowadays--some also to the hatcheries) of their birth because that is where they are programmed to spawn. People who study salmon suspect that the fish actually do this to embarrass fisheries managers.
Salmon are edible, catchable, and, because of their programming to return home, easily extirpated or even exterminated: it's a combination that demands management. So, for decades, agencies responsible for the survival and success of the salmon fishery have been amassing data and predicting how many salmon will return to their hatching sites. Sometimes the managers call it right, and fishing fleets and fish apparently follow their directives, but not always. A predicted record-breaking return turns out to be a mere trickle of fish, or a few-day fishing season suddenly must be extended to weeks as hordes of salmon come pouring home.
Fish in Prince William Sound often upset the predictors. A few years… read more
This is the season of sorrow for my friend Carl Benson. He roams around the Geophysical Institute with a wistful frown upon his face, baiting the innocent into asking him what's wrong.
"The ice is melting," he'll say. "The snow is almost gone. Isn't it terrible?"
He's been saying this during every breakup for years, and no one is entirely sure that he's kidding. Benson is the glaciologist who leads the annual institute Christmas party singing of "Ice is Nice," so there's just no telling.
Nevertheless, in honor of Benson's annual rue, this column is dedicated to a very basic question about ice, one posed and answered in a recent issue of the British publication New Scientist: Why do snowflakes have six sides?
I admit it's not a question that much concerned me. For years, I simply accepted that snowflakes have six sides the way I accepted that peanut-butter sandwiches have insides and outsides. Scientists don't think that way, which is why… read more
Earth's history is something like that of a foot soldier---days of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The planet feels neither boredom nor terror, but its past is indeed composed of long periods of monotony broken by sudden upheavals.
One such break in earthly monotony appears in Cataclysms on the Columbia, a book sent by a geologist who knows my fondness for reading about catastrophe, and who also understands that my readings in popular geology should extend beyond books by the estimable John McPhee. Written by two geologists and a professor of English, Cataclysms on the Columbia describes the great outburst floods that inundated and shaped thousands of square miles in the Pacific Northwest.
The authors approach their subject by treating it almost as a detective story, one following the career of their chief sleuth. J Harlen Bretz (they neither put a period after his first initial nor explain why it isn't there) was a superb field… read more
OK, it's time to face facts. Winter is upon us. Look up: every cloud you see is pregnant with white stuff, ready to litter all over the landscape.
Since this is the shoulder season, that hump between the softness of summer and the bone-hardness of winter, not all those cloud-borne ice crystals will make it to the ground as snowflakes. In this unpredictable season, variations in air temperature can lead to a range of precipitation types, from frozen and fluffy to liquid but slushy.
Even though it's a frozen form of precipitation, hail is the least likely to fall at this time of year. It starts off like all the other forms, as an ice crystal that gains weight as it fails through supercooled water droplets in the dense mass of vapor making up a cloud. (Supercooled water is liquid at temperatures lower than 32oF or 0oC. It's not as unusual as you might think, because water droplets need something to freeze around, such as a bit of dust. Slice… read more
Not long ago, Alaska newspapers reported a local-bunch-makes-good story. The national Polar Ice Coring Office, which has its headquarters on the Fairbanks campus of the University of Alaska, provided equipment and staff for a great accomplishment in glaciology. This summer a PICO drill bored through thousands of feet of ice atop Greenland to fetch up bedrock that had not seen the light of day for hundreds of thousands of years.
Being the first to do something truly impressive is always worth a headline or two, but its underlying significance may not strike most readers. This success on ice may mean more in the long run than, say, the far more romantically appealing first ascent of Mt. Everest.
To understand that, it' s important to know that the scientists were not just poking a hole in a lot of ice. They were penetrating through a frozen record of times past. Even more important, thanks to the recovered ice cores, they were bringing highly informative… read more
While digging out the woodpile from under snow the other day, I got to wondering about the cold white stuff filling the shovel over and over again. Except for a thin layer on top, the white stuff wasn't recognizable as snowflakes. I seemed to be moving mounds of little ice pellets that looked sort of like thumb nails.
With some help from Geophysical Institute glaciologist Carl Benson, and the doctoral dissertation of his former student Matthew Sturm, I now know a lot more about the strange world within the snowpack, where flakes become ice globs. Of course, to Benson and his colleagues, none of this is strange at all-but them, glaciologists often seem a bubble or two off plumb to those of us who can't muster much fellow feeling for snow and ice. The stuff to which they've devoted their lives---frozen water---behaves strangely. For example, almost as soon as a snowflake hits the surface, it abandons its elegant shape as quickly as would a half-hearted dieter given a box… read more
When snowstorms closed my road for the third time in a new year merely six days old, the only thing to do was to throw another log on the fire and curl up with a good book. Christmas brought perfect reading material for such weather: E. C. Pielou's After the Ice Age published by the University of Chicago Press.
It seems unlikely that someone who works at the Geophysical Institute would turn to an outside expert for information on the era of great cold. In the institute are scientists like David Hopkins, probably the world's expert on the Bering Land Bridge, and Carl Benson, a most knowledgeable source on glaciers and snow (and the author of the exuberant song Ice is Nice star of the institute's annual Christmas party) among many others. But Pielou brings a different perspective. She's a biologist, and her book is subtitled The return of life to glaciated North America. She's also willing to make things obvious for the uninformed.
For example… read more
One day in August 1986, catastrophe struck a patch of countryside in the African nation of Cameroon. Suddenly, mysteriously, people and animals died. Whole villages expired; herds of cattle collapsed where they stood. Concerned and puzzled scientists flocked to the area while people mourned more than 1700 dead neighbors and kinfolk.
The researchers found a surprising culprit. The victims had suffocated in a cloud of poison gas: carbon dioxide. Its source was beautiful Lake Nyos, which filled the crater of a dormant volcano. Since then, Lake Nyos has become a very well-studied body of water.
The lake is fed by geothermal springs at its bottom, The entering waters are warm and apparently are laden with dissolved gases, especially carbon dioxide. At least, the springs are the suspected source of the carbon dioxide; no one knows for sure where it comes from, but the gas is there in high concentrations. Warm water usually rises buoyantly, but in Lake Nyos the… read more
"Listen, you should think about coming to the sea ice class on Thursday," Willy Weeks said to me in November. "We've got a real expert coming as a guest lecturer."
I'm used to Geophysical Institute staffers encouraging me to attend classes on their subjects. They find the stuff fascinating, and naturally expect everyone else will too. But for Professor Weeks to offer a visitor as bait was not ordinary; he has spent years on ice, so to speak, and has a yard-long list of publications testifying to his own expertise on the subject.
But he wasn't kidding. The visiting expert was Kenneth Tuvak of Barrow. Weeks studies ice, but Tuvak lives it. I went to class.
Tuvak's expertise sits gracefully on his broad shoulders. Apparently he finds it easy to deal with professional scientists; he has been doing so since 1947, when he started working for the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. Listening to the anecdotes through which he conveyed his information, I grew to… read more
Martin Jeffries got a surprise present recently, literally out of the blue. More exactly, it came through the blue sky: it was a satellite image captured by Landsat 5 of his particular research stamping grounds in the Canadian High Arctic.
Jeffries' glaciology research has led him several times into the high-latitude seas off Canada to study ice islands (flat-topped icebergs) and the ice shelves off northern Ellesmere Island. (That's north indeed---greater than 80 degrees north latitude, closer to the pole than any part of Alaska.) When he's not on the ice itself, he studies it remotely; as a research associate professor with the Alaska Synthetic Aperture Radar Facility (ASF) at the Geophysical Institute, he helps interpret satellite images of the ice-covered polar sea.
Yet his field and office interests had never exactly coincided until very recently. While testing a new system, two ASF technicians came up with nearly cloudless images of unfamiliar icy terrain… read more
Some Alaska researchers are especially pleased at the current thaw in the Cold War. They're happy about the improved chances to work on one of the most extraordinary bodies of water in the world: Siberia's Lake Baikal.
It may be hard on northern North American egos, but next to Baikal, our mighty lakes seem to shrink. Iliamna, Kluane, even Great Slave are youthful ponds in comparison to this elder giant. Baikal's surface area, about 34,000 square kilometers (more than 13,000 square miles), ranks seventh among the world's lakes, covering about the same area as the country of Belgium. But at 1637 meters (nearly 5400 feet), it is the deepest lake on the planet. The combination of area and depth means that Lake Baikal holds more fresh water than all five Great Lakes combined.
Lake Baikal lies in a rift valley--a place where the earth's crust is pulling apart. The section of Asia lying northwest of the lake is pulling away from the part to the southeast at the rate… read more
Living things change the earth. You need only look at an anthill, a beaver dam, or a shopping mall to notice that many animals tinker with their environment, consciously or not.
The tinkering can be hard to notice. Sometimes, in unexpected places, what seems to be the straightforward working of geophysical principles turns out to have a biological component. For example, a group of Canadian scientists recently examined how fish indirectly affect the temperature of the lakes they inhabit.
People who swim in northern lakes quickly learn that the water temperature is not uniform from top to bottom. By late spring, a temperate-zone or boreal lake usually is thermally stratified: its water has different temperatures, and different patterns of temperature change, in layers.
The warmest water--no surprise--is found at the top. That's where the sun's effect is most easily detected. Although solar energy is reflected away by the lake surface, and back-scattered… read more
Earth has done its seasonal change trick again, and we northerners are bracing for winter. It's time to think of ice.
Ice will soon glaze everything from puddles to lakes, but its commonplace nature doesn't mean it's uninteresting. The freezing process alone has a few surprises. Fresh water doesn't freeze precisely at zero Celsius or thirty-two degrees above zero Fahrenheit, because the transformation of water to ice is a change of phase: the liquid becomes a solid, and that takes extra energy. The transition to solid state requires the loss of 80 calories per gram of water---real calories, not dieter's calories, which are properly kilocalories and a thousand times larger.
The small calorie still represents an impressive amount of energy. It is defined as the amount of heat required to change the temperature of one gram of water by one degree C. (That's putting it roughly; in exact terms, it's the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of… read more
It's high tourist season in Alaska again, and just about every visitor wants facts and tales to take home with more concrete souvenirs. After they've heard the bear stories and memorized Mt. McKinley's height--and maybe even learned why we call it Denali---what can you tell them? Bring on the rivers. After all, tourists like superlatives.
The Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey has a handy fact sheet (and considerable authority) useful for the purpose. Of their list of the 32 largest rivers in the United States, considering volume of water discharged, size of area drained, or length, Alaska has eight. That's--of course--far more than any other state can claim, and twice as many as Texas has.
To be fair, the USGS list attributes rivers to the states containing the river's mouth. Thus, Alaska rivers get credit for a lot of Canadian water and territory, but then Kentucky gets credited with the Tennessee River, which begins in North Carolina.… read more
Oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez could be setting out on a very long voyage, propelled in good part by fresh water. The oil is carried along in the Alaska Coastal Current, a stream of low-salinity water flowing like a river within the sea.
The current begins with the heavy precipitation in British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. As the freshwater runoff discharges into the sea, the effect of the earth's rotation turns it to the right. It flows northward along Southeast's coast, gathering more fresh water as it goes. Less dense than seawater, the freshwater flow resists mixing into the ocean.
Though too salty to drink, Coastal Current water stays less saline than the surrounding sea, making a fresher, identifiable stream. Some of the runoff comes from glacial streams laden with fine sediment; the sediments carried along in the current are visible in aerial and satellite images, acting as another tracer for the current's flow.
As the current flows… read more
At this time of year in Alaska, it's hard to worry about the news that the world is getting warmer. Most people don't care about the details--they just wish the heat would hurry up and get here.
Nevertheless, in odd moments between trying to coax frozen vehicles to run and digging out extra woollies from the back of the closet, you might spare a little time to be concerned about the effects of ice-free winters on the Bering Sea.
This shallow sea at the western border of North America has at least two distinctive features. The Bering Sea is an enormously productive body of water. It supports both huge fisheries and impressive populations of marine mammals and seabirds. It also carries a seasonal topping of sea ice, a cover that by winter's end can extend over 600 miles south of Bering Strait. We think these two features may very well be connected.
To explain why seasonal sea ice may contribute to the number of animals living between the strait and the… read more
Headlines, commentaries, and even this column have been crowded recently with words of worry about the greenhouse effect, the apparently inevitable warming of Earth's atmosphere because human activity continues to change the balance of the gases in the air we breathe.
When it comes to what this really means for Alaska, it's possible to find almost as many opinions as there are knowledgeable scientists. One of the oddest probabilities is that a warmer climate could set our coastal glaciers growing. And yes, there is some evidence that this has started to happen.
To explain this apparently unreasonable behavior, it's necessary to examine why the glaciers grow where they do along Alaska's southeastern and southcentral coasts. First, consider the scenery: a complex seacoast backed by steep mountains. Next, remember that glacier ice starts as compacted snow--snow that falls high in the mountains, so thickly that summer's heat can't melt it away. The next winter's… read more
Once upon a time, say last November, a snowflake fell in Alaska. It did not land at low elevations near the Pacific, where it would have melted and returned to the ocean within a few days, but in one of the colder parts of the state, where it was comfortably below freezing. There the snowflake existed through the beginning of this month.
It was a dendritic snowflake when it landed, with long feathery arms that had grown rapidly in the wet cloud where it had been born. Once it was on the ground, with no cloud to keep it growing, the sharp points on the arms began to sublimate, going directly from solid ice to water vapor. Within hours the fine detail of the snowflake's shape was lost, and within days it became an amorphous blob of ice.
More snow fell, and the weather became colder. While the snow at the top of the pack chilled to air temperature, the ground near which our snowflake lay remained only a few degrees below freezing. The temperature… read more
Ice can be almost as clear as glass -- but it usually isn't. A close look at an ice cube or a piece of natural ice will usually disclose air bubbles and particles, which scatter light and make the ice look cloudy. Water containing dissolved salts will not produce clear ice, either.
In order to grow a large, clear block of ice such as those used for ice sculpture, the first step is to start with clear, particle-free water and a clean, covered container. A fine filter should remove particles, and most tap water should not even need this treatment.
The next step is to be sure the water is free of dissolved materials. Distilled or at least deionized water makes the clearest ice. But why?
Ice is constructed from water molecules that contain one oxygen and two hydrogen molecules each. These molecules fit together in a precise hexagonal framework by sharing their hydrogen atoms. The resulting structure has no room for other molecules, so dissolved impurities… read more
It starts as a mere powdering of white on the birch branches, a film on the windshield. As clear, windless weather continues in the valley bottoms, some of the minute flecks of ice begin to outgrow their brethren, growing into tiny plates ridged with the lines of uneven growth. After a week or two, branches and snow alike are covered with plates jutting out like the wings of fingernail-sized butterflies. Then the sun returns, warming the delicate hoarfrost into evaporation during the day; or wind or snow knocks the tiny plates from the branches.
Hoarfrost is most common in the interior of Alaska, where the necessary clear, windless conditions are most common. Like air pollution, its formation is dependent on thermal radiation, so heavy hoarfrost may warn of poor air quality. But the inversions responsible are of much smaller scale than the ones we measure with weather balloons or towers.
Consider a twig on a cloudless night. Like anything else at temperatures… read more
The snow north of the Brooks Range isn't like the snow most people -- including most Alaskans -- are used to. It's long lasting (almost nine months), it's as dry and cutting as windblown sand, and it's either packed into a solid slab or moving with the winds.
The ceaseless motion of the snow -- eastward or westward along the coast, northward nearer the foothills -- makes it hard even to know how much of it there is. It blows over precipitation gauges without falling in to such an extent that we now think the true precipitation along the Arctic coast may be about three times the measured value; Barrow may be as wet as Fairbanks.
This shifty arctic snow can't be measured by sticking a ruler into the snow on the ground, because some areas have all the snow blown away except what is caught in the tundra vegetation, while others, such as river banks perpendicular to the wind, may have drifts big enough to bury fair-sized buildings. Over large parts of the North Slope away… read more
Jericho, Vermont, between 1880 and the 1930s. Snow. A man walks out of an unheated shed, holding a black board briefly into the swirling flakes, then goes back under cover and begins to examine the board with a hand lens, Sherlock Holmes in a blizzard. Carefully he lifts a bit of white from the board with a wooden splint, lays it gently on a glass slide, and brushes it lightly with a small feather to force it to adhere. Then under the microscope. Disappointment -- one of the delicate arms is broken. The board is brushed off and held into the snow again. Again the careful scrutiny, the gentle transfer, the feather brush, the microscope. This time his care is rewarded -- the snowflake is unbroken and symmetrical, a lacy gem of its kind. A different microscope is brought into play, this one on its side, pointing at the sky, with a camera bellows and a ground glass plate. Carefully the bellows and lenses are adjusted to produce a sharp image on the glass, while the man keeps the… read more
Remember the excitement surrounding the damming of Russell Fjord by the Hubbard Glacier last year? The rising water, the marine mammal rescue effort, and finally, the spectacular outbreak in October? While all of this was occurring and Russell Fjord was receiving national and international media coverage, two small instrument packages, deployed by the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Sciences, sat quietly on the bottom of Russell Fjord, recording pressure, temperature and salinity at half-hour intervals. These submerged sentinels provided a striking record of the filling and outbreak of "Russell Lake".
When we heard of the damming, our first priority was to start recording the water level rise as quickly as possible. The damming allowed us to treat Russell Fjord as a giant natural bucket. Our plan was to use measurements of water level rise over time to obtain a runoff record from a region that had no stream gauges.… read more
Why do some clouds produce rain or snow while others do not? The answer turns out to involve some rather surprising properties of water and of things which are very small.
Clouds are made up of very small water droplets. In continental clouds, most droplets are smaller than one seven hundredths of an inch in diameter, and have fall speeds of less than 2 feet per second. It would take such a drop 45 minutes to fall from a height of a mile, so a large number of cloud droplets must join together to make a raindrop large enough to fall fast enough to reach the ground before it evaporates. But strangely enough, the tiny cloud droplets cannot collide with each other. Rather, they are carried around each other, protected from colliding by a cushion of air. How, then, can they grow?
To answer this question, we must look at another interesting property of water: contrary to general opinion, it does not automatically freeze when the water temperature is 32 degrees F or… read more
A few years ago Dr. Bowling of the Geophysical Institute determined the correlation coefficients between the dates of breakup and various meteorological parameters -- temperature, precipitation, and so forth. A high correlation coefficient would imply that the parameter could be used to estimate the date of breakup. Unfortunately the only parameter with a high correlation turned out to be average air temperature during April. Since the Tanana Ice Classic tickets are not sold after the first week in April, this information is not helpful in winning the lottery. Apparently breakup is a very complex event, with too many variables to be analyzed easily. However, there are a lot of interesting phenomena that go on even before breakup begins.
Water flow in any sizable stream does not stop when the ice cover forms. Some sections of a river, either in rapids or in fast-flowing reaches near the river bank, may stay open all winter, due both to the mechanical action of the water… read more
One of the most intriguing of the many forms snowflakes can assume is the "cufflink" crystal. The first photo I ever saw of these, in a very old children's book, described them as rare cufflink crystals, from a great storm that struck New England. Like wolves, they may be rare in New England, but not in Alaska. They are, however, very small. A sixteenth of an inch across is a large one, and that would hardly make a sizable cufflink for a Lilliputian.
How could such a shape, technically a capped column, form? Ice crystals are basically hexagonal prisms, like a section of pencil cut square on both ends. Their mode of growth is controlled by moisture and temperature. At low humidities, the faces of a crystal grow fairly evenly. As the humidity rises, first the edges and then the corners begin to grow faster than the rest of the crystal. Temperature controls whether the crystal grows lengthwise, making a shape like a long pencil, or sideways, making a flat, hexagonal plate. At… read more
Among the oldest living things on earth are the scrawny bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of Nevada and California. At 4,000 years or more old, healthy specimens that often look sickly or even dead are placidly accumulating years and history. Their rings contain evidence of past droughts (during which the rings are narrower), volcanic eruptions which darkened the sky, cold years, wet years, and otherwise a complete chronology of conditions on earth at the time. If the growth rings of a living bristlecone pine can be overlapped with dead pines even older, a complete chronology extending as far back as 8,000 years can be obtained.
But, as scientists now maintain, dating by tree rings is kid stuff compared to what can be found in the dating of ice layers found in glaciers. In Greenland and Antarctica, ice-coring projects are underway that may reveal yearly details of the earth's history as far back as a half-million years ago, The difficulties of penetrating… read more
The northern atmosphere produces many astonishing optical effects. One reason for this is that there is a strong temperature gradient and marked stratification of air layers. These conditions cause bending of light rays from distant objects, often leading to bizarre distortions and mirages.
Another reason is that the polar air is often charged with tiny crystals of ice--diamond dust--that fall in showers, sometimes even from clear skies. These are not visible to the naked eye except when lighting conditions are right, and the low sun angle in the north makes for the right conditions more often than can happen at lower latitudes.
Arcs, halos and "sun dogs" around the sun are familiar phenomena that are caused by the passage of light rays through tiny prismatic ice crystals shaped like chopped-off portions of a pencil. These rays are bent, or refracted, at certain critical angles that give rise to these apparitions.
If the crystals are very short, they… read more
It is a common misconception that the blue color exhibited by glaciers, old sea ice, or even holes poked into a snow bank is due to the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue--light scattering. But nature has more than one recipe for producing the color blue. In frozen water and in the sky the processes are almost the reverse of each other.
A blue sky results when light bounces off molecules and small dust particles in the atmosphere. Because blue light scatters more than red does, the sky looks blue except in the direction of the sun (particularly when the sun is near the horizon and the blue light is scattered out of the sunlight, leaving the red color of sunrises and sunsets).
When light passes through ice, however, the red light is absorbed while the blue is transmitted. Were the operating process scattering as in the atmosphere, then the transmitted light would be red, not blue. However, because of the large size of snow grains and ice crystals, all… read more
One of the more captivating apparitions of the north is the ice halo. Ice crystals constantly form and fall through the polar atmosphere, creating colored arcs and halos that really have to be seen to be appreciated.
Some of the optical phenomena caused by ice crystals are so complex that they have never been adequately explained. However, the majority can be understood simply by realizing that ice crystallizes in hexagonal geometries, which is why snowflakes have six sides. Unlike snowflakes, ice crystals grow from vapor in subfreezing air layers as variations of thin hexagonal plates or long hexagonal needles. Light refracting through these plates and columns creates the most common displays.
To understand why, picture a ray of light falling on one of the six sides of an ice prism. It is impossible for the ray to emerge from an adjacent face, because it would be reflected back into the prism. It can, however, exit through the opposite face, or through one of… read more
Steve Estes, a coworker in the seismology lab, walked in after lunch one day last week and announced that he'd just seen a rainbow over Fairbanks. Anyone who has spent a winter here knows that rainbows just don't happen in the Alaskan Interior during the middle of December. Even though it was an exceptionally warm day for the time of year, temperatures were still below the freezing point, which should have made the combination of sunlight and water droplets that creates a rainbow impossible--or so it would seem.
But is it? Craig Bohren points out in a recent article in Weatherwise that it is a widespread misconception that water necessarily freezes at 0 degrees C (32 degrees F). We have all heard this so many times that we have come to believe it. Yet it is more correct to say that 0 degrees C is the melting point of ice, rather than to say it is the freezing point of water.
If you were to put an ice cube into a hot frying pan, the molecular arrangement… read more
The spectacle of a glacier bulldozing its way through an Alpine village or a freeway may be great stuff for a TV melodrama, but how plausible is such a scenario in reality? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is that it has happened quite a few times in recorded history.
Most documented cases involve medieval villages that had first been settled before the "Little Ice Age" of the 17th century. Although the glacial hazards of the Little Ice Age originated with the beginnings of climatic deterioration in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was not until around 1600 that advancing ice started to damage and destroy buildings in the French and Swiss Alps.
When colonization of the Alps began, the decision to settle and farm seemed reasonable because the glaciers at the time were small and far away. But between 1600 and 1650, at least half a dozen villages in the Chamonix valley of France were overrun. Many others suffered damage due to glacial flooding and avalanches, and some… read more
Each winter, Alaskans are fond of discussing the snowfall and comparing how much fell in previous winters. It can be confusing, however, to relate the daily snowfall totals to how deep the snow is on the ground and to how much water will come out of the snowpack when it melts in the spring. The easiest way to understand this is to look at what goes on as the winter snowpack builds up.
If you look closely at newly fallen snow, you will see the familiar six-sided pattern in most snowflakes. New snow tends to be fluffy and light if it is not windy. If you look at the same snow again a few days later, you will see that the snow particles have lost their original shape, and that they have become irregular crystals of ice. Also, the snow is not as fluffy as it first was. This is because it was compressed as it settled. As this process goes on, the snow layer becomes more compact, and the depth decreases even though there has been no melting. The daily snowfall totals for the… read more
Have you ever stopped to consider how many inanimate things that we see in nature develop into geometrically arranged patterns? A mud flat drying in the sun (or a pie crust, for that matter) often displays a network of cracks that carve the surface into pieces of uniform size and shape. Columnar jointing patterns in basalt create displays like the Devil's Post Pile in California (a natural shrinkage phenomenon, and the topic of an earlier column ).
Cracked lake beds obviously result from shrinkage during desiccation. It's pretty clear what happens. The lake bed dries out and the surface layer shrivels up and breaks into pieces. So what?
Well, consider the shape of the pieces. They're almost always six-sided. Actually, there are only two basic regular shapes (that is, pieces with no interior angles greater than 180 degrees and with sides of equal length) into which a flat surface can be cut… read more
Question: How many times have you seen a riverbed that lies above the level of the surrounding terrain? Answer: If you live in Alaska, probably more often than you're aware of.
Most people who live in areas that have been glaciated are familiar with the jumbled piles of boulders and mixed debris that glaciers have left behind as they retreated. Many know that these features are called moraines. North of the Alaska Range between Black Rapids and Donnelly Dome, and on the southern flanks of the range between Paxson and Sourdough, are two areas where the motorist is forcibly made aware of moraines as the Richardson Highway dips and swerves around them.
Less common, and sometimes not recognized as being glacial features, are the low, sinuous hills that can stretch for miles and often resemble snakes when seen from the air. These are eskers.
An esker is an ancient river bed that has been formed inside a glacier. As meltwater seeks to escape from the lower… read more
It is unlikely that the best of mankind's crystal palaces can ever equal the beauty and mystery of the ice caves which nature creates at leisure in its own glaciers. A glacial ice cave can be an explorer's dream. But changing constantly, it can also be a deadly hazard.
Glacial ice is created when several seasons of accumulated snowfall compact the underlying layers to a fraction of their former volume. The delicate snow crystals are packed more tightly, resulting in "fire" snow. Fire can last through at least one more warm season even if the snow above melts, and eventually the crystals interlock to form bigger and bigger chunks, squeezing out the remaining air bubbles. At a density of 0.84 gram per cubic centimeter (water weighs 1.0 gram per cubic centimeter), the transition from snow to glacial ice is complete.
The glacier now takes on a beautiful blue appearance, because sunlight passing through the ice has had the red end of the spectrum filtered out. The… read more
Permafrost has been defined as frozen ground in which a naturally occurring temperature below 0o Centigrade (32o Fahrenheit) has existed for two or more years. That's a deceptively simple description of a very complex engineering problem in the north.
Permafrost is continuous in extent over almost all of the Arctic, then becomes discontinuous and sporadic or isolated as one proceeds further south. Only the southern coastal margins are completely permafrost-free. Measured recorded depths extend from 1330 feet near Pt. Barrow to 350 feet at Nome, 265 feet at Fairbanks, and 100 feet near Tok. It is near- surface permafrost that is the bane of the construction worker and home builder, however. Permafrost can form an extremely strong and stable foundation material if it is kept in the frozen state, but if it is allowed to thaw, the soil becomes extremely weak and foundations built on it are almost guaranteed to fail.
There are three approaches… read more
The Columbia Glacier is one of Alaska's better known tidewater glaciers, both from the standpoint of tourist attraction and the model it provides for scientific investigation. In 1973 it became the object of close scientific scrutiny.
In Alaska, some 50 to 60 glaciers calve into the sea, but exhibit such diversified behavior that they have baffled glaciologists for decades. For instance, some will recede from 10 to 20 miles in a number of years, at the same time that others will advance into standing forests. Subtle variations in climate should not produce such disparities.
On investigation, it was found that many glaciers built underwater moraines across the necks of their fiords, after which they retreated great distances up the valleys. The Columbia Glacier did not behave in this manner. it was found to be the only sea-calving glacier in Alaska that terminated at a mature coastal forest of at least 4000 years of age, judging from peat deposits. Assisted by… read more
The increasing hours of sunlight in March and April inaugurate one of the most pleasant processes in the northland. It is the transformation of a white world of snow and ice into one of water and greenery. The melting process begins with a tentative and nearly unseen activity, proceeds through a state of serious business, and culminates in an onrush of furious and sloppy abandon.
If undisturbed, the bright snow is highly reflective to sunlight. Until something tarnishes the whiteness of the snow's surface, the sun's heat is reflected back through the atmosphere and is lost into outer space without having done much to warm the earth, its atmosphere, or its inhabitants.
This was brought home to me while I was watching the dogsled races along Second Avenue on a windless, sunny day in Fairbanks recently. I had chosen my position in the sun on the north side of the street, although the street itself was in the shadow of buildings on the south side. Even though I was… read more
Columbia Glacier, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Valdez near the epicenter of the great 1964 earthquake, is rapidly losing its battle for survival. It is the last of Alaska's 52 tidewater glaciers to begin its epic retreat from the sea.
Granted, Alaska still has plenty of glaciers left, but the tidewater glaciers--those that empty directly into the sea--are on a drastic decline. Glaciers typically follow a seasonal pattern of advance and retreat. During the late summer months, tidewater glaciers erode on the seaward edge by calving, but if the amount of ice lost is replenished during the winter and early spring months, the glacier remains stable.
Mark Meier of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tacoma, Washington, reports in a recent issue of Science News that Columbia Glacier will be reduced to about half its present size in the next 30 to 50 years, and that its terminus will have moved about 40 kilometers up the valley in which it lies.… read more
It has long been established that the makeup of human blood bears a haunting resemblance to that of sea water.
Is this a reminder that probably all of intelligent animal life originated in the ocean with the arrival of the first true amphibians, or is it a complete coincidence? The latter seems unlikely.
One of the most baffling questions in modern science is why the oceans maintain an almost constant composition, including every element known to man. And these proportions never seem to change. In enclosed trap basins such as the Dead Sea or Salt Lake, the proportions of salts and minerals due to runoff from the surrounding mountains increase daily, but this doesn't happen in the ocean.
Oceanographers studying old sedimentary rocks conclude that the basic composition of the ocean hasn't changed over the past 700 million years.
The reason for this may be explained biologically. According to an article by Steve Olson in a recent issue of … read more
Driving the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm southeast of Anchorage one may occasionally observe a white, frothy line of turbulent water extending completely across the arm and moving slowly upstream. The column of disturbed water usually appears to be about two or three feet high and maybe ten feet across.
This is a tidal bore. It is created when rising tides in Cook Inlet encounter the constricted entrance and diminishing water depths of Turnagain Arm. Cook Inlet has exceptionally high tides to begin with, and under the "right" conditions, the tide will rise faster than Turnagain Arm can smoothly accommodate it. When it reaches a height sufficient to surmount the water already occupying the arm, it breaks over and comes rolling with a steep, high front.
Some of the other famous tidal bores in the world occur in Canada's Bay of Fundy, in the Seine River of France, and in the Amazon River.
A tidal wave, as such, is a catchall phrase connoting nothing… read more
Icebergs taller than a 50-story building and larger than the country of Belgium have been documented (it should be stressed here that we are speaking of fresh water ice derived from continental glaciers--not ice floes which are flat expanses of frozen sea water sometimes the size of small continents). It is no wonder that some countries have been semi-seriously considering the idea of towing one of these behemoths to the Middle East to provide a fresh water source that would last for many years.
Even if such a plan were feasible (which, at present, it is not), there would remain a problem which even the most sophisticated engineering might not be able to overcome.
One might regard such a massive piece of real estate as being almost indestructible (except through melting, of course), but the fact is that they are remarkably fragile, and often unexpectedly shatter into many smaller fragments. The tendency for them to do this has long baffled investigators.
… read more
Landsat surveillance by the University's Landsat Quick-Look Program of the Yukon River this spring reveals unusual "dusting" of the river ice at certain wind-prone locations along the river. A pattern of persistent, gusting winds during March of this year has deposited unusual amounts of sand onto the ice from exposed banks and sandbars. Regions of ice which have been wind-dusted are likely to undergo localized melting earlier than the neighboring non-dusted ice. The gray areas on the accompanying maps depict regions of heavy dusting of the ice. Regions with especially significant dusting include Tanana, downstream from Ruby.and Holy Cross, and near Marshall.
Unfortunately, not all the regions prone to ice jams were dusted by winds this spring. One particularly troublesome bottleneck is located downstream from Galena at Bishop Rock on the Yukon River. No winddeposited dust could be detected at Bishop Rock, so only this week's dusting with sand from an aircraft will… read more
John Sindorf of Palmer asks: "Why do lights send those vertical beams up in ice fog--why not sideways?"
After looking over the literature on the subject, I concluded that the explanation given by T. Neil Davis in this same column in December of 1978 is the best and most succinct that I could find. It is reprinted here in its entirety:
VERTICAL LIGHT SHAFTS
"Winter is the time of falling snow and ice crystals. Ice and snow crystals can take on many forms, ranging from six-sided cylinders to flat plates and complex flat forms having hexagonal symmetry.
If the air temperature is not far below freezing, in the range 15°F to 25°F (-9°C to -4°C), only needlelike cylinders form. In the range -5°F to 15°F (-20°C to -9°C), the flat plate-like crystals grow.
The flat crystal forms tend to orient with their flat sides in the horizontal plane as they fall through the air, though like a falling leaf, they oscillate about this… read more
As firmly established as the science of glaciology is today, it seems strange that as recently as 150 years ago, the very existence of glaciers was a matter of hot dispute.
The evidence left by ancient glaciers was all around--grooved and polished bedrock, landforms composed of glacial debris such as moraines and eskers, jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys, even certain lakes and rivers. However, it was argued that glacial features were not produced by ice, but by the action of ancient water--the ever-popular, all explanatory Biblical Flood.
This presented some problems. For instance, debris was not sorted by size as it is by flowing water, and huge boulders the size of houses were often found transported great distances from their point of origin. Because of these and other anomalies, Charles Lyell, a leading British geologist, was the first to propose an ice-related origin in 1833. It was his suggestion that the large boulders had been transported inside… read more
Every year at about this time, in some corner bar, the argument will arise as to whether hot or cold water will freeze first when outside temperatures drop out of sight. This usually leads to a five dollar bet and a trip outside with two cups of water--one hot and one cold.
Professor T. Neil Davis, who began this column in 1976, has dealt with the question here before, but it bears repeating because of the continuing interest which it generates and the fervor of the advocates on both sides of the argument.
If a person is scientifically inclined, he tends to scoff at the proposition that hot water can freeze before cold, when subjected to the same sub-zero temperature. But a person who has had actual experience in the matter will insist that it happens.
It does, but only when the conditions are right. Dr. Davis, in his own experiments, found that, under most circumstances, the cold water froze first. But in one trial, it did not. Two Styrofoam cups, with… read more
Since the Gold Rush days of 1898, at least 90 storm surges have battered Alaskan coastal villages and towns to cause damage running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, at today's costs.
Storm surges are temporary abnormal changes in sea level that accompany storms in shallow coastal waters. Storm surges can be either positive or negative, that is, a positive surge is one where the height of sea level increases, and a negative surge is one where the level decreases from normal. Strong onshore winds or winds parallel to the shore, where the shore is to the right of the wind flow, cause positive storm surges Offshore winds or winds parallel to the shore, where the shore is to the left of the flow, cause negative storm surges.
When the wind blows parallel to the shore the reason why the shore being to right or left of the wind flow is important is the Coriolis effect. Wind blowing across water drags on the water and forces it to move in the direction the wind… read more
High rates of precipitation--up to 340 inches of water per year--along the coast of southeastern Alaska and British Columbia may have important local consequences for fish and marine mammals inhabiting the coastal waters there.
As rains occur and snow melts, there is massive runoff of fresh water into the Gulf of Alaska. No one is certain how much fresh water runs off the mountainous coast since not enough of the stream flows in the area have been gauged. However, Tom Royer of the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Sciences estimates that the runoff easily exceeds by three times the flow down the Yukon River. It is even larger than the flow down the Mississippi River, estimated to average 23,000 cubic meters per second (810,000 cubic feet per second).
A curious thing happens to the fresh water running into the sea. Instead of flowing out southwesterly into the Gulf of Alaska and disappearing into the saltwater there, the fresh water forms into a cohesive… read more
Snowflakes, cylindrical rocket bodies without tail fins, skydivers and other irregularly shaped bodies tend to fall through the air with their flattest sides downward. This behavior seemingly defies the logic that says an object should orient itself to slip through the air with the least resistance.
The reason for the unexpected orientation of a falling object is the turbulence it creates in the air it falls through. When a snowflake or other body first starts to fall it is moving so slowly that the air passes around it in smooth layers, the so-called laminar flow. As long as the flow is laminar, the air does not act on the snowflake to change its original orientation, even though there is some resistance to the motion because the object pushes some air aside and, because the air is viscous, the object tries to drag the nearest air along with it. The resistance is directly proportional to the fall speed.
Even a snowflake eventually reaches a fall speed that… read more
The last thing anyone needs is to be caught up in a churning slurry of meltwater, snow and other debris sometimes-moving down slope fast enough to carry 75-ton rocks across even gentle slopes. Called slush flows, slush bursts, slushers, slush flow avalanches or water avalanches, these flows tend to occur during rapid spring breakup in arctic and subarctic alpine regions.
Slush flows are known to occur in the Brooks Range, in the mountain areas of Alaska's Seward Peninsula and occasionally in the Talkeetna Mountains near Anchorage. During the summer of 1980, a road grader on the Alaska pipeline haul road was struck by a slush flow. It caused no damage other than to pack icy slush around the grader's engine, but the driver was lucky that the flow was small.
Much more serious was a slush flow that struck the small coal mining settlement of Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, on June 11, 1953. Not realizing the danger, people there built several houses and a hospital on a… read more
One of the quirks of fate is that frozen water pipes typically burst at locations where freezing last occurs. Thus an insulated portion of an otherwise poorly insulated pipe is likely to be the place where the pipe breaks.
As everyone knows, the freezing of water causes the material to expand. Ice occupies a greater volume than does the water it formed from. While the expansion of water as it freezes is the underlying cause of bursting pipes and bent buckets, the actual deformation or breakage of the water container results from a secondary consequence of the expansion, namely hydraulic pressure in that part of the water last to freeze .
A series of experiments described by John Houk in the Summer 1974 issue of the Northern Engineer illustrates the role of hydraulic pressure rather well. A water-filled metal bucket set on a block of styrofoam ends up with a bulged bottom created by the hydraulic pressure in the last water to freeze, in this case, at the… read more
Why is it that a pail of hot water set outside in cold water sometimes freezes faster than a similar pail of cold water?
More than one scientist has given the flippant answer "Impossible!" to this question and then been suitably embarrassed after learning that it is possible for hot water in an open container to freeze faster than an identical container of cold water. A more cautious person, Dr. D.G. Osborne of University College at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, commented on this problem by stating, "No questions should be ridiculed, for everyday events are seldom as simple as they seem and it is dangerous to pass a superficial judgment on what can and cannot happen."
Actually, the question about whether hot water can freeze faster than cold water is an old one. In 1620, the English philosopher Francis Bacon noted, "water slightly warm is more easily frozen than quite cold." Only in recent years has enough been learned about the physics of freezing water to explain… read more
For a land that has a reputation for being all ice and snow. Alaska has a goodly share of hot springs and flows of warm water. More than a hundred hot springs locations dot the Alaska mainland and another 24 reportedly gush forth from the Aleutian Islands.
A new publication "Geothermal Energy Resources of Alaska" contains a map and information on Alaskan hot springs and other geothermal resources. Prepared by Dr. Donald Turner and coworkers at the Geophysical Institute, this publication is the first to combine in one place the available information on Alaskan hot springs.
Two features of the Alaskan hot springs map stand out. One is that the springs are scattered all over the state. The other is that the springs group together in more-or-less linear arrays, the reason being that the springs are associated with linear geologic structures such as linear fracture zones or volcanic belts.
Virtually all of the hot water emerging in hot springs starts out as… read more
Each northern fall brings the time of travel on newly-frozen lakes and rivers, and the question of how thick must the ice be. A general lack of reported measurements on ice thickness for safe travel suggests that successful ice travelers do not measure the ice thickness very often, and unsuccessful ones are too busy to add to the public data pool.
Nevertheless, one can be safe traveling across ice at low speed in a heavy vehicle by following a simple rule given by ice-travel expert Phil Johnson of Fairbanks. Do not venture out unless the thickness of the ice in inches is five times the square root of the vehicle weight in tons. Hence a 2- ton vehicle needs seven inches of ice, and a 4-ton vehicle needs ten inches.
More complex methods are available to compute the load-bearing ability of fresh water ice under various conditions. These methods, and some very useful hints on ice travel, are contained in a new document entitled, "A Guide for Operating Cars and Light… read more
Bergy seltzer is something you have heard but perhaps never heard about. One cynic I know has said that her life could have been fully and happily lived without ever learning about bergy seltzer. For those who do not feel that way, the whole story is laid out here.
Bergy seltzer is a continuous crackling, frying sound that has been heard by submariners and other sailors when close to melting icebergs. Another name for bergy seltzer is ice sizzle, also descriptive of the sound which is attributed to the breaking out of air bubbles from the melting ice.
Among the first to gain insight into bergy seltzer was Peter Scholander, a well-known northern scientist. Twenty years ago, he co-authored an article that described the pressures inside air bubbles locked into glacier ice. Measurements showed that the pressure could range from about one atmosphere (14 lbs. per square inch) to more than 20 atmospheres.
Glacier ice and some other types of ice can contain… read more
Moving glacier ice continuously grinds away at the high mountains of Alaska and Yukon to create the rugged beauty characteristic of the Alaska Range and the St. Elias and Selwyn Mountains. Glaciologists recognize two processes of erosion--abrasion and plucking.
The glacier ice itself cannot abrade rock. However, given a load of rock debris, the ice layer at the base of a glacier becomes as sandpaper. Much like a slow but steadily moving belt sander, the sliding base of the glacier can grind away at the valley floor on which the glacier rests.
Measurements of abrasion to a marble block fixed underneath a moving glacier in Iceland showed that 30 feet (10 meters) of ice motion cut away about one-eighth inch (3 mm) of the block. At that rate, the sliding of a debris-laden glacier would probably cut away a yard (1 meter) of rock in about 200 years.
A requirement for continuing abrasion is a steady supply of new abrasive material by downward transport of rock… read more
Though the terminal end (lower end) of a glacier may be stationary, or even retreating uphill, the ice within the glacier continually moves downhill. The speed of this motion ranges from a few centimeters per day to more than 10 meters per day, but normal flow rates are generally nearer the lower figure.
If the ice at the base of a glacier is much below the temperature of freezing, as happens in winter, or perhaps even in summer at high altitude or in polar regions, the ice bonds tightly to the rock below. Then, the entire motion is within the glacier. The ice itself deforms as individual ice crystals warp and creep past each other.
Most of the deformational creep takes place in the deepest layer of the ice, near to the basal layer. It is here that the greatest stress is placed upon the ice because the stress is proportional to the thickness of ice above. Consequently, little deformation in the near-surface glacier ice occurs; the ice there is mostly carried… read more
One of Nature's nasty tricks for the unwary traveler is the little known fact that there is a particularly dangerous speed for crossing lake or ocean ice. Moving either more slowly or more rapidly than this dangerous critical speed makes for a safer crossing.
It is not immediately obvious why there is a critical speed at which a moving object--a truck, a snow machine, an ice skater or a taxing aircraft-- is most likely to break through the ice. The reason is that the object moving across the ice at other than very slow speed creates a wave in the ice, i.e., a moving deflection of the ice. Just as a sound wave moves at fixed speed through air, the wave in the ice moves at fixed speed. The speed of the wave in the ice increases with the ice thickness and the depth of the water beneath the ice. A typical speed for the wave in foot-thick (30 cm) sea ice over water 20 feet deep (7 meters) is 20 mph (32 kph).
Now if the object creating the wave moves at the same speed… read more
Just as no two human fingers have identical prints, it is reported that no two snowflakes are the same. Perhaps no two snow crystals identical, but like fingers, many show similar characteristics.
Falling snow particles are classified into ten categories, according to shape. To classify falling snow crystals may sound like a scientific make-work project, but there is some reason for this apparent folly just as there is reason why snow crystals come in different shapes.
The basic hexagonal (six-sided) shape of all snow crystals derives from the shape and bonding of water molecules. Beyond that fundamental constraint, it boils down to a matter of micro-climate, the climate the snow crystal finds itself in as it grows. The two key factors in the micro-climate are temperature and humidity.
If the air is extremely wet and just a few degrees below freezing, only needles and columnar snow crystals form. Six-sided plate crystals grow if the temperature is… read more
Connoisseurs of avalanches recognize several different types, each with its own peculiar kind of destructive power.
One type, the soft snow (new snow) avalanche occurs during or just after a heavy snowfall unaccompanied by wind to pack the snow as it falls. The avalanche occurs when the snow reaches a critical depth beyond which the binding between snow crystals at depth in the snow pack cannot sustain the snow load on the slope.
Once the soft snow avalanche starts it gains speed rapidly, and air is incorporated into the moving snow mass to help lubricate the flow. It is said that soft snow avalanches rarely exceed 360 km/hour (200 miles per hour), but obviously this speed is enough to cause a lot of damage.
Worse yet, the rapid motion of snow and air down slope creates vortices (circular motions) in the air near the front of the avalanche. It is thought that the speed of the air in these vortices can be four times greater than the speed of the moving… read more
The year 1979 may have put new life into a mineral hot spring 50 miles north of Nome that for many years has bubbled up 175°F water through the permafrost at a rate of 60 gallons per minute.
In gold-rush days, the site was named Kruzgamepa Hot Springs, after the nearby river that heads in Salmon Lake and flows westerly into the Imuruk Basin. Up until the saloon and roadhouse burned down in 1908, the Springs was the resort spa where residents of the southern Seward Peninsula went for hot baths and other recreational delights. A severe influenza epidemic in the years 1916-1918 killed twelve hundred people living between St. Michael and Cape Prince of Wales. The flu left many children homeless so the Catholic Church built a home for then at what is now called Pilgrim Springs (the Kruzgamepa has also become the Pilgrim River). This mission survived until 1942, by which time the children had grown up. A church and a few other old buildings mark the site.
The solitude… read more
Probably the world's most well-known ice wedge (also called ice lens) is the one shown in the accompanying photograph by geologist Troy Pewe. Since Dr. Pewe took this picture near Livengood, Alaska in 1949, it has appeared in many widely-distributed publications. The picture is particularly useful because it clearly illustrates those characteristics of ice wedges that have been used to explain wedge formation.
A vertical ice wedge like the one shown is thought to start out as a crack created by contraction of fine-grained soil masses when the ground temperature falls below about 0°F (-17°C) for a long period. The cracking forms large polygon structures, in shape similar to that seen when mud dries. The cracking is reported to make loud popping noises, so it happens suddenly.
Afterwards, the crack is filled with new ice formed from summer thaw water or water molecules that migrate through the frozen soil and ice to deposit as ice in the crack. Then when the next… read more
The scientific investigation of permafrost got its start, in 1828, through the efforts of an optimistic Siberian merchant.
Fedor Schergin of the Russian-American Trading Company decided that the company post in Yakutsk, USSR needed a well. He pointed to a spot in the courtyard and put the men to work. Slowly, very slowly, they dug down through the frozen ground. Finally at a depth of 382 feet (116 meters) they gave up the battle.
Though Mr. Schergin got no water, his endeavor gave him a piece in posterity. His dry well is now preserved as a national historical monument because temperature measurements within it first proved to a skeptical world that permafrost really does exist. (Schergin's employees were already convinced!)
The existence of permafrost actually had been reported 250 years earlier by Sir Martin Frobisher. Searching for the Northwest Passage in 1577, Frobisher reported ground frozen to depths of 30 feet "even in summer". The implication… read more
From the time we are in diapers until we are ferried across the River Styx, water is so much a part of life that we mostly take it for granted.
More than half of each living thing on Earth is water. In addition to being the all-pervading fluid of life, water is the custodian of most of the Earth's available energy. More so than most substances, water is capable of storing much heat energy. As water moves within the global circulation of the atmosphere and the oceans it helps transport solar energy received in the tropics to the polar regions and thereby moderates the environment of the whole planet.
Water is said to be the universal solvent, able to dissolve most other substances. Also, it is the best wetting agent by virtue of its ability to bond onto and coat the surfaces of many materials, even hard, slick substances such as glass.
Water owes its array of strange properties to the unusual way oxygen and hydrogen atoms cling together to form water… read more
Thirty years ago the waters of Harding Lake, near Fairbanks, lapped at grassy banks below the summer cottages surrounding the shore. Now, the lake level has lowered leaving not-so-lovely mudflats between the houses and the water.
In the grand scheme of things, small lakes--all lakes, in fact--are but temporary objects that eventually get drained or overgrown. The question for those around the lake is whether steps should be taken to try to keep Harding Lake at a desirable level or to let Nature take its course.
This is not a simple question to answer. For one thing, it may be hard to define the best level to hold the lake at. As the lake shore has retreated in recent years, houses have been built farther out from the old shoreline. Does one sacrifice some property to give better shorelines to other properties?
Also there is the question about long-term trends. Is the lake steadily lowering, or is its surface oscillating up and down with a 40 year cycle… read more
In temperate climates, precipitation tends to percolate into the ground rather than to run off in open stream flow. Less than 20 percent of precipitation falling on the watershed of the Mississippi River actually flows down Ole Man River.
But in arctic and subarctic areas, rivers typically carry 55 to 65 percent of precipitation falling onto their watersheds. The reason is that permafrost prevents the downward percolation of water and forces it to run off at and very near the ground surface.
One of the consequences of the high runoff is that northern streams are much more prone to flooding than temperate zone rivers. Another is that they have higher eroding and silt-carrying capabilities.
Critical to the control of water runoff in the north is the cover of moss and other vegetation of the tundra, bogs and forests. A thick layer of moss acts much like a sponge laid over the permafrost to slow down the movement of water across the ground surface.
… read more
What goes on under the Arctic Ocean ice cover in the winter? This question lately has occupied the minds and talents of scientists with heightened urgency. The reason for this special curiosity is that arctic oil and gas exploration will necessarily be most intense during the nine-month period of frozen sea ice in the nearshore Beaufort. Mostly used to working on marine problems in open water, scientists and management personnel both have realized that arctic oil and gas leasing offshore in the Beaufort Sea would force industry to operate mainly in winter when the water is ice-covered.
About one year ago, scientists began to wonder about the "big void" they had never looked into: the arctic marine winter. Dogma said that all biological events are at a standstill under arctic winter conditions. Common sense and Eskimo knowledge said certain scientific observations indicated otherwise. Scientists with the University of Alaska and with the National Oceanographic and… read more
Among winter's beauties are the intricate crystals--called hoarfrost--that form on branches, wires, poles and other objects. Hoarfrost is a sort of wintertime cousin to summer's dew and develops by similar processes.
Dew and hoarfrost accumulate on objects when there is more moisture in the air than the air can carry. Warm air carries in suspension more liquid water than does cold air.
The temperature at which the air is totally saturated is called the dew point. If the temperature of humid air is lowered until the humidity is 100%, then the dew point has been reached. Further cooling requires that the air lose part of its suspended water; the loss can come through rainfall, snowfall or the formation of dew or hoarfrost.
Curiously enough, pure water suspended in clean air remains in liquid form down to temperatures near -40°C (also -40°F). Below that temperature, the liquid droplets turn to ice--ice fog being a possible result. However, the normal ice… read more
Acre for acre, the huge continental shelf area of the Bering Sea may be the most valuable real estate on the Earth's surface. This view, expressed by a past director of the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science, Dr. Donald Hood, takes into account the Bering Sea's potential for petroleum and mineral development. But most important probably is the renewable food resource.
As our knowledge of the oceans has increased these last few years, we are being forced to abandon the myth that the oceans are an endless and uniform storehouse of food. We are beginning to realize that only certain parts of the ocean are rich and that most of the oceanic volume is a comparative desert.
Primary food production in the ocean is by plant forms that perform photosynthesis, a process that can only take place only in the top 200 meters. Required also for maximal photosynthetic production are elemental materials such as phosphorus and nitrogen. These are most abundant in… read more
Water supply problems of the western states are increasingly in the news. These problems can only worsen as larger populations demand an increasing supply of water and as deep-well pumping depletes water reserves carried in underground aquifers.
Major rivers such as the Colorado and the Yellowstone figure in the discussions of water supply because of the large volume of water these rivers carry across several states. Together these two rivers carry about 20 million acre-feet of water annually (an acre-foot is one acre covered by one foot of water).
As the western states grow more prune-like, Alaska and British Columbia probably will be increasingly eyed as potential suppliers of fresh water. The day may come when these political entities will have to decide whether or not to export water, and it is possible that they will have no choice in the matter.
What would be involved in exporting 10 million acre-feet of water each year, an amount comparable to the… read more
Most air travelers have observed glories in the vicinity of their aircraft's shadow on the clouds below. The glory is a part of a phenomenon familiar to mountaineers who know it as the Brocken Spectre.
According to legend, the name came from the unhappy circumstance of a climber on northern Germany's highest mountain, the Brocken. Working his way across a narrow precipice, the climber was startled by the sudden appearance in the nearby mists of a human figure with a ring of light around its head. Frightened, the climber fell to his death. If this event really took place, it was the climber's own shadow that he saw, and the ring of light was his own "glory" ring.
Two requirements must be met if one is to see her or his own glory. One must look exactly in the anti-solar direction and there must be many water droplets in the region where the glory is to appear. Since the shadow of one's own head appears only in the anti-solar direction, it makes sense that the glory… read more
Freezing soil can create such great upward forces on telephone poles, bridge pilings and similar objects that they are literally lifted out of the ground. Several factors control the amount of frost heaving and the consequent lifting force on a piling.
Frost heaving is greatest in wet, fine-grained soils--clays and silts--since they undergo the greatest expansion of their volume as they freeze. The expansion is not caused only by the freezing of the water contained in the soil but also by the freezing of new water that migrates upward from below the frost line during and after the freezing of the soil.
The colder the ground surface, the greater is the transport of water upward. Freezing of this new water can create layers of pure ice within the top layers of the soil, even after the soil has become frozen. Consequently, frost heaving can continue right on through the winter if there is an adequate supply of water from below.
Russian experiments have… read more
Winter is the time of falling snow and ice crystals. Ice and snow crystals can take on many forms, ranging from six-sided cylinders to flat plates and complex flat forms having hexagonal symmetry.
If the air temperature is not far below freezing, in the range 15°F to 25°F (-90C to -40C), only needle-like cylinders form. In the range - 5°F to 15°F (-20°C to -90C), the flat plate-like crystals grow.
The flat crystal forms tend to orient with their flat sides in the horizontal plane as they fall through the air, though like a falling leaf, they oscillate about this orientation.
The majestic vertical light columns that one sees so often during the northern winter are caused by reflection of light sources from the flat undersides of the falling crystals, These columns can be seen above any bright light source--the sun, moon, street lights and auto lights. Sometimes one sees the columns extend down below the headlights of an automobile.
Whenever the… read more
Alaska and Yukon Territory have surging glaciers--ones that advance rapidly at regular intervals. Surging is the sliding forward of the ice at great rates; some glaciers in full surge can advance as much as 100 m (333 ft) per day.
Although surge-type glaciers are fairly common in Alaska and Yukon--there are several hundred or more--the mechanism of surges is still unknown. Surges are not caused by earthquakes, avalanches, or local increases in snow accumulation, but by some instability which occurs internal to the glacier. No particular size or shape of glacier is required to induce surges. Surging glaciers are not found in one particular climatic zone--some occur in very wet maritime environments and some in drier near-continental environments. Surging glaciers occur in the St. Elias Mountains, eastern Wrangell Mountains, and Alaska Range, but few, if any, are found in the Chugach Mountains.
In 1888, the Tlingit Indians of Yakutat described for a visiting… read more
"Why are raindrops sometimes large and sometimes small?"-- Another one of those seemingly simple questions that can be difficult to answer, this particular one is asked by reader Jennifer Jolis of Fairbanks.
Drop size in rain seems to be directly related to the upward speed of the air from which the rain falls. Clouds tend to dissipate and no longer release rain when the cloud layer decreases in altitude. Clouds form and produce rain as they rise in altitude.
Horizontally stratified clouds--the kind that sometimes stretch for hundreds or thousands of kilometers--produce raindrops of small size when the air containing the clouds is caused to ascend slowly at speeds less than 20 centimeters per sec (one kilometer per hour [kmph]). Gentle, drizzle-like rains are common along the coast and in interior Alaska and Yukon Territory when air masses are being moved from lowland to upland areas. The drop size of such gentle, windless rain is near one-half millimeter (mm),… read more
Like loose folds of mossy skin hanging down the flanks of sleeping giants, solifluction flows can be seen on the sides of hills of interior Alaska. Travelers along the Steese and Taylor and other highways traversing the upland country can observe these flows, often lobe-shaped on their lower edges.
Solifluction is a slow downward flow of water-saturated soil. It is promoted by the existence of permafrost which traps snow and ice melt within the surface layer making it more fluid. The whole surface layer tends to move together as a cohesive mass.
Another mechanism by which soil moves slowly downhill is creep. Each year as the soil freezes, it is pushed upward perpendicular to the sloping ground surface. When melting occurs in spring, the soil falls vertically downward, thereby ending up slightly farther downhill than where it was the previous fall. In contrast to unitary flow in solifluction, soil creep moves the soil particles individually and thereby tends to… read more
Residents of Kodiak and other Alaskan cities with steep-sided mountains nearby have from time to time expressed concern about the potential for damage from landslides. One of the dangers is the creation of splash waves when landslides fall into the sea.
Among other records, Alaska holds the one for the biggest splash wave ever observed. It occurred on July 10, 1958, during a major earthquake in southeast Alaska. Violent ground motion along the Fairweather fault caused a huge landslide in the upper part of Lituya Bay.
Forty million cubic yards of dirt and rocks cascaded down a 3000 foot slope near the head of the bay. The landslide clipped off the front of the Lituya glacier as it fell into the bay. A huge splash wave surged up the opposite slope to the unbelievable height of 1740 feet (535 meters).
The surging water denuded the slop of trees and soils. Even above the 1700-foot level trees were uprooted and thrown uphill by the force of the water.
… read more
T-shaped Lituya Bay is an accident of Nature that perhaps shouldn't have happened. But it is the only haven for seafarers facing the open sweep of the Pacific on the passage north from Cross Sound to Yakutat. Many are the sailors who have avoided hours of difficult sea or being storm-battered against the rocky coast by entering the entrance to Lituya Bay at slack flood tide, the only time for safe passage.
Gouged out of steep mountains abutting the sea, Lituya Bay is a place of unusual beauty. The French explorer La Perouse hoped to make it France's base in Alaska and named it Port of France. He described it as "perhaps the most extraordinary place in the world."
The crossbar part of Lituya Bay is the glacier-filled trench of the Fairweather fault, an active break slicing through the mountains roughly parallel to the coast. At some time in the recent past, a weakness in the rock strata allowed a breach to develop connecting the Fairweather trench to the ocean,… read more
For explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson snow was something to travel on, build houses out of or eat. In his Arctic Manual written for the Air Corps of the United States Army, the worst thing Stefansson says of snow is, "Toward spring... it then becomes granular, mushy, and you and your sledge sink into it as if the drifts were bins of wheat."
Stefansson noted that Eskimos have at least one fundamental discovery to their credit, they being the only peoples of ancient or modern times to build a dome without a scaffold. He claims that it is not the stickiness of snow that allows the Eskimo to avoid temporary supports; rather he implies that it is cleverness in shaping and setting snow blocks of proper consistency.
When it comes to eating snow, Stefansson's only admonition is to be careful where you get it from if there are dogs around.
Jack London dumped snow on the Cheechako foolish enough "To Build a Fire" under a spruce tree in the short story of that name,… read more
What's happening to the water level of Harding Lake, near Fairbanks?
The current low water level of Harding Lake appears to be part of a natural cycle of rising and falling which is tied to climatic cycles and is seen in many lakes around the world. The changes are especially dramatic at Harding Lake because it has a very small contributory watershed; much of its water is provided by seepage. The lake has no visible outlet. While Harding is the deepest unglaciated lake in interior Alaska, it also has extensive shallows which cause the shoreline near some homes to move out dramatically with only a small drop in actual water level.
The University's Institute of Water Resources at Fairbanks has received many reports that the lake was much lower during the 1930s than it is now and the current low began to occur in the early 1970s. Therefore, the cycle may be as long as forty years between natural lows and natural highs. The lake was first settled in the 1920s so it… read more
Most people are greatly pleased when they strike artesian water, but recent events on Farmers Loop Road near Fairbanks show that an artesian well can constitute a geologic hazard instead of being beneficial. A well driven there yields an artesian flow that, so far, cannot be stopped. The result is unwanted flooding and icing of nearby property.
Artesian wells are common in some parts of the country, especially in the midwestern states. Artesian wells there result from drilling through an impervious capping layer into a water-bearing layer which is sloping. Water enters the aquifer layer at higher elevation than the top of the well and thereby creates a pressure head to drive water up the well.
The situation on Farmers Loop Road is much the same. Water enters the soil on the hills above the road and is trapped under the permafrost layer at the foot of the hills. Since the permafrost extends uphill above the wellhead, a pressure head is created, and so water flows… read more
Alaska has more than thirty known hot springs discharging water with temperatures in excess of 40 C (104 F). For the most part, the heat energy available in the spring water is not used by man and therefore could be considered as wasted.
What does this wasted energy represent in dollars lost each year? If one assumes that the energy in the hot water could be partly extracted and used instead of that gained from heating oil, a fairly simple calculation can be made. So doing, one finds that the heat available from Chena Hot Springs is the same as that available from about 90 gallons of stove oil each hour. Stove oil costs more than one dollar per gallon in remote parts of Alaska and much less in the larger urban areas. If we assume a delivered cost of one dollar per gallon at each site, then we calculate that the annual cost of the heat wasted is $800,000 at Chena Hot Springs, $410,000 at Circle Hot Springs and $650,000 at Manley Hot Springs. At those three sites alone this… read more
Among reports of peculiar mirages or other strange phenomena observed in the Arctic is one described by P. Berwick of Fairbanks. In that instance several people at a DEW-Line site saw, on two different nights, what appeared to be the lights of a large city on the horizon. Was this a mirage, the northern lights or what?
A possible explanation is the Parry arc named after the explorer, W. E. Parry, who first reported seeing the phenomenon while searching for a northwest passage in 1819-1820. The Parry arc is actually moonlight or sunlight deflected by passing through elongated airborne ice crystals. As the crystals fall, they tend to align themselves with their long axes horizontal. In effect they make many prisms that deflect light by about 22° and spread it out into the colors of the rainbow.
The Parry arc will appear below or above the sun or moon and so can be seen when these celestial bodies are obscured by clouds or the horizon. Its configuration is such that… read more
As we all know, things are going to get worse before they get better: The Northern Hemisphere is in for a period of increasing glaciation during the next few thousand years. That is the conclusion of three researchers reporting in the December 10, 1976, issue of Science magazine. The three, J. D. Hays, John Imbrie and N. J. Shackleton, have examined the geologic record over the past 450,000 years by analyzing drill cores of sediments on the floor of the South Atlantic Ocean. By measuring the relative abundance and composition of life species in the sediments and being able to date when the sediments were laid down, they were able to obtain an index of the global climate over the 450,000-year period.
The scientists found cyclic variations in the climate that they could relate both to periods of glaciation and to cyclic variations in the earth's orbit. Wobbling of the earth's rotation axis (period 41,000 years), shift of the date of the equinoxes (period 21,000 years… read more
If OPEC raises oil prices again and the trend continues, it might not be too long before Cook Inlet's high tides are used to generate electricity. A Canadian study of the Bay of Fundy shows that tidal power generated there could be competitive with oil costing $22 per barrel.
Located between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the Bay of Fundy has the world's highest tides. At the head of the bay, tides of 70 feet are not uncommon, and some of nearly 100 feet have been reported. Cook Inlet, with its maximum tides near 30 feet, is not quite in the same class. Nevertheless, considering the amount of water available, that still is a lot of potential.
Flowing out of the Copper River into Prince William Sound, suspended sediments show up in Landsat satellite images. Especially in summer these sediments are caught up in a circular current pattern called a gyre.
The persistent summer gyre located southwest of Kayak Island will also trap crude oil, should there be a wellhead accident or tanker spill in the area. Because of the danger, the U. S. Department of Interior recently decided to delete 16 tracts from an oil lease sale in the northeast Gulf of Alaska.
When Vancouver explored the southeastern Alaska coast in 1794 he found Glacier Bay filled with ice. Today it is mostly ice-free, but glaciologist William 0. Field predicts that it may fill with ice again over a period of hundreds of years.
Though many Alaskan glaciers are retreating, quite a few others are advancing. Dr. Pield, still active after fifty years of glacial observation, cites examples of glaciers nearly side by side, some of which are retreating and others advancing. He concludes that factors other than climate change must be responsible.
Especially when glaciers spill into the sea, it appears that an unstable equilibrium exists. While the glacier ice always flows forward, the glacial snout advances and retreats, its position being determined by a complex interplay of snowfall, temperature through the year, deposition of rock debris and effects of ocean tides on iceberg calving rates.
Studies lasting many tens of years are necessary to… read more
Most area wells draw water from water-bearing layers (aquifers) recharged by precipitation on the hills surrounding Fairbanks. Only 10% to 25% of the 12-inch annual precipitation reaches the aquifers to become available for use. The rest is lost through evaporation and runoff.
Slope, vegetation cover and soil permeability all determine how much water penetrates. Ridgetops are most effective because of the low slope and permeable soil largely from decomposed rock. Many of the slopes are deeply covered by relatively impermeable wind-blown silt (loess). Worst are the water-saturated frozen soils, totally impermeable. Buildings, roads and similar constructs of man also inhibit recharge of the ground water aquifers.
Plant covering tends to inhibit runoff, but it also increases evaporation. Light rainfall collects on leaves or tree needles and then evaporates. Water penetrating to the roots is carried back up the plant and later evaporated. For the most part recharge… read more
We tend to think of an ice age in terms of the North American and European ice sheets; since these have disappeared, we think of the present period as being non-glacial.
If we consider the earth as a whole, however, we find that the area covered by present-day ice sheets is over one-third that covered during the greatest extension of the last North American glaciation. The total volume of ice is harder to estimate, but the rates of maximum volume to present volume is probably around 3:1.
From this viewpoint, we can speak of a present glacial period rather than a past one. What would cause the North American ice sheet to re-form? Is it happening?
Under present conditions, there is a considerable amount of snow left at the beginning of winter in the region around Hudson Bay. If this accumulation of ice continues over a long period, it will reach a point where it controls atmospheric movement to such an extent that a new continental ice sheet is… read more
"Diamond Dust" or tiny ice crystals in the winter air over Fairbanks cause many curious optical phenomena in the sky. They sometimes cause a multicolored halo around the sun or moon. Within the solar halo ring, on either side of the sun, one often sees two bright spots called "sun dogs" or "mock suns". At night one frequently sees pillars of light extending vertically upward from street lights or other bright sources. These forests of glowing vertical shafts can be easily mistaken for displays of the rayed aurora.
These optical effects and others like them are caused by the reflection and refraction (bending) of light by the small ice crystals. The ice crystals arc flat and they fall through the air with their flat sides horizontal. Light reflecting from the flat faces of the ice crystals causes vertical light shafts. Reflection alone does not alter the color of light, so the vertical pillars are the color of the light source, usually white.
On the other hand,… read more
There is a tendency for clear streams flowing in the east-west direction in central Alaska to migrate slowly northward in their valleys while clear streams that flow north-south tend to meander randomly about a central position. Thus, the ox-bow meanders tend to lie more on the south side while a stream bed moves northward. A local example is the Salcha River.
An early explanation for the curious meander of clear streams is related to the low sun angles that prevail in the north country. It has been suggested that the ground on the south side of a stream tends to be shadowed more than the north side. Therefore, the south banks can stay frozen longer in the spring and be more resistant to erosion during the seasonal flood stage.
Another explanation comes from knowledge of the behavior of the crust of our earth. There is evidence that the earth's crust under the North Pacific Ocean is thrusting northward against the North American continent with enough force to… read more
A major concern of Borough planners is the adequacy of ground water resources for domestic use. It is estimated that each person uses from 75 to 100 gallons of water each day. A family of four therefore uses from 110,000 to 150,000 gallons of water each year. For residences outside the city this water must come mainly from individual wells.
The wells draw water from aquifers that are mainly recharged each spring by the melting snow. The actual pathway of water to the well is not entirely known, but for those living above the valley, it must originate in the country hills.
The University's Institute of Water Resources estimates that less than a month's equivalent of the annual precipitation is effective in recharging the groundwater resources that are utilized by households. This amounts to about 0.9 to 1.9 gallons of recharge per square foot of land. Hence a family of four will use the amount of water collected by 1.4 to 3.8 acres of land.
This area… read more
Floods in Fairbanks have two causes.
Very rarely there is, in summer, a high rainfall in a short time. Such abnormal rainfall was the cause of the August 1967 flood, the worst in the history of Fairbanks.
More common is springtime flooding caused by the melting of the winter snow cover. Major floods from this cause occurred in 1937 and 1948. It takes less total water in spring to cause a flood than in summer because the frozen ground of springtime prevents the soil from soaking up water.
Flooding danger in the valley is highest when there is a late breakup following a winter of high snowfall. A breakup during the usually warm weather of mid-May is conducive to flooding, especially if rainfall accompanies the breakup.
Prediction of the temperature and rainfall during this year's breakup is near-impossible, but the winter's snowfall is known. As most Fairbanksans have noticed we now have only about two-thirds of the average winter accumulation.… read more
Have you ever seen a ring around the moon? Folklore has it that this means bad weather is coming--and this particular "old wives tale" happens to be true.
The ring that appears around the moon arises from light passing through six-sided ice crystals high in the atmosphere. These ice crystals refract, or bend, light in the same manner that a camera lens bends light. The ring has a diameter of 22 , and sometimes, if you are lucky, it is also possible to detect a second ring, 44° diameter.
How can rings around the moon be used as a weather predictor? The ice crystals that cover the halo signify high altitude, thin cirrus clouds that normally precede a storm front by one or two days. Maybe the ancients knew more than we think they did.
Surface blisters or ice mounds 50 to 500 feet across that thrust up from otherwise flat terrain are called pingos. In the Arctic, pingos tend to form on the sites of drained lakes as the thawed silt beneath the former lake gradually refreezes over many hundreds of years. Like a closed tin can full of water that bulges or bursts as the last of the liquid freezes, the earth's surface yields from the freezing expansion of watery-silt below the lake bed.
In the valleys of the interior, a slightly different process is involved and the pingos are smaller. Here pressure from a "head" or reservoir of water underground in the uplands occasionally will uplift the surface soil and vegetative cover, particularly if the soil is silty and not well-drained. Cracks form, water finds its way near enough to the surface to freeze, forming more cracks and still more freezing and expansion until a mount is created 5 to 15 feet above the local elevation. In the process the original soil can… read more
Permafrost forms when the mean annual temperature is approximately 27° F (-3° C).
The mean annual temperature in Fairbanks is just 27° F. Consequently, Fairbanks is a region of discontinuous permafrost. In areas of south slope, good drainage or little vegetation cover, the soil temperature will generally be above average and no permafrost will exist. On the other hand, north slopes or heavily vegetated areas often contain permafrost. The type of soil also is a factor; the wind-deposited silty soil on many of the hills around Fairbanks is prone to permafrost and lenses of nearly pure ice.
Serious problems have occurred when houses have been built on frozen soil containing a high percentage of ice. When the ice melts due to heat from the house, damaging collapses can occur. Unless special precautions are taken, it is unwise to build on permafrost.
Though it may not cause any special problems, permafrost is now forming on the north side of large buildings… read more
A look at a map of the North Slope from Barrow to Prudhoe Bay reveals the curious fact that nearly all the lakes are elongated with their longer dimensions parallel to one another in a northwest-southeast direction. Not all scientists agree upon the reasons, but a rather compelling hypothesis credits the prevailing winds.
Curiously, the prevailing winds are from the northeast and blow across the shorter dimension of the elongated lakes. Our common sense suggests that wind and wave action should tend to enlarge a lake in the direction of the wind, but experiments with water tanks and wind devices demonstrate the opposite effect. Wind forces on the surface of a shallow lake cause crosswind water circulation patterns. The resulting wave action could be responsible for thawing and eroding the frozen tundra on the sides of the lake that are at right angles to the wind.
Spring is the time to watch for freezing of buried water and sewer pipes. There is a lag between the months of coldest air temperature (December and January) and the time when the ground freezes deepest. The soil temperature at depth 18 feet reaches a minimum in May; below 20 feet the temperature is a nearly constant 26 F year-round in Fairbanks.
As soil freezes it extracts energy from the warmer soil below, causing its temperature to lower. By this process the freezing level moves slowly downward. In water-saturated gravel under a bare ground surface or one covered only by hard-packed snow, the freezing level can move downward as fast as three feet per month. But under a deep layer of loose snow, soil will freeze at a much slower rate. Therefore, to protect buried sewer and water pipes, do not walk or drive over them; better yet, pile loose snow on them.
Alaska's literature holds very few high points. In fiction we have had nothing to cherish since Jack London drew some inspiration from the north, unless Rex Beach's novels on Nome and the Copper River railroad are included. In history, biography, autobiography--indeed, in the entire realm of nonfiction, excepting exploration and gold rush personal narratives, there are few books deserving of consideration as literary classics.
Without pondering the mighty question of why the literary landscape is so barren, we can cheer at a recent book. Its publication proves that a fine writer can create enduring Alaskan literature even when focusing on contemporary events. The book is, of course, John McPhee's Coming Into the Country. For good reasons, it has received considerable critical attention Outside. Alaskans who read it understand its beauty and sensitivity. Somehow we are all elevated by the experience. And this, after all, is what literature is supposed to do.
… read more
Two conditions are required for the formation of overflow ice.
The first requirement is rather obvious--the air temperature must be low enough to cause freezing. Freezing of the ground surface and of the surface of a stream or lake forms an impervious layer that water cannot flow through. Once this happens, it can contribute to the second requirement for the formation of overflow ice.
That requirement is for the existence of water under enough pressure (i.e., with enough of a hydrostatic head) to rise to the surface. Even given a thick ice layer over stream or ground water, a strong enough hydrostatic head will cause the water to break through and overflow the surface.
If it is cold, the water breaking through will soon freeze before flowing far. Thus, peculiar glacier-like formations are built up, layer upon layer.
To see the effects drive out to the vicinity of the monument to Felix Pedro on the Steese Highway beyond Fox.
… read more
Last year some area residents had problems with wolves at the door. This year Bill Russell, near Fox, has a worse problem--ice has formed at his door and all around the house.
For the last three months, ground water has been rising up in a heated crawl space under Mr. Russell's new house. Now two to three feet of ice covers his yard and contributes to continued flooding of his attached garage.
A mile or so beyond Mr. Russell's house, Felix Pedro's monument is having a similar problem. Overflow ice forming from ground water has half-submerged the monument. Before spring, the monument may entirely disappear.
Trying to forestall further damage, Mr. Russell uses a large digging machine to cut trenches in the ice covering his yard. This way he hopes to drain away the water trapped beneath the overflow ice. For years, road maintenance crews have had the same problem, especially with the roads leading north from Fairbanks.
Just two miles south of the center of the city, the Tanana River forms a water barrier that so far has limited urban growth just as effectively as an ocean. What would happen if we could magically, at no expense, install a Cushman Street bridge across the Tanana? Would we want to?
The land across the Tanana is low and wet. Still, there are many locations on the north side of the river where the low land has been filled in to form roads and building foundations. Is the problem significantly worse across the river?
In one sense, we in Fairbanks are already using that area across the river. Many times one can-look southward across the valley and see the city's ice fog or haze which has drifted across the river, sometimes even to the foothills of the Alaska Range. If that pollution is over there, it at least is not so dense over Fairbanks. One wonders, then, if this limited area of flat land that we live in north of the river really limits Fairbanks' growth within… read more