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A friend and I just camped out at the Arctic Circle, about 200 miles north of where we live in Fairbanks.


A dashed line on the map went right through our campsite. That line, the Arctic Circle, traces the northern hairline of the globe, at about 66 degrees north latitude. That means that when sleeping on the circle we were much closer to the North Pole (at 90 degrees latitude and 1,600 miles north) than to Ecuador (0 degrees latitude and 5,700 miles south). 


Our campsite view showed the importance of aspect — the compass direction that a slope faces — here in the far north. Behind us, the south-facing slope taking a direct hit from the sun was full of birch and spruce trees, just like our boreal forest home in Fairbanks. At the other extreme, the north-facing slope in front of us was open, with a few islands of trees but mostly knee-high tundra plants as far as we could see.


Because we were there near the fall… read more

When I left my sister’s house in Brooklyn yesterday afternoon, I was 4,200 miles from my home. That’s a long way, but I slept in my Fairbanks bed before the next sunrise.

Enabling this incredible time travel are modern jet aircraft like the Boeing 737-700, which carried me and 125 others on the first leg of my journey, from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

I settled into my window seat to savor an experience I sometimes take for granted — the traverse of our country in one day.

As the plane roared off the busy runway, we looped over the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. We arced westward until the pilot had the nose pointed toward the other coast.

In minutes, we were over northern Pennsylvania, the second of ten states and one province (Ontario) we would hurdle during the next 5 1/2 hours.

We soon climbed to smooth air about six miles high. The pilot chose this cruising altitude because… read more

Several times in the distant past, our home planet has been cleansed of its residents, with the exception of a few plucky survivors.


Perhaps the best known and most spectacular extinction was that of the dinosaurs, caused when a meteorite six miles in diameter crashed into Earth about 65 million years ago.


There was another event that killed most of the life in the world’s oceans. It happened more than 300 million years earlier than the impact that doomed the Tyrannosaurus. Back then, in the age of fish, the 30-foot, armor-plated shark-eater known as Dunkleosteus might have thought its reign would last forever.


Clues are hard to come by when you’re trying to look back to a time when the continents clumped together like a closed fist. But geologists have found evidence that plants, the most gentle of organisms, may have helped kill most of the life in the oceans 374 million years ago.


Mike Whalen is one of those… read more

In a packed university conference room, biologist Randy Brown spoke of chinook, the fatty king of far-north salmon.


“It’s more than just a fish, it’s a culture,” Brown said to the Fairbanks crowd, many of them Alaska Natives.


Brown is the lead author on a paper in which he documented all the known Yukon River chinook salmon spawning beds in the U.S. and Canada. The fish biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and his colleagues spent years reading papers and speaking with people. They created a map of where Alaska’s largest and rarest salmon return to spawn.


Chinooks, also known as kings, begin life as fertilized eggs in the gravel of 183 waterways of the Yukon River basin: 79 in the U.S. and 104 in Canada. Some of the fish tuck into tributaries less than 100 miles from the Bering Sea; others travel 2,000 miles farther, swimming across the border and deep into Canada’s Yukon. The Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management… read more

Animals the size of Labrador retrievers are changing the face of Alaska, creating new ponds visible from space.


“These guys leave a mark,” UAF ecologist Ken Tape said of North America’s largest rodents, beavers. He has observed the recent work of beavers north of Arctic Circle using satellite images. He and a group of arctic researchers have found the creatures have somehow colonized the tundra of northwestern Alaska, damming more than 50 streams there since 1999.


Beavers live in every province of Canada, every U.S. state and into northern Mexico. Range maps now need to be redrawn to include areas north of treeline in Alaska and Canada.


Tape authored a photo book on shrub expansion in the Arctic and has written papers about moose and snowshoe hare appearing north of the Brooks Range. Beavers, he said, are a logical migrant to a warming north.


“It’s kind of the next wildlife you’d expect in tundra, but with much bigger… read more

Life exists everywhere you look. Even on glacier ice, home to inch-long worms, snow fleas, bacteria and algae.


When gathered by the millions on the ice, algae cells can help make the water they need to survive. Alaska scientists recently studied this living agent of glacier melt.


“If you went to a place on a glacier and scraped the algae away, about 20 percent of the melting would go away,” said Roman Dial, a biologist at Alaska Pacific University. He is co-author on a recent study executed in summer 2014 on Harding Icefield by then APU graduate student Gerard Ganey.


Ganey and his helpers traversed the steep Exit Glacier Trail near Seward about a dozen times that summer in his study of algae that lives on ice. In the research published in Nature Geoscience, Ganey found that adding fertilizer to glacier ice increased the amount of nearby algae. More algae absorbed more sunlight, equating to 17 percent more glacier melt in areas rich in… read more

A few days ago, Cora the dog and I walked across a footbridge spanning a natural moat flowing through northern tundra plants. There, we reached mile 0 of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the finish of a south-to-north walk across Alaska, most of it on the service road that parallels the pipeline.

Though the orange-and-black mile markers along the pipe read 800 in Valdez and 0 near Prudhoe Bay, due to our diversions my GPS tracker recorded more than 850 miles walked from April 30 to mid-August. Cora, of course, probably logged 100 extra miles through the boreal brush that wore out one dog pack and did a pretty good job on the second.

Since late April, those chestnut-backed chickadees we saw mating in the Valdez rainforest have raised at least one brood of chicks. The migrant birds, including the millions of ducks and geese on Alaska’s North Slope, will lift from northern lakes for the final time soon to spend winter far away.

Cora and I are home in Fairbanks now,… read more

FRANKLIN BLUFFS — I said goodbye to my final hiking partner today outside a van on the side of a gravel highway. For the remaining 40 miles in my summer hike along the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, it will be just Cora and me.

When I walked away from Eric Troyer and the muddy Northern Alaska Tour Company van that was taking him south, I wondered if he was relieved or bummed not to keep going.

I don't know, but for other partners I have not had to guess. My daughter, cousin and wife all seemed pretty happy to be jumping in a guy named Pat’s pickup headed south after a day of road walking in a big wind and pouring rain. But just like 20 years ago, John Arntz wanted to keep hiking with me rather than catching a van from Prospect Creek on a sunny day with many curves in the path ahead.

Though I’ve missed all of my partners after they’ve left, I've savored my alone time. I can sing, and I like stopping and not having to talk or listen.

Alone with Cora… read more

SAGANAVIRKTOK RIVER — August, here so soon.

And we just passed Trans-Alaska Pipeline mile 100, which means that distance remains on our summer hike from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. My dog Cora and I started walking on April 30, which means we’re in our fifth month of sleeping outside.

For this week, I’m hiking with Eric Troyer, who ran the White Mountains 100 race in less than two days this spring. I did the same thing a year before. I guess that means we can wrap this journey up by the weekend.

Not really. We’ve been walking about 10 miles each day. So, about 10 more days should do ‘er.

There are incentives to finish. Like when the wind dies, and the North Slope mosquitoes swarm and the gnats kamikaze your eyes and mouth. We were not late enough for the first freezes of arctic fall to thin out the herd. Instead, we’ve had days reaching 60 degrees, when the convertible pants again revert to shorts. I did not think that would happen out here.

Now, it’s… read more

ATIGUN RIVER — Goodbye, red squirrels.

On our summer-long hike along the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, this morning my dog Cora and I left the last tangle of boreal forest along America’s highway system. We walked away from a campsite of white spruce and balsam poplar that shielded us during a rain and wind storm the day before.

The squeak we heard from a red squirrel, whose diet is mostly spruce seeds (but occasionally fledgling birds and baby snowshoe hares), was the last we’ll hear until we return home to Fairbanks when this adventure is complete.

Following the Dalton Highway and heading north, we walked up a few thousand feet to Chandalar Shelf. Willow shrubs and alder, yes. But the large trees were no more.

It took a long time to out-walk the boreal forest. Since we first saw aspen trees along our route just south of Copper Center, Cora and I have been moving for two months to transit that band of large plants. On this continent, the boreal… read more

I suspected my brief dogless period was coming to an end when my wife and daughter were looking at puppies on the Internet.

We had a few months earlier lost Poops, a Labrador retriever mix, to a tumor on a front paw. Though it was strange not to have a creature greeting you with socks in its mouth, I was enjoying the break from responsibility.

But Kristen and Anna found a crop of puppies being given away to a good home. One day we surprised Anna by taking her to the home of John Eichelberger. There was a floor full of wriggling black bodies. Some of them were hovering over the pee pads at the right moment.

Anna chose the smallest dog and identified her by tying blue yarn around her collar. Cora first showed us her big voice as John carried her from her siblings and handed her to Anna in the car.

I wasn't sure what I thought about the puppy. Her nose was stubby, like a boxer’s, even though she was the product of a Lab mom and a neighborhood blue heeler… read more

JIM RIVER — On this cobble bar north of the Arctic Circle, it is a fine day. The sky is a sheet of blue, a breeze wraps us with clean air, a sandpiper mom shrieks over her hatchlings. They are gray-blue puffballs, extra cute and almost invisible amid the stones.

In short, this is a perfect morning for the human creature, with its narrow range of comfort regarding temperature and insects. Along my hike on the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline this summer, these moments are the exception. But they always seem to happen, at least once a day.

This Jim River campsite is perfect for its two acres of bare rock next to a clear mountain stream. Its distance from the greenery offers respite from the female mosquito and her search for blood protein.

Sometimes, there is no break. A recent morning, I was camped in lowlands near Prospect Creek. That is the spot of America’s all-time low temperature record of minus 80 F, which happened January 23, 1971. The recent July day… read more

YUKON RIVER — It's high summer, past the solstice. Everything is alive here on the path of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

Since I started this hike across Alaska on the last day of April in Valdez, the country has softened, greened up and started flowing. Before we blink and it's winter solstice again, here’s a description of this north-south line across the state at the time of light.

Light is a good place to start. I dropped the headlamp from my pack while in Fairbanks. Here, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the sun drops beneath the hills to the northeast for a few hours. That time sort of resembles the minutes after the sun sets on winter solstice, with enough light to read a book outside. But now it is a temporary lull, just a few hours, followed by the coolest part of the day.

The upcoming few weeks are often the hottest of the year, due to the ground’s lag between releasing all that solar radiation it absorbed. The minimum temperature last night was in… read more

FAIRBANKS — I left my home here to begin a hike along the Trans-Alaska pipeline in late April. Returning in June, I am stunned by the green of it all. It’s like winter to summer in one day.

I’ve been in Alaska’s second-largest city for a few days now, resupplying for the trip north as I hike with my dog on the path of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Three hundred fifty miles down, 450 to go.

Walking with my friend Bob Gillis, we left the gravel road that parallels the pipeline in the hamlet of Moose Creek, just north of Eielson Air Force Base. In a driving rain that didn’t let up all day, Bob and I reached his car after seven miles of hiking. We happily got in and cranked up the heater. After lunch in North Pole, he drove me home.

Because I did not get permission from the many people whose land the pipeline right-of-way crosses in North Pole and Fairbanks, I will resume my hike at the pipeline tourist viewpoint in Fox. Since my many detours from the pipe to the… read more

GOLD RUN CREEK --- This clear waterway running through boreal swampland marks the farthest Cora and I will be from a highway during our summer hike along the route of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

If we chose to bust overland southwest toward Banner Creek, we would have to cover at least nine boggy miles before we reached the Richardson Highway. Backtracking to the nearest pipeline access road would require a hike of 20 miles.

What's the significance of the most remote part of a pathway that is itself a manmade disturbance? Good point. Living out here this summer with lots of time to think, I find it interesting to be in a spot far from the distant hum of engines.

What is here? Swainson's thrushes (the flutey sound of summer), olive-sided flycatchers, gray-cheeked thrushes and the thrush with the song that never gets old, the American robin.

Ice, in the form of aufeis over a few creeks, formed by the cold air of winter, is enduring well into the heat of… read more

RIKA'S ROADHOUSE -- Sitting in the shade of a poplar, I watch the Tanana River flow by. It's flat and tan, dimpled by eddies and darted over by swallows that sound like they are chewing rubber bands.

I slept last night with my wife, daughter and dog in the upstairs of a handsome, two-story log structure that has stood since before World War I. Tonight, Cora and I will sleep there again.

Judy Hicks, who lives here in Delta Junction and works for Alaska State Parks, invited us to stay at Rika's Roadhouse. She heard about my walk along the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and thought it natural for someone who arrived on foot from Valdez to catch a bit of rest here. It happened so many times in the past.

We are happy for the break. During a snowy, rainy, windy trip through the Alaska Range (much of it with my wife Kristen and daughter Anna), we seemed to be walking back in time. As we gained elevation, leaves turned back to buds and temperatures not felt since… read more

When I walked this same path 20 years ago, I averaged six miles each day. After a few weeks in 2017 of hiking the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, it seems easy to do 10 miles a day.

Back then, sometimes my backpack weighed 60 pounds. I'm trying to keep it half that weight now. I started from Valdez with a load of 32 pounds.

Most of the reduction is due to clever people who have engineered lighter gear because consumers wanted it, and because of breakthroughs in materials available to designers.

Jay Cable of Fairbanks pointed me to a few of my biggest weight savers. He recommended a single-compartment backpack that resembles a stuff sack (no extra bag on top, few pockets, not much padding on the hips or shoulder straps). It is about one quarter the weight of the external frame pack I used in 1997.

Jay also recommended my three-person nylon tent. It's roomy enough to squeeze in three people and has been a luxury for just me and Cora in the early going.… read more

I walked around the chain-link fence of Pump Station 12 of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, apprehensive about the human encounter to come.

It was time to send a weekly column. I needed a Wi-Fi signal or a cellular bar or two. I had walked more than a week through air devoid of communications waves.

With Cora on a leash and me having not spoken to anyone all day, I reached the gate of the pump station. No one was there. No guard at the shack behind the fence. The green buildings, which looked like an occupation base on Mars in their best days, bled with rusty stains. The place had a post-apocalyptic feel.

There was a phone inside a box near the fence. I picked it up. Before it rang twice, a security guard named Jeff answered.

Jeff was sitting at a desk in Anchorage. He did not laugh when I asked about Wi-Fi, but he might have smiled.

"You're in the Big Lonely," he said. "There's not much around Pump 12."

The decommissioned pump station was quiet… read more

PORT VALDEZ--We have launched on the pipeline hike version 2.0, 20 years after the first time.

I'm now sitting on the muscled root of a Sitka spruce by the pleasant rush of a creek. A bald eagle shrieks from the top of a tree nearby while a diesel ship engine thrums from the Valdez Marine Terminal a few miles away.

These rainforest woods, so different from my boreal forest home, have already given us shelter from cool, misty rain and a peek at the chestnut-backed chickadees’ few seconds of mating. Stately Steller's jays have reintroduced themselves. Robins on their way north have practiced their songs a few notes at a time. The air smells salty, familiar and exotic at the same time to someone from middle Alaska.

To begin this trip, we have hiked all of two miles. “We” are my friends Chris Carlson and his son Ian from Fairbanks, along with their Labradoodle Freya. My dog Cora is thrilled to have her best friend along, untethered.

People we talked with in… read more

Twenty years ago, I was 34 when I walked away from a chain-link fence near Port Valdez and headed east. Those were the first steps on a summer-long trip across Alaska.

In a few days, I will begin to retrace those steps. This summer, I will try to again walk from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay along the gravel path that parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

The first journey, with my chocolate Labrador retriever Jane, occupied my whole summer of 1997, from early May until the end of August. With Jane, I ascended and descended the Chugach, Alaska and Brooks mountain ranges. We drank from creeks and rivers, fed a million mosquitoes and slept in a new place every night. We shared miles of trail with friends and family and did not set any speed records.

We walked for 120 days, from the time the geese were touching down until they left in big Vs. I wrote about that summer in a series of newspaper columns and a book, "Walking my Dog Jane; from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay along the… read more

People who study animal behavior think they may have found out why wolves hunt in packs — because ravens are such good scavengers.

Scientists who watched wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior came up with the raven-wolf pack theory after puzzling over a question: Why do wolves hunt in large groups when a single wolf can take down a moose?

To find a possible answer, John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson of Michigan Tech and Thomas Waite of Ohio State University examined 27 years of wolf observations on Isle Royale in northern Michigan. Isle Royale, 45 miles long and up to nine miles wide, sits in the northwest lobe of Lake Superior. A national park, the island supports a population of a few dozen wolves and hundreds of moose. Peterson studied the wolves for more than 30 years, and the researchers used observations from Peterson and his coworkers in the present study.

Peterson’s team witnessed a single wolf killing a moose 11 times, which weakened the notion that… read more

With dogs' breath fogging the 30-below zero air at their knees, 71 Iditarod mushers steamed their way down the frozen Chena River in Fairbanks on March 6. Upstream, just a few miles behind them, 500 ducks were surviving in a one-mile stretch of open water.

You might think the mallards that did not migrate from the subarctic in fall would be skinny and weak, but a UAF graduate student found the Fairbanks ducks have the highest midwinter body mass of just about any mallards in North America. And the ducks improved in body condition since their brethren flew away.

Tim Spivey just defended his master's thesis on the hundreds of mallards that spend winters in Anchorage and Fairbanks, unlike most of a half-million Alaska mallards that flew south months ago.

The mallard is the raven of the duck world, able to eat just about anything. Mallards have overwintered in Anchorage since at least 1975. There are now about 1,300 mallards there now. The Fairbanks population of… read more

In early March up on the frozen Arctic Coastal Plain, as the wind sculpts snow into drifts, it’s hard to tell northern lakes from surrounding tundra. But lurking deep beneath that flat white world are toothy predators as long as your arm.

In pools 60 feet down, lake trout are somehow passing the long winter. A graduate student has sharpened the focus on a familiar species that lives as far south as Colorado but seems so mysterious at the top of its range.

Eric Torvinen spent an entire summer and part of another pursuing lake trout on Alaska's treeless North Slope. The lack of trees, in fact, was part of the reason he wanted to study the fish for his master's degree.

He gathered ear bones from lake trout that show growth rings. His goal was to see if he could use otoliths from the long-lived fish to show past climate trends. Thick yearly rings might indicate warmer summers with more food.

In an inflatable kayak, Torvinen floated in 2015 down Fish Creek, a… read more

As another major rainstorm hit California in February, downtown San Francisco surpassed its normal rain total for an entire year. Reservoirs in the high country were spilling over. So ended a five-year drought in the state that some people attributed to human-caused climate change.

Those pictures of dried-up California lakes bothered Syun-Ichi Akasofu, who recently gave a talk "The Forthcoming Ice Age" at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He thinks we humans are perhaps living in a period of warmth between cold periods and we consider it normal. Mankind’s effects on climate, he said, are a minor act in a much grander play.

Akasofu, whom an Anchorage Daily News reporter a decade ago called "Alaska's best known climate-change skeptic," is now 86. Every weekday, he walks into the rear entrance of a building with his name on it (home to the International Arctic Research Center) and works in his modest partitioned space until early afternoon.

He came to Alaska… read more

A lynx that roamed more than 200 miles from Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory to near Chitina is still being tracked across the Alaska landscape, thanks to a curious couple living off the Edgerton Highway.


Ralph and Linda Lohse first met the animal Canada researchers call Max on an October night.


"My wife saw a lynx out there, sitting next to the chicken coop like a lion, twitching its tail and looking at the chickens and ducks," said Ralph Lohse, who lives with his wife Linda on property between the Edgerton Highway and the Tonsina River. They watched the lynx for 40 minutes, until it leapt to webbing on top of a chicken coop.


They went outside to prevent it from getting a chicken. The startled cat ran off with a group of their sheep, as if all the animals were in the same herd.


In a few days, the Lohses noticed a few chickens were gone. Then two ducks disappeared.


They knew the culprit, seeing its… read more

On a recent river trip down the Porcupine River, my friend Garrett Jones and I nosed into a few townsites we saw on the map. Old Camp, Canyon Village and Shuman House were all silent places with no people but the same unique regional touch: Decorative stamped-metal ceiling panels tacked up as outhouse walls.


During our 200-mile trip down the Porcupine's length in Alaska, we saw no current villages, just the remains of a dozen former ones. That got me wondering about one of my favorite Alaska subjects. Do we have more than our share of ghost towns?


There are at least 100 abandoned settlements in Alaska. That's the number Beth Mikow figured as she wrote her master's thesis for UAF in 2010. Mikow, who now works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a subsistence specialist, counted deserted Alaska places as part of her look at how the state changed since it became part of America.


She began her count by looking at the work of… read more

While Alaskans have long endured dense mosquitoes and frigid air, we’ve always had the absence of venomous snakes and dog ticks.


But the latter may be establishing themselves here. Ticks that infest red squirrels, snowshoe hares and a variety of birds have always been present in Alaska, but a team of biologists and veterinarians recently found five non-native ticks on Alaska dogs and people.


In a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, researchers identified brown dog ticks, American dog ticks, Rocky Mountain wood ticks, deer ticks and Lone Star ticks in Alaska. A few of those creatures hitchhiked up on animals and humans that had recently visited the Lower 48. But some had not.


"It appears the American dog tick is established in Alaska," said Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a co-author of the study. "Some of the dogs (with the tick) had not traveled or… read more

Alaskans love fungi. This was evident one Saturday when author and mycologist Lawrence Millman offered a mushroom walk at Creamer’s Field on one of the wettest days of the yellow-leaf season.


“Eighty people showed up in the rain, all eager to learn about fungi,” Millman said by email after returning to his home in Massachusetts. “I dare say the hunter-gatherer instinct is alive and well in Fairbanks.”


And why shouldn’t it be, since Fungus Man made life possible? During a lecture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Millman introduced the crowd to Fungus Man, a character in a Haida myth. Millman showed a drawing depicting a wide-eyed Fungus Man paddling a canoe. Fungus Man guides Raven, who sits in the front on the canoe holding a spear.


As the legend goes, Fungus Man paddled Raven the Creator to the land of female genitalia, “thus making it possible for homo sapiens to appear on our beleaguered planet,” Millman said.


read more

Alfred Brooks was a geologist who traveled thousands of miles in Alaska and left his name on the state’s northernmost mountain range. Twenty years before his death in 1924, he also left behind a summary of what Alaska was like more than one century ago, when “large areas (were) still practically unexplored.”


In his 1906 government report, “Geography and Geology of Alaska. A Summary of Existing Knowledge” Brooks pointed out misconceptions about Alaska that endure. He wrote in his introduction:


“If facts are presented which may seem elementary, it is because even well-informed people have been known to harbor misconceptions in regard to the orographic features, climate, and general character of Alaska. Those who read about the perils and privations of winter travel and explorations are apt to picture a region of ice and snow; others, again, who have personal knowledge of the tourist route of southeastern Alaska, regard the whole district as one of… read more

MOOSE CREEK DAM — For the thirteenth consecutive day, four plates of steel in a framework of concrete have quietly saved Fairbanks.


Heavy rains in the basin of the Chena River, the waterway that spawned Fairbanks, have swelled the river to where motorboats can’t squeeze beneath downtown bridges.


Dam-tenders here have responded by lowering steel gates into the river. The gates skim river water, backing it into an immense channel perpendicular to the river. A 50-foot mound of rock dam reaches eight miles downhill to the larger Tanana River.


In extreme flood conditions, a portion of the Chena here, 40 miles from downtown Fairbanks, can bypass the city and flow into the Tanana. That has only happed once, during a rapid snowmelt in spring 1992. Today, about one fifth of the grassy floodway is a lake five feet deep.


Tim Feavel, project manager for the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, has driven me to the top of the… read more

Larger than West Virginia, the Kenai Peninsula has the best of Alaska: coastal rainforests, two icefields, majestic deepwater fiords and a sapphire river home to the largest king salmon ever caught. It also has some of the best-documented changes of any geographic feature in Alaska, enough that a biologist now sees the peninsula evolving into a human-driven system.

John Morton of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge recently gave examples of ecological transformations on the Kenai Peninsula. He cited studies by many others in a presentation he gave from his office in Soldotna. Here are some examples:

The Kenai has become a much warmer and dryer place in the last 50 years. There has been a 60 percent loss of available water on the peninsula since 1968.

Glaciers on Harding Icefield have shrunk the height of a five-story building in the last 50 years.

In the 1990s, spruce bark beetles that like warm summers killed 30 million spruce trees.

Forestry… read more

In this quiet, peaceful time of year, with all the noisy birds flown south and all the scary bears in hillside dens, little things catch our attention. Like wires that move as if by magic.

Aurora scientist and interested-in-all-things guy Neal Brown contacted me to see if I had written about why power wires sometimes dance to their own beat when there seems to be no wind or other force pushing them. He notices it seems to happen when the temperature is rising. I pulled out Neil Davis's Alaska Science Nuggets and found the answer.

First, though, a refresher on that book — a compilation of 400 of these columns — and why you are reading this right now.

Neil Davis was a do-all scientist at UAF's Geophysical Institute from the 1960s to the 1980s. He started this column in 1976 at the urging of a newspaper editor. Davis wrote hundreds of the columns, which the Geophysical Institute has distributed free to newspapers. Other writers took over the column from Davis. I… read more

On a clear day last spring, fire sizzled on water at Poker Flat Research Range in the Chatanika River valley.

There, scientists were spilling crude oil in a manmade water basin and torching it from above. A series of similar test burns were part of a team effort between university scientists and researchers with the oil and gas industry.

On that April day, an orange flame hissed on the surface of a body of water 300-feet square and six inches deep. Black smoke rose and drifted with the wind.

After a few minutes, the smoke faded from black to white to invisible. The fire burned itself out. An air horn sounded.

"That's a long victory salute," said Bill Schnabel, an engineer and interim director of the Institute of Northern Engineering at UAF. He is the main Alaska scientist on five test burns of oil at Poker Flat. Jessica Garron of the Alaska Satellite Facility invited me out to watch.

I once mucked around in a real oil spill. I worked on the… read more

Last week, I wrote about a thought experiment proposed by Fairbanks scientist Jim Beget. He suggests raining down crystals of a compound that captures carbon dioxide onto a frigid plateau in Antarctica. There, the greenhouse gas might remain locked for a few hundred thousand years.

Beget will present his idea at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union this December in San Francisco. Alarming levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are a frequent topic of discussion at the meeting, which will pull more than 20,000 scientists to California.

Dan Mann will also attend that meeting. Though the UAF geographer's presentation in San Francisco has nothing to do with carbon dioxide, he too has an idea how to remove some from the blanket of gases that surround our planet.

Mann suggests enhancing a carbon-dioxide removal system that has worked for a few billion years — the silent breath of plants.

Photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert… read more

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

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

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

Painting the breeze one dozen at a time, monarch butterflies once fluttered across the meadow of James Hansen’s Pennsylvania farm. Now, the climate activist and his wife are lucky to see one. Monarchs are threatened by lack of the only food — milkweed — they eat as caterpillars. Herbicides, land clearing and other people-related activities may be dooming the monarchs.

“I wonder if we are witnessing the extermination of a species,” Hansen, the 73-year-old longtime NASA researcher said to a crowd of about 3,000 people in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Hansen was the headline speaker at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, attended by more than 20,000 scientists in December 2013.

Hansen used “extermination” for its implication that people have a choice on some matters, such as the survival of more complicated species.

“There is still an opportunity for humanity to exercise free will,” he said. “It’s still possible to get on a different path, but… read more

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

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

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

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

When people first walked across the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago, dogs were by their sides, according to researchers who wrote a paper published in the journal Science.

 Scientists from Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles used dog DNA material — some of it unearthed by miners in interior Alaska — to conclude that today’s domestic dog originated in Asia and accompanied the first humans to the New World about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. One of the study’s coauthors suggests that man’s best friend may have enabled the arduous journey from Asia into North America.      

“Dogs may have been the reason people made it across the land bridge,” said Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the study. “They can pull things, carry things, defend you from nasty carnivores, and they’re useful to eat.”      

Researchers have agreed that today’s dog is the result of the domestication of wolves thousands of years ago. Before the… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a cool spring morning in the mountains of southwest Washington, 12-year old Cathy Cahill helped her dad plant scientific instruments around the base of trembling Mount St. Helens. A few days later, the volcano blew up, smothering two of his four ash collectors. When he gathered the surviving equipment, Cathy’s father found a downwind sampler overflowing with ash laced with chlorine. Tom Cahill of the University of California, Davis, wrote a paper on this surprising result; editors at the journal Science were impressed enough to publish it.

Tom’s teenage daughter was not a co-author on her dad’s Mount St. Helens paper in the early 1980s, but her name has appeared next to his in a few journals since then. Now 44, Cathy continues to stamp her own mark on the field of atmospheric science. The University of Alaska Fairbanks professor has captured and examined the particles floating in air breathed by U.S. servicemen and woman in far-off deserts. She has invented an air-sensing… read more

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

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

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

SAN FRANCISCO — Northern sea ice is at its lowest summer coverage since we’ve been able to see it from satellites. Greenland experienced its warmest summer in 170 years. Eight of 10 permafrost-monitoring sites in northern Alaska recorded their highest temperatures; the other two tied record highs.

2012 was a year of “astounding” change for much of the planet north of the Arctic Circle, said four experts at a press conference here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a five-day gathering of more than 20,000 scientists that ended Dec. 7, 2012.

While arctic-wide air temperatures during the year were unremarkable, the scientists said, other indicators showed extreme changes in the north, such as a record low Arctic-wide snow cover. Tundra and ocean absorbed more solar energy in 2012 than in recent years.

“Snow and ice aren’t just good reflectors, they’re great reflectors,” said Don Perovich of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “And that mirror is… read more

SAN FRANCISCO — From a lecture hall within a land of warm breezes and flowering December plants comes a story of a creature 2,600 miles north, where the sun will not rise for another 50 days.

At the 2012 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, biologist George Divoky had 15 minutes to present his lifetime of work with a bird that adapted to year-round life in the Arctic during the last ice age. Divoky led off a lecture session on Barrow-area research by describing his four decades of studying birds that probably would not exist without his efforts — the black guillemots of Cooper Island, Alaska.

In the early 1970s, the biologist found a small colony of the birds on a gravel island in the Beaufort Sea about 25 miles northwest of Barrow. Black guillemots were breeding in nest cavities in wood debris left by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s. Divoky created more nests by rearranging other pieces of wood. The black guillemots, sleek birds that spend their entire lives in… read more

A few people contacted me after a column I wrote on time zones a while back. Flip Todd of Anchorage called to say Yakutat clocks displayed a different time than those anywhere else in Alaska prior to 1983. Back then, before Alaska went to the current two-time-zone system, Yakutat followed Yukon time, one hour removed from both Juneau and Anchorage. Flip also corrected my misspelling, in a later column, of the Takotna River.

Peter Montesano wrote that once while he was living in Newfoundland he pulled out a map and noticed that North America has nine time zones. Having visited the western Aleutians and the seven time zones that spread eastward from it, Montesano felt compelled to take a boat ride to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just south of Newfoundland. While he was visiting what a Wikipedia writer described as the “self-governing territorial overseas collectivity” of France, Montesano’s watch, set to Newfoundland time, was one-half hour behind.

In St.… read more

Sprouting from your head at the rate of more than three inches a year, hair is a recorder of the things you eat and drink and where you ate and drank them. An Ottawa-based researcher has just assembled a countrywide database of Canadians’ hair designed to help the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


With a likeable partner who had a talent for persuading strangers to part with a snip of hair, Michelle Chartrand for the past four years traveled around Canada in rental cars, putting on enough miles to circle the world. From the Atlantic coast to Fort St. John on the Alaska Highway, the University of Ottawa researcher and her assistant Jonathan Mayo gathered more than 500 samples. With them, they are creating a hair map of Canada that they hope will help detectives find out more about unknown murder victims and other… read more

Mike Davis lives in Oklahoma, but he travels to Alaska all the time to work with our greatest athletes.


“I’m up here about once a month, about half around Anchorage and half around Fairbanks,” the Oklahoma State University veterinarian and exercise physiologist said on the phone from Wasilla. “If I could settle on a single address, I could get a Permanent Fund Dividend.”


Davis was in Wasilla for the start of the Iditarod. There, he cheered on Aliy Zirkle, Martin Buser, Jake Berkowitz, Rick Swenson and other mushers who have over the years entrusted Davis to take blood and muscle samples from their dogs. His goal is to discover the magic within a sled dog that allows it to keep going… read more

Some places in this world are just too dirty, dull or dangerous for human pilots to fly. An airspace in the latter category is anywhere near gas flares in Alaska’s oilfields. With only a few seconds of warning, flames blast high in the air from a network of pipes, releasing the stress of sucking oil from deep in the ground.


Greg Walker recently found himself taking a look these fire-breathing nozzles near Prudhoe Bay, but he was barely close enough to see them from where he stood. He instead watched a “flying king crab” that buzzed around flaming flare heads 50 feet above the ground. The 2.5-pound flying machine captured video and five-megapixel images of the flares and their support pipes, some of them jacked by frost and needing… read more

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


In last week’s column, a few experts discussed the fate of Alaska structures if Alaskans were to disappear. This week, people who study Alaska’s wildlife donate some thought to the subject.


Alaska’s lack of people has benefited many species, including caribou, which still outnumber Alaskans, and salmon, which torpedo up our rivers with a staggering, wonderful density that was once seen all over the west coast of North America.

read more

Some experiments never end. Especially ones involving plastic objects released in the far north.

In late July 2011, Paul Boots, a supervisor at an oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope, found a small, yellow plastic disc on a creekbed. Scientists 30 years ago tossed the disc into the sea as part of a study on arctic oil spills.

Boots, who works at the large gravel pad that hosts the Badami oil field, was with his coworkers on an annual cleanup day along a nameless creek just west of the gravel pad.

“I was enjoying a beautiful day and strayed a bit farther than most in my search for ‘fugitive emissions’ (everything we pick up has been blown off of our pad),” he wrote in an email. “I found the disc about 50 yards from the saltwater.”

Boots at first thought the saucer was part of a weather balloon. Then he saw a typewritten message: “One Dollar Reward on Return of Serial Number With Date Found, Location, Your Name and Address to Geophysics Institute, Univ. of… read more

As late August brings night back to the far north, our old friend darkness is restoring our view of the aurora, stars and satellites, seen as pinpoints of light streaking through the heavens. In the last 50 years, researchers have blasted thousands of these devices into Earth’s orbit.

In 20 years of existence, the Alaska Satellite Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has gathered millions of data bits from satellites through its giant antennas. Scientists have used the view from space to study things that are hard to see any other way, including the amount of northern sea ice that forms (or fails to form), or the slight inflation of an Aleutian volcano that may hint of an eruption.

All of this action takes place through one of the most noticeable features of the Fairbanks landscape: a 10-meter dish sitting on top of the Elvey Building on the UAF campus, as well as a similar antenna in the woods a bit west of the Elvey Building. The Alaska Satellite Facility… read more

EAST FORK OF THE GULKANA RIVER — In early August, a few months before this mossy valley will feel the sting of 40-below air, bright red salmon dart through a crystal clear pool amid fragrant green vegetation. The Gulkana Hatchery has a Garden-of-Eden feel, which is fitting since millions of sockeye salmon begin life here each year.

"There are seven springs in the canyon," says Gary Martinek, manager of this salmon hatchery just off the Richardson Highway between Summit and Paxson lakes. "From summer to winter the water temperature only varies 3 degrees. This water is the key to the hatchery."

On most days of the summer, dozens of fishermen heading to the Copper River to scoop up salmon pass this cluster of small buildings tucked in a shallow valley, but few realize that many of the fish they will catch are born here. At the Gulkana Hatchery, a few people working for the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation raise a brood of up to 35 million red salmon each… read more

Yakutat Glacier, near the Alaska town of the same name and flowing from the mountains near the Canada border, calves into a lake as deep as an ocean bay. The icefield that feeds Yakutat is large enough to cover the five boroughs of New York City. Despite its bulk, the glacier is doomed unless we experience a drastic change in climate.

Barbara Truessel has been on deathwatch for this interesting glacier for the past few years. The graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has witnessed Yakutat’s fade in the short time it takes to earn a college degree.

“It’s dramatically falling apart,” Truessel said.

Truessel and her advisor, Martin Truffer, along with glaciologists Chris Larsen and Roman Motyka, recently witnessed the fragmenting of the glacier’s massive tongue, which coats part of Harlequin Lake.

“The breakup of the floating tongue started last year,” Truessel said. “Huge tabular icebergs were floating away from the… read more

In places where the air gets cold enough to freeze seawater, sea ice creates a world known by few people — a shifting, ephemeral, both jagged and smooth platform of white that clings to the shore for much of the year. In Barrow, people who hunt whales start packing down snowmachine trails over this blue-white dreamscape in March. The trails allow a few dozen crews to pursue and hopefully winch home a few bowhead whales in April and May.

Like most college students, Matt Druckenmiller did not know much about sea ice when he began his degree program. But now he has walked and snowmachined whaler’s trails to the ice edge near Barrow, earning a doctorate and getting to know people who harvest bowhead whales along the way.

A few weeks ago, Druckenmiller defended his thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He described the last couple of years in which he made detailed maps of whaler’s snowmachine trails across sea ice, creating something local people found useful… read more

An Alaska college professor was not surprised when the lights went out over the northern tier of the U.S. and southeast Canada about 10 years ago.

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

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

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

“Events like (the blackout of 2003) happen for… read more

As I drifted with my family past a rocky cliff on the Yukon River, a gull cruised at us like an F-15, diving just over our heads to show its apparent displeasure.

As the gull looped to buzz us again, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. When I floated by this same cliff 18 summers earlier, a gull did the same thing (the experience sticks in my mind because canoe-bound dogs, one of which accompanied me on each trip, get so excited at a close bird that you have to employ immediate corrective leaning to avoid swimming). We canoed 200 miles of the Yukon the past few summers, some of it with similar cliffs. This river bend was the only place where a gull came after us, which begs a question. Could it have been the same bird that was nesting on that cliff in 1993?

“I think it’s feasible, but that would be an extraordinary lifespan for a gull,” said bird biologist Abby Powell, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I think it’s probably more likely it’s a… read more

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

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

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

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

Through the darkness of every spring night, millions of tiny bodies flutter and glide to Alaska from every continent on Earth. Here, songbirds find a summer home, mate, build nests, lay eggs, raise young, replace their commuting feathers, and gorge themselves for the long trip home. Alaska’s migrant songbirds pack an incredible amount of activity into a short summer, and the alder flycatcher is perhaps the most efficient of all.

Alder flycatchers are a little bigger than chickadees, the color of green olives, and have a beak surrounded by bristle feathers that help detect the movement of flying insects. The birds spend the majority of the year in Bolivia and Peru, but each spring they head to shrubby bogs in Alaska and northern Canada, where their “grape-ape” song wafts from the forest.

Some alder flycatchers settle in interior Alaska, and here they caught the attention of Anna-Marie Benson, who once worked for the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks. While studying… read more

People tend to think of climate change as a recent phenomenon, but Alaska was once the setting for an environmental shift so dramatic it forced people to evacuate the entire North Slope, according to Michael Kunz, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management.

About 10,000 years ago, a group of hunting people lived on Alaska’s North Slope, the broad band of treeless tundra that extends north from the Brooks Range to the sea. These people, known as Paleoindians, used a thick backbone of rock west of the Colville River as a hunting lookout. Michael Kunz first discovered stone spear tips at the site, known as the Mesa, in 1978.

The people of the Mesa lived at a time when the Arctic was undergoing a change not unlike the changes some scientists are documenting today. As the world emerged from the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, grasslands covered much of the Bering Land Bridge, a chunk of land as wide as the distance from Barrow to Homer that mated Siberia with… read more

With the return of summer, many natural cycles have resumed up north — visiting birds have invaded tundra and forest, salmon torpedo in loose formation up rivers, and Hubbard Glacier again threatens to pinch off a fiord.

The giant glacier, located where the Southeast panhandle meets the rest of Alaska, advances toward Gilbert Point every year at about this time. In 1986 and 2002, the ice rammed the point with sufficient strength to turn Russell Fiord into Russell Lake; the lake endured for four months in 1986 before the ice dam broke.

On June 14, Hubbard’s wall of ice was about 300 feet from Gilbert Point, according to a laser-measuring device set in place by scientists from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (

“Compared to last year, it looks way closer to Gilbert Point,” said Gordon Hamilton of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, who recently… read more

Not long ago, a glaciologist wrote that the number of glaciers in Alaska “is estimated at (greater than) 100,000.” That fuzzy number, perhaps written in passive voice for a reason, might be correct. But it depends upon how you count.

Another glaciologist saw an example of the confusion when he visited Yakutat Glacier a few weeks ago. Yakutat, near the Alaska town of the same name, is a withering glacier that calves into a deep lake of its own making. As it dies, Yakutat Glacier will increase the number of glaciers in Alaska. And it won’t take long, said Martin Truffer of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Truffer spent a week at the glacier and noticed that a western tributary of the ice mass might melt away within a year, and another lobe will probably disconnect within five years. Because the glacier is melting so fast, it will soon become at least three smaller glaciers.

“You get into that paradoxical situation where a glacier… read more

With their mushroom clouds topped with cauliflower crowns, plumes from wildfire smoke are again a common sight in Interior Alaska, which — with barely a sprinkle of rain — just experienced one of the driest Mays in the 100-year written record.

Though it’s a normal human reaction to think of wildfire as a bad thing, fire’s occurrence on the landscape predates the arrival of people to the boreal forest by a long shot. The forest doesn’t function well without it. In researching the topic, I came across a previous interview with Tom Paragi, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.

Paragi’s specialty is the ecology of disturbances to the boreal forest, among them logging and the effects of wildland fires. The following is from a column I wrote in 2006 with him on the subject of wildfires.

I told Tom that the word “ravaged” came to mind when I walked through a burned spruce forest and saw the charred bones of red squirrels. He… read more

In northern Alaska, an amphitheater of frozen ground is thawing where a northern river is cutting it, exposing walls of ice. The feature, known by scientists as “yedoma,” is the largest of its kind yet found in Alaska.

Jim Helmericks, who lives with his wife Teena on the mouth of the Colville River, mentioned the frozen wall of smooth ice and dirt to researchers Mikhail Kanevskiy and Torre Jorgenson in 2006. Helmericks had noticed the site on flights during the 1950s. He landed there a few times with his Super Cub and found the permafrost bluff yielding the bones of ancient creatures.

“We called it the Stinking Hills because the air had a rotten smell from all the carcasses that had been there over the years,” Helmericks said on the phone from his far-north homestead. “We got a really nice collection of early horse bones, bison, and the lower jaw of a mammoth with two lower teeth in it. That’s a special thing in (our) museum.”

The frozen storage place of the… read more

Greenup — the great, silent collective explosion of freed tree buds that had been frozen all winter like a clenched fist — happened yesterday in interior Alaska. I know this because it’s a phenomenon that’s easy to notice here in Fairbanks, which is locked up in black-and-white for much of the year. And because Rick Thoman just told me.

Thoman, who works for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, called it the most dramatic greenup in years, and the latest since 2002. His colleague Ted Fathauer, who has recorded greenup at his home on Chena Ridge since 1986, also declared yesterday, May 17, as the day “leaf buds in birch and aspen open just enough to produce a faint, but distinct green flush through the forest canopy.”

That description of greenup is from the late Jim Anderson, a librarian here on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus who chronicled the event beginning in 1974 until his death in 2007.

Anderson, who found his hobby was… read more

NEAR ACKERMAN LAKE, NORTHWEST OF VENETIE — “Brian, the chute’s right there,” Chuck Brodell says from the middle seat of a Cessna Caravan.

Brian Lawson, who has found many rocket parts over the years during his work for Poker Flat Research Range, looks out his window and sees an orange and white parachute draped over black spruce trees near a small arctic creek. He also catches a glint of silver from a metal cylinder near the parachute. It’s the brains of a rocket, also known as a payload, that launched just after midnight on an engineering test mission from Chatanika, about 170 miles south.

The pilot banks the plane and circles the chute. His seven passengers — including NASA engineer Brodell, the lead scientist on the rocket mission — lean toward the windows with their cameras.

Lawson, in the front seat next to the pilot, presses the button of a SPOT satellite transmitter to mark the location. In two days, a helicopter will return, land, and two men will… read more

Marc Mueller-Stoffels unscrews the top of a glass jar and invites a visitor to smell the powder inside. A sniff evokes the image of kayaking Prince William Sound or walking a beach in Southeast.

“We call it ‘Instant Ocean,’” he says, returning the lid to the jar.

Mueller-Stoffels, a doctoral student in the Physics Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, uses the white contents of the jar — different types of salts found in seawater all over the world — to create homebrewed ocean. With that ocean, in a room held at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit and 300 miles from the nearest tidewater, he grows sea ice of the type that floats on top of the world.

He makes sea ice to help researchers like Hajo Eicken of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute learn about the tiny pores that form in it, how salty brine moves through huge chunks of sea ice, and to see how those microscopic forces affect ice as a whole.

“How well is sea ice able to… read more

The glaciers and ice fields of Canada’s far-north islands have lost enough water over the last few summers to fill three-quarters of Illiamna Lake, Alaska’s largest. This news comes just a few years after typical melting from the same region would have only filled one quarter of the same lake each year.

“It was a massive increase between these two periods (2004 – 2006 and the record warmth of 2007 – 2009),” said glaciologist Gabriel Wolken, coauthor of a new paper in which scientists claim that glacial ice of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago contributes more to sea-level rise than any regional group of ice outside Greenland or Antarctica.

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago is a group of 94 islands east of Greenland with a land area the size of Alaska. The glaciers and ice fields of the islands cover an area about the size of New York.

Wolken, who works for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, is one of nine authors on a paper that appeared… read more

KIVALINA — As charter pilot Dave Lorring taxis a twin-engine Piper PA-31 Navajo through a dogleg in the Kivalina airstrip, he sees resident Perry Hawley waiting on top of a snowdrift with a snowmachine and a sled.

As soon as the Navajo props stop spinning, out jumps Kenji Yoshikawa, there for one of his patented science hit and runs. Yoshikawa is soon kneeling on a long wooden sled towed by Hawley, who heads for a few wooden tripods standing on the white arctic plain outside town.

The tripods mark the locations of three ice cellars — “sigluaqs” in Inupiat — chipped into the ground as a means to preserve food.

“This is the biggest cellar of the whaling communities,” Yoshikawa says as he and Hawley remove wind-packed snow from a half sheet of plywood that covers the cellar entrance.

Yoshikawa, a permafrost scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has climbed down ladders into ice cellars of every northern Alaska community that has them — Kaktovik,… read more

On a fine June day about 100 years ago, in a green mountain valley where the Aleutians stick to the rest of Alaska, the world fell apart.

Earthquakes swayed the alders and spruce. A mountain shook, groaned, and collapsed in on itself, its former summit swallowing rock and dust until it became a giant, steaming pit. About six miles away, hot ash began spewing from the ground in a colossal geyser. During an eruption that lasted three days, one of the most vibrant landscapes in Alaska in 1912 became the gray badlands known as the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

The great eruption that created the valley came from a smallish clump of rocks called Novarupta. Nowhere near as grand as the nearby Mount Katmai (the mountain that lost its top), Novarupta spewed an ash cloud 20 miles into the atmosphere, belching 100 times more ash than did Mount St. Helens. Though few people know its name, Novarupta was responsible for the largest eruption of the 20th century.

In the wake of… read more

About 150 years ago, a few days after summer solstice, the gray skies above the Diomede Islands were heavy with smoke from whaling ships set ablaze by Confederate sailors who didn’t know the Civil War had ended.

“The red glare from the eight burning vessels shone far and wide over the drifting ice of these savage seas,” wrote an officer aboard the Shenandoah, a ship commissioned by Confederate leaders to wreak havoc on Yankee whalers harvesting bowhead whales off the western and northern coasts of Alaska.

Though their timing was off—the Civil War had been over for two months when the Shenandoah reached Alaska waters from England (after an eight-month trip around the southern capes of Africa and Australia)—the captain and crew of the Shenandoah succeeded in destroying the Yankee fleet, burning 22 whaling ships and capturing two others.

“It was the last hurrah of whaling—the place where commercial whaling died in the U.S.,” said Brad Barr, a biologist with the… read more

To mark Women’s History Month, I sent a questionnaire to a few Alaska women scientists who have excelled at their craft for a few decades. Last week I featured Pat Holloway and Tina Neal.

Following are the edited responses of two more Alaska women scientists — Marti Miller, chief geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s office in Anchorage, and Patricia Reynolds, a wildlife ecologist for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Miller began work with the USGS in 1981. In the past 30 years, Miller discovered Alaska’s oldest rocks near Iditarod (more than 2 billion years old), and shot and killed a black bear that stalked her during fieldwork. Reynolds has studied the large creatures of Alaska’s North Slope since the late 1970s, including sheep, northern grizzly bears and musk oxen, some of which she has immobilized with tranquilizer darts.

Were there more hurdles for you to clear in science because you were a woman?

MM: Geology is traditionally a male-dominated… read more

To mark Women’s History Month, I sent a questionnaire to a few Alaska women scientists who have excelled at their craft for a few decades. Last week I featured Nettie LaBelle-Hamer and Joan Braddock.

What follows are edited responses of two more Alaska women scientists — Pat Holloway, a horticulturist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Georgeson Botanical Garden, and Tina Neal of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage. Holloway earned her doctorate in 1982 and has since taught classes, conducted research and has helped jump-start the specialty cut flower industry in Alaska. Neal is a volcano geologist who got her first full-time job with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1983. Her work as a hazard specialist has taken her from Alaska to Nepal to Kazakhstan.

Were there more hurdles for you to clear in science because you were a woman?

TN: Very few, but I think I have been quite fortunate to have had very supportive teachers,… read more

One woman listened as a male professor told her she should not go to graduate school because she would be depriving a man of an opportunity to support his family. Another had to nix her male colleagues’ chivalrous notion of slinging a porta-potti by helicopter to the volcano she was studying. A third was told she could not be promoted to supervisor because men don’t like being supervised by women.

Women scientists face unique challenges and sometimes find distinctive opportunities. To mark Women’s History Month, I sent a questionnaire to a few Alaska women scientists who have excelled at their craft for a few decades.

Following are the edited responses of two of them — Nettie LaBelle-Hamer, director of the Alaska Satellite Facility and Joan Braddock, director of the University of Alaska Press and Dean Emerita of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ College of Natural Science and Mathematics. LaBelle-Hamer earned her doctorate degree in space physics in 1994, switched… read more

With the top of the world leaning back toward the sun, warmth is returning to the far north, where scientists observed in January and February 2011 new record lows in the extent of the giant jigsaw puzzle of sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean.

This reduction in size of the frozen platform habitat of polar bears and seals has a group of scientists thinking of the future. A few researchers have mapped an area they believe will be a “sea-ice refuge” if and when the rest of the summer ice goes away.

Sea ice may cling to the coasts of Canada’s northernmost islands and northern Greenland even if the North Pole has no ice during summers at the end of this century. Scientists presented this idea at a press conference held during the fall 2010 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last December. They based their projection on computer models and their field observations.

Prevailing winds stack up sea ice along shorelines in northern Canada and… read more

Last summer, archaeologist Ben Potter was supervising a group of researchers digging on an ancient sand dune above the Tanana River. Potter, who had a field camp he needed to start at another site, was anxious to get through the last day of work at the dune.

Two graduate students, Patrick Hall and Jill Baxter-McIntosh, were slowly moving earth with metal trowels in a layer of charcoal that suggested an ancient fire pit. Potter worked his way over to help and began exposing bone fragments that were different from the bones of fish and small mammals the students had found embedded throughout the site.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher recognized parts of a skull from a large mammal — possibly human — though he knew the chances of that were astronomically low. Potter scraped the soil with the blade of his trowel. He heard a click. As he blew away tan silt as fine as flour, there was a human molar.

“Everybody stop!” he said to the others digging at the… read more

While processing backyard chickens last summer, Sveta Yamin-Pasternak thought how nice it would be to bury those fresh carcasses in the ground and let microorganisms preserve her food the easy way. When the time was right, she could dig up the fermented fowl and enjoy them.

Though she instead decided to use a freezer for her chickens, Yamin-Pasternak is a student of the “tastefully rotten” foods of people who live in far-east Russia. She admires the simpler, if smellier, way of doing things.

Originally from Belarus, Yamin-Pasternak now lives in Alaska, but has traveled for the last decade to villages in Chukotka, the part of Russia that rubs noses with Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. There, the anthropologist studied a return to fermented food preparation. She recently gave a talk at the University of Alaska Fairbanks detailing her “marvelous stinky path.”

Native peoples of northern Russian and throughout the Arctic have for ages included some partially decomposed… read more

The ubiquitous Fairbanks raven is now even more so. Nighttime roosts — once documented as mysterious clumps of spruce trees where ravens slept far from people —can now mean a perch on the illuminated letters of the Barnes & Noble Booksellers sign.

Alaska’s country ravens have become citified, or so it seems. Dozens of the black birds are spending their evenings on the exterior structures of Fairbanks bookstores, pet shops, and in the garden centers of large box stores. They have been using these urban roosts for several years now, and seemed undisturbed by vehicles or people passing beneath them. This contrasts with a biologist’s study done 15 years ago. The study found that a raven fitted with a backpack transmitter was flying 40 miles from the city to spend its evenings, and then flying 40 miles back at daybreak the next morning to gorge on the excesses of urbanites.

Ravens have at times favored urban roosts in Fairbanks, but the current nightly congregation in… read more

A few years ago, Chris Williams found a big tree on the grounds of an abandoned coal mine in Sutton, Alaska. It was six feet in diameter, stood more than 110 feet above the surrounding swamplands, and loved warm weather and steamy rain showers. The tree, a dawn redwood, died of unknown causes about 55 million years ago.

Williams, a researcher at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, studies ancient forests all over the world, including the high arctic of Canada, which now only hosts willows as thick as your wrist.

While reading a journal article, he learned about fossilized leaves discovered in the Matanuska River valley by government geologists in the early 1900s. Intrigued, a few years later he journeyed to Sutton, a small community between Palmer and Glennallen.

In 2008, Williams and his colleague David Sunderlin of Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College traveled with six undergraduate students to an old coal mine near Sutton. There, they… read more


As a woman’s voice echoed over loudspeakers on a breezy hill above the Chatanika River, Brennan Gantner pulled himself away from computer screens that assured his rocket was OK. He rushed outside to witness an event seven years in the making. His boots squeaking in the snow, Gantner put his arm around his wife, Kim Winges, with whom he had spent just three weeks in 2010, and squinted into the black Alaska night.

As the snow-covered valley flashed white and a rocket taller than a house roared skyward, a few bundled-up bystanders cheered and watched its pinprick of light disappear into the night. Then, they scurried back inside to see if the rocket would perform its task as it arced for 15 minutes over northern Alaska.

Using the rocket as a platform, Gantner was hoping to obtain an ultraviolet image of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Satellites and Earth-based telescopes have captured the galaxy in… read more

At the northern fringe of the boreal forest, in a valley silent except for the occasional rumble of a truck on the Dalton Highway, an Alaska milestone came and went on January 23, 2011.

That date was the fortieth anniversary of Alaska’s all-time cold temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded by a weather observer at Prospect Creek Camp. The camp was there to house workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline; the weather observer worked for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, who collected the data for the National Weather Service.

The high temperature at Prospect Creek Camp on Jan. 23, 1971 was minus 64 degrees. The warmest air people in Allakaket felt the next day was minus 66 degrees.  January 1971 was also the last time the temperature dipped to minus 60 degrees in Fairbanks (on the 18th), according to Rick Thoman, a weatherman with an archival memory who works at the Fairbanks office of the National Weather Service. He stressed that the temperature never… read more

My notebook is full from my visit to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, which convened for a week in December 2010. Here’s some Alaska-related news:

Barrow lakes are getting greener. A student from the University of Texas at El Paso traveled to Barrow last summer to sample the vegetation from lakes and ponds outside town. Christian Andresen compared his measurements with those done by scientists in the 1970s. He found that aquatic plants in the lakes were both greener and more abundant than they were 40 years ago. “There were more plants and the nutrients in the water have increased,” Andresen said in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. “These ponds are very abundant aquatic ecosystems.” Andresen, born in El Paso and raised in Tampico, Mexico, is now writing up his results to earn his doctorate.

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are like Mars. Last March, guided by Alaska author and area resident Seth Kantner, Cynthia Dinwiddie of… read more

Geophysical Institute researcher Regine Hock and her colleague Valentina Radic have calculated that the rate of sea-level rise due to the meltwater from glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere will increase by as much as 60 percent by the year 2100. Half of the world’s smallest glaciers may not survive that long.

Many glaciers smaller than about five square kilometers — like those in the European Alps, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Glacier National Park in Montana — will disappear by the end of this century, said Radic, a researcher at the University of British Columbia and former graduate student at the Geophysical Institute. She and Hock authored a paper on their meltwater calculations that appeared in Nature Geoscience on Jan. 9, 2011.

According to Radic and Hock, the contribution to rising sea level from melting glaciers outside the massive ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland will grow by the end of the century to about 1.6 millimeters per year from the current 1… read more

Two summers ago, Joel Barker was measuring gases wafting from the tundra on Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far north. One day he took a break from his duties to check out a report from a warden stationed there at Canada’s northernmost national park — in a land that has not hosted trees for thousands of years, the warden had seen some wood protruding from mud near a glacier.

Barker, a researcher at Ohio State University, took a helicopter ride to a U-shaped valley that was home to a few musk oxen and ankle-high willows. There, the warden led him to a dirty pile of roots and small gray logs.

“It was surreal,” Barker said in December 2010 during a press conference held at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco. “I had been very skeptical.”

He and the warden gathered a few samples of the wood and then jumped on the helicopter after being on the ground less than one hour. On the ride back to his base camp, Barker felt the flush of discovery.… read more

During the darkest days of Alaska’s winter, black-capped chickadees stuff themselves with enough seeds and frozen insects to survive18-hour nights. Where the chickadees spend those long nights was a mystery until a biologist tracked them.

Susan Sharbaugh has spent many winter nights trying to find out how a creature as light as a handful of paperclips survives temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. Sharbaugh is a biologist with the Alaska Bird Observatory and an unabashed fan of the black-capped chickadee, one of the most unlikely residents of the north because of the difficulty of keeping a tiny body warm in a cold place.

In her past studies, Sharbaugh has found that black-capped chickadees gain an additional10 percent of their body weight each day by stuffing themselves. The birds then use that fat to shiver all night, which keeps them warm. The human equivalent would be a 165-pound man who spent a frigid night outside and emerged 15 pounds lighter by the next… read more

When people first walked across the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago, dogs were by their sides, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Jennifer Leonard of the Smithsonian Institute, used DNA material—some of it unearthed by miners in interior Alaska—to conclude that today’s domestic dog originated in Asia and accompanied the first humans to the New World about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Wayne suggests that man’s best friend may have enabled the arduous journey from Asia into North America.

“Dogs may have been the reason people made it across the land bridge,” said Wayne. “They can pull things, carry things, defend you from nasty carnivores, and they’re useful to eat.”

Researchers have agreed that today’s dog is the result of the domestication of wolves thousands of years ago. Before this recent study, a common thought about the precise origin of North America’s domestic dog… read more

SAN FRANCISCO — The emissions of northern dinosaurs may have led to a warmer planet 70 million years ago, said a scientist attending the 2010 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in mid-December.

Dinosaur hunters have found preserved footprints of hadrosaurs in rocks all over Alaska, including: Denali National Park, near the Colville River north of the Brooks Range, at Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula, and in Yukon-Charley National Park and Preserve.

Tony Fiorillo of the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas started thinking about all those hadrosaurs being plant-eating dinosaurs as large as elephants and their nickname, bestowed by paleontologists: cows of the Cretaceous.

At AGU, Fiorillo presented his idea that hadrosaurs were spread across the landscape at numbers comparable to today’s caribou, a calculated “standing crop” of 500,000 hadrosaurs in Alaska 70 million years ago.

He figured the output of one… read more

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

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

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

Stacey Fritz has walked through more than one dozen DEW Line sites,… read more

In 1930, the Alaska Game Commission for some reason released marmots, furry creatures the size of under-exercised house cats, on a 275-acre island between Kodiak and the Kenai Peninsula. As the years went by and few servicemen stationed on Sud Island moved on, the marmots stayed.

In the 1940s, a man who lived in Akutan tasted rabbit for the first time while working with United States Navy Seabees on Hog Island near Unalaska. He liked the meat so much that he brought a few bunnies home with him. He released them on a 134-acre island 12 miles from his home village, a place he liked to gather bird eggs. Long after the man stopped hunting them, the rabbits endured.

In 2010, managers of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge tried to turn back the clock by removing European rabbits from Poa Island and hoary marmots from Sud Island. The managers’ goal is to restore native ecosystems to islands. The mission favors seabirds over European rabbits that aren’t native to… read more

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

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

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

Here we go again. Early this week, a friend at the National Weather Service pointed to a swath of sub-zero temperatures across a map of northern Alaska. The low temperatures were anchored by minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit at the always-frigid Chandalar Lake weather station.

But, just as we begin to wince from the cold, we experience one of the best light shows of late fall and early winter. Fairy dust wafting down from the sky turns the passing ravens into Tinkerbells as they fly through glittering shafts of light. The sun, sitting low on the horizon, seems to be wearing a white Mohawk as rainbow shields hang in the air on either side. The mystical parentheses are pointed to by kids in cars and admired by people looking out south-facing windows.

These phenomena, caused by fine ice particles called diamond dust, have been detailed in print many times before. You can find them represented as colored-pencil illustrations in books produced by the first polar explorers, who… read more

A few days ago, Don Hampton heard cheers when he walked back inside the Control Room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Then the Alaska scientist saw the reason for celebration — a striking, peanut-shaped image of a comet. The close-up fired the boyish sense of wonder that long ago pushed Hampton toward exploration of outer space. At the same time, he felt a flash of pride.

A telescopic imager Hampton had helped design more than a decade ago captured the glowing knuckles and smooth waistline of the comet Hartley 2, which is perhaps a fragment of the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. The recent portrait of the comet is even more impressive considering it was like snapping an image of Seward, while hovering above Fairbanks.

Hampton, who teaches physics classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and works at the Geophysical Institute’s Poker Flat Research Range, was invited to California to be part of the continued operation of a… read more

The year is 1905. You are a prospector in Alaska relaxing in your cabin after a chilly day of working the tailings pile. Craving a cup of joe, you pull a tin of coffee off the shelf. Though you can’t imagine it, that distinctive red can, the one you will later use for your precious supply of nails, will long outlive you. And it will give an archaeologist a good idea of when you made your Alaska home.

The coffee was Hills Bros. The can was vacuum-sealed. For more than a decade, no other coffee company mastered this technique that was first used with butter. This made Hills Bros. of San Francisco the primary choice of early Gold Rush cabin dwellers. The pungent beverage was so popular in Alaska it inspired a local archaeologist to produce a field guide, the “Hills Bros. Coffee Can Chronology.”

Steve Lanford of the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks finds Hills Bros. cans valuable because he finds the sturdy cans at old cabin sites all over interior Alaska. Lanford… read more

In the cold waters off northern Alaska, ringed seals dive for cod and shrimp. Sometimes the seals stay beneath the ice for longer than 30 minutes, which is about six times longer than the best human diver. This ability to survive low oxygen levels has intrigued scientists for years, and has inspired a Boston physician to travel to Barrow to learn more.

Dr. Warren Zapol is the emeritus anesthetist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a Harvard professor and a member of the United States Arctic Research Commission, the duties of which recently brought him to Fairbanks. He is an expert on the workings of the human respiratory system, and pioneered the treatment of newborns with inhaled nitric oxide, which helps “blue babies” breathe. Royalties from Zapol’s life-saving invention, developed with his Swedish research fellow Claes Frostell, have funded some of his current studies.

“He is the only polar researcher I know whose work has actually saved… read more

Aaron Dupuis lost his fish. Last year, the graduate student installed radio tags on a few dozen whitefish in a maze of lakes near Minto, Alaska. Using a radio receiver, he followed some fish up the Chatanika River to where they spawned, but the location of about 40 others were a mystery. Dupuis’ search for the missing whitefish helped lead biologists to the discovery of an unlikely gathering place “boiling with fish.”

Dupuis, who has since earned a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, searched for his lost whitefish in drainages near where he had previously caught them. Washington Creek. No luck. Tatalina River. Nope. Upper Tolovana River. Not there, either. Then a biologist who has spent much of his career studying whitefish, Randy Brown of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offered Dupuis a ride in a Cessna about 1,500 feet above the Tanana River.

“I had all but given up hope finding these fish,” Dupuis said. “(But) over the course of two… read more

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 out these dollars for years, but not since 1998, when two brothers in Scotland returned a disk they had found in the rocks there.… read more

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

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

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

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

At the end of this century, more graceful white bodies of migrating trumpeter swans will glide over Alaska. Alpine slopes will be quieter, with less piercing whistles from the Alaska marmot. Caribou will find fewer patches of tasty lichen and other favorite foods. A lanky grass will invade the Seward Peninsula and explode along Alaska’s road system.

This may be the Alaska of 2099. Or it may not. However, this is the best-guess scenario of researchers who used climate models and all the relevant information they could find to predict the future of Alaska landscapes, how the state’s ecosystems may change, and how all that could affect four different species in Alaska.

Karen Murphy and John Morton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Nancy Fresco and Falk Huettmann compiled the report… read more

At the end of this century, more graceful white bodies of migrating trumpeter swans will glide over Alaska. Alpine slopes will be quieter, with less piercing whistles from the Alaska marmot. Caribou will find fewer patches of tasty lichen and other favorite foods. A lanky grass will invade the Seward Peninsula and explode along Alaska’s road system.

This may be the Alaska of 2099. Or it may not. However, this is the best-guess scenario of researchers who used climate models and all the relevant information they could find to predict the future of Alaska landscapes, how the state’s ecosystems may change, and how all that could affect four different species in Alaska.

Karen Murphy and John Morton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Nancy Fresco and Falk Huettmann compiled the report with the help of many others. The team used data from Alaska weather stations to prime the best computer models representing climate. The data was… read more

Attracted by some of the smallest creatures in Alaska, dozens of the state’s largest gathered last week off Point Barrow.

Bowhead whales in groups of almost 100 were grouped a few tens of miles from Barrow to take advantage of one of the richest whale feeding hotspots off the coast of Alaska. Steve Okkonen was there to see them in the shallow waters above the continental shelf north of Barrow.

“The whales we saw Friday and Saturday were in eight meters of water,” said Okkonen, a research associate professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “That’s an eight-meter (-long) animal in eight meters of water, sometimes up to a 15-meter animal in eight meters of water.”

The creatures, weighing more than 100 bull moose, were congregating off Point Barrow because of a staggering concentration of one of their favorite foods, krill. Krill, shrimplike organism about an inch long, are so small it would take a few hundred to… 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 lowest extents in September have been in the past four years,” Serreze said.

This year might have been a good one to attempt to sail… read more

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

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

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

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

On a recent expedition to Alaska’s Quartz Lake, four-year-old visitor to Alaska Garrett Ast plucked a caterpillar from a twig. As Garrett held it in his palm, the caterpillar reared up and — with two sparkling baby blues — looked him right in the eye. Upon closer inspection, my nephew saw that, though striking; the caterpillar’s eyes weren’t real.

So was born the question of why a caterpillar might invest energy in producing a set of fake eyes. A little investigation led to a science research paper with one of the best examples of a first paragraph in its genre:

“You are a 12-gram, insectivorous, tropical rainforest bird, foraging in shady, tangled, dappled, rustling foliage where edible caterpillars and other insects are likely to shelter. You want to live 10-20 years. You are peering under leaves, poking into rolled ones, searching around stems, exploring bark crevices and other insect hiding places. Abruptly an eye appears, 1-5 centimeters from your bill. … If you… read more

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

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

“Can I come with you?” Akasofu asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Stevens said.

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

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

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

Forester Tom Malone once guided me on a trek to see Alaska’s largest black spruce tree. It was a short adventure. The 71-foot tree is a two-minute walk from my office.

The Alaska champion black spruce tree stands on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The tree lives in a mixed forest next to large white spruce trees, mature birch and a few alders and willows. The tree leans uphill, and its trunk is 45 inches around. When I hugged it, I could barely clasp my hands together. The largest black spruce in Alaska is a lucky tree, because its neighbors to the north are gone, removed in the mid-1990s during the installation of a power line.

The Alaska champion black spruce stood exposed for a few years before a researcher visiting from Iceland, a land of many volcanoes but few trees, pointed it out to forest geneticist John Alden as they walked by in the spring of 2001.

“He said, ‘That’s a black spruce,’” Alden said. “I said, no, it was too large. I didn’… read more

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

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

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

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 Earth from west to east, it tilts northward. This shift leaves the Interior as vulnerable as a football quarterback with a… read more

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

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

Consider Mount Waialeale in Hawaii, where it rains more than an inch every single day. Or Cherrapunji, India, which… read more

From the more-you-look-the-more-you-see file, I present the willow rose.

The willow rose is lovely, green and unexpected, its whirled petals gracing the top of Alaska willows like the most delicate blossom in the cooler of a flower shop.  But this rose is cultivated by an insect that manipulates the poor willow for both food and shelter, often at a price to the bug that seems worse than death. 

Willow roses often appear on Barclay willows, one of 33 species of Alaska’s most numerous trees. The Barclay, named for an English botanist who sailed the west coast of America in 1835-1841, is a common willow on riverbanks from the Yukon River southward in Alaska. Because it’s hard to tell one willow from another, the presence of willow roses helps botanists know they are looking at a Barclay.

A fly about the size and shape of a small mosquito is responsible for altering the willow to its liking to create the willow rose. In springtime, after the snow is gone but… read more

Could ancient mammoth hunters have warmed the planet? A trio of scientists presents the idea in a new study. 
The far north landscape was changing about 15,000 years ago. Trees and shrubs were invading the great grasslands that hosted woolly mammoths and horses. Around that time, the mammoths, horses and other grass-eating animals disappeared.

In a recent study published in the Geophysical Research Letters, three scientists wrote that a great increase in birch shrubs at the time was because of a lack of mammoths to browse them down, caused by hunters that wiped out the mammoth. This increase in woody plants changed the color of the landscape, darkening it to absorb more heat.

“The basic idea is that a small number of humans with primitive technology could have had a detectable impact on climate,” said Chris Field, head of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. Field is one of the… read more

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

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

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

An ancient jawbone has led scientists to believe that polar bears survived a period thousands of years ago that was warmer than today.

Sandra Talbot of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage was one of 14 scientists who teamed to write a paper based on a polar bear jawbone found amid rocks on a frigid island of the Svalbard Archipelago. The scientists determined the bear was an adult male that lived and died somewhere between 130,000 to 110,000 years ago, and that bear was similar to polar bears today. Charlotte Lindqvist of the University at Buffalo in New York was the lead author on the paper, published in the March 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An Icelandic researcher in 2004 found a fossilized lower jawbone, in excellent condition and complete with a canine tooth, on a narrow spit of land on the far west edge of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. It was a stunning find because there aren’t many fossils of polar bears around.… read more

In these days of endless sunshine and air that doesn’t hurt to breathe, life is rich in the north, from the multitude of baby birds hatching at this instant to the month-old orange moose calves restocking the Alaska ungulate population. Less seen are the millions of insects now dancing across the tundra and floating in air.

Because of they come to us, mosquitoes are perhaps the most noticeable of Alaska’s insects. Peter Adler, a professor of entomology at Clemson University who does work in Alaska, reported the possibility that more than 12 million adult mosquitoes may live above each acre of the worst-infested northern tundra. He also quoted other scientists who measured more than 600,000 black fly larvae in about three square feet of streambed.

The floor of the boreal forest is often so alive you can almost see it move. Biologist Stephen MacLean once did the math — about one-half million soil mites, eight-legged relatives of the spiders, occupy each three-foot… read more

OFF POINT BARROW — “We’re a long ways offshore,” Craig George says. “The water beneath us is about 180 feet deep.”
In late May, a chilly breeze cuts from the west as we stand on a platform of bluish white sea ice. “The Perch,” a whale-watching tower located on a snowmachine cul de sac at the top of North America, is a small castle made of ice chunks and an impressive amount of labor. George, fellow biologist Leslie Pierce and I are at the ragged edge of sea ice that clings to the northern coast. Eiders, sea ducks almost as large as geese, bark in the cool air above the open water a few hundred yards ahead of us; the first loons to arrive this far north zip by on their way to summer.

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

“We landed on St. Matthew Island early on a cold gray August morning, and judge our astonishment at finding hundreds of large polar bears . . . lazily sleeping in grassy hollows, or digging up grass and other roots, browsing like hogs.”
Henry Wood Elliott wrote this account for Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization in 1875. Elliott was a U.S. government biologist studying fur seals on the Pribilof Islands and overseeing the harvest of their skins, used to make fur coats. In 1874, he made a trip a few hundred miles north to St. Matthew Island to confirm the rumor of hundreds of polar bears that spent their summers on one of the most remote islands in the Bering Sea.
Elliott and his party explored the island for nine days and had polar bears in sight each minute. He estimated there were at least 250 bears on the island, and the bears seemed in excellent condition, though they were molting their winter fur. This summer, there are no… read more

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

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

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

Because the tsunami happened at low tide in an area with some of the largest tidal ranges on Earth, the sea rising 20 feet was almost the same as if high tide returned early. Researchers think the damage from the 1883 tsunami was limited to some low-lying shelters being flooded… read more

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

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

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

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

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

While hiking the rocky high country on one of the westernmost islands in Alaska a few years ago, Robb Kaler stumbled onto a birder’s dream. Walking around a knee-high volcanic boulder, Kaler flushed a plump little seabird. The bird bounced off a rock and disappeared into the fog. Kaler looked down and saw a turquoise egg in a shallow cup of tundra.

“I knew it was something great,” Kaler said.

Kaler had stumbled upon a bird, the Kittlitz’s murrelet, so elusive that biologists had during the last century written about finding nests just two dozen times. The secretive little bird had become a symbol of species threatened by shrinking glaciers.

The discovery was just the beginning for Kaler, a biologist who was studying a species of ptarmigan on the island for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. When he and his field assistant and partner Leah Kenney combed the higher spots of the 55,535-acre island for Kittlitz’s murrelet nests, they found 11 in 2006, 17… read more

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

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

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

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

On a fine spring day about 70 million years ago, a few dozen duck-billed dinosaurs waded a channel of a great northern river. As they strode on two legs into the cloudy water, the man-size hadrosaurs had no idea how the sunshine was affecting the snowpack in the high mountains to the south.

A pulse of meltwater from the high country had swollen the river to much higher levels in the span of just a few hours. The dinosaurs ventured out too far, lost their footing, struggled and drowned. The river carried the bodies of the beasts downstream, depositing them at what is now a bend of the Colville River.

In a new paper, researchers write that large floods in ancient Alaska may be responsible for the impressive deposits of dinosaur bones they have found on Alaska’s North Slope.

“The Cretaceous Arctic of northern Alaska may have witnessed the coastal plain being a seasonal killing field,” wrote Tony Fiorillo, Paul McCarthy and Peter Flaig in an upcoming issue of the… 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 shaved head who is visiting them. When the video finishes, Yoshikawa projects on the whiteboard an engineer’s report from mid-… 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 forests that had formerly ringed the island. He recently gave a presentation at UAF to discuss his team’s findings.

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During the next month, while many of us are sleeping, Alaska’s population will increase by millions. The migrant birds are returning, and, thanks to tracking technology that gets better each year, we know where some of them are.

A male whimbrel that’s probably headed to the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge in Interior Alaska is now in alfalfa fields just south of the Salton Sea in northern Mexico.

“I think he’s putting on fat to do a nonstop flight from the Salton Sea to Alaska,” said Bob Gill of the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.

The handsome shorebird with the long, curved beak spent the winter on an island off the coast of Chile. On March 23, the bird took off from the island and flew more than 5,000 miles, nonstop, to northern Mexico. At times, backed by stiff winds, the whimbrel flew more than 60 mph. Gill has been following its progress using a satellite transmitter he and others surgically implanted in the birds last summer.… 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 knows the slough well enough to point out the spot where wolves make a portage trail over a lobe of forest pinched by the… read more

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

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

When Tarr and Martin arrived in Yakutat, prospector A. Flenner was working as a carpenter there six years after the series of large earthquakes, the biggest being a magnitude 8 that happened on Sept. 10, 1899. Flenner had been panning for gold in the area that day.

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

Garbage allows gulls to thrive in the oilfields of northern Alaska, and furry little pikas might be changing their body shapes in response to changes in climate, according to two graduate students who recently gave public defenses of their theses at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Emily Weiser spent a few summers on Alaska’s North Slope, studying glaucous gulls, creamy white and gray birds most people refer to as “seagulls.” The birds spend their summers off the north coast of Alaska and inland up to about 100 miles.

Weiser studied gulls at Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost city; at Cape Simpson, where no people live; at Alpine oil field, in the North Slope’s Colville River Delta; and at Deadhorse, a town just south of Prudhoe Bay. She wanted to see if the presence of available garbage enhanced the population of glaucous gulls, which eat just about everything, including the eggs and chicks of other birds.

“Glaucous gulls are the most abundant human-subsidized… read more

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

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

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

While weaving through streets upon which people had set up temporary living spaces, Koehler and others searched in vain for torn ground that showed the expression of the earthquake. Such markers enable geologists to learn quite a bit about the earthquakes that caused them.

“We didn’t… read more

One fall day in Interior Alaska, a lion stalked a ground squirrel that stood exposed on a hillside like a foot-long sandwich. The squirrel saw bending blades of grass, squeaked an alarm call, and then dived into its hole. It curled up in a grassy nest. A few months later, for reasons unknown, its heart stopped during hibernation.

Twenty thousand years later, Ben Gaglioti is teasing apart the mummified ground squirrel’s cache in an attempt to better reconstruct what Alaska was like during the days of the mammoth, bison, wild horse and camel.

Gaglioti is a graduate student with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology and the Water and Environmental Research Center. He is using tools ranging from tweezers to an isotope-analyzing device in his attempt to sift Alaska’s distant past from the midden of a ground squirrel that perished during the last ice age. At that time, from about 14,000 to 45,000 years ago, North America looked much different than… 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 about snow, with a nod… read more

A few years ago, 82-year-old Wilfred "Wilf" Blezard remembered the coldest day recorded in North America's history. Blezard was one of four weathermen stationed at the Snag airport in Yukon, Canada, on Feb. 3, 1947. On that day, the temperature dropped to minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit.

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

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

"When a plane flew over at 10,000 feet, it sounded like it was in your bedroom," he said.
On that day, Blezard and his coworkers for the Weather Service of Canada filed a notch into the glass casing of an alcohol thermometer because the indicator within fell below the lowest number, 80 below zero. When… read more

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

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

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

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

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

When a glacier like… read more

Six thousand reindeer once lived on a remote island in the Bering Sea that was briefly their paradise. In what has become a classic story of wildlife boom and bust, no reindeer live on St. Matthew Island now. Three scientists just looked back at the St. Matthew’s reindeer herd and found that an extreme winter probably pushed the stressed animals to their deaths.

The story began in August 1944, when the U.S. Coast Guard corralled 29 Nunivak Island reindeer on a barge and floated the animals north to St. Matthew Island, more than 200 miles away and one of the most remote places in Alaska. Coast Guard officials had earlier in the year placed a radio navigational system on the island, along with 19 men. The reindeer were intended as a roaming food source should the men be cut off from supply shipments.

The men never shot a single reindeer; the Allies were winning the war, and the Coast Guard pulled its men from the island. They left the reindeer.

This was a fine… read more

Six thousand reindeer once lived on a remote island in the Bering Sea that was briefly their paradise. In what has become a classic story of wildlife boom and bust, no reindeer live on St. Matthew Island now. Three scientists just looked back at the St. Matthew’s reindeer herd and found that an extreme winter probably pushed the stressed animals to their deaths.

The story began in August 1944, when the U.S. Coast Guard corralled 29 Nunivak Island reindeer on a barge and floated the animals north to St. Matthew Island, more than 200 miles away and one of the most remote places in Alaska. Coast Guard officials had earlier in the year placed a radio navigational system on the island, along with 19 men. The reindeer were intended as a roaming food source should the men be cut off from supply shipments.

The men never shot a single reindeer; the Allies were winning the war, and the Coast Guard pulled its men from the island. They left the reindeer.

This was a fine… read more

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

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

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.

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Arctic haze, a blob of dirty air that fuzzes up Alaska views in springtime, seems to be losing its punch.

By comparing air measurements in Barrow from the 1970s to 2008, scientists have found that pollution particles from factories in Russia and Eurasia have become fewer and fewer in the last 30 years.

“The Arctic haze is disappearing,” said Glenn Shaw, who did pioneering research on the phenomenon and is the co-author on a recent paper about its decrease. “We don’t know why.”

Shaw, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, has in years past stopped passersby to point out how Arctic haze—pollution particles in the air that scatter light—has “obliterated” views of the Alaska Range in springtime. In recent years, he has noticed that the vistas have been much clearer from Fairbanks, and instrumentation in Barrow seems to back that up.

“There’s less of the industrial signal, of what’s typically been known as Arctic… read more

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

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

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

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

Scientist and explorer Kenji Yoshikawa found permafrost on Mount Kilimanjaro, a volcano in Tanzania. During a September climb of Africa’s highest peak (19,331 feet), the University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher found permafrost not beneath the summit glaciers, but down the mountain a bit, at about 15,400 feet. There, outside the rocky border made by the terminal moraine of an ancient glacier, he found ground beneath the surface that has been frozen for many years. Permafrost is soil or any other ground material that has remained frozen through the heat of at least two summers. Yoshikawa thinks the ground’s exposure to cold air for many years formed the permafrost since glaciers never covered the area during the last extremely cold period.

Yoshikawa found no permafrost at the summit, where daytime ground temperatures reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and then plunged to minus 23 degrees at night. He thinks permafrost didn’t form at Kilimanjaro’s peak for two reasons—glaciers… read more

The words permafrost and equator don’t seem to go together, but ground that has remained frozen for at least two summers survives in high, cold refuges scattered near the globe’s midsection. A team of Alaskans is headed to Africa to try and find it.

Mount Kilimanjaro is an ancient volcano that rises to 19,331 feet above sea level in Tanzania, Africa. The mountain is closer to the equator than Fairbanks is to Anchorage, but it hosts a few disappearing glaciers and possibly the frozen ground you would encounter if you sunk a shovel into the tundra near Galbraith Lake.

Elena Sparrow of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center will travel to Africa in late September to direct a project that combines educational outreach with a nine-day trek up Africa’s highest peak. On the trek will be a half-dozen African students and UAF permafrost scientist and adventurer Kenji Yoshikawa.

“It’s part of the GLOBE (Global Learning Observations to… read more

As I sit typing this column, I smell smoke. The molecules of fire-killed black spruce trees and tundra plants have wafted from a mushroom cloud on the Tanana Flats into the buildings on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With three quiet fire years behind us, 2009 is a noticeable fire year.

“This one was late starting, but it’s already above average,” said Michael Richmond, Fire Weather Program Manager of the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. Richmond’s office is a floor above mine, and it, too, smells like a campfire. “The average acreage burned from 1955 to 2008 is about 910,000 acres (per year), and today (July 27, 2009) we’re at 1.6 million acres.”

That’s more acres than St. Lawrence Island, and more than Baranof Island. It’s more land area than Delaware. It’s like 90 flaming Manhattans, and the acreage will probably be greater than Kodiak Island and its 2.3 million acres before the fire season is over.

“Every day, we’re burning up at… read more

Syun-Ichi Akasofu has a forecast for the average global temperature during the next few decades—cool.
Akasofu, the former director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center, was known as an aurora expert for most of his career. Now, people are citing his opinions on global warming. Rush Limbaugh and syndicated columnist Cal Thomas recently mentioned Akasofu, who thinks it’s likely that the planet will cool down until about 2030, and then warm slightly thereafter. That notion is contrary to the prediction of steadily increasing warmth made by members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unlike those scientists, Akasofu thinks natural forces affect climate much more than carbon dioxide, which warms the globe by trapping heat.

Akasofu, who gave a recent presentation on his ideas in Fairbanks, bases his cooling prediction on his studies of climate records that go back several centuries, such as the… read more

Here are some more Alaska nuggets gathered while wandering the cavernous halls of San Francisco’s Moscone Center. More than 16,000 scientists met there in December 2008 for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Keith Echelmeyer flew his Super Cub the equivalent of about halfway around the world while flying down Alaska glaciers from 1999 to 2001, and that didn’t include his trips getting to and from the glaciers. The retired Geophysical Institute professor was taking measurements of the glacier’s elevations with a laser system installed in his plane, and the heights he recorded have allowed researchers like Chris Larsen and his colleagues at the Geophysical Institute to determine that much of Alaska’s low-lying ice is disappearing at twice to three times the rate it was a few years ago. The Harding Icefield capping the Kenai Peninsula, for example, has shrunk at the rate of about four feet a year recently, up from about two feet each year from 1994-… read more

More than 16,000 scientists, a few dozen of them Alaskans, just gathered in San Francisco for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. My bosses at the Geophysical Institute sent me down with them. Here are some of the items that made it into the notebook:

  • Though this summer’s melt season didn’t top 2007’s record-low sea ice coverage on the Arctic Ocean, northern ice took another big hit in 2008. This year, researchers saw the second-lowest coverage of the northern seas since satellite measurements began in the late 1970s. “To my mind, the recovery from second worst is no recovery at all,” said Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. He said the sea ice is disappearing faster than models are predicting, and the “kick” that sent sea ice reeling might have been a “perfect storm” of natural atmospheric circulation conditions in 2007 that teamed with manmade global warming to compromise the ice. “It’s quite possible… read more

Sometimes, columns I write spur a few return notes. Here’s some recent correspondence from the in-box:

  • Following a column about her thesis on vitamin D production among sun-starved Fairbanks residents, Meredith Tallas of Oakland, Calif. showed me a recent study on vitamin D in which the researchers concluded that wild salmon contain more of the healthful substance than farmed salmon.

“We recently conducted a study and observed that wild-caught salmon had on average 500–1000 IU vitamin D in 100 g (3.5 ounces), whereas farmed salmon contained 100–250 IU vitamin D per 100-g serving,” wrote Michael Holick of Boston University School of Medicine in the April 2008 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “The most likely reason is that vitamin D is plentiful in the food chain but is not plentiful in the pelleted diet fed to farmed salmon.”

  • Richard Flanders of Fairbanks said a recent column about Brooks Range snowshoe hares… read more

Cathy Cahill got a package in the mail last week from a desert on the other side of the world. She didn’t know what was inside, but she hoped it was air samples from Baghdad. When she opened the package, she didn’t believe her eyes.

"I’ve never seen that much dust (on a slide used for air sampling),” she said. “There’s so much that it’s flaking off.”

Cahill, who works at the Geophysical Institute at UAF, studies air quality in Alaska and all over the world. In November, Pam Clark of the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Maryland, asked Cahill if she could deploy a few air samplers at Army camps in Iraq, as part of an Army program to study the air in places where military members are stationed. Cahill enlisted a few soldiers to help her, and she is now sampling the air around the clock at two sites in Baghdad.

Her first batch of samples came to Alaska in the form of eight transparent slides that captured things floating in the air. The slides fit inside an… read more

If you like gardening, you might scratch Barrow off your list of places to live. Alaska’s farthest north town experiences about 10 frost-free days each year. Also, you would have trouble watering your plants there, especially in 1934, when an Alaska-record low 1.4 inches of precipitation fell—all year.

In stark contrast, your broccoli would have needed an umbrella in Angoon on an October day in 1982, when 15 inches of rain fell. And you probably needed more than a shovel if you were driving through Thompson Pass at the end of December in 1955, when more than five feet of snow fell in one day.

On the bright side for Barrow, its citizens are gaining 15 minutes of sunlight every day right now, in early February, while Annette in Southeast Alaska gains just four minutes per day. And Barrow is also a great place to fly a kite; the town experiences calm conditions just one percent of the time.

I know these things because I own a copy of The Climate of Alaska, a book… read more

In my job as a science writer, I often sit in on lectures in which scientists describe their work. Those talks range from informative to incomprehensible (to me, at least), but sometimes they stand out because the scientist as human being emerges from behind the PowerPoint. Such was the case when Matthew Sturm gave a recent presentation on his group’s trip by snowmachine last spring from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Baker Lake, near the western shore of Hudson Bay in Canada.

Sturm studies snow for the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory out of Fort Wainwright, and he has had the confidence and credibility over the years to ask agencies to fund winter traverses that adventurers would drool over. Last spring’s trip covered 2,200 miles, and six other travelers and Sturm were on their snowmachines arcing north of the Arctic Circle for 45 days starting in mid-March.

Along the way, the team took snow and ice measurements in one of the most remote regions of the… read more

Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio’s “Science Friday,” sat on a stage at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently and listened to Alaska scientists talk about thawing permafrost, melting glaciers and sea ice, and shrubs that are replacing tundra plants in the Arctic.

“I get the suspicion from talking to you scientists and other scientists that things are a lot worse than scientists are really willing to admit, just out of fear of alarming the public,” Flatow said. “Why sugarcoat it?”

It was a watershed moment of the two-hour radio program, broadcast nationally and made possible by UAF Summer Sessions. Flatow was calling out the scientists, who are a thoughtful, cautious bunch by nature.

“It’s the sort of challenge he should be throwing at us,” said Terry Chapin, an ecologist with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology.

During the radio show, Chapin said warming-related changes in the north are so widespread and obvious that inaction isn’t an option… read more

Police officers don't often get a straight story when they ask a driver where he got that bag of marijuana under his car seat. In the near future, they might be able to ask the marijuana itself.

Using a process called stable-isotope analysis, Alaska scientists have been working with law enforcement officials to trace marijuana to the area in which it grew.

Matthew Wooller is one of those scientists. He runs the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where researchers break substances down to their chemical elements to learn where they came from. Wooller went to a conference in New Zealand a few years ago where a scientist lectured about using stable isotopes to track people and counterfeit money, to sniff out the source of explosions, and to find the sources of illegal drugs. The talk inspired him.

“When I was flying back to Alaska, I thought, ‘I’d love to do an Alaska forensic drug study,’” he said.

Marijuana is the most… read more

Traverses across the bumps of the frozen northern landscape are not easy, but two scientific teams I recently wrote about are cruising right along.

University of Alaska Fairbanks permafrost scientist Kenji Yoshikawa and his partner Tohru Saito of the International Arctic Research Center zipped through a trip down the Yukon River with two snowmachines and three sleds. They traveled from Manley Hot Springs to St. Marys in less than two weeks, installing permafrost-monitoring stations at Manley, Galena, Kaltag, Shageluk, Russian Mission, Marshall, and St. Marys. Along the way, they pulled off the trail for head-on passes with the top 10 Iditarod mushers near Eagle Island, and each put about 800 miles on his snowmachine.

“I really liked this trip,” Yoshikawa said when he returned to Fairbanks. “Every night and every day we met new people who helped us out.”

Saito and Yoshikawa would drive between villages, sometimes in air as cold as minus 40, or along a river… read more

On a sunny day in mid-March, five men on snowmachines will pull out of a building on Fort Wainwright and ride down a snow ramp to the frozen Chena River. After leaving Fairbanks on March 15, they will continue on for 45 days, when they will have ridden almost all the way to Hudson Bay in Canada. Along the way, they will stop at village schools, soak up the history and the mystique of the barrenlands in northern Canada and collect samples of snow and soot from some of North America’s most remote country.

Matthew Sturm of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Fort Wainwright is the leader of the trek across North America’s Arctic.

“Me and Jon (Holmgren, the mechanical wizard of the trip who owns a machine shop in Fairbanks) were sitting around his shop one day and I said, ‘I’m 54 years old, and I love the Arctic, but I don’t feel like I’m educated about the Arctic. Before I die, I want to see the barrenlands.’”

The plan for a trip was… read more

Seasons are not what they once were in Alaska. Ice roads on Alaska’s North Slope have a shorter lifespan than they had 30 years ago. The extent of sea ice hugging the northern coastlines gets smaller every year. These changes affect Alaskans and people who work in Alaska, and a few scientists just received funding to make climate science user-friendly for those people.

“If I’m buying boats to move oil to villages on the west coast of Alaska, I need to know if I should buy boats to handle broken ice or no ice at all,” said Dan White, the head of the Institute of Northern Engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Right now, there are no climate services that tell you what kind of ice to expect in five years off the coast of Alaska.”

White, along with John Walsh of the International Arctic Research Center, Fran Ulmer of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at UAA, and Craig Gerlach of UAF’s Department of Anthropology are among the scientists involved… read more

While trolling the poster sessions at the Moscone Center in San Francisco during the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (attended by more than 13,000 scientists), a person bumps into a great deal of information on Alaska. Here are some notes from the legal pad:

In September 2005, a massive rock avalanche on a remote mountain peak registered on seismometers all over Alaska. Earthquakes sometimes rattle steep mountains and cause avalanches, but no earthquake preceded the collapse on Mount Steller, located about 80 miles east of Cordova. A scientist may have found the trigger for the rock and snowslide that fell about 8,000 feet, sheared off a glacier on the way down, and spewed black rock that extended six miles from the mountain.

A year after the event, Bruce Molnia, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia, was looking at aerial photos of Mount Steller and saw a hole in the surviving ice face that didn’t fall from the top of the mountain… read more

Greg Finstad and his crew with the University of Alaska’s Reindeer Research Project had endured a rough day on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, driving 65 bumpy miles to the village of Teller only to find the wind blowing so hard that they couldn’t launch a boat on Grantley Harbor to help out a reindeer herder.

A guest at the Reindeer House, I told Greg about a weather station we had installed on top of Teller’s school as part of the Arctic Climate Modeling Program. The station was broadcasting weather information to the Internet, and showed the current Teller wind speed was 24 miles per hour with gusts to 41.

Finstad bookmarked the Teller weather station on his laptop, and I felt a bolt of satisfaction. Here, a researcher in the field was using one of the weather stations installed by our crew from the Geophysical Institute, and he’d check the wind speed with it the next day to see if he and his crew would make the drive back to Teller.

For a few weeks in June and… read more

Lightning, long thought to have a fondness for high ground, may instead have a thing for the boreal forest. At least that's what University of Alaska researchers who track lightning strikes are finding.

Because lightning is responsible for most of the acreage burned in Alaska every year, Bureau of Land Management technicians installed lightning sensors at Unalakleet, Bethel, Galena, McGrath, Tanana, Bettles, Ft. Yukon, Fairbanks and Tanacross. Most of the sensors are in the Interior because that's where the vast majority of lightning strikes happen.

Dorte Dissing and her academic advisor Dave Verbyla, both of the UAF department of forest sciences, use BLM sensors to track lightning strikes. While working on her Ph.D. degree, Dissing and Verbyla noticed that dots on a map representing lightning strikes neatly covered the range of boreal forest in Alaska. Boreal forest consists of spruce, birch, aspen, willow and other trees. The area in Alaska covered by boreal… read more

A snow-capped mountain 418 miles away has busied up the new year for some Fairbanks scientists.

After working the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, Jon Dehn hurried back into the office Tuesday morning when a seismologist called him to say Augustine Volcano was again rumbling. Dehn drove into work at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The institute is home of the Fairbanks branch of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint program of the United States Geological Survey, the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys and the Geophysical Institute. On his computer, Dehn called up a NOAA weather satellite image that showed a hotspot at the 4,000-foot summit of the cone-shaped volcano. Dehn, a remote-sensing specialist at the volcano observatory, called his AVO colleagues in Anchorage and told them that the satellite, orbiting Earth about 850 miles above the mountain and sending information to a satellite dish at the Geophysical… read more

One hundred thousand glaciers, 41 volcanoes that have erupted since the 1700s, 11 percent of the world’s earthquakes: Alaska has its share of superlatives. And here’s another one—Alaska has the largest maar on Earth.

What’s a maar? It looks a lot like a lake. It’s circular and it exists because of colossal explosions that happened when molten rock met water. Jim Beget has visited the world’s largest set of maars, located on the northern horn of the Seward Peninsula east of Shishmaref.

Landforms shaped in dramatic fashion intrigue Beget, who works for the Alaska Volcano Observatory and the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. At a recent science conference he showed a photo of the Devil Mountain Lakes maar, the largest one on Earth.

The Seward Peninsula, home to Nome, Shishmaref, Elim and other towns and villages, seems an unlikely place for volcanoes. Unlike the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, or the Wrangell… read more

Midwinter may seem an odd time to think back to midsummer, but 2005 was another extraordinary fire year in Alaska, and the stats are in.

Michael Richmond of the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks wrote a recent review of the 2005 fire year, during which Alaska lost more acreage to fire than it had in all but two of the preceding 50 years (detailed Alaska fire records only go back to 1956). Richmond is the Fire Weather Program Manager for the Fairbanks office.

An area of Alaska larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island burned in 2005, this after a chunk of acreage burned in 2004 that equaled the size of Vermont. The 4.5 million acres in 2005 was dwarfed only by the 6.7 million acres last year and the 5 million acres that burned in 1957.

Weatherwise, why did so much of Alaska burn again in 2005? The snowfall levels over the winter in the Interior were close to average, which might make one… read more

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

His little boy wakes, dresses, and hands his father birch logs to add to the wood stove. The logs are heavy, cut last fall and not properly dried. The green wood contains almost 50 percent moisture, compared to about 30 percent in cured wood. The logs hiss amid other burning logs. They give off no heat until the moisture is driven off.

Outside, the car is plugged in. The father remembered the night before to activate the heating element that warms his antifreeze, which in turn keeps his motor oil just viscous enough to allow the pistons to move. A heat blanket, another northern adaptation, has kept the battery at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, just warm enough to permit 50… read more

When a person searches the word “Alaska” in the computer abstracts for the recent fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, that person gets 265 hits. Many scientists are studying Alaska. Here’s what some are finding:

  • About 47 percent of ground underlying the Interior—the land between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range—has permafrost beneath it, according to a survey done by Torre Jorgenson of Alaska Biological Research, Inc. and Tom George of Terra-Terpret. In a Cessna 185, George flew at 5,000 feet above ground level east to west over the Interior and took digital photographs that Jorgenson analyzed for terrain features that suggested permafrost. In a preliminary count, Jorgenson also calculated that 7 percent of the Interior showed signs of thawed permafrost. In those areas, he saw evidence of thermokarst—collapsed ground often filled with water or covered with mats of floating vegetation.
  • read more

I just returned from the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco, a weeklong gathering of almost 12,000 scientists. My notebook is heavy. I lighten it here:

  • Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound is North America’s largest single contributor to rising sea level, according to Tad Pfeffer of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Columbia delivers 10 percent of what Alaska and Yukon glaciers are putting into the ocean, he said. Each year, the glacier spits 2 cubic miles of ice into the ocean, the equivalent of 100,000, 500-foot barges packed with ice.
  • The number of lakes in an Alaska-size area of Siberia decreased from 10,882 to 9.712 between 1973 and 1997, said Laurence Smith of the UCLA Department of Geography. Despite the decrease, lakes in the North grew larger because of collapses that happen during the early stages of thawing permafrost, he said.
  • Before the magnitude 7.9 earthquake of November 2002, the last major earthquake to… read more

SAN FRANCISCO—More than 11,000 scientists have traveled here to attend the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. That's a lot of humanity for a guy who just got off a plane from Fairbanks, but some of the conference rooms at the Moscone Center feel just like home. Images of Alaska show up on dozens of lecture-hall screens and glossy posters here, with more than 200 presentations about Alaska. Here's some bits and pieces from my notebook:

  • Jeff Freymueller of UAF's Geophysical Institute gave a talk on how Global Positioning Receivers can perhaps speed up warnings issued for tsunamis generated by the largest earthquakes. Eleven minutes after the great Sumatra earthquake of December 2004, scientists with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center registered the magnitude of the undersea earthquake at 8.0, a number they revised to 8.5, 45 minutes later, Freymueller said. Scientist now believe the magnitude is somewhere near 9.2. The difference between the magnitude numbers… read more

When my wife returned from the store recently, I picked through the bags to see where our groceries came from. Of 15 food products with their origins identified, none were from Alaska. The closest was a package of vegetarian hot dogs that began life in Vancouver, BC, 1,400 miles away. Bananas from Peru, which needed to ride in a heated car to survive the drive home from the store in Fairbanks, had traveled 6,420 miles. Our cheese came from Oregon, 1,600 miles away. The yogurt had moved 3,300 miles cross-country from New Hampshire.

Not counting the mileage to and from distribution points, those 15 items combined to travel 39,624 miles to get to our home in Fairbanks (a straight line around the planet is about 25,000 miles). That’s an average of about 2,600 miles for each chicken breast and stick of butter; everything we ate came to us from as far as Wisconsin. While not random—my wife buys mostly organic food—the survey showed a reality of Alaska life: most of our food moves… read more

A dog can tell you a lot about the outdoors. When Jane, my Lab, vacuums the ground with her nose and her tail moves like a helicopter blade, I know a grouse is about to fly. When Jane stops as abruptly as a dragonfly, then runs off sniffing an invisible path, I know a snowshoe hare has crossed our trail.

All this entertainment is courtesy of that most sensitive appendage, a dog's nose. It's an instrument man has not been able to duplicate. A local search-and-rescue group, PAWS, uses dogs to find lost people, dead people, and people buried under earth and snow. Dogs have also been used to find gas leaks and the presence of gypsy moth egg sacks. A researcher here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks even wants to train a dog to find tiny wood frogs hibernating in the duff.

Lurking behind those textured, damp nostrils are sensitive membranes that allow a dog to distinguish smells--molecules of odor that emanate from every living or once-living thing--at least one… read more

While I was driving the Steese Highway recently, large piles of boulders lining the road--the tailings of a gold dredge that had munched its way through the area years before--inspired a debate on gold.

One passenger spoke of what an absurdity it is that we humans place such a high value upon gold. "If jewelry isn't your thing, what good is gold?" he asked. "You can't eat it. If a space alien were to land here and ask why gold is so valuable, I don't know what I'd tell him." I looked around the car. Except for the wedding rings of my two companions, I saw no gold. Back at home, I once again failed to see any gold.

What good is gold?

My search for an answer led me to the Minerals Yearbook, published by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the yearbook, Bureau of Mines geologist John Lucas explains that gold is in almost every office and home. Touch-tone phones, for example, have up to 33 electrical contact points made of gold. Take the gold out of the… read more

Troy L. Péwé once discovered an interesting patch of woods near Ester, about nine miles east of Fairbanks. The spruce and birch trees of this forest were underground, sandwiched between layers of earth. Each tree was 125,000 years old.

Péwé, with the geology department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 1953 to 1965 and now with the department of geology at Arizona State University, found the forest when he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1949. At the time, the U.S. government had assigned Péwé and other scientists to study permafrost. Péwé examined hillside cuts made by gold miners in Ester and found trees frozen between layers of loess. Loess, pronounced "luss," is silt produced from the grinding action of glaciers that has been picked up by winds and carried elsewhere.

Because the trees were buried about 45 feet below the present-day forest at Eva Creek, Péwé knew they were old. How old he didn't find out until 50 years later, after methods of… read more

Camping on the bank of the Yukon River, I once saw three ducks floating downstream. Drifting with the current of the big river and spinning in circles when they hit an eddy, they looked like wooden decoys. When a rock falling into the water scared them, the ducks started swimming, then flew off.

I realized then the ducks had been napping as they bobbed down the river, but it's a good bet they weren't sleeping too soundly. Researchers have found that ducks and other birds sometimes sleep with one eye open. Niels Rattenborg, a sleep researcher at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, recently did a study in which he and coworkers filmed a row of mallards sleeping. The birds on the both ends of the row--those that would be most vulnerable to predators--tended to keep their exposed eyes open while they slept. Mallards with ducks on both sides of them kept both eyes shut or didn't have a preference for which eye they kept open.

While sleeping with one eye open, one… read more

While some people in Nome held a recent Cajun-food fundraiser for New Orleans hurricane victims, “the tail end of a Bering Sea storm rattled the windows,” wrote Nancy McGuire in the Nome Nugget.

Hurricanes, tropical by definition, don’t strike in Alaska, but extreme weather hammers the state’s exposed West Coast and Aleutian Islands each fall and winter.

“Storms that affect Alaska are far, far bigger than hurricanes,” said Rick Thoman, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service's Fairbanks Forecast Office. “Hurricanes are tiny compared to great storms that take up a quarter of the Bering Sea.”

Nome and other towns of Alaska's West Coast have taken the brunt of fall storms that churn up the Bering Sea before the protective cap of sea ice forms. In October 2004 and September 2005, large storms brought high winds and storm surges—high water that causes flooding—into villages and towns.

“That’s back-to-back years when we were ranked in the… read more

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

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

The Avak… read more

More than one hundred years ago, a man traveled north on a mission most people thought was ridiculous—to see if crops would grow in the frozen wasteland known as the Territory of Alaska.

That man, Charles C. Georgeson, was a special agent in charge of the United States Agricultural Experiment Stations. The secretary of agriculture charged Georgeson with the task of finding if crops and farm animals could survive in the mysterious land acquired just 21 years earlier from the Russians. When he landed at Sitka a century ago, Georgeson set in motion agricultural studies that are still carried on today at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

Georgeson was not a man easily discouraged. The experimental station site at which he landed in 1898 was in the middle of a swamp. Until he could clear and drain the land, he borrowed patches of land from Sitka settlers, as he explained in an interview in Sunset magazine in 1928:… read more

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach was checking earthquake activity at Alaska volcanoes from her Anchorage office on September 14th, a routine she performs every day at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, when she noticed a strange seismic signal on Mount Spurr.

A large shock to the earth—not as abrupt as an earthquake—had happened somewhere in Alaska. When Caplan-Auerbach saw the odd signal was even stronger on Mount Wrangell, she suspected there was a great avalanche somewhere in the restless corner of Alaska where the panhandle of Southeast meets the rest of the state.

There was. A good chunk of Mount Steller, a razorback 10,000-foot peak about 80 miles east of Cordova, had collapsed onto Bering Glacier. Rocks and ice from the mountain tumbled 8,000 vertical feet, spilling out in a chunky black delta that reached six miles from the mountain. Christian Huggel, a Swiss avalanche specialist who happened to be visiting the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage, estimated that the… read more

While snorkeling in Alaska’s largest lake a few years ago, Stephanie Carlson watched sockeye salmon change from aggressive red creatures with wolfish jaws to drab, lethargic slugs. That conversion was so quick she wondered if fish that fall apart faster have some advantage over fish that linger.

A shorter lifespan appears to be a good strategy when bears are plucking your comrades from the water next to you, Carlson reported in Anchorage at a recent meeting of the American Fisheries Society. She is a graduate student at the University of Washington enrolled in its Alaska Salmon Program. For more than 50 years scientists involved with the program have studied one of the world’s richest salmon areas, Bristol Bay.

Carlson spent parts of the last five summers in and around salmon streams that flow into Bristol Bay near Dillingham. She has pulled on a wetsuit in order to watch sockeye in Iliamna Lake, and she and her coworkers also attached tags behind the dorsal fins of… read more

UPPER SCHIST CREEK, ON THE DENALI FAULT—Standing in a grave-like trench that spanned the Denali Fault, Tony Crone squinted at a wall of rocky yellow soil.

“OK, we’ve got two, maybe three events here,” he said.

“Sweet!” said Patty Burns, chief digger on the trench and a geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys. Burns and two colleagues from Colorado were searching the western part of the Denali Fault in the Alaska Range for evidence of past earthquakes. After several days of shoveling dirt and heaving rocks, the geologists had found proof of a few ancient earthquakes that had torn the former ground surface.

They traveled to this remote alpine bench about 10 miles east of Cantwell to learn more about the fault, a line through the Alaska Range visible on maps and satellite images. When part of the fault ruptured in a whopping 7.9 earthquake in November 2002, it scarred the tundra, ice, rock and pavement surface of Alaska with a… read more

If recent warming of the north continues, the sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean each summer will disappear by the year 2100, and there doesn’t appear to be any natural switch to turn off the change, according to a group of more than 20 scientists.

“By the end of the century, if we don’t do anything about greenhouse gases, (the Arctic Ocean) will certainly be open,” said Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona, the first author on an article in the American Geophysical Union’s weekly newspaper, "EOS," on August 23. 2005. The article has 20 coauthors, including four Alaska scientists.

Matthew Sturm of Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks was one of a diverse group of scientists who gathered in Big Sky, Montana two years ago to ponder what the far north would look like if the summer ice cover of the Arctic Ocean disappears. Sturm studies snow and shrubs on Alaska’s North Slope. Also at the meeting were oceanographers,… read more

As I start a walk through time, the sun is shining in Fairbanks and a warm breeze touches my cheek. Each step I take represents one million years in the history of Earth; by the time I walk back to my office, I’ll have covered one mile and 5 billion years.

I’m checking out an exhibit of 90 museum-type panels standing outside in a somewhat linear mile on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. A professor of natural resource planning, Susan Todd, brought the national exhibition, called “Walk through Time . . . From Stardust to Us” here, and installed the panels with the help of the Quintal family. Part of Todd’s goal is that people taking the walk would gain “a concept of the immensity of time.”

Off I go, starting at UAF’s Wood Center. There I bump into atmospheric scientist and curious person Glenn Shaw, who has just passed the panels going the other way.

“It’s pretty humbling to think of every step you take as one million years,” he says.

He walks on… read more

Igor Dmitrenko looks in wonder at satellite images of ice on top of the world these days. After more than a decade of trips to the Arctic Ocean north of Russia, he's noticed open water where icebreakers had to bash through in recent years.

“This year’s ice situation is absolutely unique,” said Dmitrenko, an oceanographer and visiting associate professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The Laptev Sea is already open to 81 degrees north. I’ve never seen that in my life. Usually it’s closed to 75 degrees.”

The lack of ice covering the southern Laptev Sea, above central Siberia on the map, means that Dmitrenko and 68 others might have easy passage on an icebreaker during a September 2005 voyage. During the trip, a “summer school” organized by the International Arctic Research Center, a group of scientists and students will learn more about a pulse of warm Atlantic water that has invaded the Arctic Ocean and may be eating… read more

From time to time, pieces of Alaska science news find their way to my desk but don’t emerge as a full newspaper column. Here’s a sampling.

  • Aleutian goose continues comeback: The Aleutian cackling goose, formerly known as the Aleutian Canada goose, has recovered so well from near-extinction that officials in Oregon—where the smaller cousin to the Canada goose spends the winter—have taken the bird off the state’s endangered species list. Biologists recently counted more than 64,000 birds in Oregon. In 1962, Alaska biologist Bob “Sea Otter” Jones found a few hundred birds on Buldir Island in the western Aleutians when others thought the goose was extinct. The removal of foxes from the Aleutians and the closure of hunting season on the birds’ wintering grounds helped their recovery.
  • Alaska almost knocked off No. 2 earthquake perch: Some scientists calculated that the recent Sumatra earthquake that caused the tsunami had a… read more

An Alaska seabird his a citrus smell that may repel mosquitoes and ticks as effectively as store-bought repellants, an Alaska scientist has found.

Crested auklets nest by the thousands in old lava flows on Bering Sea islands. During the breeding season they give off a pungent citrus-like odor. Hector Douglas, a Ph.D. student at University of Alaska Fairbanks, studied the auklets years ago in the Aleutians and wondered about the function of the sweet scent.

“A flock of crested auklets would pass over as I ran my Zodiac, and it was as if I had passed through a citrus grove,” he said.

After his encounters with the odor, Douglas read a report about a bird that rubbed lime rinds in its feathers as a possible defense against lice.

“That made me wonder if the auklet’s citrus scent might be a chemical defense against ticks and lice,” he said.

Douglas turned his interest into doctoral research at UAF’s Institute of Marine Science, and he and colleagues at… read more

Saplings of the Alaska paper birch tree produce a sticky resin on new branches that discourages snowshoe hares from eating them. Some scientists think that such chemical defenses might be useful drugs and a new natural resource for Alaskans to tap.

Tom Clausen and John Bryant think so highly of birch trees’ promise that they took a 600-mile journey up and down the Porcupine River early this summer to clip birch twigs from different locations. Using Clausen’s 21-foot wooden strip boat with a 30-horsepower motor, the researchers compared twigs from Circle all the way up to Old Crow in the Yukon Territory. They found new twigs of birch were more heavily encrusted with resin nodules the farther north they went.

“As we went upriver, the trees got gooier and gooier,” said Clausen, the chairman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

In the late 1970s, Bryant, a UAF professor emeritus who now lives in Wyoming, noticed that… read more

For more than 50 years, scientists have wondered why the lakes of arctic Alaska are so similar to one another. The lakes are long, thin, and point in the same direction, like salmon swimming upstream.

A scientist from Tucson has a new theory about this order among disorder on Alaska’s North Slope. Jon Pelletier studies geomorphology—the study of how landforms come to be—at the University of Arizona. He wrote a paper about the oriented arctic lakes that appeared in the June 30, 2005 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Less than 10-feet deep and ranging from puddle-size to more than 15 miles long, the parallel lakes on the North Slope cover an area about twice as large as Massachusetts. Similar lakes exist in other northern places, like northern Canada and northern Russia.

Ever since scientists first identified the quirky Alaska lakes in 1949, they have had theories as to what shaped them. Because the lakes point northwest, some thought the sun might be… read more

Marked by metal cones and a clear-cut swath 20 feet wide, Alaska’s border with Canada is one of the great feats of wilderness surveying.

The boundary between Alaska and Canada is 1,538 miles long. The line is obvious in some places, such as the Yukon River Valley, where crews have cut a straight line through forest on the 141st Meridian. The boundary is invisible in other areas, such as the summit of 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias. In the early 1900s, workers cemented boundary monuments made of aluminum-bronze and standing 2.5-feet tall along much of the border’s length.

The country that makes up the border is some of the wildest in North America. Spanning a gap equal to the distance between San Francisco and St. Louis, the border intersects only two settlements; Hyder in southeast Alaska and Boundary in the Fortymile country. Starting in 1905, surveyors and other workers of the International Boundary Commission trekked into this wilderness to etch into the landscape a… read more

Leaving cloven hoof prints from the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more than 3,500 muskoxen live in Alaska. All of those shaggy, curly-horned beasts came from one group of muskoxen that survived a most remarkable journey in the 1930s.

In 1900, no muskoxen existed in Alaska. Though the stocky, weatherproof creatures have survived in the Arctic since the last ice age, the last reports of muskoxen in Alaska came from the late 1800s. As Peter Lent reported in his book Muskoxen and Their Hunters, a man named Henry Rapelle in 1895 visited a Native man living on the bank of the Yukon River who had the skull of a muskox. He told Rapelle he thought the muskox was “a bear with horns” when he shot it a year earlier on the Kandik River. That muskox was perhaps the last of the Alaska population.

In May, 1930, the U.S. Congress gave the U.S. Biological Survey $40,000 “to acquire a herd of muskoxen for introduction into Alaska with a view to… read more

Massive Alaska yellow-cedar trees contain natural preservatives that repel mosquitoes, kill ticks, and prevent diseases from attacking other trees.

Alaska yellow-cedar has the strongest wood of any in the state, and grows on coastlines from Prince William Sound to northern California. In recent years, yellow-cedar have been dying of causes other than old age on more than 500,000 acres of Southeast Alaska, and scientists aren’t yet sure why. Some think it may be warm winters and springs that are limiting snowfall accumulation, exposing shallow root systems to blasts of lethal cold air. As the trees' cause of death is investigated, scientists have come up with an innovative way to utilize the dead trees.

When Alaska yellow-cedars die, they often remain standing for more than a century. Rick Kelsey and Nick Panella are two scientists who are finding uses for the mass of dead trees, beyond lumber and firewood.

Kelsey, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in… read more

On a cold day in February 1976, about 2,000 gallons of steaming Prudhoe Bay crude oil spilled over the snow and percolated into the frozen floor of a black spruce forest. Much of that oil spill remains today, even after a wildfire burned through the area last summer.

The 1976 oil spill that killed more than 40 black spruce trees and almost all the vegetation around them was no accident. Scientists with the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory dumped the oil on the muskeg in both summer and winter that year to simulate what might happen if the soon-to-be-built trans-Alaska oil pipeline sprung a leak in a black spruce forest underlain by frozen soil, a common environment in Interior Alaska.

That site, in the Caribou-Poker Creeks watershed north of Fairbanks, still has not recovered from the manmade oil spill, according to Jessica Garron, of the UAF Forest Soils Lab. Garron is completing a master’s degree project about the site under the guidance of her… read more

Some of Alaska's tiniest creatures may be getting larger, and a warmer climate might be the reason, according to a scientist from Israel.

Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University was in Fairbanks recently for a meeting on evolution that drew hundreds of his colleagues from all over the world. In his presentation, Yom-Tov said that the size of Alaska's masked shrews has "significantly increased" during the last 50 years.

He makes that claim after comparing body length and weight measurements of more than 2,000 masked shrews in Alaska that are now in the University of Alaska Museum of the North's collection in Fairbanks. The museum has skin, bones, and some frozen flesh of more than 86,000 mammals, including thousands of shrews. From his office in Tel Aviv, Yom-Tov was able to access the information about the masked shrews from the museum's website.

He found that the shrews--so small they fit in the palm of… read more

Late last summer, Igor Dmitrenko and a few other scientists returned to Alaska from the top of the world with information about an immense pulse of warm water that had entered the Arctic Ocean. The scientists believe the warm stream of Atlantic water visiting the Arctic might affect the entire planet.

Dmitrenko, a Russian oceanographer working in Alaska as a visiting scientist at the University of Alaska's International Arctic Research Center, was aboard a Russian icebreaker in September 2004. One of his tasks was to retrieve information from instruments anchored in the vast Arctic Ocean. The moorings, tethered to a plastic-coated metal line as thin as a pencil, record the temperature of ocean water at different depths as well as the water's salinity and ocean currents.

One of those instruments, located north of the Laptev Sea a few hundred miles off the coast of Siberia and about 150 meters (492 feet) below the ocean… read more

Summer 2004 left its mark on millions of acres of Alaska now scorched by fire and also in a place where few people will notice it—the shrinking surface of an Alaska Range glacier.

Martin Truffer just returned from Black Rapids Glacier and found that it melted more in the summer of 2004 at five measurement points than it has since people began doing measurements on the glacier in 1973.

“Not only was 2003-04 a low snow year in the Alaska Range, but it was followed by a record-breaking summer in Interior Alaska,” Truffer, a glaciologist at UAF’s Geophysical Institute, wrote in an email to his colleagues. “The result was the most negative mass balance measured in the 32-year long series.”

Truffer spent four days in late April 2005 on the glacier with Sandy Zirnheld and Jason Amundson of the Geophysical Institute. They traveled up and down the glacier and measured the ice thickness at five spots, beginning… read more

SAN FRANCISCO—Thanks to my employers at UAF’s Geophysical Institute, I’ve spent the last week at the annual American Geophysical Union conference, where more than 11,000 scientists gathered on the San Andreas Fault. Those people—which would turn Shaktoolik into Alaska’s fourth largest city if they met there—had much to say about Alaska and our warming planet. Here’s some details from the notebook:

• Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, the fastest-moving glacier in the world, recently doubled the speed at which it’s flowing into the sea, reported Waleed Abdalati of NASA. Using satellites, Abdalati and other scientists determined that the west Greenland glacier sped up from about four miles per year during the first half of the 20th century to 10 miles per year during the last four years. “It’s a phenomenal event,” Abdalati said.

• Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Patagonia, and other areas with melting glaciers are… read more

I take a sip of coffee and notice I am moving 729 miles per hour. The temperature is minus 38 degrees F, but I’m feeling a bit warm in my T-shirt.

I am south of Osaka, Japan, riding seven miles above the ocean in a Boeing 747-400 jet, returning home from a family vacation in Vietnam. An aircraft-tracking program on the seatback in front of me is displaying the wonder of a device that can carry more than 500 people over the breadth of the Pacific Ocean.

Powered by four huge engines, this plane weighs 399,000 pounds empty and is one-third heavier than that now, with more than 50,000 gallons of fuel in its tanks. During this trip, we will burn more than 300 pounds of fuel for each of the 524 passengers on board.

The video display shows a map of Earth with a little plane making a red arc from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. The flat map suggests that a straight line across the Pacific is the short way, but the Earth is a sphere, and the pilots have chosen the most… read more

It's deep, dark winter, time to pay homage to Alaskans' favorite scientific instrument--the centrifuge.

No, I'm kidding. Our favorite scientific instrument, the thermometer, hangs from every Alaska dwelling from Attu to Anaktuvuk Pass, even a few outhouses. In a shared winter ritual, we check our beloved thermometers thousands of times a day.

But what are we looking at? What's the deal with this Fahrenheit and Celsius stuff?

If they hadn't died, you could ask Daniel Fahrenheit and Anders Celsius, two 18th-century scientists whose names stuck with temperature scales that stuck on our thermometers. Fahrenheit and Celsius were both northerners: Fahrenheit spent much of his life in Amsterdam; Celsius was from Sweden.

Both men lived at the same time, but there's no evidence that they met one another. Fahrenheit was 15 years older than Celsius, but they both lived during a time of great scientific opportunity in Europe.

Fahrenheit's parents… read more

A few days ago, we were building a small shelter cabin for biologists on Buldir Island where they are studying the millions of seabirds that nest on that relative speck in a giant ocean. The day before that, we counted nests of the once-endangered Aleutian Canada goose on Nizki island.

During the past three weeks, I have been a volunteer for the refuge while gathering material to write about. Since my Alaska Airlines flight landed in Adak 20 days ago, I have traveled from there to the tip of the aleutians and back with the Tiglax crew and a dozen biologists, helping them set up camps, count birds, catch birds, and move some birds to a different island. In the distance the ship has traveled, equal to a drive to the Lower 48 along the Alaska Highway, we passed close to Alaska’s most southerly spot (Nitrof Point, about the same latitude as Calgary), and a few of us stepped ashore at Alaska’s farthest west island, Attu (due north of New Zealand).

During the next… read more

When two NHL hockey players collide, their pads and body tissues can absorb enough energy to power a 100-watt light bulb for a minute and a half. During the 60 minutes of a hockey game, players can burn 6,000 calories and lose up to 15 pounds.

These are the calculations of Alain Hache, a physicist at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada. An amateur goalie, Hache has combined two of his passions in his book The Physics of Hockey.

Hache begins his look at one of the north’s favorite sports by examining the physical properties of ice, one of Alaska’s most abundant natural resources. Friction at the contact points between surfaces is what slows most sports down, but the low friction coefficient of ice makes hockey players faster on their feet than the athletes of any other team sport. Many NHL players can skate faster than 25 miles per hour, and Hall of Famer Bobby Hull was once clocked at 29.3 miles per hour. Scientists once tracked Hull during a game… read more

Believe it or not, California has glaciers and they’re growing. These were two facts I learned at the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, when about 10,000 scientists gathered to present their work and catch up on the research of others.

During the last 50 years, glaciers on the summit of Mt. Shasta in northern California have bulked up, according to Ian Howat of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Howat and a team of earth scientists from UCSC traveled to the summit of Mt. Shasta a few years ago to predict the expiration date of small glaciers on Mt. Shasta. Instead, they found the glaciers had grown since 1951, and the largest, Whitney Glacier, had advanced about one kilometer during that time.

Since most (but not all) Alaska glaciers are melting at a rapid rate, one might expect California glaciers to have disappeared long ago, but Howat explained that the state holds many small cirque glaciers in its high mountains. The seven… read more

I just returned from a week in the company of 9,892 scientists who gathered in San Francisco for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Amid thousands of topics ranging from hummingbird habitat to solar explosions were Alaska-related stories, many presented by the dozens of Alaska scientists in San Francisco. Among the news:

• A large earthquake in 1912 split spruce trees along the path of the Denali fault in the same area where the planet’s largest earthquake in 2002 struck, according to David Schwartz of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California.

• Since the Good Friday earthquake in March 1964, parts of the Kenai Peninsula have risen more than three feet and continue to rise. Jeff Freymueller of the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute and his colleagues have clocked the Kenai’s rise using GPS receivers, comparing their readings to a road-leveling survey performed by state workers just after the earthquake in 1964.

•… 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

Alaska's prehistoric people appreciated a good piece of rock. When they found a workable stone, they made an arrowhead, a knife, or a scraper to remove meat from an animal hide. Using tiny fragments of obsidian rock and some high-tech equipment, Alaska scientists recently teamed up to locate a prehistoric munitions factory, a spot where Native people went to find obsidian to make their tools and weapons.

Obsidian is volcanic magma that cooled too fast to mineralize; instead it turned into glass that's black as a raven. This rapid volcanic cooling--going from molten rock to glass in just a few hours--leaves behind a field of obsidian fragments. People in the southwest call the smallest of these fragments "Apache tears." Larger bulbs of obsidian were the real prizes. Prehistoric people broke them apart and shaped them into tools with a sharp cutting edge. Fields of obsidian were a major discovery for ancient people, as they are today for archeologists.

For thirty years… read more

Enough bears already. Because more than 115 geographic features in Alaska have “Bear” in their names, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names once renamed the former Bear Cove on the Alaska Peninsula “Ursus Cove,” after the Latin name for bear.

Donald J. Orth detailed the unbearable frequency of creeks, rivers, lakes and mountains with bear names in Alaska in the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, with which I have become engrossed for the past few weeks. Other overused animal names in Alaska include Moose, for at least 80 features; Beaver, with 64 geographic namesakes; and Sheep, with 56.

Most of these names made their way onto Alaska maps because locals were using them when explorers mapped the state. In the 1980s, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names discouraged duplicate naming of features in the same state. This was about 80 years after homesick prospectors and other Alaskans named 27 California creeks, 16 Montana creeks, 15 Colorado creeks, nine Washington creeks, eight… read more

Before yesterday, I didn’t know Alaska had a Wall of China, Washington Monument Rock, Vancouver Island, river Styx, Hell’s Kitchen, Grand Canyon, Chinatown, or 12 Long Islands, seven Crater Lakes, and three Death Valleys.

These exotic Alaska locations are all part of Donald Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, which LoAnna Savage of Craig, Alaska, inspired me to open when she wrote to tell me about her interest in the origins of Alaska place names. She didn’t ask about how Craig came to be. Her town was originally named “Fish Egg” after a nearby island, and later adopted the name of cannery operator “Craig Miller,” then dropped his last name when the post office came to town in 1912.

Orth’s book, a government document last updated in 1971, is full of revelations, including the fact that Alaska “is a corruption.”

Orth explained: “The name and its… read more

A waterway close to my house is one of five Pearl creeks in Alaska, according to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, by Donald Orth. One might think that five watersheds sharing the same name would cause confusion, but Alaska is a big place, and there seems to be room for a few repeats.

Take Willow Creek for example. Alaska has 63 of them. Twenty-eight Alder creeks are scattered around the state. Spruce creeks flow in 22 different locations in Alaska, Cottonwoods in 19, and Birches in 14. Prospectors and others who mistook spruces for Pines misnamed six creeks in Alaska. Those who knew their dendrology named four creeks for Tamarack, two for Aspen, and one for Poplar.

Fish and game were a handy reference for those faced with naming an Alaska stream. Note the 39 Fish creeks, 25 Caribou creeks, 17 Porcupine creeks, and 12 Rabbit (but no Hare) creeks. Larger mammals got even more attention; 18 creeks have the name Wolf, after an animal known to stalk the Beaver (29… read more

Sparky is a robot the size of a sandwich that roams the floor of an electronics shop in Fairbanks. Sparky swerves to avoid walls and backs up to get out of corners with no help whatsoever from the person who made him.

Rick Ruhkick created Sparky, and now he’s aiming a bit higher. Ruhkick and a team from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are entering a contest to build a vehicle that can find its way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. If the Alaska team, the Arctic Tortoise, reaches Las Vegas ahead of other teams, the U.S. government will hand over a check for $1 million.

The U.S. Department of Defense is sponsoring the competition, known as the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge, to develop unmanned robotic ground vehicles.

“The intent of the DARPA Grand Challenge is to bring together innovative thinkers from a variety of fields who can help us make major strides in the deployment of autonomous… read more

During a decade-long study, Canadian biologists found that red squirrels in the Yukon seem to be evolving to give birth earlier, possibly in response to a warmer climate. The scientists also discovered that sister squirrels have slumber parties on cold nights and mother squirrels plan ahead for their pups' future.

Stan Boutin, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is the primary researcher on a project that has revealed the biology of one of the north's most plentiful mammals. He and his coworkers, such as Andrew McAdam of the University of Alberta, know all of more than 200 red squirrels in a one-kilometer-square patch of boreal forest between Haines Junction and Kluane Lake.

The oldest red squirrel in their study area lived to an age of nine. Most squirrels reached three or four years before they disappeared, usually as a meal for a goshawk, owl, or a… read more

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

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

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

In mid-December 2001, more than 8,500 scientists gathered in San Francisco for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. I wandered amid the mass of humanity in the Moscone Convention Center—equal to the population of Ketchikan—and heard some of the latest news in Earth and space sciences. Here's some scribblings from my notebook:

• Melting Alaska glaciers are adding more to global sea level than any other glacial source yet measured, including the Greenland ice cap and Antarctica, according to Keith Echelmeyer of the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute.

• Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound is receding by more than 80 feet each day, and Mark Meier of the University of Colorado at Boulder estimates it could retreat as much as 10 miles in the next decade.

• Alaska glaciers have disappeared rapidly at elevations below about 4,500 feet in the last 30 years, according to Bruce Molnia of the U.S. Geological Survey. At elevations above… read more

The American Geophysical Union fall meeting brings together more than 8,300 scientists who study natural processes within and above Earth. The latest meeting just concluded after five days, hundreds of talks, and the swapping of thousands of business cards and email addresses. Fresh from San Francisco, here's a sampling of the latest news of the world:

The average temperature for the United States in 2000 will be about 54.1 degrees Fahrenheit, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. In 106 years of record keeping, the year 2000 will be warmer than all but 12 years. The record hot year was 1998, which averaged 54.9. The average temperature for 1999 was also warmer than 2000, at 54.5 degrees.

A scientist at Johns Hopkins University has used the Iridium satellite telephone system for measurements of currents in the upper atmosphere.… read more

A hallucinogenic mushroom may have been the inspiration for Santa's red-and-white color scheme. Rudolph's nose is red because of a parasitic infection. Resisting the urge to binge on chocolate could damage your resolve to complete projects. Roger

Highfield reveals these and other holiday chestnuts in his 1999 book, The Physics of Christmas. Highfield, science editor at The Daily Telegraph in London, wrote articles of the science behind Christmas for more than a decade. In his book, Highfield also digs up the origins of our Christmas icons.

St. Nicholas, inspiration for thousands of pillow-stuffed Santas in malls throughout America, was born around AD 245 in the town of Patara, Turkey. As the legend goes, St. Nicholas's rich father died when Nicholas was a young man. Possessing more money than he could spend, Nicholas gave away much of the money anonymously. He once saved three girls from a life of prostitution by giving their father money to pay their dowries. Seems… read more

Sig Levanevsky’s final resting place remains a mystery.

While attempting a 1937 flight over the North Pole to Alaska, the Russian aviator crashed near Alaska’s north slope. During a recent search, historians and scientists failed to find the plane using a clue discovered during an oil drilling survey.

Sigismund Levanevsky was a pilot and adventurer known as “Russia’s Lindbergh.” On August 12, 1937, he flew a four-engine bomber from Moscow. His goal was to reach New York City; the flight was a test in which Levanevsky hoped to prove the viability of commercial flights over the pole. He and five crewmen were to stop in Fairbanks and Chicago along the way, but they never reached Fairbanks. Shortly after Levanevsky disappeared, pilots in small planes searched from the Brooks Range to the North Pole without seeing anything that resembled a downed plane. The pilots assumed Levanevsky’s aircraft crashed into the Arctic Ocean and sunk to the bottom.

In March 1999,… read more

Ah, springtime, when Pearl Creek flows the color of ice tea and carries mysterious globs of foam in its eddies. The waterway behind my house is one of five Pearl creeks in Alaska, according to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, by Donald Orth. One might think that five watersheds sharing the same name would cause confusion, but Alaska is a big place, and there seems to be room for a few repeats.

Take Willow Creek for example. Alaska has 63 of them. Twenty-eight Alder creeks are scattered around the state. Spruce creeks flow in 22 different locations in Alaska, Cottonwoods in 19, and Birches in 14. Prospectors and others who mistook spruces for Pines misnamed six creeks in Alaska. Those who knew their dendrology named four creeks for Tamarack, two for Aspen, and one for Poplar.

Fish and game were a handy reference for those faced with naming an Alaska stream. Note the 39 Fish creeks, 25 Caribou creeks, 17 Porcupine creeks, and 12 Rabbit (but no Hare) creeks.… read more

The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska triggered tsunamis that killed 15 people on the coasts of California and Oregon. Emergency planners on the West Coast have always considered Alaska earthquakes the major source of killer waves, but researchers just found another threat.

The tsunami study was one of the thousands presented at last week’s American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. Of the 8,200 scientists there, more than 40 were from the Geophysical Institute and other branches of the University of Alaska. I tagged along to pitch story ideas to the media and gather a few of my own.

The AGU meeting, held in a building large enough to store a few oil tankers, is the largest gathering of people who study geophysics in the world. Sifting through the thousands of topics was a bit like sipping water from a fire hose, but the organizers set up a few press conferences to help funnel the 120 media members toward breaking news. Among the latest was the… read more

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

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

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

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

Maggie Isbell studies indoor air pollution in Alaska, specifically two compounds in gasoline that often find their way into Alaska homes from engines stored near or inside the house. Isbell is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She spent a good chunk of last winter and summer sampling air in Fairbanks homes and checking it for levels of benzene and toluene. Found in higher levels in Alaska gasoline than gasoline sold in the lower 48, benzene has been linked to cancer. Found in… read more

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

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

The Avak impact… read more

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

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

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

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

Climate change caused by people is a tough thing to measure in most places, but not in big cities. The clustering of humans, cars, pavement and rooftops makes some cities warmer than surrounding areas. Called "urban heat islands," they exist from Los Angeles to Atlanta to New York. Even Alaska has one.

A few researchers in Berkeley, California have devoted themselves to the study of heat islands. They've found that Los Angeles is 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding areas. That may not seem like a lot, but those few degrees add up when you multiply them by the cost of air conditioning in millions of homes and offices.

The Heat Island Group, as the researchers call themselves, reports that intense heat absorbed by dark shingles can penetrate buildings, making air conditioners work harder. Members of the research group compared roof surfaces by painting one roof black and another white. The black roof was 70 degrees warmer than the air. The white… read more

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

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

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

In a 1938 National Geographic article, explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins detailed his search for Sigismund Levanevsky, a pilot and adventurer known as "Russia's Lindbergh." "Somewhere in the Arctic wastes, probably in the Arctic Ocean, lies the wreckage of an airplane in which, on August 12, 1937, six Russians led by Sigismund Levanevsky set out to fly across the North Pole from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska."

As they searched an area larger than Montana, Wilkins and his crew squinted out the windows and repeatedly called to Levanevsky on the radio. Levanevsky never answered, and Wilkins never found Levanevsky's plane. For more than six decades, neither did anyone else.

In March 1999, Dennis Thurston of the Minerals Management Service in Anchorage noticed an unusual shape on a sonar image of the sea floor during an ARCO pre-drilling survey. In the shallows of Camden Bay, between Prudhoe Bay and Kaktovik, was something shaped like a 60-foot cigar. Thurston thought the… read more

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

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

Elconin, now of… read more

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

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

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

While reading the sports page a few days ago, I saw a quote by a teammate of Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals' slugger who just hit the 500th home run of his major-league career. The player, who watches from the bench as McGwire propels baseballs out of stadiums from New York to San Diego, said of McGwire: "He hits the ball as far as is humanly possible."

Actually, the honor of the farthest-hit baseball goes to Mickey Mantle, who played with the Yankees in the 1950s and 1960s. That tidbit was dug up by of Robert Adair, a professor of physics at Yale University who was once appointed by the commissioner of baseball as "official physicist to the National League."

I suffered from physics phobia in high school and college, but I like it when the science of matter and energy is applied to sports. Adair took a look at the natural laws governing the national pastime in The Physics of Baseball.

Simple physics explains why major-league pitchers have… read more


Dear Science Forum reader;

I'm taking a week's leave to catch the last of the Alaska summer, so the following is a column I wrote a few years ago. Thanks for your interest in the Alaska Science Forum, and for your letters and emails. I'll return with a fresh column the week of August 16.

Sincerely, Ned Rozell

While I was driving the Steese Highway recently, large piles of boulders lining the road--the tailings of a gold dredge that had munched its way through the area years before--inspired a debate on gold.

One passenger spoke of what an absurdity it is that we humans place such a high value upon gold. "If jewelry isn't your thing, what good is gold?" he asked. "You can't eat it. If a space alien were to land here and ask why gold is so valuable, I don't know what I'd tell him." I looked around the car. Except for the wedding rings of my two companions, I saw no gold. Back at home, I once again failed to see any gold.

read more

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

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

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

Bison are not subtle. A Copper River gravel bar I recently visited was decorated with manure piles the size of pies, rutted pathways, 10-foot craters in the sand, and soft hair hanging from spruce branches. I was in the lair of the bison, a creature introduced into Alaska in the late 1920s.

Five-to-ten thousand years ago, bison were a common sight in Alaska, flourishing in a climate a bit cooler and dryer than today. Alaska bison finally disappeared in the days of Columbus. Scientists think they died off because of hunting by aboriginal hunters combined with a warmer climate that reduced grasses and sedges.

Bison were reintroduced to Alaska in 1928. Responding to requests from hunters who wanted more species of big game, biologists brought in 23 plains bison from the National Bison Refuge in Moise, Montana. All of the bison were released in the Delta Junction area. By the 1990s, the Delta herd had expanded to more than 400 bison.

Delta Junction, once… read more

If you want your relatives to see a moose this summer, don't drive to Denali Park. Try Anchorage.

That's the advice of Rick Sinnott, Anchorage-area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Sinnott estimates 200-300 moose live year-round in the Anchorage bowl area, which includes downtown. The population grows by another 600-700 moose in winter.

The urban moose concentration compares to some of the best wild areas of the state, but it wasn't always that way. According to an explorer's report in 1900, moose were hard to find in what was to become the Anchorage bowl. A few hunters managed to find moose, selling the meat to miners for 10 cents a pound. When workers building the Alaska Railroad came to the area in 1915 to 1917, a boom that led to the founding of Anchorage, they killed almost all the remaining moose. Luckily, at that time miners and railroad workers accidentally started a few wildfires. The fires, along with land cleared by homesteaders,… read more

I know an artist who recently had to abandon her studio because a grizzly killed a moose calf a few steps from her window. She doesn't live in Alaska's bush. She lives in the largest city in Alaska.

In this land of contradictions, one of the most bizarre involves Anchorage, a city of 250,000 people surrounded by some of the best bear habitat in the world. When bears and people cross paths in Anchorage, the man most likely to be called is Rick Sinnott. Sinnott is the Anchorage area state Fish and Game biologist who responds to people who tell him a black bear is stealing sunflower seeds from their bird feeder. Last summer, Sinnott and other Fish and Game employees answered more than 1,500 phone calls about black bears and 300 about grizzlies in the Anchorage area. On heavy days, the phone rang 20 times with people asking for help with bear encounters.

Most of the bears who meet Anchorage residents come from Chugach State Park, a 500,000-acre preserve that… read more

Camping on the bank of the Yukon River, I once saw three ducks floating downstream. Drifting with the current of the big river and spinning in circles when they hit an eddy, they looked like wooden decoys. When a rock falling into the water scared them, the ducks started swimming, then flew off.

I realized then the ducks had been napping as they bobbed down the river, but it's a good bet they weren't sleeping too soundly. Researchers have found that ducks and other birds sometimes sleep with one eye open. Niels Rattenborg, a sleep researcher at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, recently did a study in which he and coworkers filmed a row of mallards sleeping. The birds on the both ends of the row--those that would be most vulnerable to predators--tended to keep their exposed eyes open while they slept. Mallards with ducks on both sides of them kept both eyes shut or didn't have a preference for which eye they kept open.

While sleeping with one eye open,… read more




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightning, long thought to have a fondness for high ground, may instead have a thing for the boreal forest. At least that's what University of Alaska researchers who track lightning strikes are finding.

Because lightning is responsible for most of the acreage burned in Alaska every year, Bureau of Land Management technicians installed lightning sensors at Unalakleet, Bethel, Galena, McGrath, Tanana, Bettles, Ft. Yukon, Fairbanks and Tanacross. Most of the sensors are in the Interior because that's where the vast majority of lightning strikes happen.

Dorte Dissing and her academic advisor Dave Verbyla, both of the UAF department of forest sciences, use BLM sensors to track lightning strikes. While working on her Ph.D. degree, Dissing and Verbyla noticed that dots on a map representing lightning strikes neatly covered the range of boreal forest in Alaska. Boreal forest consists of spruce, birch, aspen, willow and other trees. The area in Alaska covered by boreal… read more

Creeping glaciers, ash-spouting volcanoes and persistent earthquakes that rearrange the landscape make Alaska an exciting place to live. A less dramatic feature of Alaska's landscape, permafrost, is also changing Alaska as it slowly disappears.

Permafrost, ground that remains frozen all year, forms a foundation for about 85 percent of Alaska. From Barrow to Anchorage, most of the ground beneath our feet contains frozen soil and ice that sits in spaces between soil grains or takes the shape of wedges, lenses and veins.

North of the Brooks Range, permafrost is generally found everywhere you might sink a drill. Farther south, permafrost is spotty but still plentiful. Alaskans have adapted to the challenge of building on permafrost with clever engineering tricks, but a warmer climate might soon make all our adaptations pointless.

Tom Osterkamp and Vladimir Romanovsky think permafrost might soon be on the minds of all Alaskans, and not just when they drive… read more

To study how vegetation changes over time in an ecosystem, clear a few acres with a bulldozer, then watch over it for 1,000 years or so. Pencil in the approximate dates when grasses pop up, then chart when the grasses give way to shrubs. Years later, dust off the clipboard to mark when the shrubs are pushed out by trees.

A quicker way is to let mother nature do the work, according to Thomas Ager, a geologist with the Global Change and Climate History Team of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver.

A chunk of Southcentral Alaska the size of Utah is Ager's experimental plot. Instead of a bulldozer, glaciers scraped the landscape there during the last ice age, from about 25,000 to 12,000 years ago. Later, seeds surfing on the wind fell upon the virgin plot of bare mineral soil. The seeds germinated into plants and initiated the greening of Ager's study area--a rough square from the Alaska Range south to Homer Spit, east to Glennallen and west to Cook Inlet across… read more

The recent discovery of three planets orbiting a sun-like star once again raises one of mankind's favorite questions: can life exist on other planets?

Someday, the aurora might help find an answer, according to Syun-Ichi Akasofu, director of both the Geophysical Institute and the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Akasofu has studied the aurora since 1957, and he thinks other planets' auroras could be used to detect life elsewhere in the universe.

The idea was inspired by the discovery of three planets circling a sun that's much like ours, though a bit bigger. The star, Upsilon Andromedea, is 44 light years away, which means a spacecraft moving at the speed of light would take 44 years to get there. Still, it's not too far away by astronomical standards (the diameter of the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years).

The most significant part of the discovery is that it shows our solar system is not unique: maybe… read more

It's getting ridiculous. Alaska already has the highest mountain in North America, more miles of coastline than all the lower 48, and thousands of glaciers and grizzlies. Now comes the claim that a spot in Alaska is the wettest place on Earth.

First, a nod to the reigning champ (sorry). Mount Waialeale, on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, rises 5,000 feet above the sea. As tropical trade winds heavy with moisture attempt to hurdle the mile-high bump, they leave more than 400 inches of rain each year on the mountain. If you saved all that water in a graduated cylinder, it would rise to 33 feet tall.

That's a lot of rain, but meteorologists have recorded even more impressive downpours. More than 1,000 inches of rain fell in Cherrapunji, India, during the monsoon season from 1860 to 1861. In March, 1952, 72 inches of rain fell in one day at Cilaos, on Reunion Island in the West Indian Ocean. Closer to home, on July 4, 1956, a cloudburst in Unionville, Maryland,… read more

With your next breath of spring air, you'll pull dozens of invaders through your nose. These intruders may make your nose drip and your eyes red and watery.

The airborne invaders are grains of tree pollen, specks so small that it would take eight of them to cover the period at the end of this sentence. The air is rich with pollen because spring is the mating season for trees.

The first step in a tree's reproductive dance is to release sperm, held in the center of a pollen grain. Trees release an incredible amount of pollen to improve the odds of finding a female flower. One birch catkin (the cluster of tiny flowers that looks like a caterpillar) can release millions of pollen grains.

Birch is the worst of the Alaska pollen types for allergy sufferers, said Jim Anderson, BioSciences Librarian for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Anderson, featured in last week's column on greenup, also has a passion for pollen. He's been studying it for years with an… read more

One of the most dramatic changes of spring is the transformation of Alaska's aspen-and-birch covered hillsides from rusty brown to neon green. Greenup, the time when tree buds burst into leaves, happens so suddenly that all the leaves seem to pop out on the same day. The greening of the hills is noticed right away by most people, but few with the fervor of Jim Anderson.

For years, Anderson, biosciences librarian for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has marked his calendar on the date a hillside across from his workplace turns green. He recently shared his observations with Rick Thoman and Ted Fathauer of the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, who came up with a formula for predicting the day when millions of tiny green solar panels will begin to unfold on birch and aspen trees.

Since 1974, Anderson has noted the day when Chena Ridge shows the sign of greenup, which he defines as when "leaf buds in birch and aspen open just enough to produce a faint but… read more

I've never been there, but the Maldives sound like paradise. A chain of islands made of coral that grows on the tops of ancient, submerged volcanoes, the Maldives speckle the equator about 400 miles southwest of India. The islands are sandy, sunny, and covered with palm trees, but there's a problem in the air. Actually, the problem is the air, which is often hazy and polluted.

The brown air that sometimes hangs over the Maldives surprised scientists working on the Indian Ocean Experiment, a recent study to see how humans might affect climate by altering clouds. One of the cloud watchers in the Maldives was Glenn Shaw, a professor of physics at the Geophysical Institute, who traveled to the equator along with graduate students Will Cantrell and Barbara Trost. They were among 150 scientists who converged in an area that included the Arabian Sea, much of the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean surrounding the equator.

The scientists picked the remote area because… read more

Skiing on a remote river, I saw a hairy creature trotting toward me. When the wolverine spotted me, it popped up in the air like an antelope, landed like a cat, and bounced away into the high country of the Wrangell Mountains.

Nicknamed the devil bear, woods devil or carcajou, the wolverine has a Latin name, Gulo gulo, that means "glutton." The few biologists who have studied wolverines in Alaska say wolverines don't deserve that label.

"They're hard-pushing animals, with a lot of perseverance. They're on the go all the time," said biologist Audrey Magoun, who studied wolverines in the Brooks Range for her 1985 Ph.D. thesis at the University of Alaska. "Wolverines have a weasel personality, only they're about 30 times bigger." Magoun said she loves to study wolverines because so little is known about them. Legends of wolverines wrecking traps and trashing cabins are common, she said, but the actual events are rare because wolverines numbers are low, and they… 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

For most of the year, Fairbanks, Alaska, defies meteorological logic. Unlike what happens in most places, Fairbanks temperatures often increase with altitude in the first few thousand feet above the ground. The blame goes to one of the most powerful temperature inversions on the planet, a phenomenon recently measured by Rick Thoman, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Fairbanks.

Thoman is a hill-dweller, living west of town in Lincoln Creek subdivision, about 1,600 feet above sea level. For the past two winters, he's compared temperatures at his home with those of a Weather Service observer who lives in the Goldstream Valley, about 590 feet above sea level and about 20 feet above Goldstream Creek. Thoman gathered his statistics in interior Alaska's season of strong temperature inversions, from October until about mid-March.

These inversions, in which warmer air forms a lid that sits above cold air, happen in part because Fairbanks… read more

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

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


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

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

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


Bill Bristow is not a mad scientist. He's a soft-spoken, intelligent guy who goes home from work every day to a wife, two daughters, three dogs and two cats. Most of the time, he leads a normal, quiet life. Lately, though, he's been spending a lot of time defending his research.

Bristow, a Geophysical Institute assistant professor of electrical engineering, leads the effort to build two sites for studying the ionosphere--the thin air 60 to 500 miles above our heads--at Kodiak and King Salmon. The study areas will be five acres of antenna fields with radar transmitters that will gather information on the ionosphere. Some people are concerned the equipment at the study sites will manipulate the atmosphere to create military mind-control weapons or disrupt aircraft communications.

Dealing with the controversy is part of Bristow's job he never imagined in graduate school. To separate science from science fiction, Bristow explains exactly what the radar fields… 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

Last fall, the prediction for Alaska's winter wasn't a warm one. La Nina, the cold-hearted sister of El Nino, was supposed to bring cold snaps and plenty of snow. Now that winter 98-99 in almost over, it's time to see what, if anything, La Nina has done to the north.

Ants Leetmaa is director of the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in Washington D.C. He was in Fairbanks recently to spread the word about the climate prediction center, which issues season-long forecasts based on weather events that tend to be somewhat predictable, such as El Nino and La Nina.

La Nina, Spanish for "little girl," occurs when the waters of the Pacific Ocean at the equator are unusually cool. During the last La Nina in 1988, surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean near the equator dropped as low as 68 degrees Fahrenheit from a normal temperature of about 80 degrees. Even though the cooling happens thousands of miles away, the interactions of ocean and atmosphere… read more

Rod Boertje knew it was getting cold when the Park Service took the dogs inside. Boertje, then a graduate student in wildlife biology at the University of Alaska, was doing a study on caribou in Denali National Park in the early 1980s. Park rangers, saying it was too cold for the sled dogs that had brought Boertje to his study area, mushed the dogs back to a warm kennel. Boertje stayed behind, watching caribou to see what they did in the winter. He's one of a few scientists who have done field work in Alaska on the coldest days of winter.

Boertje, now a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, brought three thermometers with him on his graduate study. He confirmed 60 below while he and another student watched caribou in a valley below. "It was real marginal," he said. "You put on all the gear you had to sleep, then got into your 40-below bag. There was still no way to keep warm unless you were moving."

Boertje says he would never work at those… read more

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

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

During the annual Christmas bird count, volunteers at Prudhoe Bay typically see only one species of bird--the raven. On forty below mornings like this one, ravens glide by the Geophysical Institute on their morning commute to Fairbanks with no sign of being cold. Alaskans know the raven as one of the state's most adaptable birds. It's also one of the most intelligent, as is shown in a recent study by Bernd Heinrich, the author of Ravens in Winter.

Heinrich is a biologist at the University of Vermont who has spent 15 years in the Maine woods studying the behavior of ravens. He and John Pepper of the University of Michigan recently conducted an experiment on why ravens fly long distances to cache meat from animal carcasses when they could fly shorter distances and spend more time picking at the carcass.

Ravens and other related birds, such as crows, magpies, and blue jays, sometimes hide food and come back for it later. Chickadees also "scatter-hoard," stowing… read more

Waiting is the name of the game if you're in the business of launching rockets. No one knows that better than the staff at Poker Flat Research Range, located 30 miles north of Fairbanks. After scientists and technicians recently waited for days for the natural and manmade conditions that would allow a launch, three rockets roared northward from the range to begin the third decade of rocket launches from Poker Flat.

Kathe Rich is the operations controller at Poker Flat. Among her other duties, she's the voice behind launch countdowns. After a year in which there were no launches from Poker Flat, she was glad to share her space in the blockhouse, a concrete bunker covered with earth next to where the rockets wait to be launched.

"This is great," she said as people milled about the room at 4 a.m.. "This is what we're here for."

The researchers, rocket builders, and those who would launch the first rocket of the season were awaiting the 4:50 a.m. passage of… read more

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

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

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

A husband and wife in the Yukon Territory were sheep hunting above treeline in August, 1997, when they smelled something that reminded them of a barnyard. They also noticed the texture of the ground had changed, from hard and rocky to soft and spongy. When the man studied the ground, he realized he was standing ankle-deep in caribou droppings.

The hunter, Gerry Kuzyk, a caribou researcher with the Yukon Department of Natural Resources, knew that no caribou had been seen in the area for decades. He told fellow biologist Don Russell about his unusual discovery in the mountains about 90 miles west of Whitehorse. They returned and noticed that, when viewed from a distance, the snowy mountains were ringed with dark bands of caribou droppings. The bands were being exposed as snow melted from areas where the wind had piled snow for centuries. Recent warming had exposed the stomping grounds of ancient caribou.

When they looked closer at the carpets of manure, Russell… 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

Just about anywhere scientists look up north--at shrinking sea ice, at thawing permafrost and at vigorous plant growth--they see a warmer Arctic. Changes in the far north, though often regarded as negative to people and animals, may be helping caribou during the summer.

Brad Griffith, a USGS biologist and the assistant unit leader of the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, thinks caribou calves have done well recently because the plants they eat have matured earlier during the past decade. Griffith tracks changes in the Porcupine caribou herd, a band of about 128,000 animals that roams the northwest portion of Yukon Territory and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Griffith concentrates his research in early summer when caribou calves are born and when much of the North Slope greens up.

After cows give birth about June 4, their energy needs double because they begin producing milk for their calves, Griffith said. When it's… read more

During a major auroral display, intense electrical currents exist in the ionosphere over Western Canada and Alaska. Flowing mostly eastwest at altitudes near 100 km (60 miles), the currents can be as large as a half million amperes.

Called the auroral electrojets, because the currents flow in relatively confined regions in and near the aurora, the currents nevertheless are diffuse, compared to currents in wires. At times, the electrojets spread over a zone several hundred miles wide.

So far, no one has any concept of how the auroral currents could be harnessed for useful purpose. In fact, as far as the works of man are concerned, the intense currents are more harmful than helpful.

Though the auroral electrojets are high above our heads, they do induce similar currents in the conducting earth beneath our feet, and in other conductors such as electrical transmission lines and metal pipelines. Like the aurora, the auroral eletrojets change rapidly with… read more

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

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

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

In liver cells called… read more

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

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

read more

Sea otters are getting harder to find along the western part of the Aleutian chain. Their population has dropped from about 53,000 animals in the early 1990s to only 6,000 today. Some biologists think the missing otters of western Alaska have disappeared to an unlikely place--the bellies of killer whales. Researchers say the actions of people may have caused this unusual switch in the diet of killer whales.

Jim Estes, a wildlife research biologist who works for the U.S. Geological Survey at the University of California, has watched sea otters in Alaska since the 1970s. On his 1990s cruises to the Aleutians, he and other biologists noticed a 25 percent decline in sea otters each year. At first, Estes didn't consider killer whales as a reason for the sea otter decline. Killer whales mostly eat sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals that spend most of their time far offshore, away from sea otters.

When he was on a cruise from Attu to Dutch Harbor in the early… read more

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

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

Alaska's prehistoric people appreciated a good piece of rock. When they found a workable stone, they made an arrowhead, a knife, or a scraper to remove meat from an animal hide. Using tiny fragments of obsidian rock and some high-tech equipment, Alaska scientists recently teamed up to locate a prehistoric munitions factory, a spot where Native people went to find obsidian to make their tools and weapons.

Obsidian is volcanic magma that cooled too fast to mineralize; instead it turns into glass that's black as a raven. This rapid volcanic cooling-going from molten rock to glass in just a few hours-leaves behind a field of obsidian fragments. The smallest of these fragments are called "Apache tears" in the Southwest. Larger bulbs of obsidian were the real prize. Prehistoric people broke them apart and shaped them into tools with a sharp cutting edge. Fields of obsidian were a major discovery for ancient people, as they are today for archeologists.

For thirty years… read more

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

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

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

I was eating a cheeseburger at a restaurant in Healy, Alaska, last weekend when a man pounded on the window. He pointed to something he needed to share with a stranger--a purple river of aurora flowing directly over his head.

Soon, the entire restaurant staff and I were shivering outside, looking up at bands of aurora borealis that rippled from east to west. Even the sourdoughs who had seen hundreds of displays started whooping as the show went on. This was no ordinary aurora. People saw it clearly through the light pollution of downtown Anchorage. Those in Juneau saw displays more typically seen in Fairbanks. Bands of aurora flickered over Seattle and upstate New York.

Many scientists compare the aurora to an electrical generator that sputters at times, purrs at others. That night, the generator ran beautifully, said Charles Deehr, the Geophysical Institute's aurora forecaster and a professor emeritus. Deehr's job includes listing weekly predictions of aurora… read more

To the plant eaters of Alaska's North Slope, all tundra does not taste the same. Animals that survive on tundra plants may prefer tundra rich in calcium and other nutrients, a type of tundra researchers recently studied along with a more common variety on Alaska's North Slope. The difference between tundras may explain why caribou and other animals tend to stick to the coastal plain. It may also explain why some scientists are rethinking the relationship between tundra and greenhouse gases.

Skip Walker is among the scientists studying the tundra covering Alaska's North Slope. Walker, of the University of Colorado in Boulder, was in Fairbanks recently for the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. He described two distinct types of tundra found on the North Slope-acidic tundra and calcium-rich tundra. Along with other researchers, including Terry Chapin and Chien-Lu Ping of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Walker found the two types of tundra… read more

A few months ago, I wrote a column about climate change that involved James Hansen, a researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Hansen and his colleagues developed a "common-sense climate index" to locate areas on the globe where climate change is noticeable enough to be obvious to people who aren't scientists. Hansen's index suggests that long-time residents of Alaska and Siberia already may be noticing a significant change in weather over the past few decades. I asked Alaska sourdoughs for some of their thoughts. Here's what I got:

Herman Hoke has lived in southcentral Alaska for more than 40 years. He wrote a four-page letter filled with detailed observations: "Is it really warmer now? Definitely yes. My truck tires haven't squeaked on the snow, nor have they galloped down the road for several miles on frozen flat spots because of low temperatures."

Jude Henzler, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, came… read more

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

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

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

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

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

Troy L. Péwé once discovered an interesting patch of woods near Ester, about nine miles east of Fairbanks. The spruce and birch trees of this forest were underground, sandwiched between layers of earth. Each tree was 125,000 years old.

Péwé, with the geology department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 1953 to 1965 and now with the department of geology at Arizona State University, found the forest when he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1949. At the time, the U.S. government had assigned Péwé and other scientists to study permafrost. Péwé examined hillside cuts made by gold miners in Ester and found trees frozen between layers of loess. Loess, pronounced "luss," is silt produced from the grinding action of glaciers that has been picked up by winds and carried elsewhere.

Because the trees were buried about 45 feet below the present-day forest at Eva Creek, Péwé knew they were old. How old he didn't find out until 50 years later, after methods… read more

Anchorage, which is Alaska's hub of more than 257,000 people, attracts a fair amount of wildlife. Moose live in patches of woods throughout the city, lynx have been spotted on ski trails, and an occasional black or grizzly bear wanders through town. One creature that's taken to the city life, the lesser Canada goose, has worn out its welcome at airports, parks and businesses. Wildlife managers are now experimenting with ways to reduce by half the Anchorage population of urban Canada geese.

In 1995, an AWACS jet taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base sucked Canada geese into several engines, causing a crash that killed 24 people. The birds also drop about six tons of feces a day during their summer stay in Anchorage, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report. Another problem is that urban geese lose their shyness, and often chase and bite people who stray close to nests.

Why does a wild creature want to live in Alaska's biggest city? Dave Crowley, a… read more

There I was, tagging along with the Arctic Research Commission on a tour behind the scenes of the new Seward Sea Life Center, when I encountered an unexpected chance to follow up on an earlier column.

The center has handsome, informative displays and spectacular deep tanks that give observers a stunning view of some of Alaska's marine creatures. Puffins and other seabirds paddle about and dive deep in one huge tank while sea lions and harbor seals perform underwater ballet in others, all--from surface to bottom--in full sight of enthralled spectators. It's wonderful.

But the Sea Life Center is a bit like the tundra swans that float elsewhere on Alaska's waters: the movement you can see above the surface looks effortless, but there's a lot of hard work going on beneath. Underlying the public portion of the Sea Life Center is a spaceship's worth of life-support systems and a college's worth of laboratories. And in one of those labs, we found new Ph.D. George… read more

There was once a lonely red salmon, we'll call him Larry, who fought his way upcurrent for more than 900 miles, through eight concrete dams, to a lake 7,000 feet above where he started. When Larry reached his destination, he was met with the most frustrating of circumstances--he was the only red salmon to return to the lake. There was no reason to spawn.

Lonesome Larry is the nickname given by a researcher's wife to the only salmon that returned a few years ago to Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho. Larry's troubles may have something to tell us about some of the problems facing Alaska's salmon.

Bruce Finney, a paleoceanographer at the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science, just returned from Idaho's Redfish Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by ponderosa pines and snowcapped granite peaks. Finney, a scientist who studies ancient salmon runs by examining the residue fish leave behind, flew down to Washington, Oregon and Idaho to see… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior Alaska is tough on trees. Transplanted trees from the Lower 48 give up quickly when exposed to the Interior's long, cold winter.

There was a time, though, when elm trees grew in Eagle, basswoods thrived in Tok and hickories sprouted in Fairbanks. Nobody was here to enjoy the hardwoods then, but Tom Ager, a geologist with the Global Change and Climate History Team of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, has the tools to discover information about them.

Today, interior Alaska has a climate that allows a handful of tree species to survive. White and black spruce, balsam poplar, aspen, willows and alders are the most common varieties tough enough to survive the Interior's cold temperatures in the winter and mad swings of daylight in the summer.

Ager uses the clues left behind by ancient trees and other plants to track their existence in Alaska over the centuries. Ager uses pollen-airborne grains that contain reproductive cells of plants as… read more

In 1963, six years after the Russians launched Sputnik to begin the era of satellites, the U.S. Department of Defense was busy with the new technology. Satellites orbiting the planet took detailed photographs of the entire world, including Antarctica.

Because those images have recently been declassified, scientists are learning an incredible amount about Antarctica by comparing the photos with the first radar map of the continent, a project scientists at the Geophysical Institute are helping to complete.

Antarctica, a snow-covered land mass three times the size of Alaska, was a last frontier of radar mapping until last fall. From September 26 to October 14, 1997, a Canadian satellite orbiting at 500 miles above Earth sent down radar pulses, received the bounced signals from the surface of Antarctica, then transmitted the information to several sites in Canada and the U.S., including the big blue dish on top of the Geophysical Institute at the University of… read more

In 1989, Phillip McCrory watched a CNN story on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Seeing the difficulty volunteers were having cleaning oil from the fur of otters, McCrory wondered if perhaps human hair could be used to soak up oil. His curiosity could revolutionize how we attack oil spills.

McCrory is a hairdresser who lives in Madison, Alabama. After seeing the oily otters on CNN, he brought a bag of hair home the next day. He stuffed an old pair of his wife Sherry's nylons with five pounds of hair, then tied the ankles together to make a ring. After he filled his son's plastic pool with water, he dumped in a gallon of used motor oil. He dunked the ring of hairy panty hose. "In two minutes, the water was crystal clear," he said recently over the phone from his salon.

Chicken feathers, wool, and straw are other natural substances used on oil spills, but hair seems to be more effective, said McCrory, who brought his discovery to researchers at NASA's Marshall Space… read more

One hundred years ago, a man traveled north on a mission most people thought was ridiculous--to see if crops would grow in the frozen wasteland known as the Territory of Alaska.

That man, Charles C. Georgeson, was a special agent in charge of the United States Agricultural Experiment Stations. The secretary of agriculture charged Georgeson with the task of finding out if crops and farm animals could survive in the mysterious land acquired just 21 years earlier from the Russians. When he landed at Sitka a century ago, Georgeson set in motion agricultural studies that are still carried on today at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

Georgeson was not a man easily discouraged. In 1898, the experimental station site was in the middle of a swamp. Until he could clear and drain the land, he borrowed patches of land from Sitka settlers, as he explained in an interview in Sunset magazine in 1928.

"My plots… read more

Life at sea was no picnic for those who hunted for whales or explored the Arctic in the 1800s and early 1900s. Crewmen were far from home, in a seemingly lifeless environment, with food and drink supplies that dwindled when wooden ships became frozen in sea ice. To cope with these physical and psychological challenges, sailors north of the Arctic Circle resorted to a number of strategies to keep themselves from jumping overboard.

Peter Suedfeld, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, has read the diaries of seafaring men and women who journeyed to the Arctic in the nineteenth century. To search for clues about how sailors adapted to life on northern waters, Suedfeld recently visited the University of Alaska at the invitation of Judith Kleinfeld, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northern Studies program.

Unlike other researchers who focused on the families arctic workers left behind, Suedfeld and Phyllis Johnson, a professor in the… read more

When the Exxon Valdez ran into Bligh Reef in the spring of 1989, the most visible victims of the oil spill were blackened sea otters and shore birds. Now, nearly a decade later, scientists are still trying to sum up the effects of the oil spill.

In Seward, one researcher is trying to learn more about the spill by feeding small amounts of crude oil to river otters. Merav Ben-David, an ecologist who studies animal behavior and physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Arctic Biology, is performing research on river otters that began right after the spill.

In 1989, UAF Professor Terry Bowyer, a wildlife biologist at the Institute of Arctic Biology, Professor Larry Duffy, head of UAF's Chemistry and Biochemistry department, and technicians from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began examining river otters in oiled and non-oiled areas. The scientists chose to study river otters because the animals often live where the land meets the sea.… 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

To the rhinos and crocodiles of the far north, the day was like any other. They ate, swam and napped, unaware a celestial body was headed their way at 60,000 miles per hour. Suddenly, a wayward comet screamed into the atmosphere, struck Earth and created a bowl a mile deep and 15 miles in diameter. Haughton Crater was born.

This commotion happened 22 million years ago at a spot now known as Devon Island, located about 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories. Today, Haughton Crater provides geologists a unique chance to find out what happens when a massive object strikes the planet.

Buck Sharpton of the Lunar and Planetary Institute of Johnson Space Center in Texas has spent many hours crawling in and around Haughton Crater. Sharpton, who recently visited the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, has the challenging job of studying a cavity in Earth and extrapolating back to find what made the divot.

Haugton Crater is… read more

Any moose calf alive in mid-summer is a very lucky animal. If the calf was born a twin, it has probably seen its sibling pulled down and eaten by a bear. If the calf was born alone, it probably stood close to its mother as she reared on her hind legs and pounded a predator with her hooves.

In late May all over Alaska, female moose find a secluded spot to birth a calf, twin calves or sometimes triplets. In the weeks that follow, many of these gangly newborns fall prey to bears and wolves. In most areas of Alaska, more moose calves die than survive.

Mark Bertram is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist for the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Early this summer, while a helicopter pilot distracted cow moose from the air, Bertram and others scrambled to birthing sites and attached radio collars to newborn calves. By following radio signals after the calves stopped moving, the biologists were able to find dead calves and determine what killed them… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

In dozens of studies, including some done here at the Geophysical Institute, scientists have concluded that the planet is getting warmer, and the species performing the studies carries much of the blame. But why believe in global warming if we can't feel it?

Longtime residents of Alaska and Siberia may already be able to feel global warming, according to James Hansen, a researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Hansen and his colleagues have developed a "common-sense climate index," to locate areas on the globe where climate change is large enough to be obvious to mailmen, secretaries, and other people who don't study global change for a living.

Using global weather records, Hansen based the index on conditions familiar to non-scientists--the number of hot days and the number of days with intense rainfall. Scientists believe a warmer planet will feature more hot days and more wet days. Dry areas will get hotter, and warmer… read more

Like many remote places on the globe, Alaska receives its share of gunk from more populated areas. A few years ago, researchers found traces of lindane, a pesticide, in the bark of trees near Denali National Park. The chemical, carried on winds and condensing once it reached the cold air of the north, came from tree farms thousands of miles away.

Now, researchers have found pollutants that swim into Alaska. Actually, salmon do the swimming, but the fish carry nasty baggage they picked up in the ocean--DDT, PCBs and other manmade chemicals. Researchers, led by Goran Ewald of Lund University in Sweden and including Nicky Szarzi, a fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, studied fish in two Alaska lakes and found evidence that salmon are passing on pollutants to other fish.

The researchers examined grayling in Round Tangle Lake and Lower Fish Lake, both located in the Alaska Range. Salmon migrate to and from Lower Fish Lake, which… read more

Look for the largest land-dwelling mammals in Alaska and you'll find them in the north. Polar bears prowl on the northern rim of the state and on sea ice off the coast, as well as on the northern coasts of Russia, Canada, Greenland and Norway. A thick coat of white fur helps bears survive in these latitudes. During the past few decades, scientists have speculated that this fur keeps bears warm because each hair routes warm sunlight to a polar bear's skin.

Daniel Koon, an associate professor of physics at St. Lawrence University in New York, became fascinated by the subject when he first read about it in a physics text book. His interest led him to assemble an Internet site that holds a few dozen newspaper and magazine articles that describe how light can travel the length of a polar bear hair in the same way water flows through a pipe. The theory goes like this: sunlight is captured by each hair, directed to the bear's black skin, and converted there to heat, thereby… read more

After six months of hibernation, two black bears recently emerged to spring sunshine. The bears, a three-year old female and a yearling male, spent the winter in the same state as thousands of other black bears in Alaska-slumbering in a cozy nest, occasionally rising, stretching, and plopping back down. The major difference was the location of their dens; they wintered in a spruce forest on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

Brian Barnes and Oivind Toien set up the hibernating quarters for the sow and young boar, problem bears trapped in the fall at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage. Barnes, a professor of zoology at the Institute of Arctic Biology, and Toien, a Fulbright scholar from Norway, watched the bears closely over the winter and got a fresh look at what happens to black bears during hibernation.

The bears wintered in padded boxes built so Barnes and Toien could detect each breath of the bears. By installing probes on the bears, they also… read more

A dog can tell you a lot about the outdoors. When Jane, my Lab, vacuums the ground with her nose and her tail moves like a helicopter blade, I know a grouse is about to fly. When Jane stops as abruptly as a dragonfly, then runs off sniffing an invisible path, I know a snowshoe hare has crossed our trail.

All this entertainment is courtesy of that most sensitive appendage, a dog's nose. It's an instrument man has not been able to duplicate. A local search-and-rescue group, PAWS, uses dogs to find lost people, dead people, and people buried under earth and snow. Dogs have also been used to find gas leaks and the presence of gypsy moth egg sacks. A researcher here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks even wants to train a dog to find tiny wood frogs hibernating in the duff.

Lurking behind those textured, damp nostrils are sensitive membranes that allow a dog to distinguish smells--molecules of odor that emanate from every living or once-living thing--at least one… read more

In late spring, cow moose find a secluded spot to give birth to calves, alone. Meanwhile, bull moose are found nowhere near the cows they impregnated. In calving season and for most of the year, bulls and cows don't mingle.

The apparent indifference between the sexes intrigues Terry Bowyer, a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology. Though male and female moose always seem to find one another during mating season, for the rest of the year they have little to do with one another. Their separation is so extreme Bowyer thinks cows and bulls should be managed as different species.

Moose are not alone in this aloofness toward the opposite sex. Most ruminants (hoofed creatures that chew cuds, such as caribou, antelope, deer and sheep) only prefer the company of mates when seized by the urge to reproduce.

Bowyer, who has studied moose in Denali National Park for almost a decade, has spent many hours watching the behavior of… read more

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

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

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

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

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

Abby Hawkins wants to know if you've seen her birds.

Abby is a fifth-grader at Pearl Creek Elementary School in Fairbanks. In a science project, she asked: "How far does a chickadee roam?" I'm sure many feeder watchers have asked the same question while watching the birds appear as puff balls on cold days. Abby decided to try and find out.

Using a permit owned by the Alaska Bird Observatory and a few of the observatory's bird traps, Abby captured birds near her home in Fairbanks. Anna-Marie Barber of the bird observatory helped Abby place tiny, colored bands on the legs of 29 chickadees (18 boreal and 11 black-capped). With the bands, the birds appear to wear colored socks on their right legs.

Abby uses binoculars to check chickadees she sees for the color bands, and that's where she needs some help. More on that later.

In a few months of chickadee-watching, Abby has seen or recaptured 16 of the 29 banded chickadees near her home in Fairbanks.… read more

GULF OF ALASKA, ABOARD THE ALPHA HELIX--The scientists on this boat refer to this trip as a "cruise." Though I'm still searching, I have yet to find the ballroom or the Fiesta Deck. Instead, this boat is full of scientific equipment, computers, and people who gather sea water and tiny creatures from the deep.

I jotted a list of images that, for me, define a scientific cruise on the Alpha Helix:

While sampling phytoplankton, an oceanographer pokes his thumb, which begins to bleed. So not to sully his samples, he dresses the wound with duct tape and works on.

A scientist's fish-finder will not work because of a software problem. After we return to Seward and he receives a remedy via Fed Ex, we go back to sea. Once 100 miles from Seward, a measuring device on his zooplankton net malfunctions on three successive attempts. When the net is mended, his fish finder breaks once again. He does not scream.

The same researcher is almost washed into the… read more

ABOARD THE ALPHA HELIX---Bob Day had a feeling something big was happening beneath the Alpha Helix, a University of Alaska research vessel floating on the Gulf of Alaska. From the ship's windows, he saw a large gathering of seabirds floating on swells 100 miles offshore from Seward.

Day, a marine ecologist with ABR, Inc., had not seen this many northern fulmars gathered here before. He suspected the Alpha Helix had just passed an area where the density of salt water changes abruptly--a front where saltier water meets fresher water, a place where small fish feed on an abundance of tiny creatures, and where seabirds are attracted to small fishes.

As Day pondered the significance of the fulmar gathering, oceanographer Tom Weingartner walked by and offered his observations of the sea water.

"There's good mixing here," Weingartner said.

"That's what the fulmars told me," Day said. "(The birds) are good oceanographers."

The ocean beneath the… read more

For all its rocking and bobbing, I'm tempted to define it as my personal torture chamber. But it ain't that either. The Alpha Helix is a ship dedicated to science, a floating lab for those who study chemistry, biology, physics or geology. Just give the crew a couple days and they can convert the ship's science quarters for whatever a researcher needs.

Instead of crab pots and floats, the Alpha Helix carries a $100,000 sea water sampler the size of a refrigerator, a series of fine nets to capture zooplankton and an elaborate fish finder. A half dozen scientists--from one who studies birds to one who studies creatures not visible without a microscope--are aboard to study the waters and creatures of the Gulf of Alaska.

This mission, which I was invited on by UAF oceanographer Tom Weingartner, is number 203 for the Alpha Helix since UAF's Institute of Marine Science took over the ship from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1980. The ship is owned by the… read more

In the days when Alaska was a vast grassland, a massive bear hunted the treeless plains. Walking on four lean legs, the giant, short-faced bear loomed larger than the biggest brown bear today. A researcher once described the extinct bear as "the dominant predator of North America."

Stirring as that description is, Paul Matheus had a problem with it. Sure, the giant bear was huge, but it seemed to be too big for its own good. Part scientist and part detective, Matheus is a paleobiologist at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. His job is to reconstruct the lives of animals that roamed the planet thousands of years ago. The giant, short-faced bear disappeared from its turf in Alaska and the Lower 48 about 12,000 years ago. Every now and again, the giant bear will make a reappearance, usually when a gold miner finds a skull or leg bone clunking around in a sluice box.

Using bones donated from miners and the research of others who have studied the bear,… read more

Like most creatures, salmon are a tough lot to predict. Some years, so many salmon return to a hatchery that fisheries managers give them away in parking lots. Other years, fishing boats are halted at the docks because biologists find too few fish in the ocean to support an opening.

Though predicting salmon runs is harder than predicting the weather, researchers have noticed a trend: when Alaska wins, the Pacific Northwest loses. Some biologists and oceanographers think they might know why.

Flipping through old issues of fishing journals, Steven Hare of the International Pacific Halibut Commission was struck by the correlations he saw between Alaska and Pacific Northwest fisheries. In 1915, a reporter in Pacific Fisherman wrote that Bristol Bay salmon packers returned to port early due to a lack of fish. At the same time, the chinook salmon run up the Columbia River that borders Oregon and Washington was the best in 25 years. In 1939, the Bristol Bay salmon run… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine a glowing green pencil that reaches so far into the night sky it seems to pierce the Big Dipper. Such is the sight on a hillside above the Chatanika River valley, where scientists at Poker Flat Research Range aim lasers skyward. With lasers, they hope to learn more about the upper tiers of Earth's atmosphere.

Besides looking really neat as they cut through winter air, lasers allow scientists to gather information from miles above without leaving the ground. Laser light is the primary tool of Richard Collins, who allowed me to tag along with him to Poker Flat. Collins is a researcher at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Unlike a standard light bulb that emits light in all directions, a laser's energy is focused in one direction. Because lasers retain their narrow beam characteristics for exceptional distances, Collins is able to send pulses of laser light high enough to reach the part of the atmosphere he studies.

The laser… read more

As Marion Sindorf of Palmer fed her horses one January morning, she noticed something amiss with the moon. Next to the lunar orb was another, fainter version of itself. She called her husband John, and together they watched the rising sun chase both moons over the western horizon.

The Sindorfs, who sent a letter about the moons to me, are not the only northerners to have seen more than one moon. Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen included sketches of the phenomenon in his 1897 book, Farthest North. Hudson Stuck, the missionary author of Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled, saw a trio of moons near Bettles in 1906: "The moon, little past her full, had a great ring around her, faintly prismatic; and equidistant from her, where a line parallel with the horizon would cut the ring, were two other moons distinct and clear. It was a strangely beautiful thing, this sight of three moons sailing aloft through the starry sky."

The mysterious multiple moons became… read more

Sometimes studying the aurora is like hunting moose. You know your quarry is out there, but you don't know its size, or exactly when or where it will appear. You can wait for your target to bump into you, or you can stalk. Several Geophysical Institute scientists chose the latter approach recently, and it worked; if they were moose hunters they would be wrapping steaks right about now.

In their pursuit, the aurora researchers took off in a small jet from Fairbanks every night for two weeks. They did their work around new moon, when the moon's position between Earth and the sun didn't allow a bright moon to interfere with their aurora chasing. On a typical night, Hans Neilsen, the project leader and a professor of physics at the Geophysical Institute, and Daniel Osborne, the project engineer, would locate the aurora on TV monitors within the jet. The TV screens beamed images from three cameras mounted on top of the jet: two narrow-field cameras and an all-sky camera,… 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

Calum Stamper and his brother Adam went for a walk on the beach recently near Calum's home on the Isle of Lewis, off the northwest coast of Scotland. As the brothers explored, seven-year old Calum saw what he thought was a Frisbee resting in a pile of rocks.

It wasn't a Frisbee, and that's where this turns into a science column. Adam Stamper, Calum's 15-year old brother, looked closely at the yellow disc. It was about seven inches in diameter and thin enough to fold easily. He turned it over and saw a typewritten message:

One Dollar Reward on Return of Serial Number with Date Found, Location, Your Name and Address to Geophysics Institute, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Soon after the boys walked indoors, Adam turned on the computer and scanned the Internet. After a 30-minute search, Adam found the name of Don Rice, a project engineer here at the Geophysical Institute. Adam typed an e-mail message to Rice, and the… read more

Near a wood stove was a good place to be this past week, as temperatures in this part of Alaska dipped to minus 40. The cold and the ice fog kept most humans indoors, but Alaskans across the state from Prudhoe Bay to Ketchikan got out for a bird count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Bird watchers here in Fairbanks found the woods heavily sprinkled with redpolls; out of almost 10,000 birds seen by the 92 volunteers, more than 7,000 were redpolls.

While gangs of redpolls gobbled birch seeds, another bird with an appetite for tree seeds--the white-winged crossbill--was hard to find. Fairbanks spotters saw just 38 white-winged crossbills this year, compared to 830 in 1994 and none in 1995. Anchorage volunteers noticed the same pattern; they saw just six white-winged crossbills in 1995, 580 in 1994, and 28 this year.

The birds boom and bust in Alaska because white and black spruce trees do not sprout cones every year, and white-winged crossbills feed… read more

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

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

The speech touched… read more

The end of the year, the end of the University of Alaska Fairbanks semester, and the end of an important part of one student's career arrived close together in 1997. George Divoky successfully defended his doctoral dissertation this December.

It took me a long time to notice just how much working toward a doctoral degree in the sciences differs from working toward an undergraduate degree, so I'm not surprised when people who've spent less time on university turf don't understand it. For example, Divoky hadn't taken a formal class in years. That doesn't mean he hadn't been working on his degree. He'd been carrying out independent research, with the (often long-distance) guidance of his major professor, Dr. Ed Murphy, and a committee of professors who'd long since earned their doctor of philosophy degrees.

Divoky had passed required postgraduate classes, of course, but to earn a doctorate he had to show the scientific community what he's done, so he needed to… read more

It was an important holiday tradition: as soon as the tree was trimmed to the last dangle of tinsel, we'd settle down with cocoa while my father began to read: " 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..."

Even when I was very young, I was impressed by how clearly Clement Moore, the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," had observed those extraordinary events. I knew I'd have been too startled to notice soot on Saint Nick's clothes, or to count the number of tiny reindeer hitched to the sleigh. Somewhere back then, I decided that Moore had been a good naturalist, a keen observer of the world around him.

That was before I met my first reindeer. It was tied to a parking meter in downtown Anchorage. Antlerless at that season, the reindeer looked more nearly bovine than deerlike. It was not tiny. I was not impressed.

In the years since, I've learned to be impressed by reindeer and their New World conspecifics, the caribou. They've… read more

Between El Nino and conferences on global warming, weather, climate, and the disagreements among scientists about weather and climate have been filling the news lately. Given the complexity of this dynamic planet, it would be astounding if researchers didn't disagree. To me, the really amazing thing is that scientists are doing so well at making increasingly precise measurements and then building them into ever more accurate projections. The improving precision is well illustrated by the significantly larger quantity recently assigned to the amount by which the full moon heats the polar atmosphere.

Almost sneaked that one past you, didn't I? Yes, the moon apparently does affect temperature at high latitude--though not so much that you should run out and moonbathe in the buff this weekend. Near the time of the full moon, the polar air is warmed by a bit more than half a degree centigrade over its temperature at the time of the new moon. That may not sound like much, but… 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

Detective novels are my favorite escape reading; I love whodunits and howdidits. Thus I was easily lured into a recent set of articles in the British journal New Scientist that dealt with using science to solve crimes. Among them was a tidy detective story.

It began with an importer in Argentina ordering computers from a manufacturer in Texas. Nowadays money moves electronically, but goods still need physical transport. So the manufacturer packed up the computers and shipped them off--or at least so he claimed when the outraged Argentinean reported that the boxes he received contained only concrete blocks.

Whodunit? The computers could have been swapped for concrete blocks at either end of the transaction or many places in between. There were customs brokers, airports, warehouses, all manner of opportunities during transit for the light-fingered and immoral to make a switch.

Appropriately for solving a commercial crime, the investigation involved… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Robert Service's poetic reports about the Klondike in 1898 to the likely media coverage in 1998 of Cordova's annual celebration in its name, the iceworm is a creature claimed by the north. True, the world first knew the creature as fiction: Service's drink-garnishing iceworm was merely an artfully decorated bit of pasta. Cordova's iceworm festival acknowledges art as well, since there the official parade-participating iceworm, with its many booted feet, is no more real than the dancing dragon in a Chinese new year celebration.

Even so, northerners know that real iceworms live in our territory. Specifically, they live within our glaciers, where they browse on hardy algae, pollen grains, and spores carried in by the wind. The threadlike iceworms and their algal pastures actually are found in water on and in the glaciers, not within the crystalline ice itself. The inch-long worms need that water, but even in winter, glaciers as far north as the Alaska Range offer… read more

Winter has descended upon Alaska, and people who want to stay mechanically mobile throughout the cold season are asking the vital question: Did I check the antifreeze?

Meanwhile, uncountable numbers of Alaska's insects that intend to stay immobile for the season have adjusted their antifreeze levels without checking anything. Otherwise, they'd never regain mobility come spring. They didn't have to think about it, because generating antifreeze and adjusting its level is something certain northern insects have evolved to do.

Among the local creepy-crawlies capable of freeze-proofing themselves with homegrown chemicals is the spruce budworm. This pest is actually a kind of caterpillar, the larva of a small moth. Though not as spectacular as the damage spruce bark beetles can cause (as Alaska's forests now show), the economic and ecologic problems the cold-hardy budworms produce are bad enough to worry foresters.

It would be just, perhaps, if someone could… read more

Maybe because I hang out at the university and thus often observe students and teachers, I associate autumn with a great upsurge in parents' anxiety. Working (and studying) mothers and fathers worry about leaving their children with even the best day care, and agonize over whether so-called quality time can make up at all for the lack of quantity. I understand; I've been there too.

All right, fellow worried parents, since we find it necessary to risk our children's psychic health by entering the rat race, it seems fair to turn to a study of rats for some crumbs of reassurance. And among harassed lab rodents, at least, separation followed by quality time offers special benefits for rat youngsters.

This implication rises from research replicating and reviewing a 40-year-old experiment. The original study involved deliberately stressing newborn rats by removing them from their mothers for 15 minutes daily during their first few weeks of life. Instead of suffering… read more

Forty years ago, the middle of October saw Americans divided into two general classes. There were the people looking up, scanning the sky for a tiny moving testimonial to technological progress, and there were the people looking down for places to hide from what that object threatened. Sputnik was orbiting the earth, and so were innumerable jokes at the expense of U.S. science. ("Soon there really will be a man in the moon," as one quip put it, "and odds are good his name will be Ivan.")

As it turned out, the tiny Sputnik was about as threatening as the washing machine to which commentators compared its size, and American science rallied to the Soviet challenge so well that within a few years the man in the moon was named Neil (Armstrong, that is). Discussions of all that history have clogged the airwaves and filled newspapers recently, in honor of the anniversary of Sputnik's launch. These accounts have been loaded with interesting details and fascinating characters… 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

Just as winter approaches, my morale gets a needed boost. The annual Arctic Science Conference is for science junkies as a really big sale at Nordstrom's is for shopping junkies. The goodies available are enough to trigger a feeding frenzy.

So this confirmed science junkie is very happy to be bound for Valdez soon, where the 48th conference is gathering. I can't begin to guess what remarkable things will be offered there, but I hope one of them will be the sequel to a story that began for me five years ago, the last time the northernmost branch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened in Valdez. It's filed in my old notebooks under the informal heading, "Bloodthirsty Bunnies from Back of Beyond."

That sounds like the title of a bad movie, but it was only my private joke about some promising research. In 1991, eight young Canadians set out to study the plants and animals living on the nunataks of the St. Elias Mountains, the high… read more

This summer, while my healthy young successor in writing this column was striding across Alaska in the company of his healthy young dog, I was behaving like a middle-aged couch potato, staying home and learning how and why to shoot my middle-aged cat. That's not as bloodthirsty as it sounds. The family cat got sick, then got a surprising diagnosis: diabetes mellitus. He needs insulin shots to stay alive.

Dr. Becky Lee, a Fairbanks veterinarian who owns a diabetic cat, gave me a reassuring overview. There's no unusual plague of diabetes among pets in the north, but it's not rare. She hasn't seen it among pet rodents, has heard of it, but not seen it, occurring in ferrets, and has encountered a few dogs and several cats every year with the disease. Cats often respond well to treatment.

I didn't know cats got diabetes. In fact, I didn't know much at all about the disease. I understood that the cause of "type 1" diabetes, such as the cat's illness, was a failure of… read more

The weekend trip closed with a drive home through the Alaska Range, and the steep scenery around Isabel Pass looked as glorious as it usually does--except for one little flaw. Here and there, like pale flames along the creek banks, willows gleamed golden in the evening light. On the river's gravel bars and beside the road, dwarf fireweed leaves had turned a sunburned purple.

The first of August, and fall colors were already signaling a change of season on the high ground. "Not fair," I groused to the driver. "Why do the doggone plants have to start changing colors so early?"

That question led to some further discussion, plus an answer or two, thus reminding me yet again of the first item I'd like to have along on any trip; a scientist. Perennial plants, ones like willows and fireweed that grow again spring after spring, gamble with their lives every year. When they're living at high latitude and altitude, the stakes are high and the risks great. The colorful… 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

It's been a long summer for some of the tundra near Toolik Lake.

Desktop-sized patches of the grasses, lichen, Labrador tea, and other plants that combine to make tundra are experiencing a longer-than-normal growing season. Researchers here prolong the tundra's short summer by shoveling snow off the tundra in spring, covering it with plastic when the frosts begin in arctic fall, and heating the soil beneath the plants with electric coils.

Steve Oberbauer and Greg Starr were recently tending to their plot of pampered plants here at Toolik field Station, a cluster of green trailers surrounded by 88,000 acres of land set aside for research of plants, animals, fish, and other things arctic. The research center is part of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Oberbauer and Starr are both from Florida International University in Miami. Oberbauer is an associate professor; Starr is earning his doctorate degree there. I asked… read more

The white spruce has surrendered. My dog Jane and I walked north of the last white spruce a few days ago. As we climbed a hill onto Chandalar Shelf, we passed the last balsam poplar. The alders and willows duked it out for a while, but the willows triumphed as the farthest north shrubs on the trans-Alaska pipeline corridor.

No one would ever insult white spruce by labeling them as shrubs, no matter how short they grew. White spruce trees are always trees, and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate Erika Rowland recently studied Alaska's northwest stands of the conifers in order to find what their movement might say about climate change.

Rowland journeyed to the Noatak River valley to find pockets of white spruce trees thriving along the Kelly and Kugururok rivers. Both rivers drain into the Noatak River, which flows through the western Brooks Range well north of the Arctic Circle.

To see where the white spruce were going, Rowland first looked at where… read more

Ken Kalchert exposed plenty of eyeball a few years ago when he described one of his most vivid memories in 20 years of working on the trans-Alaska pipeline. One day, while he sat in the cab of his 18-wheeler near Galbraith Lake, a large grizzly bear lumbered below.

"He was huge," said Kalchert, my landlord and the builder of my Fairbanks cabin. "I was scared even though I was in the truck."

The bear Kalchert saw was one of Alaska's most adaptable creatures, a brown bear sometimes referred to as the barren ground grizzly.

Brown bears can live almost anywhere in Alaska. People have seen them throughout the state except for on a few islands in Southeast, the Aleutians beyond Unimak Island, and islands of the Bering Sea. Brown bears away from southern coastal areas of Alaska are often called grizzlies, though scientists consider both the same species.

The grizzlies of the treeless far north thrive in the abbreviated arctic summer with far less than… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Jennifer Kimball looked up at the night sky last winter, she noticed something special--a solid green curtain of aurora borealis that seemed to be cleaved in two by a long line of black arcs.

On that February night, Kimball, a graduate student studying space physics at the Geophysical Institute, caught her first live glance of her thesis topic--the black aurora. She later confirmed she wasn't imagining things by watching a video of that night's aurora activity taken at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks.

Black aurora isn't actually aurora at all; it's the lack of aurora activity where it seems like the aurora should be. Kimball and her advisor, Geophysical Institute Professor Emeritis Tom Hallinan, showed me a black aurora that was captured by a narrow-field camera at the former Ester Dome observatory in Fairbanks in the 1970s. Kimball hit the play button and pointed out three major types of black aurora: black curls, which corkscrew across a… read more

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

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

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

Fairbanks--As I was moving slowly northward two days ago, I stopped at the North Pole McDonald's to offset the deficiencies of my hiking diet. In between bites, I read an Alaska newspaper editorial crediting El Nino for the nice weather that has allowed Jane and me to sleep without a rainfly for all but a few nights on our walk across Alaska.

Is El Nino, a warm ocean current, responsible for much of Alaska's recent hot, dry and sometimes windy weather? "No," said Ron Stuvek, an assistant forecaster with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. "It's a consistent high-pressure system." According to Stuvek, much of the state has been effected by a high-pressure system since early May.

"It's not an isolated high-pressure system," Stuvek said. "It's statewide, from Bristol Bay to Kotzebue. Yesterday, Annette and Ketchikan (both in Southeast Alaska) got two-tenths of an inch of rain; everywhere else there was nothing to speak about."

At that point in the… read more

Above the Salcha River, Pipeline Mile 495---Enough mosquitoes perch on my tent these nights that they could airlift Jane and I to their favorite bog if they all latched on and lifted at once. Fortunately, mosquitoes don't have very big brains. The females do have a lust for blood, though, enough to alter the behavior of man and beast.

Frank Morschel recently studied how caribou were affected by the flying devils of the north. Morschel did his research in the Alaska Range during the summers of 1994 and 1995 to earn a master's degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Morschel traveled on horseback to reach the caribou of the Delta herd, a group of caribou that spends its summers in a wide patch bordered to the north by the Tanana Flats, to the south by the Denali Highway, to the East by the Delta River, and to the west by the Parks Highway.

While wolves currently get all the press as being a major factor in the decline of caribou herds, caribou face… 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

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

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

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

Back to… read more

There are a lot of things I miss about working inside the Geophysical Institute this time of year, but one void in my work routine is that I'm missing calls about HAARP on the Geophysical Institute's information line.

I referred most of the calls about HAARP, the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, to John Heckscher, the HAARP program manager at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. Before I began the pipeline hike, I gave Heckscher a call to learn more about the controversial project, which is located near Gakona, about 11 miles from the Richardson Highway on the Tok cut-off road. As of this summer, HAARP consists of high-frequency transmitters that send signals from 48 antennas on top of 72-foot posts. The antenna field covers about five acres. When completed, HAARP will be expanded to 180 antennas and 33 acres no earlier than the year 2002. The purpose of HAARP is not to control weather or brain functions, Heckscher said. HAARP is a tool researchers can… read more

On the south bank of the Klutina River, near Copper Center --- I'm sitting on a muddy rock, trying to think like an arctic grayling. Nothing's coming to mind.

A couple of guys expended a bit more energy trying to understand grayling in the late 1960s. They emerged with some interesting insights into the behavior of one of Alaska's most popular game fish.

Gian Vascotto, then with the University of Manitoba, and James Morrow, then a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent much of the summer of 1968 on their bellies, peering into McManus Creek in Interior Alaska. Using "a brushy barrier for concealment," they studied six pools of the river in great detail, lying motionless to watch grayling for up to 14 hours at a time.

In what must have been a buggy but rewarding summer, the researchers found that the biggest grayling seemed to call the shots. Large grayling always lurked closest to the bottom of the deepest pools, while smaller fish… read more

Near Pump Station 12, pipeline mile 736 --- I'm sitting in the woods, on a cushy pad of spruce cones provided by a red squirrel. The spruce tree supporting my back is dead. Dead too, is the spruce tree in front of me. The mountains surrounding me are gray with the skeletons of thousands of former spruce trees. The culprit? The spruce bark beetle.

About the size of a grain of rice, the spruce bark beetle has drastically changed the forest here. I noticed the effects of these tiny insects at my first campsite beyond Thompson Pass -- the tree I used to suspend my food away from bears was a beetle-killed spruce. I'll be witnessing their work for the next several weeks as I hike toward the Alaska Range.

How could such a tiny creature do so much damage? Before I embarked on my journey, I called Ed Holsten, a research entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Anchorage, who told me I'd have a hard time finding many beetles here these days. "There is very little… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the hints (as interpreted by me)

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

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

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

Now that the Alaska Science Forum is old enough to vote, it's time to look back over the column's history. That seems only fair, since at the beginning was a historian.

Claus M. Naske, then, as now, a professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was concerned about the growing gap between progress in the sciences and what the public knew about science. Fellow members of the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum shared his concern and encouraged him to do something about it. Naske approached Neil Davis at the Geophysical Institute, suggesting initially that he undertake a weekly television show to explain how the university's researchers were nudging the boundaries of what was known about the north.

Davis liked the idea, but not the television part. Producing a show would take too much time and energy, detracting from his main business of scientific research and teaching. But, he thought innocently, he could write the column evenings and weekends,… read more

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

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

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

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

Twenty years ago, about 100 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, a welder fused a section of 48-inch pipe with molten metal. When he snuffed his torch, the trans-Alaska pipeline was an 800-mile tube of steel.

On June 20, 1977, oil began flowing from the bowels of the earth at Prudhoe Bay, through Pump Station 1, and into the trans-Alaska pipeline. At the time, an editorial in the "Fairbanks Daily News-Miner" heralded the pipeline as the world's largest private construction project. In "The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy," Peter Coates wrote that others had grander analogies, comparing the pipeline to the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

More than 28,000 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company workers and contractors worked on the pipeline at the peak of activity in 1975, and 31 people died in activities related to pipeline construction, according to Trans-Alaska Pipeline System Facts a palm-sized book distributed by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company… read more

In the shadow of Donnelly Dome near Delta Junction, something unusual catches the eye: an inverted metal pyramid sits amid miles of muskeg.

The shiny pyramid, open to the sky like the beak of a just-hatched robin, isn't the work of an avant-garde sculptor. It's called a corner reflector, and Parker Martyn recently toted me to Delta Junction while he aimed it and others at a satellite.

Martyn is a calibration engineer at the Alaska Synthetic Aperture Radar Facility (ASF), housed in the Geophysical Institute. ASF people operate the big satellite dish on top of the Elvey Building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They use the dish to receive data from passing satellites and convert it to images used by scientists all over the world.

Satellites with synthetic aperture radar aren't limited to gathering images during the daytime or on cloudless days. These satellites send microwave pulses to Earth that penetrate clouds and darkness much like a camera… read more

Imagine, for a few minutes, that you are not reading a newspaper science column. Pretend it's springtime in Alaska, and you are a black bear living somewhere between Ketchikan and the southern flanks of the Brooks Range. You have slept fitfully for the past six months, stirring on occasion to roll over, or, if you're a pregnant female, to give birth to cubs. Your body temperature, about 92 degrees Fahrenheit during your six months in the den, will soon rise to its normal 100 degrees.

You somehow sense that it's time for a change. Perhaps prompting you is the persistent sunlight that strikes the snow covering your den. Maybe meltwater collecting in your nest-like bed wakes you, and reminds you of how uncomfortable you are. Whatever the reason, you nose toward the light and paw at the framework of twigs you pulled over the entrance to the den months ago.

After digging away the twigs, you push at the blanket of snow that has covered your den during Alaska's fall,… read more

Seward is migrating toward Fairbanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A researcher who studies dark-eyed juncos once told me a particular junco would, after a journey of several thousand miles each spring, perch in the same Alaska valley. In the same tree. On the same branch.

How did the junco find the way back to its favorite Alaska tree branch after wintering as far away as Missouri? After conducting a simple experiment with garden warblers, a group of German researchers suggest migratory birds might use both the stars and Earth's magnetic field to navigate. Their study was detailed in a recent issue of Nature.

Biologist Peter Weindler and several colleagues at J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, studied garden warblers, a species of bird that migrates to northern Europe from Africa in springtime. As do many birds that migrate to Alaska, garden warblers fly great distances at night.

In autumn, garden warblers in northern Germany trek back to Africa, but they don't fly due south. Perhaps avoiding such… read more

Someday soon, your microwave popcorn might be cooked by the Chena River. Your CD player might shuffle songs using the power of 40 below zero air. These electrical eccentricities may become possible because of an invention that generates power from the temperature difference of water and Alaska's winter air.

Perhaps the best thing about the device, dubbed the "Freon Gravitational Engine," is the identity of its builders--a 17-year old boy and a Geophysical Institute machinist. Joe Dick is a senior at North Pole High School who needed a mentor for a science project; he wanted to do something on alternative energy sources in the Bush. One of Dick's teachers, Jerry Gustafson, introduced Dick to Ned Manning, an inventive machinist at the Geophysical Institute.

Dick and Manning's initial meeting led to hundreds of hours of brainstorming, design, and the construction of a non-motorized machine with the ability to convert temperature differences into electricity. Dick's… read more

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

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

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

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

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

If dusk falls early on March 8, 1997, blame the moon.

The orb that orbits us will throw its shadow over the earth that day. Just before sunset, the moon will intercept up to 70 percent of the sun's rays before they reach Alaska. People in Mongolia and southern Russia will experience a total solar eclipse.

We shouldn't need to dig out the flashlights here, but our partial solar eclipse may bug the birds, said Hans Nielsen, a professor of geophysics at the Geophysical Institute.

"I think it will be dark enough that the birds will think that it's evening and head for the nest," Nielsen said.

Occurring somewhere on Earth about every two years, total solar eclipses have been recorded since ancient time. As is recorded in the Chinese "Book of History," an eclipse on Oct. 22, 2136 B.C. surprised the Chinese. When the sky darkened, many assembled in panic to perform their usual eclipse rituals of shouting, beating drums, and shooting arrows into the… read more

The full moon may give northerners more benefits than just a savings on headlamp batteries.

In a study recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, three Arizona State University scientists claim the earth's poles are warmer during the full moon. Polar regions are .55 degrees Celsius warmer during full moon when compared to the temperature during new moon, the scientists found.

Less than a degree Celsius of warmth isn't enough to make you strip off your parka, but the researchers found it intriguing that the warmth was felt at the earth's poles while tropical temperatures showed no relationship with the full moon.

We see a full moon once every 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes, when the moon orbits the earth to a position where we see the moon's sunlit side. The full moon rises in the east as the sun sets to the west, traveling all night across the sky until the sun rises the next day.

The new moon rises and sets with the sun, which… read more

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

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

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

I admit it: I'm a thermometer junkie.

I have three of them attached to my home, and I've memorized three phone numbers of recorded voices that tell me the temperature at three other places. I know I have a problem, but the busy signals I hear during a cold snap tell me I'm not alone.

Since I don't seem to be the only one afflicted with mercury madness, I'll indulge in temperature trivia lifted from my favorite non-human sources: the textbook Meteorology Today and It's Raining Frogs and Fishes by Jerry Dennis.

First, a look at what our thermometers are measuring. Because hot and cold are relative terms, sometimes our senses can't be trusted to tell us the difference. For example, a tub of ice water will feel warm if you stick your foot in it after walking barefoot at 40 below.

Real hot and cold can be thought of as a measurement of motion: the temperature of water, air, motor oil or any other substance is a measure of the average… 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

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

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

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

Temperature… read more

It's deep, dark winter, time to pay homage to Alaskans' favorite scientific instrument--the centrifuge.

No, I'm kidding. Our favorite scientific instrument, the thermometer, hangs from every Alaska dwelling from Attu to Anaktuvuk Pass, even a few outhouses. In a shared winter ritual, we check our beloved thermometers thousands of times a day.

But what are we looking at? What's the deal with this Fahrenheit and Celsius stuff?

If they hadn't died, you could ask Daniel Fahrenheit and Anders Celsius, two 18th-century scientists whose names stuck with temperature scales that stuck on our thermometers. Fahrenheit and Celsius were both northerners: Fahrenheit spent much of his life in Amsterdam; Celsius was from Sweden.

Both men lived at the same time, but there's no evidence that they met one another. Fahrenheit was 15 years older than Celsius, but they both lived during a time of great scientific opportunity in Europe.

Fahrenheit's parents… read more

Next time the conversation gets boring, try this ploy: "Alaska just wouldn't be Alaska without the moon. Imagine--no earthquakes, no volcanoes, no auroras. Probably no moose, bears, or even people either." Your listeners may speculate on the lunar root of the word "lunatic," but you will have their attention. Best of all, you'll be absolutely right.

At least, that is the opinion of Jerome Pearson, who presented many theories of how Earth came to be the kind of planet it is in an article for the British journal New Scientist. When Pearson puts them all together, the theories give the moon a lot of the credit--or the blame.

Take earthquakes. It's the heat of our planet's core that provides energy to drive volcanoes and shift continental plates, grow mountains and widen oceans. All that activity is accompanied by earthquakes. Given its fairly small size, as planets go, and relatively sedate pace of rotation, it is odd that Earth has so warm a heart.

The… read more

Things didn't look good for the five frozen wood frogs.

The palm-sized amphibians were hibernating in a box outside Brian Barnes' Fairbanks home. Barnes, a University of Alaska Fairbanks associate professor of zoophysiology, and his students were in his living room checking a temperature gauge he recently plucked from the "frog corral." When he plugged the device into his computer, a graph spilled across the screen.

The temperature at frog level, under a few inches of snow and moss, had dipped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in December.

"That guy's toast," Steve Trumble, a UAF graduate student, said of the particular frog whose belly the temperature recorder had been stuck to.

No one in the room doubted Trumble's dire diagnosis. According to lower 48 and Canada wood frog studies, wood frogs can't take temperatures less than about 20 degrees. Barnes' lab tests, performed on Alaska wood frogs, showed the same thing: 10 degrees is just too cold for a… read more

Like most young boys, I had trouble falling asleep one Christmas Eve. Warm under my covers, I peeked out the window to see my father carrying presents from the garage to the house. Too keyed up to sleep, I looked upward to search for the star of Bethlehem.

Was the star that guided the three wise men to the baby Jesus Christ an explainable astronomical phenomenon, something a boy in upstate New York can see from his bedroom window? Writer Nigel Henbest explored the possibilities in a New Scientist article.

To track heavenly events at the time of Jesus Christ, Henbest first had to estimate when Christ was born. December 25 was chosen by Christians who didn't celebrate the birth of Christ until 350 years after it happened. Henbest speculates the date was probably chosen because if its closeness to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the Roman feast of Saturnalia.

To further complicate matters, our system of numbering years isn't totally… read more

There's something different about the brown bears of Southeast Alaska's ABC islands.

They look like your average Alaska grizzly: milk-chocolate colored fur, a humped back, and a size and reputation that gives humans something to fear when walking the wilds of Alaska.

The difference in the brown bears of the ABC (Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof) islands isn't visible. It's in their DNA. Researchers found the bears are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears.

The bears' baffling background was discovered when Gerald Shields and Sandra Talbot of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology began analyzing the DNA of brown bears from around the world. Talbot, a graduate student, extracted DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic information warehouse in the chromosomes of every living cell) from hundreds of Alaska brown bears. Starting with slivers of kidney or muscle tissue attained from hunting guides,… read more

Back in medical school, John Sutton never dreamed he'd someday be called "Dr. Moose."

Sutton, chief of trauma services and associate professor of surgery at Dartmouth Medical School, earned the nickname by researching what happens to drivers who collide with moose.

Sutton became Dr. Moose after giving a presentation on the mammals at a recent trauma conference. Since very few people are stabbed or shot in small-town New Hampshire, Sutton focused on injuries people receive when their vehicles hit moose. His research attracted the attention of "National Geographic," National Public Radio, the Associated Press, and Carla Helfferich, who clipped the news story for me.

Sutton studied cases of 23 patients who were admitted to New England medical centers after striking moose with their vehicles. Their injuries reflect the tendency on collision for a moose's stilt-like legs to deliver the bulk of its body to a windshield or roof: seventy percent of the patients… read more

There's a new mammal in Alaska.

When its scientific name appears in a research journal, the Alaska tiny shrew will officially join bowhead whales, brown bears, and buffalo as one of Alaska's wild creatures that grows hair and has the ability to produce milk for its young.

Though new to the list of Alaska mammals, the Alaska tiny shrew didn't recently scamper over the border. The shrew has been here a long time; but it's easy to hide when you weigh less than a dime.

The shrew's scurry to species status began in 1987. That's when Galena biologist Tim Osborne found a smaller-than-normal shrew in one of his pit traps. A pit trap is a metal cone shoved in the ground that proves inescapable to small animals that tumble in. Osborne, who still works in Galena for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, set several traps in his back yard to see what they would produce for his daughter's science project.

Osborne thought the small creature was probably an… read more

While driving the Steese Highway recently, large piles of boulders lining the road--the tailings of a gold dredge that had munched its way through the area years before--inspired a debate on gold.

One passenger spoke of what an absurdity it is that we humans place such a high value upon gold. "If jewelry isn't your thing, what good is gold?" he asked. "You can't eat it. If a space alien were to land here and ask why gold is so valuable, I don't know what I'd tell him."

I looked around the car. Except for the wedding rings of my two companions, I saw no gold. Back at home, I once again failed to see any gold. What good is gold?

My search for an answer led me to the Minerals Yearbook, published by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the yearbook, Bureau of Mines geologist John Lucas explains that gold is in almost every office and home.

Touch-tone phones, for example, have up to 33 electrical contact points made of gold. Take the gold out of… read more

A few nights ago, an Interior musher saw a fireball blazing through the sky "like a flaming Nolan Ryan fastball."

As a baseball fan, I liked his comparison. But that can't be the explanation for the blue flash that lit up the sky. Nolan Ryan retired years ago.

To track down the real cause of the burst of light and the accompanying boom, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner writer Mary Beth Smetzer called the U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. A staffer told her the light show was not the result of anything manmade.

Other space-watchers told her a meteorite probably lit up the sky when it entered Earth's atmosphere and glowed from the sudden friction of air molecules. The meteorite, a fragment of some heavenly body, probably caused a sonic boom as it whistled toward interior Alaska faster than the speed of sound.

That's a good explanation, but I wondered how the people at U.S. Space Command could be so sure our celestial visitor wasn't a… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

A strange thing happens at my house every October: the woodstove seems to get bigger. It's been an inconspicuous little black thing in the corner of the living room all summer, but come snowfall, it's a brute right out in the middle. And it looks hungry.

If there's any science whatsoever in that observation, it's psychology. Important objects may be perceived as larger than they really are, and that stove certainly grows in importance as temperatures decline.

Other sciences apply more exactly to heating with wood. Between bouts of hauling stove-length chunks of birch and spruce into winter shelter, I reviewed some of what scientist Neil Davis had to impart about wood as fuel in his book "Energy/Alaska."

I was willing to categorize birch as a hardwood from the first moment my splitting maul bounced uselessly off a birch log, but the book told me that isn't the usual way to tell hardwoods from softwoods. From a forester's point of view, it's all in the… read more

After a decade in Alaska without seeing a northern flying squirrel, I held one in my hands the other day. It was soft and velvety. Unfortunately, it was also dead.

That particular flying squirrel rests in a drawer in the basement of the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. Gordon Jarrell, a research associate who manages the museum's mammal collection, gave me a glimpse of the stuffed flying squirrel. Few people have seen these furry kites of the forest, even though they're not rare in Alaska.

The northern flying squirrel's large, teddy-bear eyes hint at why the creature is so hard to spot--it's nocturnal. The lucky people who spot them usually see them dining at bird feeders in winter or gliding from tree to tree in the mid-summer, when the sleepless sun doesn't allow them to sail in darkness.

The northern flying squirrel performs its acrobatics everywhere there are trees in Alaska. The airborne rodent ranges as far south as California and the… read more

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

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

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

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

For years, scientists envisioned the Bering land bridge as a dry grassland where mammoths and bison grazed, attracting hungry humans who may have migrated back and forth between what is now Alaska and Siberia.

A new study suggests the land bridge instead looked remarkably similar to the tundra hills and plains of today's arctic Alaska. In the same study, Scott Elias, of the University of Colorado in Boulder, and his coworkers also found evidence that the land bridge was open for travel much more recently than previously thought. Elias's study was featured in the July 4, 1996, issue of Nature.

The Bering land bridge, thought by some scientists to be the pathway for the ancestors of all the Native people of North and South America, was a chunk of land more than twice the size of Texas, Elias said. He believes the entire west coast of Alaska was landlocked, from north of Barrow all the way south to the Aleutian chain.

The land bridge rose… read more

The neighborhood chickadees worried me the other day and the local red squirrel did nothing to ease my mind. The usually mellow chickadees attacked my bird feeder, emptying it of sunflower seeds almost as quickly as I could spill them in. A few mornings later, the squirrel woke me up with a steady tapping on my roof as it tossed down dozens of spruce cones from an overhanging tree.

It seemed as if the tiny critters had something to tell me. I wondered if they or other animals have the ability to predict what kind of winter we'll have.

I called Pierre Deviche, an associate professor of animal physiology with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology, to find a reason for the chickadees' feeding frenzy.

The birds were busy caching seeds for later, he said. Chickadees' actions are probably regulated by internal rhythms rather than an ability to sense bad weather, Deviche said. The chickadees' bustle was perfectly normal. In a way, they were predicting that winter… read more

A while ago I wrote about a blue moon, a rare phenomenon during which the moon takes on the color of a robin's egg. If you're more partial to red, the moon should be draped in your favorite color soon as it shows the effects of a lunar eclipse.

Hans Nielsen, a Geophysical Institute professor who teaches an astronomy course, said Alaskans can expect to see a coppery moon briefly after it rises on September 26.

The moon's sudden appearance in the hue of a newly minted penny is caused by the earth, which casts a circular shadow that the moon orbits through once or twice a year. This shadow, known as the umbra, is like a black circle in space. At about 230,000 miles from the earth, where the moon orbits, the umbra has a diameter of 5,700 miles. Since the ball of the moon is 2,160 miles in diameter, it fits into the dark umbra for hours at a time during a lunar eclipse.

Because the moon is passing through the earth's shadow, you might expect the moon to be… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don't have to understand the physics of the flying disc to throw a great "hammer," but it certainly doesn't hurt.

At least that's the case with Peter Delamere, a Geophysical Institute graduate student who's one of the best flying disc flingers in Fairbanks. He hurls backhands, forehands, and the hammer, an overhead release that travels quite a distance upside-down before dropping like a lead sinker into the stinging hands of a receiver.

Delamere, who studies space physics at the Geophysical Institute, is one of a half dozen other G.I. grad students who play Ultimate, a game like football or soccer except players sling a flying disc instead of a ball.

Applying a spin is crucial to the flight of a flying disc (which I would call a "Frisbee" if that word wasn't a trademark of Wham-O). Delamere demonstrated this fact by pushing his 175-gram flying disc through the air as if he was tossing a shot put. The non-rotating disc fluttered to the ground like an… read more

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

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

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

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

The office phone rang while Brian Barnes discussed with me his need for wood frogs. The caller's loudness forced Barnes, a University of Alaska Fairbanks associate professor of zoophysiology, to tilt the phone away from his ear.

"He's got some frogs," the voice boomed. "He don't wanna sell 'em. He wants to know what they eat."

The caller, a man from Fox, told Barnes that he and his son had read Barnes' unusual classified ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: "Wanted: Live wood frogs collected in or nearby Fairbanks. Needed for UAF study on wood frog overwintering biology. Where do they go? Will pay 25 cents for small; $1 each for large."

As father handed the phone over to son, Barnes lobbied with 8-year-old David, a student at Weller Elementary. If David sold Barnes his frogs, Barnes would tell David's class about the unique way the farthest north amphibians survive the winter. David wouldn't budge.

"He wants to keep his frogs," Barnes said,… read more

"You catch it; we'll use it," is the slogan of the fish folks down at the University of Alaska's Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak. Their job is to make the most of what fishermen pull out of Alaska's waters. They even salvage the arrowtooth flounder, a fish that turns positively pulpy when cooked.

Arrowtooth flounders are the 10-pound cousins of halibut, the tasty fish that hug the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska in vast numbers. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that when fish are ranked by weight, arrowtooth flounder take the gold medal for the species with the most biomass in the Gulf of Alaska.

Although there's a bunch of arrowtooth flounder in the gulf, they haven't been fishermen favorites because the flounders' flesh doesn't react well to the heat of cooking. In the frying pan, the arrowtooth turns to mush. Generally, people won't buy a fish that cooks into the texture of oatmeal.

The problem with arrowtooth flounder is… read more

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine it's the year 1500 A.D. Alaska is a true wilderness, populated only by scattered bands of Native people. Russian frontiersmen haven't even explored Siberia yet; they won't hit the Alaska coast for another 200 years. On Kodiak Island, 1 to 1.5 million sockeye salmon nose their way up the Karluk River to spawn in Karluk Lake. Now imagine counting those sockeyes. In effect, that's what Bruce Finney and his colleagues at the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science did recently.

Finney, an assistant professor of marine science at IMS, tallied the salmon that lived in the lake 500 years ago by using traces of nitrogen found on the lake bottom. When salmon spawn, die, and decompose, their bodies release nutrients, such as nitrogen, that were stored in living flesh and bone. Salmon collect a unique type of nitrogen in their bodies called nitrogen-15, which is easy for researchers to identify in a lab.

After salmon dissolve and release nitrogen-15 into… read more

The sharp squeal of an animal in pain pierced the silence of a recent Alaska summer night. I bounded up from the couch and looked out the window. Harriet, my girlfriend's cat, sat on the lawn with a serene look on her face. In her jaws, she held a struggling snowshoe hare by the neck. The hare kicked convulsively, then died. By conservative count, Harriet has killed (and at least partially eaten) three hares and one red squirrel during the past two weeks. If Harriet, who is at least 10 years old, puts that much of a dent in the local animal population, what are the combined effects of cats on wildlife?

Researchers in places as divergent as England and Wisconsin have asked that question at least twice during the past few years. All seem to agree--house cats kill a staggering amount of wildlife.

To conduct one experiment, British scientists Peter Churcher and John Lawton gave the townspeople of Bedfordshire plastic bags in which they saved whatever their cats… read more

When she's not adorning drafts of my column with red ink, my editor occasionally sings in a local band. Lately, her renditions of Billie Holliday's "Blue Moon," have been inspiring questions from the audience. Isn't there a blue moon this month? Yes, there is, but don't expect to see a moon the color of a robin's egg or the Alaska flag. "Blue moon" is a term of vague origin used to describe two relatively rare phenomena: the second full moon in a month, or when the moon actually appears blue due to particles suspended in air.

July, 1996's blue moon is the calendar variety. July features two full moons--one occurred on the first, and another will show itself on the 30th. This type of blue moon happens every 2.7 years because of a disparity between our calendar and the lunar cycle. The lunar cycle, the time it takes for the moon to revolve around the earth, is 29 days, 12 hours, and 44 minutes. Because our months aren't 29.5 days long, blue moons happen once in a, well,… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hitchhiker I toted on the Dalton Highway recently told me he'd seen a "dust devil" dance down the road like a mini tornado. I felt deprived because I'd never seen one. As if by design, one appeared in front of me the next day.

While driving down a dry gravel road, I saw dust rotating on the ground like a dog chasing its tail. The funnel of twisting air grew until it rocked the tips of nearby spruce trees. Then it ran to the surface of a nearby river, where it touched down with the sound of a plastic tarp shredding in the wind.

Dust devils, also called whirlwinds and willy-nillys (in Australia), happen frequently in the desert and occasionally on Alaska roads, parking lots, and other hot surfaces.

Dust devils are born when sun-warmed air over a road or parking lot rises rapidly through layers of cooler air above, said Dave Hefner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. As a blob of warm air quickly rises, it's turned in a… read more

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

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

Many peaks appear limestone… read more

Cindy Gulledge pulled a vial from the laboratory refrigerator. Sitting at the bottom of the tube of clear liquid was what looked like a gray wad of chewing gum that had just been scraped off the underside of a desk.

It wasn't gum. The gray globule was the brain of a dark-eyed junco, a songbird that visits Alaska spruce forests in the summer. Gulledge, a graduate student at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology, knows her way around a junco brain. She studies them to better understand how and why birds sing. Junco brains also give Gulledge and other researchers a simple model that can be used to gain insight on how brains control animal behavior.

Gulledge and Pierre Deviche, an IAB associate professor of animal physiology, said the wonderful songs wafting from Alaska forests are probably all coming from the beaks of male songbirds. Although it sounds as if the boy birds are crooning the joys of being alive, Deviche said songbirds are acting more… read more

My search for the perfect job has ended--I want to be the guy who cannons dead chickens into jet engines.

The job really exists. The chicken test is one of many trials jet engines must pass to be approved for use on commercial airliners. One such airliner, a Boeing 777, recently flew the skies over Fairbanks. The 777 was in Alaska this spring for cold-weather testing, even though it wasn't very chilly.

Before the Federal Aviation Administration approves a new engine model, the engines have to pass a number of tests in temperatures ranging from 40 below to hotter than 100 above. Temperatures near 50 degrees in the Interior were cold enough to perform the tests, said Hal Dufilho, a Boeing operations engineer. Dufilho gave me a lengthy tour in and around the royal blue British Airways prototype. Dozens of Boeing workers were climbing all over the aircraft to test out the two jet engines, which were General Electric models hanging on both wings like a pair of open-… 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

While mapping the rocky features of Alaska's Lime Hills in 1992, geologist Tom Bundtzen and a few colleagues rested at the mouth of a hillside cave.

With a panoramic view over the tundra plains to the north and west, Bundtzen mused at what a great spot it would be for caribou hunting. Realizing he might not be the first to dream about steaks while gazing out the cave, he called an archaeologist when he got back to Fairbanks, where Bundtzen works for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

Following Bundtzen's tip, Washington State University Anthropologist Robert Ackerman visited the cave in the summer of 1993. Inside, he found unique bone arrowheads used by hunters 7,500 years before the birth of Christ. The find represents the earliest appearance of the bow and arrow on the North American continent, according to Ackerman, who wrote about the discovery in a field report. Bundtzen got his hunch while mapping the area's geology as part of the… read more

After researching the mealtime mechanisms of mosquitoes, I've come up with a fool-proof plan to keep the bloodsuckers off me this summer.

First, I'11 wear light-colored clothing. Second, Ill bathe more often in an attempt to be as odorless as possible. Third, I won't exhale while I'm in the woods.

Failing the above, I'll hope Richard "Skeeter" Werner's prediction proves true. Werner, a research entomologist (one who studies insects) with the Institute of Northern Forestry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says the lack of snow cover last fall along with subzero temperatures may have killed bunches of hibernating mosquitoes.

"Snow mosquitoes," the big, sluggish mosquitoes that are the first to irritate us, survive the winter by bundling up in leaf litter or wedging themselves under loose tree bark. Like many hibernating insects, overwintering mosquitoes depend on "supercooling," a process by which an animal has the ability to rid its body fluids of… read more

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

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

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

To study how vegetation changes over time in an ecosystem, clear a few acres with a bulldozer, then watch over it for 1,000 years or so. Pencil in the approximate dates when grasses pop up, then chart when the grasses give way to shrubs. Years later, dust off the clipboard to mark when the shrubs are pushed out by trees.

A quicker way is to let mother nature do the work, according to Thomas Ager, a geologist with the Global Change and Climate History Team of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver.

A chunk of Southcentral Alaska the size of Utah is Ager's experimental plot. Instead of a bulldozer, glaciers scraped the landscape there during the last ice age, from about 25,000 to 12,000 years ago. Later, seeds surfing on the wind fell upon the virgin plot of bare mineral soil. The seeds germinated into plants and initiated the greening of Ager's study area--a rough square from the Alaska Range south to Homer Spit, east to Glennallen and west to Cook Inlet across… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We're currently completing what aurora researchers refer to as "moon-down time," a two-week period around the new moon when the sky is dark enough to watch the aurora all night.

Although this schedule makes for some groggy mornings for aurora-watching scientists, it also rewarded them with good views of Comet Hyakutake from Poker Flat Research Range. After they finished filming the aurora, the researchers aimed their cameras at Comet Hyakutake, which will perhaps become the brightest comet to pass this close to the earth in 400 years.

"It looks like a fuzzy star," said Geophysical Institute Professor Hans Nielsen.

Early on, the comet was about as bright as the faintest star in the Big Dipper, but it brightened as the comet continued its egg-shaped orbit around the sun. Alaskan sky-watchers were able to see the comet without even using binoculars as it appeared to pass by the Big Dipper.

Yuji Hyakutake, of Japan, discovered the comet on January… read more

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

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

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

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

Forget digging for a four-leaf clover. Why not celebrate St. Patrick's Day by taking a bite out of an Irish apple, Alaska's number one agricultural product?

Potatoes, which taste a bit sweeter when grown in the Last Frontier, have been bulging in Alaska soils for more than 200 years, said Carol Lewis, department head of the Resources Management Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Their lineage probably has roots in potatoes planted by Russian explorer Grigorii Shelikhov, who planted a crop on Kodiak Island in 1784 while setting up the first permanent white settlement in Russian America.

Potatoes were first cultivated centuries earlier in the mountains of Peru, according to the book Seeds of Change by Herman Viola of the Smithsonian Institution. After Spain conquered Peru in 1536, potatoes were transplanted throughout Europe. Spanish fishermen introduced the potato to Ireland in about 1650.

The Irish discovered that a whole… read more

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

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

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

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

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

While on a recent trip to a remote cabin on the bank of the frozen Yukon River, I was treated to a night sky that was free from light pollution. I stood shivering under a purple black ceiling that was crowded with a billion stars.

Suddenly, a star caught my attention by gliding steadily across the sky. It seemed to be moving very fast, and it featured a constant white light; it wasn't twinkling like the other stars. I was about to roust my cabin mates for a look at a UFO when I remembered what it was I was looking at--a manmade satellite.

My sighting was no reason to wake anybody, according to Dirk Lummerzheim, a research associate professor of aeronomy at the Geophysical Institute. "There are hundreds of them," he said of satellites orbiting about 300 miles overhead. "It's crowded with satellites.

Lummerzheim knows many by name because much of his research depends on the information sent back to Earth from satellites. He'll be plugging information from… read more

As I slog into work on Monday mornings and try to repair my mood with a cup of Geophysical Institute coffee, I often wish in vain for an extra day. I'd fill it with sleep and other activities I failed to accomplish during the weekend.

Because 1996 is a leap year, my wish will be granted on Feb. 29, thanks to Julius Caesar, who established the leap year as part of his Julian calendar in 45 B.C.

Caesar's astronomer, Sosigenes, developed the Julian calendar based on the fact that it takes the earth 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds to revolve around the sun. This time was abbreviated to 365 1/4 days, and a calendar year was defined as 365 days, with one "leap day" added every four years to compensate for the lost quarter day.

But a nagging, although slow-developing, problem arose: 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds isn't exactly a quarter day. In 730 A.D., the Venerable Bede, a mathematically skilled Anglo-Saxon monk, pointed out that the 365 1/… read more

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

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

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

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

Despite all those authoritative warnings about cutting rich foods from our diets for our health's sake, nearly every American still cherishes two days on which self-indulgence is not only permitted, but expected.

What Thanksgiving is to turkey and all the trimmings, Valentine's Day is to chocolate and a good thing, too. Or at least so I believe, because I love chocolate. Which, I'm told by a generally reliable source (the radio-physics expert who works upstairs in Elvey is very, very smart, believe me), is the correct reaction, because ingesting chocolate releases chemicals in the brain identical to those produced by falling in love.

I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but we chocoholics are always keen to share good news about our favorite substance. Thus, I share the results of some research reported in the British journal New Scientist.

The British take their chocolate seriously, not only as civilized people who appreciate the finer things… read more

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

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

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

Science Forum reader Rod Boyce wants to know why his cabin sometimes turns into highway-front property, or at least sounds like it, when it's cold outside. He lives about a mile from a major road, but he notices that the sound of passing cars and trucks seems to be amplified during the winter. I checked, and he doesn't have a faulty hearing aid.

Many people living in Fairbanks have noticed the same phenomenon. My cabin, for example, is 10 miles from Fairbanks International Airport, yet during the winter it often sounds as if I live on the runway.

According to Geophysical institute Professor Emeritus Juan Roederer, unusually loud jets, trucks, and trains in cold weather are signs of a strong temperature inversion over the city.

Temperature inversions--which occur when warm air sits above cold air--form frequently in Fairbanks because of three environmental quirks: a lack of sunlight that fails to warm the earth; clear skies that allow heat to radiate… read more

For many Alaskans, January 1989 is a month that still numbs the mind because of the cold snap that gripped much of the state for two weeks. In Fairbanks, fan belts snapped like pretzels; ice fog was so thick that one was indeed tempted to slice it; and the city came as close as it ever comes to a halt, with many people opting to stay home after their vehicles succumbed to the monster cold.

The 14 days of bitter cold were not a strictly Fairbanks phenomenon. Everywhere but the Aleutians and Southeast was nailed by a combination of meteorological quirks that resulted in what some called "a good old-fashioned winter."

The cold air that besieged the state was born over the Beaufort Sea and stuck in Alaska as a huge high-pressure ridge from Siberia expanded across the state, according to John Lingaas and Rick Thoman, meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

Frigid air within the high-pressure system sat over the state like a sumo… read more

Awash in sunlight six months ago, I wrote a column on the source of the summer solstice--the sun. Now that Sol seems to have abandoned us for the winter, it seems fitting to focus on a more faithful celestial body, the moon.

Orbiting the earth in an egg-shaped path, the moon is 221,461 miles away when it's closest to us. Theoretically then, if 1) there was a road to the moon, and 2) you had a cream puff of a new car, you could drive there on one engine.

The moon, a natural satellite that orbits the earth, has a diameter of 2,159 miles. If you were to take a lunar rover for an around-the-moon drive in a straight line, the odometer would click off 6,790 miles before you met your tracks again. Although its mass is only 1/81 the that of the earth, the moon exerts quite a pull on our planet, as is evidenced in the tidal swelling of Earth's oceans.

Although the moon rotates, we always see the same face of the moon. Like a couple who clasp hands and spin… read more

By day, they shred garbage bags in the back of open pick-up trucks. By night, they gather by the hundreds in black spruce trees, digest the day's bounty and share information on where the best dumpster in town is.

Ravens, famous in mythology and a favorite winter sight of many Alaskans, are most often spotted in winter as they indulge on our discarded, or unguarded, food. But few people see them after the sun sets, and it's not just because they're the color of night.

Along with other birds such as pigeons, ravens seek the shelter and companionship of a communal roost to get them through the long Alaska winter nights.

Rod King, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks, is one of the few people who have seen a raven roost. King recognizes a roost because of the signs ravens leave behind: snow knocked off the branches of black spruce trees and the ground below littered with feces and the eye-catching, colorful garbage… read more

You can't fool Mother Nature, and it looks as if she won't let you mess with her timetable for life, either. Inside most plants, animals, and microorganisms is an internal biological clock. This clock controls many life functions in a rhythmic pattern, including 24-hour patterns known as circadian rhythms, which help to govern sleep, body temperatures, eating patterns and reproduction. It is because of this internal clock that international travelers feel jet lag, and it also makes Alaskans wake up in the morning in the dark of winter whether we want to or not.

Circadian rhythms interest scientists because these internal clocks control such a wide variety of biological processes in many species. Circadian rhythms are controlled by genes that may be similar in such diverse organisms as bacteria and humans. Identifying which genes regulate the daily cycles of plants may give insight into solving clock-related disorders in humans, such as insomnia and depression.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their fair-weather cousins have long since departed, migrating for warmer climes and a more varied menu. Black-capped chickadees stay, appearing as little puff balls at Alaskan's bird feeders even on the coldest days of the winter. Chickadees aren't built to take an Alaska winter, but they thrive with unique adaptations to life in the north.

Bigger is better when it comes to surviving an Alaska winter without artificial heat, said Pierre Deviche, an associate professor of animal physiology with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology. Just like a large cup of coffee cools more slowly than a small one, a moose retains body heat more efficiently than a fox, Deviche said. A fox needs to produce more heat relative to its body size to keep warm.

Weighing about as much as a handful of paper clips, a chickadee overcomes its size disadvantage with physical adaptations and by using their tiny, black-and-white heads. Susan Sharbaugh, a doctoral student at the UAF Department of… read more

Late-night glimpses of the aurora borealis took on a new meaning for me last fall after Genezaret Barron was killed. Barron, a gentle soul, was a Fairbanks freelance photographer who captured the aurora on many a frozen night. Before he was murdered, I'd often think of him during auroral displays. I knew that while I was heading back indoors to hug the wood stove, Barron would be out on some dark hilltop, pointing a camera skyward.

Now I think of him in a different way when a particularly active display of the northern lights forces me to stare upward. Thumbing through a few books on aurora legends, I found some cultures associated the northern lights with spirits of those who passed on.

Before scientists discovered that the northern lights were caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with gases in the earth's atmosphere, people were left to their imaginations to explain the dancing lights in the sky.

The Eskimos of Labrador, Canada, believed… read more

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

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

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


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

A source of Alaska streamside pride is an angler's ability to instantly distinguish among different kinds of salmon; a pro can tell a king (chinook) salmon, from a pink (humpback) salmon, from a silver (coho) salmon, from a chum (dog) salmon, from a red (sockeye) salmon. If salmon names are this complicated, imagine catching two pink salmon in the ocean and trying to tell a hatchery-born pink from one born in a stream.

This nearly impossible task has become simpler thanks to an ingenious fish-marking technique adapted by University of Alaska scientists for use in Southeast Alaska at Douglas Island Pink and Chum salmon hatchery with the help of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. Without touching the fish, hatchery workers are able to mark millions of salmon fry before they wriggle out to the ocean.

In fisheries like the North Pacific, where hatchery-born fish mix freely with their wild brethren, fisheries… read more

Science Forum reader Trudy Parcher of Bellingham, Washington, wants to know more about an eye-catching Alaska roadside attraction, the drunken forest.

In a drunken forest, trees--often pipe-cleaner black spruce--tilt in all directions like a group of rowdy revelers stumbling along the street. Unlike pendulous pub patrons, drunken forests aren't caused by beer, but by unique soil conditions found in the north.

Melting permafrost is the most common cause of the drunken forest. Permafrost is ground where the temperature remains below 32 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. According to Tom Osterkamp, a professor of physics with the Geophysical Institute, permafrost is found under 85 percent of Alaska's land area, mostly the northernmost 85 percent. Except for mountain tops, Southeast Alaska is permafrost-free, and Southcentral is nearly so.

Drunken forests can be seen in permafrost-rich areas of the Interior. Osterkamp says drunken forests form when ice-rich… read more

If Alaskans could choose the type of weather they lived in, I suspect most would pick a year like the Interior had in 1995--one with a mild winter, an early, dry spring and a sunny summer. One would think most living organisms would share our preference for warm and dry years, but a researcher recently found white spruce trees that thrive on the opposite.

Glenn Juday, an associate professor of forest sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studies the growth of two stands of trees about 30 miles down the Parks Highway from Fairbanks. One stand, in Rosie Creek, was burned in 1983. The other was attacked by bark beetles in 1985 and sold to loggers in 1987. By counting tree rings and measuring their width, Juday discovered the trees grew best in the coolest, wettest years.

Different tree ring studies done on isolated trees at high elevation show contrasting results: the warmer the temperature in any given year, the better trees grow. That makes sense. Look… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh oh. It's that time again, when distant, throaty honks cause Alaskans to look skyward. Migrating geese, cranes and ducks signal the end of summer as they fly in a V-shaped wedge toward warm places, like a spear being hurled out of Alaska. A physics question comes to mind amid the melancholy reflections the snow birds inspire: Why do the birds fly in formation?

Larry Gedney, a former associate professor of geophysics at the Geophysical Institute who died in 1992, explored the question in this column more than a decade ago. Gedney was told as a boy that father goose was at the head of the V-formation with his family spread out behind. Another theory is that the lead goose is breaking trail for his flock-mates, much like a front-running bicycle racer allows teammates to decrease wind resistance by drafting directly behind. When the lead goose gets pooped, he supposedly gives a honk and another takes his place at the tip of the V.

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Pedigreed pepper spray? Handguns that heel? Bear bells with a bark?

Biologist Carrie Hunt wants to introduce an age-old tool to reduce conflicts between wild bears and humans---the dog.

Hunt, a participant at the Tenth Annual Conference on Bear Research and Management held recently in Fairbanks, thinks a special dog should do a job now assigned to rubber bullets, pepper spray and other gadgets. After becoming interested in using dogs to deter and repel bears in the early 1980's, Hunt found a breed that seems perfect for the task---the Karelian bear dog.

Just like a Labrador retriever is born nuts about ducks, Karelians enter the world with a keen sense for bears. Bear hunters have bred Karelian bear dogs for centuries in eastern Finland and western Russia. A properly trained Karelian bear dog will guard homes, camps, and people by warning bears away, according to Hunt, a biologist with federal, state and private agencies for 20 years in Montana, Wyoming… read more

My eyes water when I remember my introduction to bear-deterrent pepper spray. During Park Service bear spray training, the instructor wet a finger to the breeze, walked upwind of our group, and let go with a short, orange burst of pepper spray. The few particles that wafted our way inspired us to kill him---lucky for him, we couldn't open our sizzling eyes long enough to see where he was.

We learned that day pepper spray works on humans, but is it effective on discontent 700-pound bears moving rapidly toward you?

Stephen Herrero said yes, it is, but don't bet your life on it. Herrero, a researcher with the University of Calgary, presented results of a pepper spray study in Fairbanks recently during the Tenth International Conference on Bear Research and Management. He and Andrew Higgins combed North America for 66 examples of what happened in the field when bears were hit with a snout full of pepper spray.

Their study included black bears and brown (… read more

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

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

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

Alaska will have a state insect---officially---on Aug. 24. After an energetic campaign by students from the Auntie Mary Nicoli Elementary School in Aniak, the winner is the four-spot skimmer dragonfly. It mauled the mosquito. It battered the butterfly. And it bested the bumblebee in a tight contest to be the Last Frontier's official insect.

Dragonflies, also known in some parts as mosquito hawks, horse stingers and devil's darning needles, dart through the Alaskan air, tiny helicopters in search of mosquitoes and other prey. Actually, it's an insult to compare the flying ability of dragonflies with any man-made aircraft. Dragonflies can stop on a dime at 35 miles an hour, fly backward, and cut turns that are too abrupt for any human pilot to stomach.

Aerospace engineers at the University of Colorado set out to learn some of the secrets of dragonfly flight a few years ago in pursuit of a better flying machine, as was detailed in National Wildlife magazine… read more

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

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

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

A biology teacher called me a few days ago and told me I messed up a number in a recent column. Because of a lazy conversion, I wrote purple light measured four ten-thousandths of a meter from wave crest to wave crest, instead of the correct four ten-millionths of a meter.

He went on to explain my mistake, but my mind went numb because I couldn't visualize the difference between the two numbers. The teacher bemoaned the fact that more people don't have a grasp on the significance of large or small numbers. He reminded me of mathematician John Allen Paulos, who wrote the best-selling book Innumeracy.

Paulos argues that many Americans are "innumerants" who squeak by with just enough math to get out of school and then cover their ears and hum when presented with anything more mathematically complex than balancing a checkbook. He defined innumeracy as "an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance."

Paulos makes… read more

Not only is Alaska the best spot in America to hook a king salmon, see the Northern Lights, catch a midnight sun tan and study mosquitoes, the state also happens to be one of the most fertile breeding grounds for rainbows.

Spotty summertime afternoon and evening rains in Alaska make for perfect rainbow conditions when coupled with the fact that our position on the earth causes the sun to hover just above the horizon for a long time here. Rainbows are tallest and most vivid when the sun is at a low angle, as is so often the case in Alaska.

Rainbows form when the sun is shining in one part of the sky, it's raining in another, and the rainbow-seer is somewhere in between, with his or her back to the sun. According to Jerry Dennis, in his book It's Raining Frogs and Fishes, individual rain drops act together to separate the light of the sun into the reds, yellows, oranges, greens, blues and violets we see as the colors of a rainbow.

The show begins… read more

In this colorful blur of frenzied fishing trips, sweaty softball games, maniacally maturing vegetables, road-weary relatives, and steadfast sleep deprivation we call summer, it's time to reflect on the season's source---the sun.

At summer solstice, the sun once again bakes Alaskans due to the tilt of the earth's axis that leans us toward the sun. The longest day of the year officially occurred June 21, and varied in length from 24 hours in Barrow to just over 17 hours of possible daylight in Ketchikan.

The word solstice comes from the Latin term "solstitium," which translates into English as "sun standing still." Alaskans upon whom the sun sets this time of year can see the sun standing still for three or four days around solstice, as the sun rises and sets in nearly identical places before continuing its race around the horizon.

Some sunny facts, gleaned from a number of good books:

  • The sun is our closest star, at about 93 million miles… read more

Proposed congressional budget cuts hint at tough times ahead for American scientists who compete for an ever-shrinking pot of federal dollars to fund their projects. Several visiting scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have already seen the crumbling of national support for science in their home country, and it's not a pretty sight.

They're from the former Soviet Union, a society that puts more value on bus drivers than scientists. Scientists at the U.S.S.R Academy of Sciences in Moscow "may earn 750 rubles a month, while a trolleybus driver in Moscow may earn 1,200-1,400 rubles a month," wrote Leonid V. Ksanfomality, former laboratory chief at the Academy's Space Research Institute, in 1991. "Both academic and applied sciences now are pushed aside entirely in a society in upheaval, where science and technology seem less relevant than buying bread and meat."

The change in priorities that followed the democratization of the former Soviet Union chased… read more

Erin Parcher wants it all.

My office mate, a frequent provider of column ideas, wants to know if we're being robbed of pretty summer sunsets because of our location on the globe.

One would think that near-constant sunshine would be enough to satisfy most Alaskans during our brief, beautiful summer. But Erin wonders if Alaska sunsets may be a bit less colorful in summer because we have less atmosphere between us and the sun when the sun sets to the north. She figures that because the northern hemisphere nods toward the sun this time of year, rays of sunlight penetrate less atmosphere to get here.

To answer her question, I researched a question she already knew the answer to: What makes sunsets colorful?

The sun transmits much of its energy as radiation waves of visible light, according to the textbook Meteorology Today. This light stimulates our eyes so we see colors ranging from purple to red. Purple has a wavelength of about 0.4… read more

Their staccato voices can make a wilderness muskeg bog as loud as a city street, even though most are so small they could sit in a coffee cup without scraping their noses.

They surprise hikers, who notice them hopping around in a spruce forest, nowhere near water. The wood frog, America's farthest north amphibian and one of our state's most unlikely residents, is the only species of frog living north of Southeast Alaska.

Rana sylvatica is among only six species of amphibians in Alaska, according to Amphibians and Reptiles in Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories by Robert Parker Hodge, former curator at the University of Alaska Museum. While the rough-skinned newt, the northwestern and long-toed salamanders, the boreal toad and the spotted frog prefer the mild, wet climate of Southeast Alaska, the wood frog thrives throughout the state, even north of the Brooks Range. The wood frog also holds the lonely distinction of being the Yukon… read more

As I watched a movie with friends recently, three dogs in the room suddenly began to act out their roles as house guardians by running to the windows and barking at a distant rumbling. We humans were puzzled until flashes in the cloudy night sky soon identified the intruder, and we walked out on the deck to enjoy a rare May thunderstorm.

As often happens when natural phenomena occur, questions were thrown at the nearest science writer: "what causes lightning and thunder?" and, "doesn't lightning strike from the ground up?"

Scrambling for the textbook Meteorology Today, I relearned that lightning is an electrical discharge identical in everything but size to the spark that jumps from your hand to doorknob in a carpeted room.

The lightning that most impresses us---that which strikes the ground---represents only about 20 percent of the lightning generated within a cloud. Most lightning strikes occur within a single cloud, while others reach from one… read more

In the name of science, Kyle Manger and Joel Cladouhos sat down in front of Kyle's Labrador retriever, Yogi, and started to eat dinner. Almost instantly, gelatinous icicles of drool began dripping from the dog's jowls.

Instead of being grossed out, the two sophomores at Juneau-Douglas High School held a sterile glass tube under the stream and collected Yogi's saliva for use in their science fair experiment, titled "Dog Saliva: The Next Wonder Drug?"

Seven-hundred miles north, in Fairbanks, West Valley High School senior Patryce McKinney was busy reaching inside the mouths of 102 dogs to complete her award-winning science project, titled "Antibiotics and Dog Saliva."

Each of the students, who hadn't heard of one another's projects, became interested in the rumored ability of dog saliva to kill bacteria. Joel said his father works at a health clinic where a nurse said that wounds inflicted by human bites get infected more often than dog bite wounds.… read more

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

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

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

Jamie Barger raked his fingers through a wet mat of birch leaves and exposed a frosted floor of decomposing forest litter. His trained eye caught a familiar image---the vivid yellow and black striped abdomen of a queen yellow jacket wasp, clinging like a frozen water droplet to the underside of a leaf she'd attached herself to last fall.

Barger, a graduate student in biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, dropped the queen in a jar and resumed his search. He, along with Rutgers transfer student Jessie Seares, graduate student Gerry Zuercher and UAF Associate Professor of Zoophysiology Brian Barnes were taking advantage of a warm spring day in an attempt to understand more about Alaska's most cussed-at wasp, the yellow jacket also known as Vespula vulgaris.

A scavenger, Vespula vulgaris has a taste for garbage and good barbecues, where it often inspires screams by crawling between hamburger buns. To punish vulgaris for crashing the… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a recent snowshoe through the melting snowpack of the spring woods, Science Forum reader Eric Troyer's eyes darted downward. He saw black dots, as if someone had sprinkled the snow with pepper. Moose tracks and other indentations were speckled almost solid black.

He stopped for a closer look. The dots moved. Some jumped around. The pepper was obviously alive.

The creatures Eric saw were springtails, according to Stephen MacLean, professor of biology at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology. Most people would call them insects if they got a close look at a springtail, even though they're not considered to be true insects because of the structure of their heads and mouths. They're about as long as the edge of a quarter is thick; they have six legs; and they have no wings with which to escape predators of the forest floor, where they live.

When threatened by spiders, centipedes, or humans on snowshoe, springtails live up to their… read more

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

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

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

When Mount… read more

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

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

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

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

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

When the going gets tough in the north, the tough sometimes resort to dining on one another.

Canadian scientists conducting a study on snowshoe hare population cycles have found that in years where there aren't many hares, predators will prey upon one another rather than starve to death.

In the study, which was described in the March issue of Natural History, scientists from three Canadian universities have been radio tracking lynx and coyote for eight years in a 135 square-mile forested valley in southwest Yukon Territory. Their main mission in the study, dubbed the Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem Project, has been to further understand the 10-year population cycle of the snowshoe hare and its effects on predators.

The snowshoe hare, also called the varying hare because its coat changes from brown in summer to white in winter, is one of the most abundant plant-eating mammals in the boreal forests of Alaska and Canada. The hare, which was named… read more

I could tell something was wrong. From the cockpit window of my F-16 fighter jet, the horizon froze. My co-pilot, Air Force Captain Eric Rokke, told me I had lost a little elevation.

"You're flying under the ground right now," he said through the headset, explaining to me that I'd made a mistake in reading the altimeter.

I didn't die because I was in the F-16 flight simulator at Eielson Air Force Base, researching a column on sonic booms with Rokke, a pilot with whom I spent two weeks near the Charley River two summers ago. While camping on a hilltop there, we tried to monitor the sonic booms of his squadron-mates and other pilots involved in Cope Thunder, a military exercise that included the airspace above Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where I was a ranger.

The sonic booms we heard and felt on the Charley River ranged from what sounded like a distant thunder clap to those that sounded as if someone behind you had unexpectedly fired a 12-… read more

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

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

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

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

read more

When a long-distance musher says his favorite sled dog has a big heart, he might be describing more than the dog's loving disposition.

A team of five veterinarians from Alaska and around the country---including Jeanne Olson, a veterinarian who owns and operates Raven Veterinary Services in North Pole---found that sled dogs may develop an enlarged heart, just as human athletes sometimes do when they push themselves training for and anticipating in endurance events.

The study, which the vets volunteered their time to complete, compared 48 dogs that ran in the 1992 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race with two other groups of dogs. The Yukon Quest dogs had trained 2,000 to 3,100 miles before the race. Another group, called "lightly trained" dogs, ran from 200 to 500 miles during long-distance training. A third, the mongrels, had body types similar to the sled dogs but hadn't been on any endurance training runs.

By listening to the dogs' heart beats and… read more

If you're driving somewhere between the coast and Anchorage in the future and get stuck behind a trailer-truck carrying what looks to be a mammoth cigar, don't cuss--- the 70-foot long, 400,000-pound object may soon keep you out of the dark.

That object, a huge magnet in its protective housing, may soon become part of a unique superconducting magnetic energy-storage system in Alaska, the first of its kind to be installed in any power utility worldwide. In 1997, the magnet is scheduled to head from its design headquarters in Virginia to Anchorage Municipal Light and Power, where engineers will connect it to the power system.

According to Moe Aslam, chief engineer at the Anchorage utility, the magnet will make power pulsating through the Alaska Intertie (the linked electrical grid from Homer to Fairbanks, also known as the Railbelt) more stable by instantly correcting momentary drops or increases in voltage or frequency caused by generator problems within the… read more

It's one of life's little irritations---I answer my telephone, and the person on the other end sounds a lot like Elvis. Then I realize that a local a.m. radio station is broadcasting an Elvis song, which is somehow being picked up by my phone and competing with the caller for my ear.

How does my phone turn into a radio receiver? I spent four years in the Air Force working on radios, and I remember the receivers as rather large, complicated boxes, crammed with tiny electrical components and a web of wires. My phone doesn't seem that complicated.

According to Robert Hunsucker, a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, my phone isn't that complicated, and neither is a receiver circuit. A receiver is so simple, Hunsucker said, that anything from a phone to a person's mouth can act as one.

At its most basic, a receiver circuit consists of only three elements: an antenna, which picks up an electromagnetic radio… read more

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

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

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

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

For mushers who worry about the mountain of dog manure that looks more like Denali with each daily yard cleaning, Ann Rippy has a suggestion---compost it.

Rippy, an agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Fairbanks (formerly the Soil Conservation Service), shares the unique job of composting dog feces in an ongoing study that began in the summer of 1993. Rippy and technicians at the Fairbanks Water and Soil Conservation District received a $17,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to help maintain local water quality, since many dog lots are on or near wetlands.

Rippy and other researchers worked with dog mushers within commuting distance of Fairbanks who were frustrated with dog yard build-up, or who were interested in using the compost as a high-nutrient soil amendment for the garden.

As is often the case with Alaska research, Rippy found little background material dealing with composting dog manure. However, she did… read more

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

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

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

Alaska miners take heed---where there be griffins, there may be gold. At least that's what ancient Mediterranean and Asian cultures believed, and some recent evidence may explain why.

In the November/December 1994 issue of Archaeology, folklorist Adrienne Mayor explains how the griffin, a mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, was thought by ancient prospectors to be a guardian of placer gold deposits.

In detailing her research on ancient cultures, Mayor said she was surprised by the many references to griffins. In written anecdotes and in griffin likenesses on pottery and bronze reliefs, she noticed several similarities---all the griffins had four legs and a beak, and their nests often contained gold.

Mayor wrote that what really initiated her griffin quest was the 1940's discovery of Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. Rudenko found fifth-century BC tombs in the permafrost at Pazyryk, a region where… read more

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

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

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

Northern scientists who study climate change today often use innovative techniques to determine an area's temperature centuries ago. Pictures of ancient weather often are painted by those analyzing polar ice cores, sea floor sediments and permafrost. But few researchers have been as ingenious as those at the University of Michigan; they're literally pulling teeth--ancient Viking teeth--to come up with a new way to figure out old weather patterns.

Spurred on by the knowledge that tooth enamel contains information that can be directly correlated to drinking water, University of Michigan geochemist James O'Neil and graduate student Henry Fricke recently used 29 teeth found in remains at ancient Norse colonies to confirm a local temperature decrease at the onset of the medieval Little Ice Age, hundreds of years ago.

University of Copenhagen anthropologists gave O'Neil and Fricke the teeth, which originally belonged to Vikings and Inuit Eskimos who lived at three… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They lined up side by side, silent and apprehensive about the task ahead. All seven knew each other, but no small talk broke the tension inside the trailers. They assembled as competitors, and the stakes were high; their reputations would suffer slow-to-heal wounds if they failed.

They weren't athletes. They were chemists, experts on measuring sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. The National Science Foundation invited the researchers to the University of Delaware, telling them little more than what to bring, which included their best machines for sniffing sulfur dioxide. Fueled by the spirit of competition and the desire for future NSF research funding, they went.

The seven teams were from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the universities of Washington, Miami, and New Hampshire, Drexel University, J.W. Goethe University in Germany, and representing the University of Alaska, Geophysical Institute chemist Richard Benner and graduate student… 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 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

One of the things I love about Alaska is that you can still be a pioneer up here. Lots of things haven't been explored yet, especially scientifically. Sometimes you just have to know where to look. Like up.

Two UAF scientists, Davis Sentman and Eugene Wescott of the Geophysical Institute, recently found such a place--the middle atmosphere, the thin air from about 15 to 50 miles above the earth. Jokingly called the ignorosphere, the region hasn't been combed over for purely practical reasons; our machines don't function well there. Research balloons and aircraft can't go high enough; satellites can't fly that low.

Rarely seen brilliant flashes that blast upward from the tops of thunderstorm clouds during lightning strikes have been one of the puzzles of the middle atmosphere. Until now, the flashes probably escaped serious study because of our human tendency to dismiss that which we cannot explain, especially that which flits across our brain for only 1/30th of a… read more

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

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

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

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

There really could be bats in your belfry this Halloween, or it turns out, they may be snuggled up in your wood pile. After talking to researchers and other bat-fans, I learned that bats may hang out in interior Alaska all winter.

Myotis lucifugus, also known as little brown bats, are one of six different species that live in Alaska and the only bat seen with any regularity in the Interior. In the Lower 48, they typically migrate from wet, buggy feeding grounds in the summer to a moist cave for hibernating in winter. Up here, biologists such as Brian Lawhead of Alaska Biological Research in Fairbanks, have found that the bats prefer similar feeding grounds, but where they spend the winter hibernating is a mystery.

Keith Price, a Salcha homesteader, has had many close encounters with little brown bats. Each summer for about the past 30 years, the bats have set up a maternity colony---where bats give birth to and raise their young---in one of his potato… read more

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

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

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Thinking of buying one of those high-tech bug destroyers at off-season sale prices? Don't bother.

Among the many specialist groups communing on the Internet is an entomological discussion group--that is, a set of people who love to learn about insects. The group recently had a protracted exchange of information on these insect-killing devices, with enlightening results.

Back in the early 1970s, Dr. Richard Gorham, of the Arctic Health Research Laboratory then in Fairbanks, took an ultrasonic mosquito repeller to Sagwon on the North Slope. The machine emitted a kind of extremely high-pitched whine that supposedly sent mosquitoes far, far away. Gorham challenged that claim by testing the whiner at the height of mosquito season. A true scientist, he calibrated the mosquito density by exposing the back of his unprotected hand for five minutes, counting the number of mosquitoes that drew blood.

From that part of the experiment alone, Gorham was able to… read more

If you've lived for any length of time in the northland, and if you read articles like this, then you probably know what causes the northern lights. Properly known as the Aurora Borealis, these spectacular bands and curtains of light in the night sky can be seen more frequently in Alaska than in any other state of the union, and they shine above the Interior more often than anywhere else. (Statistically, Fort Yukon is the aurora capital of the world.) So we sometimes claim them as our own, and cheechakos and Outsiders rightly expect us to be experts on this phenomenon; the ability to explain auroras is a matter of pride as well as fulfilled curiosity.

It's understood that the sun ultimately causes the aurora. The picture as we understand it was explained in this column by geophysicist Dan Swift 17 years ago. "It is almost certain," he wrote, "that the energy to power the aurora comes from the sun. From the sun there is a continuous outflow of matter in the form of… read more

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

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

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

Every time I pick up another scientific journal, I find something to remind me that Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor. Mind, that's not the way scientists see it. They'd talk about things like balance and interconnectedness, observation and logic.

Foo. I know a practical joker when I see one, and nature does set up humans for pratfalls when we least expect them. Take, for example, the explanation of how a thriving Eurasian weed helped make for some flat wallets from Haines to Ketchikan.

The August 26 issue of the journal Science devoted a few pages to the 1994 meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. This year, presentations of the gathered life scientists concentrated around the theme of science and public policy. Among the papers discussed was one delineating the dangers of alien invasion.

Of course, the aliens of concern aren't bug-eyed monsters. They're green, leafy, and greedy, and they're taking over the American… read more

The woods around home were quieter than they should have been this autumn. The whistles and chirps from gathering flocks of south-migrating songbirds were sparse. Maybe the Interior's wild summer weather did in the birds; local birdwatchers have commented on nests being rained out this year.

But maybe it's trouble at the other end of the line. Many of Alaska's summer songbirds spend their winters far south of the U.S. border, in countries where growing human populations and struggling economies have put terrific pressures on the birds' natural habitat. So whether it's real or illusory, temporary or permanent, the decline in songbird numbers and kinds has made me especially alert to news about what could affect Alaska's birds when they're not living in Alaska.

Would you believe--coffee?

That's a flippant synopsis of the conclusions of a serious study. Four years ago, Russell Greenberg of the Smithsonian Institution's Migratory Bird Center in Washington,… read more

The mail held an oversized envelope with a return address showing it was from Dr. Gerald F. Shields, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks. From my viewpoint, the envelope held good news: the results of Shields' studies in genetic analysis are once again upsetting the standard views of how the world works.

In this case, much of the work has been done by Shields' graduate student Sandra Talbot. For four years, Talbot has been studying populations of brown bears by means of laboratory research in molecular biology.

Biologists in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game formed a network of collectors for the project, gathering samples of blood, skin, or other tissue from hunter-killed bears and bears captured for radio collaring. Talbot needed only tiny bits of the bears, because she was using a new technique that replicates genes of interest so that sufficient quantities of DNA have been produced for her to study.

Once Talbot had… read more

Conversation at the bus stop revolved around the recent and unexpected frost the night before. The commuters mostly chatted about nipped zucchini and black-edged geraniums, but one fellow gloated about the dormancy that the chill forced on a machine.

"That blasted lawnmower," he said. "I've seen the last of that sucker until next May. Yeah!"

It seems an odd situation. We Alaskans pride ourselves on not caring how they do it Outside, yet from Ketchikan to far north of reasonable, we struggle to force barely hardy turf grasses into producing exuberant greenswards. (For that matter, some of those folks Outside struggle even harder than we do to grow their velvety lawns. Water authorities in the desert Southwest are forever trying to convince residents that pebbles and cactus make better ground covers than do thirsty grasses, but with little luck.)

Why are people so willing to work for the doubtful pleasure of living on the best possible approximation of a… read more

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

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

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

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

Wisecracks about baked Alaska notwithstanding, in the Interior we've had the mother of all summers. The other day I was braving the 90-degree heat to scrape aphid clusters off the daisies while ducking buzz-bombing yellow jackets, and I began wondering about the possible effects of global warming on northern insects. For example, the local entomologists have assured Fairbanksans that the hornet hordes come to us courtesy of the preceding mild winter; too many fertile queens hibernated safely through the cold season, so now we have their numerous offspring to battle. But what about other insects? What about the aphids?

Hallelujah--an excuse to get away from the bugs and do some reading!

I soon found a pertinent report. British entomologists have worked for the last three years on the buggy denizens of northern Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard Archipelago in the European Arctic. At 79 degrees north latitude, the entomologists' study area is about as… 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

Zoologist Valerius Geist seems to be hung up on horns. As director of the Environmental Science Program at the University of Calgary in Alberta, he became interested in mammals with horns during his first year of field studies. He summed up some of what he has learned about the meaning of horns and antlers in a recent issue of Natural History magazine. Horns, which are permanent bone-based growths, and antlers, which are shed annually, are used for more than decorative purposes by their possessors; they can be used as weapons.

In the early 1960s, Geist spent months at a time observing the behavior of mountain goats--which is more closely related to pronghorn antelope than to true goats--in northern British Columbia. After the mating season in early winter, dominant females with kids chased other goats away from prime feeding grounds. The goats were quick to use their sharp horns in these territorial disputes, and the horns made nasty weapons. Mountain goats of… read more

People who know such things have assured me that few tourists read these columns. Good. That makes it possible to discuss here some matters better kept private among Alaskans--matters such as the nasty side of sea otters.

We all appreciate that sea otters are right up there with giant pandas for pure critter appeal. It wouldn't do for our visitors to think these bewhiskered, back-floating charmers are anything but delightful. Granted, shore-dwelling folks from Ketchikan to Akutan may sometimes make rude remarks at frolicking otters. If caught by an alert visitor, these folks can simply explain that otters consume quantities of things that people also would like to eat, such as crabs, shrimp, clams, and suchlike. A little hostility is understandable, because otters are both efficient hunters and prodigious eaters. To keep warm in the cold waters where they live, the otters need more than their splendid pelts; they also need to burn calories galore.

But no matter… read more

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

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

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

In writing about items of interest from scientists, sometimes I want to borrow from funnyman Dave Barry to assure you of my good faith: I am not making this up. This is one of those columns. Trust me; I am not making this up.

It turns out that one of the best, least expensive tools in the hands of scientists trying to study global climate change is earthshine.

OK, now, I warned you that trust was necessary. Here's the story. If, on a clear evening, you can see the crescent moon, often you can also see the ghostly image of the rest of the moon's disc. The brilliant crescent is the edge of the moon; it's reflecting sunshine. The dim remainder of the moon is visible because it's reflecting earthshine.

About 30 percent of the solar radiation that strikes Earth is reflected back into space; that's earthshine. Its intensity is a measure of Earth's reflectivity, or albedo. And our planet's albedo plays a significant part in its climate. According to 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

A family friend lives in the smallest cabin on our road, usually tending to his own affairs but always reliable when it comes to tending neighbors' house plants and pets when any of us is away for a while. That is, he's very reliable when he's in town. He's a firefighter by trade, and so--depending on the weather--often spends chunks of time battling blazes in distant forests.

His occupation may explain a quirk in his house-minding performance. While he tends a place, the surrounding spruce trees tend to back off and shape up. Scruffy lower branches vanish; encroaching trunks disappear altogether.

"You really don't want spruce anywhere near a house," he'll explain. "They catch fire easily, go up like torches, send burning trash everywhere. If you want trees close by, plant birches. Growing willow doesn't burn well, nor poplar either. But keep the spruce back."

Our spruce-wary friend would probably enjoy the results of a study carried out in Canada's… read more


About a year ago, one of these columns reported research showing that at least some of Alaska's fine placer gold was---so to speak---bug sweat. Bacterial metabolism apparently has been responsible for generating a lot of gold dust. Now it turns out that bacteria may be put to work releasing the metal from gold-bearing ores.

To be fair, this isn't a new idea. University of Alaska researchers have been studying metal-extracting microbes for some time, and generations of miners have made use of bacterial action on ores without necessarily realizing that's what they were doing. Two thousand years ago, the Romans noticed that the runoff from the tailings pile of one of their copper mines in Spain was blue with copper salts. They found ways to recover the leached copper without worrying about how the metal entered solution. Forty years ago, someone finally figured that out, and blamed it on… read more

I have good news for all us summer-starved Alaskans who wish the month of June could be longer: for 1994, June has been extended--by one second.

I wish I could claim this boon came by popular demand, but it's merely a decision from the temporal powers and had nothing to do with democratic desires. Instead, it's the recognition of a certain amount of wear and tear on Earth's rotation.

When you think about it, circling around a stellar body while rotating about one's axis should be a fairly stressful experience. As Earth makes its annual orbit around the sun, it's smacking into all matter of celestial debris, from atoms of hydrogen to chunks of asteroid. It's dragging along on this yearly traverse a honking great satellite---our moon is uncommonly large in relation to its planet when compared to the satellites of the other planets of this solar system. And Earth has a great deal of stuff sloshing about, from the oceans and atmosphere of its surface layers to its… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers will be crossed all over North and Central America on the morning of May 10, 1994, as skygazing people hope that Tuesday dawns as a cloudless sky. If the day is clear, most Alaskans will be able to see the morning sun with a narrow arc missing from its lower rim. Far to the south of us, observers residing in a band reaching from northern Mexico to Maine may have a chance to see a rare spectacle: an annular solar eclipse.

According to the May issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, which devotes several pages to the impending eclipse, the moon will be near apogee, the point in its orbit when it is at its greatest distance from the earth. The distant moon will appear to be smaller than it usually does, and so it will not entirely cover the face of the sun at totality. The moon's apparent diameter will be only 94 percent of the sun's apparent diameter. Thus, observers who have clear skies at the right time in the right place---for example El Paso, Texas, or… 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

Science isn't moving nearly fast enough to keep up with politics. That, at least, is the conclusion I came to after reading a technical paper in the journal Ecology.

Written by Francois Messier, a member of the biology department at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the paper reviews a great many publications on and near the subject of its title: "Ungulate population models with predation: a case study with the North American moose."

You can probably figure out why the title made me think of politics. Just in case you've been in Bora Bora or Tashkent for the past few years, let's say simply that predator control has been a subject of heated debate in Alaska's political circles. A bill recently signed into law---Senate Bill 77---codifies one aspect of predator control, by formally adopting the opinion that human consumption is the highest and best use of game animals.

That assumption of what constitutes best use is a political one. It… read more

When the sun slipped north of the equator at the spring equinox, some of Alaska's seasonal residents began getting organized for their great trek northward. No, I don't mean birds, nor even construction workers. These travelers are the mightiest migrators of all, the great whales. And this year, we may be welcoming more whales than at any time since the whaling fleet left our coasts. At long last, it looks as if Alaska's biggest mammals are regaining their numbers.

Consider, for example, the gray whales. Often called California grays, particularly by denizens of that smaller state to the southeast of us, our gray whales spend the winter in Mexican lagoons and summer in the shallower reaches of the Bering Sea and points north. Once apparently on the brink of extinction, the eastern Pacific population of these big bottom feeders has now recovered so well that the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service has requested gray whales' removal from the endangered species list.… read more

Common sense and general experience teach that the farther something is from a heat source, the cooler it is. When it comes to the sun, though, common sense fails. The solar corona, a halo of incandescent gases that stream out into space for distances several times the sun's diameter, is hotter than the sun's surface.

Nobody is quite sure why the corona seems to violate the basic rules of thermodynamics. It's a question of more than abstract interest, too. Figuring out how the corona works is of special interest to Alaskans, because upheavals in the corona are responsible for some of our favorite phenomena, such as the aurora. They also produce some of our troubles, such as failures in radio and satellite communications, some power outages, and even corrosion in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The solar wind, which triggers these blessings and banes, is an extension of the solar corona.

The issue of Science for February 11 of this year reported on some recent… read more

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

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

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

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

I was thumbing through a recent issue of the journal Arctic the other day when I suddenly remembered a poem. No, the publication of the Arctic Institute of North America has not decided to add rhymes to its studies of far-northern matters. Rather, one of the articles answered a question posed in an early attempt at poetry from daughter #1: The snow does fall/The wind does blow/I wonder where the white hares go?

Probably all of us some time have thought about creatures who brave winter's worst without benefit of walls, roof, or windows, without even campfires or long underwear. How do they do it? Some of us have thought pretty seriously---hunters, trappers, long-distance mushers, for example---but most of us are happy to give a shiver of sympathy and let it go at that.

At least one scientist was unwilling to let it go at that. Thus the article that caught my eye: "Behavioral adaptations to arctic winter: shelter seeking by arctic hare (Lepus arcticus)" by… read more

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

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

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

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

Cleaning up wastes in the environment by using… read more

The boss has been uncommonly busy lately. Directing the Geophysical Institute is enough to keep anyone hopping, but Director Akasofu also is preparing for an international scientific meeting for which he will play host. It's only fair; the field considered and celebrated at this gathering, the Second International Conference on Substorms, is one Syun-ichi Akasofu virtually invented.

Or, more properly, the subject is a phenomenon that he helped discover and establish. When Akasofu came to Alaska in the late 1950s, it was to study under the guidance of Sydney Chapman, a distinguished British scientist who served as scientific director of the institute for 21 years. This was a logical place for the student from Japan to find a mentor from England, for then as now, interior Alaska was the best place in the world to observe auroras, and both Chapman and Akasofu wanted to understand these mysterious northern lights.

Then as now, professors can assign time-consuming… read more

Because I've spent years working at the Geophysical Institute, many things remind me of people I've met here. Some are reasonably geophysical: for example, the sight of a bumper sticker reading "Stop Continental Drift" leads me to think of David Stone, whose work in paleomagnetism helped delineate where the continents drifted. Others aren't so obvious. Every time I see mention of global-positioning systems, I think of Paul Perreault. Perreault worked on auroras when he was a graduate student at the institute, but more recently he's been active in developing GPS technology. And when I see something about pigs, Henry Cole naturally comes to mind.

I'd better explain. Geophysicist Cole disengaged from academic research (though he does teach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks) to become a public servant. Former science advisor to Governor Steve Cowper, he is now working in the Division of Economic Development. There, among other things, he's coping with the problems and… read more

Just about anybody who can read knows the tropical rain forests are in trouble. Satellite photos show that Brazil is burning, as great swaths of territory are cleared by people desperate for farmland or wild with the promise of long-hidden gold. Yet, though we know their loss diminishes us all, the vanishing forests seem too distant. Intellect may acknowledge that extinction is forever, but often enough emotion responds with: So what? A few beetles gone there, a couple of weeds missing here---why should we care?

You never can tell. Some of us, for example, would really, really miss chocolate, and chocolate could vanish because its native habitat is being chopped and burned away.

Hold on there, you may well say. Chocolate comes from processed cocoa beans, and the cocoa plant has been domesticated since before Columbus sailed from Europe. The world doesn't need to harvest wild cocoa.

True, but the continued livelihood of cocoa farmers and our enjoyment of… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants like sunshine; plants don't like freezing cold. Here in Alaska, we have lots of both. Summer's long hours of sunshine produce our gigantic vegetables, which could be even bigger if our growing season wasn't so severely limited by freezing temperatures in both spring and fall. Extending the season by just a few days would allow plants to grow significantly bigger.

Summer's length is beyond human control, but maybe a plant's sensitivity to freezing can be adjusted. Some of the so-called cold-blooded animals have their own antifreeze, enabling them to live in below-freezing conditions. Certain arctic fish survive by producing a protein that keeps their body fluids from freezing down to -1.5 degrees centigrade. This antifreeze protein, or AFP, works by binding to ice crystals, preventing them from growing. AFP is produced in the fishes' livers following directions encoded in the DNA of one gene. If we could copy this gene, then insert it into a plant, the plant might… read more

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

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

Year's end is a good time for looking back, and the pit of winter is a good time to curl up with a substantial book. Putting the two together lets me pass along an odd anecdote, and share some musings on its meaning.

I've been reading Neil Davis's latest book, The College Hill Chronicles, which---at 600-plus pages---is certainly substantial. Subtitled "How the University of Alaska Came of Age," this account of the youth and adolescence of the university is the least science-centered of his publications. Yet science has a prominent place in the book, because the practice of research has also been important in shaping the university.

And I've thought about this column, what I've written down, what I've left out. One point I've wanted to convey is that science is a human activity. Sometimes it involves sophisticated equipment or brilliant ideas, but the real work of science always involves real people. So, like all human endeavors, science sometimes… read more

Suppose I told you that Gerry Shields spent his sabbatical in Utah working on family trees; you'd probably think he was studying the genealogy records kept by the Church of Latter Day Saints. You'd be wrong. Then if I commented that Professor Shields recently upset some folks because of what he said in Washington, D.C., you might suspect he was testifying at one of those federal hearings in which Alaskans always seem to be on both sides. You'd be wrong again.

Shields is a faculty member of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For the past several years he has been studying animal populations by means of mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid---that is, the DNA that does not get shuffled during sexual reproduction. Nuclear DNA comes half from the father, half from the mother, but only mothers can contribute mitochondrial DNA. This unshuffled DNA changes only by mutation, and the rate at which mutation occurs is fairly regular. (That is,… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So," my friend said. "When are you going to write up that polar submarine cruise? Your readers are waiting...

Perhaps, but the subseafaring scientists are waiting too---for the U.S. Navy to release the data collected on SCICEX-93, a pioneering project in which civilian researchers were able to work aboard an American nuclear attack submarine voyaging under the Arctic Ocean pack ice. Reasonably enough, the military sponsors of this first voyage need to check the scientists' photos, numbers, and notes to be sure no secret insights into the U.S. submarine operations make their way into print with the data.

They have a lot to check, because the cruise of the USS Pargo amassed an enormous amount of information. During the six weeks between departure from Groton, Connecticut, and landfall in Norway, the half-dozen scientists aboard the submarine employed their instruments to garner continuous information for 4900 miles on the contours and depths of the… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can't pass some things by. Book sales always stop me. So do articles about dinosaurs, especially when they have some relevance to Alaska and the north. And, like any dinosaur-besotted child, I can't resist passing on what I learn.

What entangled me in the pages of a recent issue of the American Association for the Advancement of Science publication Science had to do---yet again---with the dinosaurs' demise. More is found daily about the catastrophe that marked the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary eras of geologic time. The asteroid that struck Earth then was perhaps even bigger than first thought, and could have created even more damage.

But was it the right kind of damage to kill off the dinosaurs? The standard scenario has dust hurled skyward from the impact blocking the sun's light and heat, leading to a planetary deep-frozen darkness lasting for months at least, years at most. According to this scenario, the dinosaurs froze to death in… read more

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

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

Scientific careers usually follow reasonably predictable paths. A beginning would-be researcher undertakes studies with increasingly narrow focus, starting in classes with titles like "Introduction to Geology" or "Biology 101" and concluding with an individual research project covering a tiny slice of the universe.

The danger then, as a scientist friend of mine once put it, "is that you get to know more and more about less and less. If I keep at it long enough, I expect to know absolutely everything about nothing whatsoever. Then there are careers in science like that of Kathy Turco. Her name may seem familiar to long-time readers of this column because a couple of years ago she reported here on work underway: her thesis research on the thermoregulation of walruses.

As she tells it, she grew fascinated with walruses' ability to stay warm while watching them surge from the chill of the Beaufort Sea into the even colder winter air. Even more fascinating was an… read more

Every northerner knows ravens are smart. In the early beliefs of Scandinavians, ravens perched on the shoulders of the chief of gods, whispering wisdom gained on far-seeing flights. Native Alaskans told of Raven who brought light to humankind, clever Raven who could fool chiefs and spirits, wise raven who liberated infant humankind from its imprisoning shell.

In contemporary conversations, we swap smart-raven stories, how they snitched windshield wiper blades in North Pole, how they slid on their tail feathers down snow chutes above Dutch Harbor, how they figured out which fast-food places offered the best pickings in Southeast. Everyone has raven stories. Everyone knows they're smart.

But try to prove that.

The problem is that virtually brainless behavior can look intelligent. Consider honeybees, for example. They live within complex social structures; they construct geometrically precise and functionally effective homes; they even communicate… read more

Last week I came across a good justification for saving old issues of National Geographic: The opening photo spread of a year-old article on the Bering Sea featured the University of Alaska Fairbanks' former research vessel Acona.

But only her name was the same. The 85-foot ship had been subsumed into a much bigger, industrial-strength fishing vessel. Financial and legal advantages adhere to ships built in the United States to such an extent that refurbishing an old and water-worn US vessel at a foreign shipyard instead of building a new fishing factory ship anywhere was the most profitable choice for the ship's new owners. Apparently just enough of old Acona remains to keep the fish processors on the right side of the laws.

It wasn't the first time Acona underwent plastic surgery to suit new management. Virtually all university-operated research vessels are owned by the federal government, and they are transferred about among… read more

I got word recently that a new building on the Poker Flat Research Range is being christened for Neil Davis, who served as first director for the range and who---sometimes by using imaginative and unorthodox methods---was chiefly responsible for creating the facility. I helped with public information during those early days, and grew to appreciate Davis' skill at explaining things clearly (that is, when he had time to explain things at all).

It's harder for me to catch the now retired Professor Emeritus Davis these days to ask for explanations, but fortunately he's taken up writing books to keep himself busy. The books have an adequacy of explanations, and sometimes even describe problems in need of explanation. For example, in The Aurora Watcher's Handbook, Davis devotes a short chapter to the connection between aurora and weather.

When you hear old-time Northerners comment, "Great weather for the aurora tonight," they are actually reporting on viewing… 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

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


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

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

I caught some razzing recently from an Australian friend who thought perhaps I was a little over- enthusiastic about the far north. "It's not really the center of the universe," she said.

Foo. She's just bitter because north-polar projection maps, the best kind, don't show Australia at all. The north usually plays some role in almost any matter. Consider the dinosaurs, for example.

No, it' s not that the north had something to do with the extinction of those giant reptiles. The best evidence is that about 65 million years ago, a huge chunk of celestial debris smashed into our planet, and the ensuing catastrophes put an end to the dinosaur family, among many others. Most, but not all, scientists think that the main body of that deadly asteroid hit the northern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula in what is now Mexico. Northern Yucatan isn't part of what we think of as the real north, so our preferred turf can't take any credit for the departure of the dinosaurs.… read more

While we're not paying attention, oil gets spilled here and there around the globe. Within the past month, I've talked with one friend who had visited the site of the Shetland Islands spill and another who had been at Palmer Station in Antarctica during the big spill there. Most of the mislaid petroleum comes in less headline-grabbing amounts, though; just last week, a friend who lives on the East Coast complained about beach closures caused by 500 gallons of diesel fuel floating where it didn't belong.

Despite headlines and complaints, the technology for cleaning up spilled oil hasn't made much progress. Alaska scientists are studying such matters as hydrocarbon-eating bacteria and the fate of petroleum in the food chain, but work on devising better mops to pick up spilled oil now is under way elsewhere---appropriately enough, in Texas.

Research led by Harry W. Parker of Texas Tech University improves on present technology. According to Science News,… 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

"Saw a couple of them near the foot of the hill today," said one of the neighbors early this summer. A few days later, another neighbor called around with an update: "They're up as far as the bend in the road," he said. "Shouldn't be long now." Days later, the good news finally came: "They're here. Had a half a dozen dragonflies cruising the parking lot when I got home this evening."

Someone overhearing the neighborhood residents might think we're awaiting a liberating army rather than some oversized flying insects, but in a way, those insects are liberators. Once the dragonfly fleets make their way uphill, the local mosquito population falls dramatically.

Where I grew up, big dragonflies were called "mosquito hawks" for very good reason. Dragonflies and their cousins, the generally smaller but similar damselflies, catch and consume quantities of flying pests. (The easiest way to tell the cousins apart is to watch them at rest. Dragonflies sit with their wings… read more

A distant flicker and grumble to the northeast told me the weathermen had it right. Scattered thunderstorms had formed over the Tanana Uplands, and the sultry afternoon sky was getting pretty lively. Now, if I could only remember the trick for telling how far away the storm was...

The Weather Book is my favorite quick source on weather-related matters. Author Jack Williams has studied meteorology, but it's his journalism work with the weather page for "USA Today" that led to the book. According to Williams, we see the lightning's flash the instant it strikes---which is reasonable, since it travels at the speed of light. By comparison, sound dawdles on its way to us. It takes about five seconds for the thunderous sound of a lightning strike to reach a mile away.

Properly, the form of rowdy weather that produces this sound and fury should be called a lightning storm rather than a thunderstorm because lightning is what causes thunder. Apparently the real… read more

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Just as in an archaeological dig,… read more

Peter Lesniak, editor of the Yukon News had a question he thought would interest his readers and other northerners. What was known about the "big, gnarled galls" that appeared on poplars near Whitehorse and elsewhere in the Yukon?

"These aberrations," he wrote, "seem to occur in groves of trees. Northern poplars seem to be more susceptible than southern ones." He noted also that the galls were harvested to become "works of art, fence ornaments and pieces of furniture.

Doggone. He had me there. Galled and lumpy spruce are common enough in Alaska, and one can see them turned into everything from porch rails to oversized mosquito sculptures by creative folk from Homer to Coldfoot. But poplar? Aspen? Cottonwood? By any name, poplar galls were something I'd never noticed.

However, what Lesniak described sounded like some manner of disease. Not only were the plants altered from their normal configuration, a probable indicator of ill health right there… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The explanation of why so much of interior Alaska's gold comes in fine particles may have been the first bit of northern science I learned. Somewhere there's a lode, the old-timers explained, a rich vein of metal. Then time passes, wind and weather get at the vein, and it washes away a grain at a time. But even tiny grains of gold are heavy---just check out your gold pan, greenhorn---and so they fall to the bottom of the streams. There they stay, even after the stream that carried them has long since dried up. The old stream bed forms the new lode of weathered flecks of gold. It's called a "placer," pronounced plass-ur, from the Spanish word for an underwater plain.

The old-timers gave me a fine explanation for what causes placer gold deposits; it's logical and workable. The only trouble is, it may be wrong.

That, at any rate, is the view of John Watterson, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver. He looked at placer gold particles from nine Alaska… read more

The cattails sprouting exuberantly now in Alaska's roadside bogs are remarkable plants. These big, homely reeds provide shelter for swamp-dwelling creatures and food for many kinds of animal life, from tadpoles nibbling near their roots to humans foraging for wild fare in the wetlands. Their dried remnants get incorporated into many waterfowl nests, and their slender leaves inspire aeronautical engineers.

OK, so I made that last part up. But it should be true. Recent analysis of the structure of cattail leaves shows these plants could have taught engineers a thing or two, and perhaps saved them some decades of trial and crashing error.

The cattail study was uncommonly interdisciplinary, involving contributions from botanist Ursula Rowlatt of Britain's Kew Botanical Gardens, and engineer Henry Morshead of the Department of Aeronautics of the Imperial College of Science. They may have found inspiration in the vicious windstorms that have hit Britain in recent… read more

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

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

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

On a warm day of my first spring in Alaska many long years ago, a friend took me for a hike through a patch of early flowers. I spotted a bee working among the blossoms. It was the skinniest, silliest-looking honeybee I ever saw. I commented on the poor creature's condition, which made my Alaska-born friend laugh. That's not a bee, she said. It's a hoverfly. Those little guys and bumblebees do about all the pollinating that gets done in the north.

She was right, but my mistake was understandable. Hoverflies do look a little like small, scrawny bees, though they seem to fly more like miniature helicopters. They hover in midair, wings an invisible blur, between forays onto flowers.

She also was right about pollinators. Most of us believe that pollen gets carried from plant to plant by domestic honeybees, without which it would be a flowerless world. Yet the world of flowers needs a whole array of pollinators, from butterflies and hummingbirds to bats and carrion… read more

Much headline-making northern science relies in part on a scientifically popular technique for telling how old something is. Thanks to carbon dating, we now know the dwarf mammoths of Wrangell Island lasted thousands of years longer than their big mainland-dwelling brethren. The Mesa archaeological find in northern Alaska establishes that hunters roamed the region at least 9700 years ago, a number we can pretty well fix because of carbon dating. And so it goes, for just about every bit of northern research not related to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Generally, the stories under the headlines don't explain what "carbon dating" means. That hasn't bothered me much, because I've got a working understanding of the principles involved---or at least so I thought, until a determined reader asked me to clarify how the process worked. Urrgh. With a new appreciation of what I didn't know, I checked out how a good writer on science explains carbon dating. Thus, with thanks to… read more

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

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

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

The prediction could be cast as a bad news-good news joke. Bad news: in or around the year 2000, somewhere in the world a major cable-stayed bridge will fail catastrophically. Good news: it almost certainly won't be Alaska's own Sitka Harbor bridge.

This prediction comes courtesy of Henry Petroski, who is chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University and an uncommonly graceful writer on engineering-related topics. The prediction, which appeared in Petroski's regular column in American Scientist, concerns psychology almost as much as it does engineering.

Petroski begins with a British student's research. According to the dissertation of Paul Sibley with the University of London, a discernible pattern attends the successes and failures of bridge-building technology over the past 150 years. Sibley concentrated on four notable failures.

The earliest of these was the cast-iron bridge over the Dee River in England. In… read more

Peering out the window of a high-flying airplane recently, I was able to study parts of Alaska under winter's simplifying mantle. Especially in the Interior, the forests at this time of year show that few kinds of trees thrive here. The forests contain only a handful of families, white spruce, black spruce, poplar, birch, willow, with the odd tamarack or over-grown alder thicket providing scant variety. Back on the ground, I did a little research on why so few tree types grow naturally in the neighborhood.

Winter's extreme cold easily eliminates some tree species hardy elsewhere. Oak, ash, and elm endure occasional severely cold temperatures in the contiguous forty-eight states because they can produce chemicals that serve as natural antifreeze. Thus, the fluids in their cells stay liquid down to forty below, that bitter temperature that is the same on both Fahrenheit and Celsius scales. However, at lower temperatures their sap will freeze, expanding, crystallizing, and… read more

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

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

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

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

As February meanders into March and winter threatens to drag on forever, my reading tends toward science in the tropics. I want to know about warmth, and greenness, and people clever enough to work productively in the winter-free zone. Of course, I'm happy to share what I find with fellow Alaskans also waiting, waiting, waiting for spring.

I recently found a research project to rank high on the list of "What I'd Be Doing Now If I'd Done Better in School." It involves warmth and unfrozen waters. It's even reasonably important, for the hard-working scientists whose report I read are studying a highly endangered animal and its interactions with humans. Russell K. Miya and George H. Balazs, with the assistance of some students and technicians, have been observing green sea turtles that have taken up a new habitat in nearshore Hawaiian waters: Waikiki Beach.

Yes, for their project, these National Marine Fisheries Service researchers had to pay visit after visit to… read more

"I saw a terrific auroral display the other morning," my friend said. "You know, one of those that make you think your eyes aren't working right? Off and on, sort of like strobe lights.

I knew exactly what he meant, even though I hadn't seen that particular northern lights show. He'd seen a good display of pulsating aurora.

Not many casual sky watchers are fortunate enough to observe a pulsating aurora. Even though this auroral form is not really uncommon, there are several good reasons for its status as a rarely seen phenomenon. For one thing, it isn't as eye-catching as discrete aurora, the arcs and bands we think of when someone mentions the northern lights. Observed without the help of instruments, pulsating aurora seldom shows the intense colors or captivating, curtain-like shapes of more familiar auroras. In fact, it is generally less intense in all ways; its light is dimmer and its form is patchier. Usually it comes and goes so quickly that the eye can'… read more

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

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

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

Life is hard for snowshoe hares. They live in a tough country---ours. These big-footed bunnies are found where winters are harsh. They eat tough food, preferring certain types of woody plants. The plants fight back; heavily browsed willows and birches apparently crank out hare-sickening chemicals in defense.

Even more hazardous than severe weather and cantankerous food are the hares' predatory neighbors. Lynx are so fond of hare diets that the big cats' populations closely follow the years-long cyclical surge and decline of hare numbers, but weasels, martens, foxes, wolves, coyotes, owls, hawks, and just about every other predator in the north also happily hunt hares.

Assessing the role of predators in the hares' population cycles was the crux of some research that began in 1989 near Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory. As part of the Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem Project, the husband and wife team of Mark O'Donoghue and Susan Stuart studied the ecology of… read more

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

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

Houseflies seem to have a mysterious power to transcend the cold. Give them a little heat, and they'll behave in January as if it were August. Earlier this winter, an acquaintance heated up an outbuilding that had been chilled to 20 below, and found the place buzzing with dozens of thawed-out flies within just a few hours.

Many northern buggy beasts can live in deathlike dormancy through bitter cold, then thaw into pestiferous life as soon as temperature permits. Arctic woolly bear caterpillars can stay frozen solid, at temperatures down to -50oC (-58oF), for as long as ten months without damage. Our multilegged denizens aren't the only ones to master the freeze-thaw life cycle. It's possible to find frozen frogs, showing all the vital signs of granite, burrowed into the equally frozen mud in some Interior lakes.

Normally, freezing is deadly for living things. Ice crystals burst through cell and capillary walls, disrupting delicate… read more

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

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

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

Scientifically speaking, the… read more

A familiar name caught my eye in the December issue of the journal Arctic: Fairbanks biologist Ray Cameron, collaborating with others in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, published an article called Redistribution of Calving Caribou in response to Oil Field Development on the Arctic Slope of Alaska.

The hassles over how petroleum development affects caribou have been going on for decades, and show no sign of easing. Mostly they've been expressions of opinion backed by extrapolation from a scanty supply of fact. Cameron and colleagues confront that problem in their first paragraph. They note that calving caribou seemed to be avoiding the Prudhoe Bay area, "suggesting a causal relationship between oil field presence and low caribou abundance." But the authors make it clear that suggestions is as far as science can go because "comparable pre-development observations were lacking, and the data remained equivocal."

That's a nice choice of words,… 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

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

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

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

"Nice column you did about the new aurora videotape," said an acquaintance. "Only thing is, you left out the science." Doggone! Knew I'd forgotten something...

The column I wrote a while back (which may or may not have appeared in your newspaper) ended up being on "The Aurora Explained" tape prepared by scientists at the Geophysical Institute, but I'd intended to write about something mentioned on the tape. Research Associate Gina Price tells what causes the colors appearing in the northern lights. (See, Christmas was coming, and I thought something about colored lights would be seasonally appropriate...Never mind. I meant well.)

With more detail taken from The Aurora Watcher's Handbook here's the basic explanation. First, envision a neon sign. Plug it into a source of electric current, and the sign lights up. That happens because, as the electrons of the flowing current hit the molecules of the neon gas, the neon emits light.… read more

Once upon a time, everyone knew the world was flat. Then there was a span when everyone knew Earth was the center of the universe. And for quite a while now, we've known that our home galaxy, the Milky Way, looks like a big symmetrical pinwheel in space, with dusty, star-filled arms radiating from a spherical core also packed with stars...

Facts have a nasty habit of creeping up and catching us in the everyone-knows. However, gathering facts about the Milky Way has required passing time and advancing technology. For us planet-bound creatures to figure out the nature of our stellar neighborhood has been as tricky as it would be for a deep-sea clam to figure out the nature of weather. Clues filter down to where we live, but they aren't obvious.

Clams might do better if they had periscopes, and we've done well with telescopes. For someone surveying the night sky without any such aid, the Milky Way is only a well-named band of pale light studded with stars. Given… read more

Cleverly, just in time for Christmas, the Aurora Color Television Project here at the Geophysical Institute has released a new videotape explaining---and showing---the northern lights. I had a chance to preview the not-quite-done tape a few weeks ago, and thought it was delightful.

Hey, it's always fun watching friends perform on TV. There on the screen were people I knew well, explaining aspects of the aurora in clear, simple terms; there I sat, watching the electronically packaged explanations roll by, even though two of the experts on the tape---Tom Hallinan and Dan Osborne---have offices right off the same laboratory where I watched. I could have wandered into their offices and asked questions of the real people.

But this once, taking what I was given was more fun than asking. For one thing, the on-tape explanations are good ones, and they come with really impressive illustrations. The tape, called The… read more

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Temple, a scientist in the… read more

Alaska, some scientists claim, is catastrophe country. Glaciers grind hills into valleys, and volcanoes spew enough ash to fill them up again. Earthquakes sink whole beaches in some places and uplift others into cliffs. Between extreme climate and unsettled terrain, Alaska makes for a high-risk homeland for living things.

Halfway around the earth, another bit of the north could challenge us for catastrophes. The island nation of Iceland sits astraddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a great seam in the earth's structure. The sides of this seam are lurching apart, letting new molten rock well up from within to fill the gap. Most of this activity takes place far beneath the Atlantic Ocean, but at Iceland the ridge rides the surface. So here too, volcanoes spew and glaciers grind over quake-raddled ground.

All this activity helped form Iceland's largest lake, Thingvallavatn. "Thing" here doesn't mean Whatchamacallit; in Icelandic, the word is used in its very old sense of… read more

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

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

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

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

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

I'd thought the quincentennial of Columbus' first voyage to the Western Hemisphere could pass without comment in this column. Other media were covering the anniversary thoroughly. Besides, the Caribbean landfall of the little Spanish flotilla happened both long ago and far away from here.

But how could I forget the north is inevitably the true center of action? Thanks to the October issue of Natural History magazine, I've discovered that the real reason Columbus made it to the Americas in October of 1492 was the weather in Alaska, the Yukon, and Labrador.

Author Edwin O. Willis doesn't put it quite that way. He begins with a famous anecdote: Columbus and the birds.

Thirty-one days out from Spain, the expedition's sailors were near mutiny and the officers near despair. Columbus and his captains disputed which tack to take, and per- haps even whether to turn back. Then, on October 7, the vessels sailed into a sky-blackening flow of birds. By the… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep in darkest Florida, north of Hurricane Andrew's damage but well south of frosts, another precedent is emerging in environmental law. Once again, an endangered species is catching the blame for halting economic development. But this is no case of the spotted owl versus the timber industry. This is Roger Lambert versus the turtle dumpers, or tortoise dumpers, actually. The endangered species in question is the gopher tortoise. (The rule of thumb is that turtles are water-living beasts, found in swamps or seas depending on their kind, while tortoises live on land.)

A full-grown gopher tortoise has a domed shell about the diameter of a dinner plate. Gopher tortoises look a bit like old-fashioned helmets without soldiers underneath as they go creeping through the grassy country they favor. They are great at digging, as their common name implies, and have shovel-like front feet. They have fairly elaborate courtship procedures, involving much bobbing and weaving of necks… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most funding for scientific studies comes from government agencies, which means most science must somehow follow priorities set by those agencies. Usually that works well enough: whatever needs studying eventually gets studied, because somewhere an agency recognizes the need.

In U.S. science, there's an odd exception to that premise. No agency concerns itself with the medical problems of pet animals. If it's a disease of cattle, sheep, or even honeybees, the Department of Agriculture would be interested. If it's an animal sickness with implications for humans, then the National Institutes of Health would write the check. If it affects the top predator in an ecosystem, then the National Science Foundation would consider the proposal. But if it gives your beloved golden retriever the sniffles, don't call Uncle Sam.

That, at least, is the rather gloomy (and surprising) picture I draw from an article in a recent issue of The Scientist, a biweekly newspaper… read more

Oceanographers are opportunists, and they admit it. For example, their reports often credit a "ship of opportunity" as a research platform. The term appropriately describes a suitable vessel slated to be in the right place at the right time (and with an owner willing) to serve some oceanographer's purpose.

Opportunity may even drive science, as shown by the work of Seattle-based researchers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and W. James Ingraham. They have taken advantage of a unique spill of opportunity---the world's greatest inadvertent launch of shoes.

In spring 1990, the container vessel Hansa Carrier encountered some rotten weather as she chugged westward across the North Pacific. On May 27, storm waves swept 21 containers from her decks. Five of those 40-foot containers held a shipment of Nikes---shoes for running, hiking, jogging; for men, women, children. Forty thousand pairs of shoes hit the sea at once.

No one knows how many of those shoes sank with their… read more

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

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

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

With every hunting season, handloaders renew the quest to squeeze that extra bit of velocity out of their pet load. The problem of projectile velocity haunts military minds as well as hunters' dreams, In the 1930s, it seemed as if the ultimate had arrived with the .220 Swift, which produced muzzle velocities of over 4,000 feet per second (fps). Modern big game hunters typically rely on weapons of larger caliber but lower velocity, about 3,000 fps. The standard in hunters' ammunition is still the old reliable .30/06. This venerable cartridge has a diameter of approximately .30 inches, giving its caliber, and was introduced in 1906, giving its suffix.

The "aught-six" fires a 180-grain bullet (one grain weighs one seven-thousandth of a pound) with a velocity of about 2,700 fps, a combination producing about 2,900 foot-pounds of energy. That's adequate for a pot-hunter sighting on a caribou at a reasonable distance, but it won't do for a tank commander sighting in an… read more

This summer's bluegrass music festival in Talkeetna, I'm told, was interrupted by a spectacular early-season auroral display. The festival management respectfully turned off the stage lights so all could watch the shimmering sky undistracted.

Perhaps they should have turned off the music, too. With all those attentive listeners and bits of sensitive equipment on hand, folks at the Talkeetna festival might have bagged the first authenticated record of auroral sound.

Many records of auroral sound exist, but none are the sort one can play back. A scan of the appropriate chapter in The Aurora Watcher's Handbook reveals that author Neil Davis has tallied about 300 documented anecdotal reports of people hearing the aurora. (In scientific circles, "anecdotal" covers everything from hearsay to personal eyewitness---or earwitness---accounts by trained observers. Anecdotal evidence counts, but not for much.)

The anecdotes sketch a peculiar picture. In a… read more

Summer 1992 is a good one for mushrooms in this part of Alaska's interior. Boletus of several kinds line local dirt roads, going from small and succulent to enormous and wormy apparently overnight. Puffballs erupt in the unshorn edges of lawns. Fly agarics, the toxic, big red amanitas with white freckles, reach Frisbee size at the verge of woodlots. Mushroom hunters, whether searching for food or photographic subjects, are doing well hereabouts.

But, as I learned recently, the term "mushroom hunter" has more than one possible meaning. Improbable as it seems, some mushrooms are hunters. They are active predators with an array of weapons weird enough to suit a science fiction writer's nightmares.

The lowly, but edible, puffball is one of the predatory kinds. Puffballs are the fruiting bodies of a saprophytic fungus---that is, one that lives on dead organic material. Each fruiting body is supported by an array of rootlike filaments called hyphae. Bundled together… 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

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

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

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

Southeastern Alaska sometimes deserves the envy of the rest of the state. Its scenery is everywhere magnificent, it has mild winters, plenty of fish, ships full of cash-carrying tourists, and hummingbirds.

Granted, not many people find hummingbirds to be as impressive as tidewater glaciers or monster king salmon, but a resident hummer zipping around the flowers is a marvelous addition to any garden. It's easy to see why hardware stores from Cordova to Ketchikan stock red-nozzled nectar dispensers for luring these shimmering little buzzbombs.

And they are little. A full-grown rufous hummingbird, the one species venturing into Alaska, measures about 3 1/2 inches from bill-tip to tail-end, and flared tail feathers and needle-thin bill take up much of those few inches.

Despite their puny size, rufous hummingbirds make long migrations. The hummingbird flaunting his fox-colored feathers in a springtime Juneau garden probably spent the winter well south of… read more

Once upon a time, Senator William Proxmire garnered praise and headlines by handing out Golden Fleece awards to people he thought guilty of conspicuously wasting taxpayers' money. Scientists were among his favorite targets. He could tell they were fleecing the public merely by reading the titles of their funded proposals.

Judging science takes more than laughing at a title. For example, how would you feel about watching your money go toward something titled, "Chemical Analysis of the Bladder Contents of Hibernating Black Bears?" It sounds rather like work fit only to keep biologists employed. Surely it would deserve a Golden Fleece.

Ah, but work covering exactly what that hypothetical title describes may help combat human ills as diverse as osteoporosis, kidney failure, and obesity. A sleeping black bear, it turns out, is a metabolic marvel.

If human beings lie around for months on end, such as during convalescence, their bones become brittle.… read more

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

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

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

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

Cosmology is physics on the grandest scale, the study of inconceivably vast distances and unbelievably long durations. Its subject matter is the universe; its findings are brain bending.

Consider, for example, a topic now challenging cosmologists: the theoretical possibility of traveling backward through time. The debate, as it appeared in Science magazine, begins with the work of Einstein. In his theory of relativity, space and time are faces of the same thing. Einstein even wrote it as one word---spacetime. Physicists often speak of the fabric of spacetime, as if it were a kind of universal bedsheet.

Imagine that sheet, the fabric of spacetime, as the surface of a trampoline. An ant could scurry across the trampoline without even dimpling the fabric. A bowling ball, on the other hand, would roll into a Pit of its own making. That's a crude but fair way of depicting the effects of mass---otherwise known as gravity---on spacetime. By principles of… read more

"Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug," the surprising book title read. Rhubarb? Could that homely stuff of pie fillings and stewed side dishes be a high-powered medicine like aspirin and penicillin? It says so in a book review printed in the British journal Nature, definitely a publication to be taken seriously.

The review's appearance was perfectly timed. The quilted rufous leaves were just beginning to emerge above the family rhubarb patch when the journal crossed my desk. And reading it was definitely more fun then going out to weed the garden.

I don't know if rhubarb grows in Adak or Barrow, but I've seen it growing just about everywhere else in Alaska. This would probably not surprise Clifford Foust, the book's author. He points out that although culinary rhubarb comes to us via the ancient Greeks, they got it from what is now Turkey, and its kin grow in the harsh regions between Mongolia and Siberia. Rhubarb prefers damp conditions and dislikes strong… read more

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

Which is why I was delighted to encounter one report of some psychologists' attempts to understand how juries arrive at decisions. Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie, both with the University of Colorado, recruited people called for jury duty but not empanelled to serve on an actual trial. The recruits watched a movie of a murder trial, realistically reenacted by professional actors. The psychologists then interviewed each of their quasi-jurors, asking detailed questions to outline the reasoning that led them to declare the defendant innocent or guilty. The psychologists repeated this procedure, recording the views and judgments of panel after panel of would-be… read more

An observation came from a friend who had visited the national capitol. "It was nice, of course, but some of the monuments were grubbier than I expected." I didn't pay much attention to her comment at the time; Washington, D.C., is a major modern city as well as a virtual historical park, and major cities are dirty. It was no surprise that federal clean-up crews couldn't keep up with the crud.

That conversation took place a few years ago, but it returned to mind recently when I read an article in the May/June 1992 issue of Wildlife. It turns out that the Lincoln Memorial, at least, wasn't dirty mainly because of city grime. The mighty marble version of Honest Abe was playing host to a simple but populous ecosystem, leaving the monument befouled---and even endangered---by the by-products of life.

This chain of life began with midges, tiny flying insects that find the warm and once swampy Washington area a comfortable home. In their flying phase of life,… read more

My husband and I divide the cooking duties. He is what I consider a superb Neanderthal chef: give the man a dead animal and an open fire, and he's unbeatable. I prefer more complex culinary endeavors, and think I do pretty well with stews, stir-fries, and casseroles. But if he catches me raiding the refrigerator for last Sunday's roast and yesterday's steamed vegetables as source material for one of these creations, trouble inevitably arises.

"Aargh! Leftovers! You're going to feed us leftovers?" he'll say, backing away with fingers X'd as if he were warding off the Evil Eye. As someone who'll cheerfully eat cold pizza for breakfast, I've never had much sympathy for any loathing of leftovers. Our debate over this matter of taste has proceeded unsettled and apparently unsettleable until recently, when he brought science to his defense.

According to a brief report in Science News, chemists and physiologists are collaborating in research on the "… read more

Topics about interesting or local scientific developments likely to go unreported elsewhere in the newspapers have dominated this column for the 16 years it's been in existence. So this hasn't been the place to read about cold fusion or chronic fatigue syndrome, stealth bombers or AIDS.

But when the NAMES Project brought the AIDS memorial quilt to Fairbanks early in May, I was reminded that there was one item about acquired immune deficiency syndrome that I haven't seen discussed in the newspapers: the odd mutability of the AIDS virus.

The research, as reported in many magazines (such as Science, Science News, Discovery, Scientific American), suggests that AIDS is deadly partly because the causative virus has a striking weakness. Like other members of its family, the retroviruses, the AIDS virus has no mechanism to correct errors occurring as its genetic material undergoes duplication. That means whenever the virus multiplies, it's… read more

Ants are hard to like. They are leggy, nippy, creepy-crawlies who get in where they don't belong and can act like characters in our worst nightmares---think of columns of army ants stripping the tropical countryside! Yet, they are also capable of the most fascinating behavior, complex activities that seem little short of incredible for tiny animals that are hardly more than armor-plated reflexes.

One of the most mind-boggling things I've ever learned was that some ants keep aphids the way dairy farmers keep cows. The mind was very young at the time, and easily boggled, but it was an astounding fact.

If ants were thoughtful creatures, aphid ranching would be logical behavior. But ants don't reason. They haven't the brain power. For both protected aphid and well-fed ant, the cooperative arrangement is the result of trial and error, gene and enzyme, luck and evolution, all operating over millennia piled atop one another. Somehow, ants' simple programming tidily… read more

From simple number-crunching to fancy graphic display, each new application for computers has been quickly adopted by scientists. Many researchers are especially keen on computer simulation, which takes advantage of the machines' capacity to answer What if?

For example, Juergen Kienle of the Geophysical Institute and Zygmund Kowalik of the Institute of Marine Science worked together on a computer simulation of tsunamis that might be generated in Cook Inlet if a portion of Augustine Volcano fell into the water. Kienle and Kowalik fed in the proper equations and data, and out came a series mountains-in-nets graphics showing how high the wave would be at Homer Spit and other coastal locations, depending on tides, where the volcanic rock fell in, and how much of it fell.

Their simulation's graphics were easily understood, but primitive compared to what can be done with computer simulations now. They can be used to simulate a virtual reality which the researcher can… read more

We think of vegetables as vitamin sources, but thanks to some research done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it looks as if vegetables too need to take their vitamins.

Dale M. Norris, the UWM researcher whose work on plants and vitamins was reported in a recent issue of Science News, usually works with insects. He's an entomologist who has concentrated for 40 years on how insect nerve cells react to chemical cues. It turns out that the plasma membranes surrounding the cells of soybean plants contain certain proteins similar to those in the membranes enclosing insect nerve cells. That interesting similarity lured Norris into studying plants.

The soybean cell-membrane proteins are stress sensitive; Norris refers to them as "stress sentinels." They seem to be a first step in the cascade of chemical reactions by which a plant threatened with environmental stress---heat, drought, caterpillar bite or whatever---protects it-self. In reacting to the… read more

When my last head cold departed, the first thing my exhausted nose could smell was eucalyptus. The scent of a subtropical tree pervading a subarctic household is not as odd as it first sounds; eucalyptus oil has been a popular medicine worldwide since the middle of the last century, and it's still in use.

Nowadays it's their use for reforestation that makes eucalyptus trees internationally widespread, but medicinal possibilities helped speed their emigration from Australia during the 1800s. One ambitious application of eucalyptus for medical purposes occurred when a group of monks in Italy imported them to cure malaria. They hoped the pungent oils exuded from eucalyptus leaves would help purify the air above marshes near their monastery, and since everyone knew---or thought they did---that bad air caused malaria, the monks believed the eucalyptus could rid the region of that debilitating disease.

The government thought the idea was plausible, and offered to… read more

David Stone, senior member of the solid earth group in the Geophysical Institute, once told me that geologists had to adopt a new motto: "If I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it."

That wry twist on the old cliche acknowledges the revolution in geology brought by the theory of plate tectonics, commonly called continental drift. Such changes of the basic world view in a scientific field are now called "paradigm shifts." Geology isn't the only discipline to have its paradigm shift. Darwin nudged biologists into seeing living things through the lens of evolution; physicists had to yield Isaac Newton's gravitational force to Einstein's curving space-time. Those are truly major changes of paradigm, but of course little ones come along too. The shift is simply the way science progresses---"by leaps and stumbles," to quote another of Stone's informal observations.

Technology, where science is applied to everyday life, sometimes sees paradigm shifts also.… read more

Pay attention, please. I'm about to give away an idea worth millions. Maybe. At least it should be worth a small grant from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. The foundation is always looking for commercially feasible schemes based on science, and there's commercial feasibility here. Honest.

The idea comes from an article in the March 1992 issue of Popular Science magazine. Titled "A Cure for Soggy Sandwiches," the article discusses new uses being found for chitin (pronounced KITE-in) and its derivatives. Natural chitin is a crystalline powder that resists solvents. Treated with sodium hydroxide, it becomes the soluble and useful chitosan, which is the most important of the derivatives. Using chitosan as the basis, materials scientists have produced an array of more complex synthetic compounds. The expanded family of chitosan compounds have provided the new uses, for applications ranging from cosmetics to clothing, with all kinds of nifty possibilities… read more

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

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

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

Primates are… read more

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

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

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

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

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

The newspaper headline read, "Scientists track slime mold in space." For a wild moment, I thought my early suspicions were confirmed: a critter as preposterous as a slime mold must come from outer space. But no. The Associated Press story beneath the headline explained that slime molds were among the experimental organisms sent up from Earth on a recent space shuttle flight. Drat.

Part of my difficulty in accepting slime molds as ordinary denizens of this world may come from the way in which I first encountered them. A university colleague showed slides of her field work in California, and among her photos was one depicting a gray blobby animal that looked like an odd slug.

"Banana slug?" I asked, knowing those were found in California.

"Nope," she said. "Slime mold. Biggest one I've ever seen."

Now, obviously the thing in the photograph was crawling, or at least oozing, over twigs and leaves. No mold I knew of could move under its own power,… read more


Some environmental organizations try to tweak the public conscience by appealing to human self-interest. Take care of Earth's creatures, their messages say, because you never can tell which ones may prove useful.

You've probably seen such advertisements. One of the more popular shows a picture of a handsome little flower, accompanied by text explaining that this endangered Madagascar periwinkle contains compounds useful against a form of leukemia.

Recently, a new green hero has joined the periwinkle. Portraits of the shaggy Pacific yew have begun to appear in the ads. These trees, once seen mostly as trash and nuisances to the lumber industry, are now cherished as the sole source of taxol, a drug useful against some forms of cancer.

The environmental advertisements may feature plants, but their message is more broad: valuable uses may lie hidden in unsuspected places, so saving the creatures of the natural world amounts to a wise investment. Judging by… read more

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, a powerline thickened by frost or a clothesline laden with snow will start to bounce. The shaking line looks errie, but it has an understandable cause. It's the same thing that causes bare wires to hum in a high wind: the aeolian harp effect.

The aeolian harp is the Greek answer to wind chimes. It's a stringed instrument played only by wind (or, as a Greek of the classical era might say, it's intended to be plucked only by the fingers of Aeolus, the god of winds). Nowadays, as the Random House dictionary definition starts. an aeolian harp is a box equipped with a number of strings of equal length, tuned in unison and sounded by wind.

The aeolian harp creates sound for the same reason the frosted line bounces. The cause lies in the phenomenon known as vortex shedding. A vortex (or curl) forms in flowing air under certain conditions. Normally, vortices are invisible in transparent air, but smoke makes them easy to see.… read more


In nature, everything is looking for a way--and a place--to make a living. Leave a field unplowed, and it becomes a meadow; leave the meadow untended, and forest returns. Kill off timber wolves, and coyotes move in.

Another example of this pattern has been uncovered by a researcher working in the Ungava region of Labrador. Alasdair Veitch, a Ph.D. student of zoology at the University of Alberta, presented an informal report on the matter in "Information North," a newsletter from the Arctic Institute of North America.

Veitch's study area is wild and remote, even by Alaska standards. He worked close to the east coast, near 59 degrees north latitude. His base camp was the old Moravian mission known as Hebron, abandoned in 1959. The nearest permanent settlement is now Nain, 200 kilometers south along the coast.

The tree line lies a few inlets to the south along the coast, but below Nain inland. North Ungava is tundra country. Veitch's original aim was to… read more

Sometimes research results apparently point to conclusions that scientists don't recognize. Since I'm not a scientist, I'm willing to translate (with tongue in cheek, please note) the hidden news embedded in the February Natural History magazine. This issue of the American Museum of Natural History's monthly publication concentrates on the topic of aging.

Human aging is an undercurrent in the articles, but is rarely the main theme. The scientist-authors roam all over the biological map to establish the evolutionary purpose of aging how the process is manifested in organisms from paramecia to elephants. At least in passing, they also note some ways in which creatures delay the physical failings that come with the passage of time.

Collectively, these ways make up a prescription for a long, strait life. First, forget sex. The longest-lived organisms do without---at least for several generations. Very simple organisms, say single-celled animals, don't age.… read more

One day in Egypt about 4000 years ago, someone blew across a slice of woody stem from a giant reed and discovered that the vibrating slice made a pleasant sound. Thus was born the class of musical instruments known as woodwinds.

Thus also was born the greatest headache woodwind players know, that of dealing with the fragile but inimitable reed. Even the best musician, now and then, will produce a disconcerting honk from an elderly or flawed reed lurking in the instrument's mouthpiece.

Despite thousands of years of complaining, musicians have pretty much accepted what nature gave. Science and technology have been applied toward finding an artificial and reliable substitute for natural reeds, but without real success. So far, the results have been more suitable for use by amateur players with a high tolerance for duck-like qualities in their tones.

But now many musicians are also scientists. Inevitably, somewhere the scientist-musicians would be tempted… read more

Spend time with chemists nowadays, and you might think they've gone wild for a new sport. They're nearly all talking about buckyballs.

The chemists' enthusiasm comes not from a new game but a new form of carbon. When this configuration of the common element was discovered in 1985, as a serendipitous by-product of an experiment in space, the structured but spherical form of the 60-atom carbon molecule reminded researchers so much of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes that they promptly named it after him. Buckminsterfullerene, the original buckyball, now has become first in a family of extraordinary carbon molecules known as the fullerenes.

That early history plus just about everything else a nonspecialist might want to know about buckyballs appeared in a recent issue of Science, the journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The journal's editors have dubbed fullerenes Molecule of the Year.

The title came in… read more

Working chiefly with sickly mice and statistical analysis, several chemists think they may have identified a powerful cancer-combatting substance in a common beverage: green tea.

As reported in a recent issue of Science News, green tea's trek from Japanese restaurant to medical laboratory began with an apparent statistical anomaly. Some kinds of cancer seem to be less common in the Orient than in Europe or the Americas. A few of these differences are well documented: for example, Japanese cigarette smokers have a lower rate of lung cancer than do U.S. cigarette smokers.

Researchers suspected that a likely reason for this difference might lie in the very different diets between East and West. Over the years, some aspects of standard Asian diets---such as an extremely low proportion of saturated fats---have indeed been recognized as promoting health, including low incidence of cancer. But beyond that, there seemed to be some connection between drinking… read more

1. Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.

2. Change of motion is proportional to, and in the direction of the straight line of, the motive force impressed.

3. To every force there is always opposed an equal reaction force.

These are Newton's laws, the famous statements of the fundamental principles that govern large bodies in motion. They are also the bane of the student who is first introduced to them. They can be the bane of Alaskan drivers as well.

Let's look at a car stopped at an intersection. The force of gravity is acting on the car, causing it to apply a downward force equal to its weight on the road. The road applies a reaction force upward on the car equal to the car's weight. The net force on the car is zero, and the car remains stationary. When the light changes and the driver… read more

A few days after the November fireball shot across Alaska's skies, a friend called me. "Did you see it?" he asked. "I was out on my snow machine, and it went right overhead. Terrific! It looked like it landed right behind the university."

I hadn't seen that dramatic visitor from space, but my friend had generated a vivid flashback of a 23-year old memory. When the first barium rocket lifted from Poker Flat, I was standing on Cleary Summit with a bunch of cheering colleagues--who all fell quiet momentarily because it looked as if the rocket was looping up over us, destined to take out Fairbanks at our backs.

That illusion passed quickly as the rocket arched away downrange, but it's connected to the same perceptual difficulty that leads observers of streaking meteors to think they're destined to land just over the horizon. It isn't merely poetic to speak of "the dome of the sky." Our brains insist that the overhead expanse is shaped like an inverted bowl, and we… read more

Trick question: What kind of bear is commonly seen near midwinter? Answer: the teddy bear. At least, going by my observations during Christmas shopping expeditions, the fuzzy little brutes certainly proliferate in stores at holiday time.

A teddy bear was my inseparable companion during toddlerhood, but when I wanted to buy a similar, realistically bearlike one for a very young friend, I couldn't do it. Buying a twin for my long-gone toy turned out to be as improbable as buying a live mammoth. Teddy bears like mine are extinct. The teddy bear has evolved, rapidly and dramatically, away from its earlier form.

The tale of teddy bear evolution appears in The Science of Everyday Life, a wide-ranging book by Canadian author Jay Ingram. The first toy bear to be known as a teddy appeared early in this century, thanks to a presidential decision.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Mississippi to help settle a dispute over state boundaries.… read more

I learned I'd been spreading misinformation for about 25 years while attending a potluck dinner a few weeks ago. This article is a public apology to all the people I've misled, and also an attempt to set the record straight.

It all began back when the Institute of Marine Science was a newly established research arm in the University of Alaska, and a distinguished scientist named Mary Belle Allen was recruited for the staff. Dr. Allen's repertoire included studying aquatic microorganisms. She wanted to identify the bacterial populations in lakes in interior Alaska. Soil bacteria often wash into lakes and confuse the situation, so, to do her work properly, Allen needed to know what kinds and what numbers of bacteria inhabited the local soils.

Such tests are standardized and straightforward. Allen hauled equipment and assistants around the countryside to gather samples of soil from forest and field, from under trees and atop rocky ledges. Back in the lab, the… read more

When public laws are based on scientific research, the research had better be adequate---or the law adaptable. Members of the city council in Aspen, Colorado, could testify to that; too little learning about lead is giving them big problems with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Aspen's problems began in 1981. A graduate student from Colorado State University performed some routine tests on the soil at Smuggler Mobile Home Park, a court northwest of the town with some 80 relatively immobile trailers in permanent residence. He hoped to help the residents improve their vegetable gardens, but what he found made gardening seem downright unhealthy. In and near Smuggler Park, soil lead levels were impressively high.

The student was not surprised. Two old silver mines lay close to Smuggler Park, and lead is a common by-product of such mining. But the numbers looked bad. In most parts of the nation, the EPA accepts 500 parts per million of lead in soil.… read more

On a bright summer day in 1987, researcher Jane E. Francis was busy with her wood saws on Axel Heiberg Island, high in the Canadian Arctic. The wood she cut was not driftwood destined for the campfire, though it did burn perfectly well. Instead, it was to be saved for laboratories and museums. Which was entirely as it should be, for the wood was 45 million years old. Dr. Francis is an expert on fossil trees, and she was sampling the remains of ancient forests.

Fossil forests are not particularly rare, even in what are now the extreme cold ends of the Earth. That Canada's far north once harbored stands of trees has been known at least since 1883, when a member of the Greely expedition found petrified wood on Ellesmere Island. But petrified wood is no longer truly woody---its cell structure has been penetrated and replaced by dissolved minerals. What remains may have the approximate appearance of wood, down to growth rings and bark scales, but it is stone, usually quartz… read more

Some people don't have ethical questions about experiments using living animals. At one extreme are people who know that the mere presence of animals in laboratory cages constitutes profound immorality, an abuse of human power over fellow beings. At the other end of the ethical spectrum are the people who see animals as merely animate test tubes, fair game for any kind of manipulation that might lead to something useful for humankind.

Most people aren't blessed with such unquestioning certainty. Take me, for example. I know I'm alive now thanks to medical advances made through animal experiments, and I'd be not only ungrateful but hypocritical to say those experiments were morally wrong. Yet I'm uncomfortable about the treatment that experimental animals undergo. I approve of efforts to ensure humane treatment for them, and favor using animals only when alternatives aren't possible.

What about experimenting on animals just to see what happens? That sounds… read more

It must be simple coincidence. Somehow, just as the year rolls into the dark and cold depths, I keep finding interesting stories about research in the tropics.

Scientific discoveries anywhere have implications for people everywhere, though, so reporting news of science at work in the warm zones isn't purely self-indulgent. The item that caught my eye this time involves a promising arrangement between Merck & Co. and Costa Rica's Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad. Unlike many arrangements between massive international companies and developing nations, this one sounds good for everybody.

First, some background: Costa Rica is a model among the economically less well off nations for its attempts to preserve its lands and living things. The "biodiversity" in the national institute's name is appropriate, because this little Central American country has a huge array of different kinds of plants and animals. Costa Rica has rain forests and savannahs, mountains and… read more

Whoever coined "birdbrain" as an epithet meaning "stupid" didn't live in interior Alaska. As I write this, a fine blizzard is howling outdoors, scouring fields that hold no birds. All the cranes and geese flew south; most of the people didn't.

To be fair, avian migration isn't a thoughtful process, even if it does look like a wise choice by this time of year. And it isn't undertaken primarily to escape from the cold. If they stayed in the high latitudes through winter, most of our transient bird species would starve before they'd freeze. Scientists understood that migrating birds sought wintering grounds that were good feeding grounds, and assumed that the tropics provided especially abundant food because so many birds flew that far.

The problem with that assumption is that sometimes birds bound for the tropics fly past food-rich areas in the temperate zone. They even fly past flocks of conspecifics, birds of the same kind apparently doing perfectly well on… read more

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

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

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

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

"Mommy, why are blue jeans blue?" Kids are like that; they'll ask wonderful but obvious questions that grown-ups never consider. "I don't know who decided they should be blue or why they decided that way," I replied to that question my now-grown daughter asked many years ago, "but I know what makes them blue. It's a dye called indigo, and it comes from a plant related to peas and beans." We got off into a discussion of indigo plantations and natural dyes, ending up with the blueberry stains on her old shirt. Parents are like that; they sidestep tough questions, turning them into something they can answer.

Unfortunately, they can come up with wrong answers. My information was outdated. It's true enough that the dye used to color blue jeans is indigo, but it's been many decades since its source has been what the "a plant that yields indigo, esp. any of the genus (Indigofera) of leguminous herbs."

Near the turn of the century German chemists found a way to… read more

As interior Alaska basked in a splendid September, people praised the skies: "Thank heaven for the greenhouse effect---this weather is wonderful!" Sometimes these rejoicings came from the same people who swore last winter was the worst they'd ever seen.

Meanwhile, residents of Anchorage were deciding whether to settle for gumboots or put on swim fins just to get to the car. They could note that if Alaska was supposed to get drier as the greenhouse effect takes hold, somebody must have left the greenhouse door open. Some of these people had earlier complained about having to water gardens suffering in a hot dry spell.

So Alaskans may well ask: Just what is going on here? Is there a greenhouse effect? Is it doing anything? To which scientists could answer, in order: Nobody yet knows; of course; and Probably, but it's too soon to tell.

That, at least, is how I translate a recent review article in the journal Nature. Author John E. Walsh, who is in… read more

In 1900, millions of rhinoceroses walked the earth. In 1991, about 11,000 remain, divided among two African species and three Asian ones. They've been hunted almost to extinction because their horns are coveted for Chinese folk medicines and Yemeni dagger handles.

Rhino horns aren't particularly good for either purpose, but human desires needn't be based on reality. The craving for rhino horn is backed by money: an adult African rhino's nose ornament, which can weigh ten pounds, is worth $2000 a pound in Taiwan. The trade is illegal under international law, yet the potentially enormous profits keep sales going.

According to a recent article in Bioscience magazine, the nations of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia have strived to control poaching and habitat destruction threatening their rhinoceroses. Armed guards and watchful patrols are maintaining stable or even increasing rhinoceros populations in those countries.

But the rhino-protection… read more

The great dying-out of the dinosaurs is no longer a mystery, or so many scientists would have us believe. The accepted story is that catastrophe struck Earth about 66 million years ago. Most experts believe the evidence points to collision with a giant meteorite or meteorites; a few hold out for cataclysmic volcanic upheaval. Compromisers suggest the meteorite could have triggered the eruptions, so the planet caught a double whammy.

Eruption, impact, or both probably led to a harsh and long winter. That assumption followed logically from predictive studies of nuclear war. Computer models showed that the dust, smoke, and soot from an all-out war waged with atomic weapons would bring on a great freezing. Titanic volcanic eruptions or massive impacts---much less both---would similarly generate clouds of dust and set sooty fires. The net result would be a winter to end all winters, or at least to end many forms of life.

This explanation has been challenged by an… read more

As soon as the August rains let up, people living in interior Alaska could see the aurora (or northern lights) again---at least the nighthawks could. The best shows come late, it seems.

Aurora occurs all year, as the faithful electronic measuring devices here at the Geophysical Institute inform us (though institute director Syun-ichi Akasofu has told me they are least common near the solstices, for reasons no one yet properly understands). Images captured by high-flying satellites prove that the instruments are honest. Summer aurora is invisible to us because the long daylight keeps the sky too bright for the dancing curtains to be seen.

In fact, part of the reason that aurora displays in late August and September seem to occur only late at night is that twilight still lingers. It takes a few hours for the sky to darken sufficiently for the aurora to show up. Later in the year, the dancing lights may appear early enough to distract people driving home after work… read more

The conversation was hot and heavy at the next table in the coffee shop, and I nearly got into it. The subject was human remains; most of the speakers were not happy with what they saw as irreverent treatment of Native American bones and funerary artifacts held by museums.

"It's so disrespectful," one young woman said. "How would they like it if their ancestors were on display like that, dug up and stuck in glass boxes with people walking by and pointing?" Cultures differ: I almost blurted out that I'd done just that, observed an ancestor in a glass box. and I was glad he was there.

Actually, I have no proof that he's my ancestor. He lived in what is now Denmark, and the known family tree has no Danes. But he lived two thousand years ago, and given the movements of people throughout Northern Europe over the past twenty centuries, surely some of his genes now lie on my chromosomes.

And he now lies on view in a museum---not just his bones, mind, but a… read more

There are two things I don't like about fishing for fun and food in Alaska's seas. I enjoy reading while I'm waiting my turn with the poles (or waiting out the weather), and it's tough finding the right thing to read while I wait. The bounding main is no place to study tough stuff, but a compelling spy story isn't right either---inevitably someone will hook a big halibut just when the fictional spy is in deepest danger.

Then there's the problem of the Mystery Catch. "Yeah," the skipper will say as we con-template a strange scaly beast with a big mouth and a baleful expression. "That's one of your fram-mistated greenocks. Make good eating unless you don't clean 'em right. Had a cat die once after it ate just a bit of greenock liver...Come to think of it, maybe it was a semipalmated greenock that time." Many a Mystery Catch has been returned to the sea after expert advice like that.

I now have a cure for both problems, thanks to Tina Wyllie-Echeverria, a graduate… read more

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

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

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

But it… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some knotty scientific problems delight me. One turned up recently in Archaeology magazine: Did people first domesticate grain for bread or for beer?

In the 1950s, a University of Chicago researcher suggested a cause-effect relation between making bread and domesticating grain. He based his argument on evidence from archaeological excavations in what is now Iraq. A countersuggestion quickly came from a University of Wisconsin botanist. Beer, he said, was the more likely reason. A symposium was quickly organized, given the arresting title "Did man once live by beer alone?" and the debate about why people became farmers began.

The symposium settled nothing, but most of the participants voted for bread before beer. There the matter rested until last year, when a corporate sponsor learned of the debate and decided to help solve it by reconstructing an ancient beer.

Not that they were wholly disinterested sponsors: the corporation was Anchor… read more

Just as the dragonflies began to cut down the appalling hordes of mosquitoes encouraged by the Interior's record snowpack, the magazine Natural History came out with a whole issue devoted to the buzzing bloodsuckers. This, I thought, was good timing; a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't have contemplated the subject rationally, but now I could learn a thing or two.

Among the items I'd never considered was how mosquitoes decide to bite. It's not a thoughtful process; as I learned, a mosquito brain is about the size of the period concluding this sentence---pretty inadequate equipment for making decisions. Instead, they operate on physics and chemistry.

Chemical traces in the air tell a hungry adult female mosquito that an appropriate victim is in the vicinity. If the intended prey is wearing an effective repellent, the sensors on her antennae may be confused, but animals do exude many chemical clues---ask any bloodhound. And a mosquito is a determined seeker… read more

One of the problems of working in exotic corners of the globe, according to my world-traveling spouse, is finding suitable presents to pacify the stay-at-homes. After a recent set of stops on warm Pacific islands, he came back to Alaska carrying sets of small packages that he thought should do the trick: scented coconut-oil soaps, wood carvings, and Ponape Peppercorns.

He's known me a long time. He foresaw the questions, so also provided a copy of "World Class Pepper Comes From Pohnpei," an article from Pacific Magazine that had a lot to say about our most common spice.

Ironically, the islands of Micronesia (the group to which Pohnpei, once known as Ponape, belongs) first came to the attention of the outside world thanks to sailing ships seeking a better route to the spices of the Indies. Black pepper, the dried berries of the Piper niarum vine, was and is the most important of those spices. Residents of the United States now consume on average… read more

When I asked a weather expert if Alaska has tornadoes, I got a quick answer: No tornado has been officially recorded here. Unofficially, tornadoes---or at least funnel clouds---are reported most years. Because Alaska has few trained observers but many pilots, boaters, campers, and other wanderers watching the state's skies every summer, casual observations are easier to come by than official ones.

Yet it isn't only that Alaska's wide open spaces make tornadoes seem rare here. They are rare. Our weather and terrain, like those in the neighboring chunks of Canada, just don't make for ideal tornado habitat.

That's something for which we can be truly glad. A tornado can do an astounding amount of damage. The June 1991 issue of Weatherwise magazine contains an article by C. Hugh Snyder, a retired National Weather Service meteorologist, that offers clear explanations of the behavior of these peculiar and dangerous storms as well as some examples of their… read more

The article in Science magazine had an arresting headline: "Galileo Hits a Snag." The subject wasn't the great but long-gone scientist's problems with the Inquisition; it was a peculiar failure in the spacecraft bearing his name.

Galileo the spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter. Launched from the space shuttle in October 1989, Galileo is taking the scenic route to its giant target. To conserve fuel (and thus weight), its fabricators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent it on a complex looping path that uses the gravitational fields of other planets as if they were slingshots. Earth's field was one of the slings; Galileo will swing by the home world again during December 1992 for a last gravitational acceleration toward its goal.

There was some concern about this tricky routing, because it entailed such a long flight time to Jupiter. Nothing serious went wrong, though, until trouble arose in some fairly simple machinery: the unfolding system… read more

We talk about summers being warm or cool, wet or dry. In practice, this is generally in comparison to what we perceive as normal for our particular locality. Precisely defining a "normal" summer, however, is a bit more complex: the one thing we can be sure of is that any particular summer will not be exactly normal.

In practice, a "normal" summer would be one in which the temperature and precipitation for each day corresponded to the average values for that date over a number of years. It would be a dreary season, with a little rain every day, and no very hot or cold days. Such an imaginary summer, however, makes a useful ideal for comparing summers across Alaska, or for looking at how a particular summer differs from the norm at a given place. Here at the Geophysical Institute, we have charted these precipitation and temperature averages for a number of Alaskan stations.

You might think that the farther north you go, the colder the summer. This, however, is… read more

Note: Science Forum Writer Carla Helfferich is on vacation, so here is a suitable June subject, butterflies, in a column by Neil Davis that was released in June 1981. Davis started the Science Forum project, and about 500 of his columns are collected in the book Alaska Science Nuggets, which is available from the University of Alaska Press.

Though more southerly states such as Colorado can claim 250 or more resident species of butterflies, at least 78 species flit around the Alaskan countryside.

Summer coolness rather than winter's cold limits the number of butterflies in the Arctic. Not having a source of heat within their bodies as mammals do, and yet needing a certain minimum body temperature in order to fly, butterflies must gain heat from their environment. In winter they are, of course, inactive but those who live over the winter in the adult stage avoid freezing damage to their body tissues by stocking up on self-manufactured antifreeze materials each… read more

"Listen," a friend once told me. "When I'm reading a textbook and come across one of those big ugly equations, I slam the book shut. I want to skoosh it like a bug."

He had my complete sympathy, which is one reason I'm not a scientist. It's also the reason that you'll seldom read about subjects mathematical in this column.

However, now and then I find something I can understand--such as a recent article in Science magazine describing a situation in which mathematicians may have to do their homework if they want to find work at all.

Few new graduates want to join the ranks of academic mathematicians each year; they are competing for even fewer jobs. However, just as in any field of work, it usually happens that person X wants employment with university A, but university A would prefer to recruit person Y, who really would love to join the staff of university B--and so on through the alphabet. This leads to a certain amount of shilly-shallying in… read more

The constantly changing news about diet and health embarrasses science. Experts no sooner announce some discovery than other experts come up with a contradictory one. The situation evokes Alice's plight in Wonderland, as nutrition scientists keep moving labels saying "Eat me" and "Drink me" from one food to another.

Partly that's caused by people like me---joumalists who pounce on studies of food's effects and swiftly turn the technical into the popular. Sometimes dull but crucial details vanish in the process; inaccuracies creep in. "Preliminary study suggests" in the original becomes "Research proves" in the popularized version.

But more important, this shove and push of fact replacing fact as study supersedes study is exactly how science usually progresses. Here at the Geophysical Institute, for example, dozens of ideas have appeared about the configuration of earth's electromagnetic environment. Sometimes a once-discredited theory gains new life as a rocket… read more

Scientific research often bumps into ethical concerns. Some conflicts come easily to mind: weapons development, for example, can test the judgment of right and wrong for both participating scientists and the public that pays for their studies. Others simply come as a surprise.

Science magazine recently reported on one of these surprises. It's a problem some French medical researchers have been wrestling with for more than three years.

Early in 1988, demographer Andre Chaventre assembled a team of researchers to study family patterns of manic depressive mental illness. This disease seems to have a genetic component, and the scientists aimed to decipher the nature of its heritability.

As they began amassing family histories and medical reports on manic-depressive patients, they came across a still-unexplained statistical link between the mental illness and another disease. A certain form of serious eye trouble, open-angle glaucoma, often appeared… read more

Though it once seemed impossible, the snow has finally left our gardens. The mud is drying, the plants are growing, and so are the insects that aim to eat our vegetables before we do.

With good seasonal timing, Science magazine has just printed an article to stir hope in gardeners who are not looking forward to the summer-long battle with the bugs. The subject is an unusual term likely to become very familiar over the next few years: biopesticides.

Biological pest control agents are not new, in either human experience or the natural world. Alaskans, for example, repel mosquitoes by burning products having an active ingredient--pyrethrin--obtained from pyrethrum daisies. And just as there are germs and parasites that make people sick, so too are there germs and parasites that make insects sick. The trick has been to find and tame them.

The first modern biopesticide was employed about forty years ago, when researchers found a bacterial disease that… read more

Working together, government and industry in Japan have selected a new direction for research. These folks brought us Toyota and Walkman and Nintendo; it's worth checking out what they're doing. And what they're doing now is investigating--and investing in--environmentally friendly technology.

At least that's the picture conveyed in a recent issue of the British Journal "Nature." Although the point isn't discussed, this turn to the green is unlike the greening of commerce in the United States, where, for example, some profits from Ben and Jerry's ice cream are donated to organizations trying to save the rain forests because Ben and Jerry believe a moral obligation exists to save the rain forests. They intend to do good. In Japan, the mighty Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) is dedicating massive sums to such projects as biodegradable plastics development because ministry chiefs are betting that environmental repair and protection is where the next big… read more


The Alaska Natural Energy Institute's newsletter crossed my desk the other day, and set me thinking. ANEI apparently believes that civilized life will be possible after oil is gone, and that intelligent life exists right now---that is, people are smart enough to develop alternative energy technologies while they still have oil to burn.

I hope both are true, but my musings ran instead toward post-petroleum geopolitics: What corners of the world will replace the Middle East as global powers controlling the new energy resources?

Answering that question requires predicting what the new resources are likely to be. If coal or natural gas replaces oil as fuel and chemical feedstock of choice, the United States (especially Alaska) will be well off. We have abundant supplies of both coal and natural gas. But if worldwide concerns---and regulations---clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, those faithful old combustibles won't look so good. Then,… read more

On a recent Friday night, our neighbor returned from a stint working out of town. He awoke on Saturday all set to catch his favorite radio show--"Car Talk"--on the public station. It wasn't there. At its usual spot on the dial was a garble of country-western music. Thus did he meet what the whole neighborhood now calls the Static of the Spheres. The band snatchers have invaded our hilltop, and the public radio station is heard no more.

That's a fancy way of saying our hill has one more radio transmitter working in the local antenna farm, and a harmonic radio frequency of the new station--combined with that of another station--make, in effect, an electromagnetic echo which drowns out the old favorite. This has provided significant learning experiences for those of us living near the new transmitter. We've learned especially that regulations aren't quite up to the complications technology can create. That is, we've learned we're in deep trouble--or at least our listening… read more

Say "pike" to Alaskans, and they're likely to think of a big swift fish easily found--but not so easily caught--in northern lakes. Say "pike" to Australians, and they're likely to think only of ancient weaponry--unless they pay keen attention to ichthyological developments Down Under. A member of the pike family of fishes has turned up in Australia's southwestern corner, according to "Geo," a quarterly journal reminiscent of "National Geographic" but devoted to the region extending from southeast Asia through the South Pacific islands.

The relationship isn't obvious. A good-sized northern pike may be the size of a big man's leg; the Australian variety wouldn't exceed his finger. It's slow moving, seems to lack its northern cousin's ferocity, and even appears to blush.

The fish has had plenty of time to develop some peculiarities. The last time the northern and southern branches of the pike clan, technically the Esocoidei, could have hung out together is earlier… read more

No sooner had I finished writing about Earth's mid-Cretaceous hot spell recently than I got more information relevant to the subject. (The writing took place last week, but your newspaper's editor decides when, if ever, to run the column.) The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution for January 1991 offers "Polar Dinosaurs and Ancient Climates," by British geologist Michael Benton. The article features Alaska's own giant, but long-gone reptiles.

When dinosaurs lived in Alaska, beginning in the mid-Cretaceous age, Earth's climate was warm into the high latitudes because of the greenhouse effect--volcanic activity had loaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide: so I said in my column, following the more knowledgeable author Richard Kerr, writing in Science magazine. But I didn't say how warm, chiefly because the Science article didn't tell me.

The "Trends" article… read more

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

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

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

For northerners, the harbingers of returning spring aren't the welcome birds. We know warm weather is on the way when the first sluggish mosquitoes set out from hibernation, eager to drill our veins. And we know too that they are only the outriders of hungry, buzzing, hateful hordes to come.

Fellow sufferers, take heart: science is working on our revenge against the foul mosquito. If the research of Stanford University's Leon Rosenberg pans out, eventually there'll be a way to visit sure death on any mosquito biting a human being. The punishment will fit the crime, without our having to lift a finger in retribution.

Rosenberg set out not to pursue justice, only health---bovine health at that. Cattle are subject to an array of tick-borne diseases. If a tick bites a germ-laden cow, it takes in disease organisms along with its meal of bovine blood, then introduces the organisms to the next cow it attacks. Rosenberg worked on breaking the chain.

His… read more

Come spring, the woods are full of apparent nonsense. All over the world, male birds sing, flash bright feathers, flaunt fancy plumes, build structures, and even dance to lure potential mates. Noise, color, and motion are all great ways to attract predators; singing and dragging excess feathers through the air take extra energy. A sensible female bird shouldn't look twice at a male guilty of such high-risk behavior. Who'd want to chance raising a family with an energy-wasting, danger-luring showoff?

Just about every female bird on the planet, that's who. They flock to the showoffs. If they have a choice, usually they'll pair up with the showiest male they can find.

Evolutionary biologists have debated for years about why apparently negative features should be judged so positively by female birds. According to the British journal Nature, three hypotheses dominate the argument.

One holds that the features are essentially arbitrary signals; according… read more

By the time you read this, the odds are very good that a record will have been set for the lowest temperature ever recorded in the United States. No Alaska town will hold it, and it won't belong to any of our usual rivals, like International Falls or Alamosa or Jackson Hole. The new low will be recorded in Gainesville. That's Gainesville, Florida.

Well, that's not strictly true. The low temperature, if they do achieve it, actually will be a world record--and possibly the coldest temperature anywhere in the universe. The would-be record breakers aren't Gainesville's weathermen; they're scientists at the Microkelvin Research Laboratory at the University of Florida. And the new low won't be recorded at the Gainesville airport, but in a nuclear demagnetization refrigerator.

Had you going there for a minute, didn't I?

Though the Gainesville low won't produce any frostbitten fingers, or even increased parka sales, the temperatures expected are unimaginably… read more

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

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

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

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

Hovering seems like a strenuous activity, and common sense suggests it should require greater exertion to stay aloft in one spot than to move forward at a moderate pace. Only at higher speed, when atmospheric drag is also higher, should forward flight and hovering cost the same amount of energy.

A standard theory of animal aerodynamics does hold that a flying animal uses about as much energy to hover as it does in fast flight. Theories exist to be tested, but how could one test this hypothesis?

With great difficulty, it turns out. The standard means of quantifying an animal's energy consumption is by measuring its oxygen uptake. Now, if your study animal is a human being, measuring oxygen consumption becomes a pretty straightforward problem. You need merely convince your experimental subject to wear a device like a gas mask, covering nose and mouth, while walking on a treadmill or otherwise exercising. The automated measurements of oxygen consumption are made by… read more

Last March I heard from a chum who now lives in Ketchikan. We'd been out of touch for years, and it was fun talking with her---mostly. She did rattle on a bit about how the crocuses were up, and the quince tree in her yard was starting to blossom. I could only counter by telling her the snow behind my house was down to its last three-foot layer, and I expected to see the first rock emerge any day.

I should have asked her, since it was so green down her way, to go outside and pick a house plant for me. It is to do that there; the only kind of conventional houseplant that also grows wild in Alaska lives in Southeast, and the odds are she has some living in the neighborhood. She may even think they're weeds.

Most common house plants are native to tropical or Mediterranean climates---that is, they are naturally adjusted to a frost-free life. Most plants native to Alaska need far more seasonal changes than humans want in their homes. Brought inside and crowded into a… read more

The language of science is precise; just ask any scientist. Usually I'm willing to go along with this claim, but once in a while I have some problems with the professionals concise but still obscure language.

Consider: what exactly is it that saturates a saturated fat? You'd think, given the fuss about avoiding saturated fats in one's diet, that it was elixir of undiluted evil. Hah! It turns out that what does the saturating is hydrogen.

This is the story, as I got it from Co-Op Food Facts, a pleasantly straightforward publication from a consumer cooperative centered in the Midwest. The first thing I learned is that fats are mostly composed of fatty acids--about 95 percent of every edible fat or oil consists of fatty acids.

Fatty acids all are based on carbon chains---carbon atoms linked together one after another in a single molecule. Different fatty acids are defined as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated depending on how effectively… read more

Some years and jobs ago, I was given a dream assignment: Make all arrangements for a meeting--in Europe. I went happily to Europe, but then unhappily struggled to stay alert during planning sessions, to make simple decisions, even to stay awake at all. My inner clock had sent my brain to bed, ignoring European real time in favor of remembered Alaska time. I was jet lagged.

Our inner clocks aren't perfect. Take away all external guides--sunlight, clocks, radios, whatever---and people will fall into a 25-hour cycle. We need clues to stay in synch with the sun.

Studies of the effects of one of those clues---light---may help long distance travelers, shift workers, and people with circadian system malfunctions. Working with the victim of such a malady gave Massachusetts sleep researcher Charles Czeisler evidence of an apparently effective way of dealing with jet lag.

Czeisler knew that human internal clocks are light sensitive; he'd conducted an experiment… read more

If I were a gold miner, I'd probably be investigating the cost of nets. No, not because fishing looks more profitable than mining, but because miners soon might need a way to fend off bats.

Wait, now. This is not the introduction to a horror movie in which hardy prospectors are pursued by flitting hordes that have mistaken our heroes for giant mosquitoes. It's another example of new technology confusing evolved behavior.

Modern, large-scale gold mines like the ones now operating near Fairbanks use a technique known as heap leaching to coax fractions of an ounce of flour-fine gold from tons of rock. Cyanide is the indispensable ingredient in the leaching fluid, and cyanide-tainted water is the inescapable by-product. Cyanide is poisonous, so the solution is kept in lined ponds. It can't flow away to other water bodies or soak into the water table.

Wandering wildlife or would-be swimmers can be kept at bay with fences. But the ponds are open to the air,… 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

Maybe because they're not around to tie up traffic, dinosaurs seem to be everybody's favorite animal. It's as true for scientists as schoolchildren---and for scientists who work on them, there's the added career advantage that no live dinosaur will show up to dispute an appealing theory about the big reptiles.

However, deciphering the scanty evidence dinosaurs have left behind in the rocks is iffy enough to keep argument alive among human interpreters of the fossil record. Consider, for example, the debate over some dinosaur features.

It started with stegosaurs. A distinctive feature of this dinosaur family is a row of bony plates jutting upright from their backs. The plates looked like defensive armor, useful if odd-looking protection against taller predatory saurians that might bite down on a stegosaur's spinal column. That was pretty much the assumption until about ten years ago---after all, dinosaurs tried lots of defensive structures that look odd to us… read more

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

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

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

I don't know how it went for you, but by the fourth time I shovelled out the wretched car during the recent holiday season, I had just plain had it with snow. And, yes, science was slipping too: I had this vision of a wicked witch of the north with a gigantic vacuum cleaner. She was sitting atop Denali, pulling wet air out of the Gulf of Alaska and freezing it solid just inland of Nome, and all Alaskans were being buried under tons of white crud.

I've been able to shape a more accurate picture of what went on during December's closing days, thanks to Hiroshi Tanaka. He's an assistant professor of physics and climate expert here at the Geophysical Institute, and he gave me a short report explaining what's been going on with our weather.

He took December 21---our warm, wet winter solstice---as an example. Interior Alaska was indeed warm that day, with temperatures close to the freezing (or melting) point. That's 40°F above normal for the day. Nenana had rain; at… read more

Once in a while my voracious reading of general scientific literature turns up something that strikes me right on the funny bone. The scientists didn't mean it to be funny; maybe other nonscientists won't find it funny. See how this strikes you:

Sick plants take aspirin. They don't even call the plant doctor first.

OK, OK, I'm being irreverent here, and am oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. The story really isn't goofy.

When a plant is attacked by pathogens---viruses, bactena, fungi, or some such noxious microorganism--it often resists the invaders by fencing them off somehow. Disease starts up, but the plant restricts the damage to a small area near the site of infection. That's an obviously useful ability, and one worth study. One group of researchers from New Jersey pursued that study into the genetic makeup of the tobacco plant.

Tobacco was the chosen subject because of two convenient features. It is attacked by a pervasive enemy… read more

For many residents of interior Alaska and points north, the Fourth of July is a frustrating holiday. We can celebrate Independence Day with suitable amounts of noise, but when it comes to Roman candles, rockets, star shells, all those beautiful pyrotechnical devices that illumine skies Outside---we haven't a hope. The sun is too high. But, confident that night will fall, we stock up for New Year's Eve, filling ammunition boxes with supplies to be brought out and touched off months later.

Thus, weather permitting, there'll be a lot of science loose in the sky above Fairbanks as 1990 rolls off the calendar. Oddly, the science part of fireworks is a fairly new thing. Only a handful of families dominated the manufacture of pyrotechnics in the West for generations, and they guarded their knowledge. Little research was done outside those families, and less was reported in public.

The situation now is slightly better. In the United States, only one person teaches… read more

While November temperatures in interior Alaska began slinking down into double digits below freezing, I heard a lot of complaints about global warming: Where is it when we need it? Somehow, when one's chilly car shows about as many signs of life as a mummified mammoth, it's hard to worry that the seas are growing too hot to keep coral reefs thriving in the Caribbean.

Closer to home, some scientists have identified a warming trend at one place in Canada. They have documented some of its effects, and---no comfort here---they believe that the most marked ones can be seen in the warmer months.

For 20 years, researchers from the Freshwater Institute of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans have gathered continuous records of the weather, hydrology, water chemistry, and biology of lakes and streams in the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario. To guarantee comparable records, they used consistent sampling and analytical methods throughout the study… read more

Usually the scientists who dig into humankind's past find solid material for debate in every excavation. What culture produced which artifact and when? Lately they've battled as well over a substantial matter of another kind: What constitutes right behavior? According to the November 23 issue of Science magazine, problems rising in distant Peru have American archaeologists debating ethics.

The trouble began in 1987, when national police notified Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva that looters were digging up an adobe mound near the village of Sipan. The site had never been scientifically excavated, so Alva hustled to investigate. He realized quickly that under the mound lay an important tomb of the long-gone Moche culture that dominated northern coastal Peru before the Incas rose.

The looters were not about to give up on potential wealth merely because a scientist scolded them. The police had to secure the site, but it took… read more

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

When the Berlin Wall fell, it marked the real end at last of World War II and signalled a dramatic winding down of the Cold War. Germans wept for joy; people who'd never been to Germany and never wanted to go wept along with them. The falling wall was a powerfully positive symbol worldwide.

Yet, as a recent issue of the British journal Nature explains, the best of events can have unhappy repercussions. When Gerrnany was divided, the line was marked by a harsh no-man's land, a swathe accurately called "the death strip." From north to south, a guarded zone lay just within the East German border. Six hundred kilometers long and five kilometers wide, it was forbidding territory, inhabited only by armed and wary patrols prepared to shoot first, ask questions later.

Land forbidden to people becomes a haven for wildlife. In densely populated Europe, the death strip became a refuge. East Germany also held other areas closed to the public---the private hunting… read more

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

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

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

Stanley Temple, a scientist in the… read more

Things got a bit exciting around our house the other evening. The big cat came in through his little cat door carrying a grouse. A live, healthy, adult grouse. After a brief period of tumult and some bad language in the voices of three species, the bird left through the human-sized door. It was short of feathers and dignity but otherwise seemed well.

I had considerable time to muse upon the situation while I cleaned up scattered feathers. The cat and I have an uneasy truce about his hunting. I don't much care for it. Yet I understand that he is trying to contribute his fair share to family support when he brings critters home; we open cans for him, he brings home fresh meat for us, undismayed by our refusal to eat it. His skill has other values as well. There are no rabbits in the family cabbage patch, no squirrels in our insulation, no voles in the pantry. They keep their distance, or become cat food.

Despite his skills, he seldom catches some animals of… read more

Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus afflicts more than a million North Americans. It's long been one of those aggravating illnesses that can be treated but not cured; once the disease progresses to the point that its victims need insulin injections to stay alive, they'll need that additional insulin for the rest of their lives.

In some ways, its cause is well understood. In a healthy person, clusters of specialized cells---islet cells---in the pancreas gland manufacture insulin, a protein hormone essential for metabolizing carbohydrates. In a person with diabetes, these islet cells degenerate and die, no longer providing the necessary insulin.

Once it became technologically possible, medical researchers tried transplanting functioning islet cells into the pancreas glands of diabetics to cure their disease. In theory, that was a logical treatment, but in practice it didn't work so well.

Over eons of evolution, we have developed immune systems that… read more

Let me offer a trick question: Why should management of the Tongass and Chugach national forests be of great interest to violinists? The straight answer is that the kind of trees growing in those Alaska forests, and the way they're treated once cut, offer a chance to recreate the wonderful sound of the world's greatest musical instruments.

They offer part of what chance we have, anyway---or so says a knowledgeable Texan. (At least he works in that state, at Texas A & M; since his name is Joseph Nagyvary, I suspect he doesn't answer to "Bubba" or "Tex.")

The roots of the tale reach far back, to 17th century Italy. The town of Cremona became a center of the violin-maker's craft like nothing seen before or since. A few families became known for their masterpieces in wood: Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari have been names associated with the most coveted stringed instruments for nearly three centuries. Despite prodigious efforts, and… read more


This is the one thousandth column produced under various names--Science Forum, Diggings, and others--since Neil Davis sat down in March 1976 and cranked out the first one in this series. Although the column itself is no subject for a science article, I couldn't let the anniversary pass without note, and a comment or two.

Each of us who produced these informal discussions into science--Davis, Larry Gedney, Sue Ann Bowling, and I--have discovered that some items produce more comment than others. People will call in, or write, or we'll encounter someone at the post office who has something to say about a column. Sometimes the articles that catch people's interest prove to be surprising to their authors. That's the case of the all-time interest-getter, the one that brought more comments on the order of, "You know, I always wondered about that..." than any other. Thus this column returns to the subject of… read more

I have a very environmentally conscious friend in Hawaii. She recycles everything she can; she treads carefully when she walks in the woods; she eats a lot of whole grains and very little meat. And far in the back of her undersink cabinet she keeps a can of lethal, do-not-breathe-ever insecticide. It's like a skeleton in her closet, for more reasons than the small skull and crossbones symbol she's pasted on it.

"I hate the stuff," she said. "But it works. And this is cockroach country. They'd carry me off if I didn't use it, or something just as awful."

In some ways Alaskans are better off than Hawaiians. If we're a bit careless with our garbage, we're more likely to draw bears than cockroaches. Still, we must deal with some invading and unwelcome creepy-crawlies in homes and camps. I too have a can of awful stuff I hate to use--but when the carpenter ants come marching in, I use it.

There may now be a product for people who'd like to keep the bugs at… read more

A strange thing happens at my house every October: the woodstove seems to get bigger. It's been an inconspicuous little black thing in the corner of the living room all summer, but come snowfall, it's a brute right out in the middle. And it looks hungry.

If there's any science whatsoever in that observation, it's psychology. Important objects may be perceived as larger than they really are, and that stove certainly grows in importance as temperatures decline.

Other sciences apply more exactly to heating with wood. Between recent bouts of hauling stove-length chunks of birch and spruce into winter shelter, I reviewed some of what scientist Neil Davis had to impart about wood as fuel in his book Energy/Alaska.

I was willing to categorize birch as a hardwood from the first moment my splitting maul bounced uselessly off a birch log, but the book told me that isn't the usual way to tell hardwoods from softwoods. From a forester's point of view… read more

Like many children, I was fascinated by dinosaurs from the moment I toddled into my first natural history museum. The hardest thing to accept was that--except for the tyrannosaurs in my nightmares--none of them were left. How could an entire family of creatures that had ruled the earth for millions of years vanish so completely?

The theory popular back then blamed the upstart mammals for eating dinosaur eggs. I didn't buy that, I couldn't see mouse-size beasties gnawing through tough cannonball-size eggs. I blamed volcanoes--chiefly because of a vivid painting showing a family of duckbilled dinosaurs (like those that left fossilized remains in northern Alaska) watching from a verdant bog as great rivers of lava and ash flowed toward them from a line of erupting cones.

The prevalent view now is that dinosaurs were the victims of a celestial collision, and the evidence seems convincing. About 66 million years ago, something stunning happened on Earth. Before then… read more

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

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

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

It… read more

In the north, autumn snows creeping down the mountains have long been known as "termination dust." That first white glitter signals the beginning of the end for summer jobs, building projects--and seasonal sneezes. Hay fever sufferers have real reason to welcome the first snows, and there are more of them every year: allergy to wind-borne pollen is an epidemic on the increase.

Surprisingly, it's a relatively new disease. The first accurate account of hay fever entered medical annals only in 1819,when a London physician described his own "unusual train of symptoms." The first American description of hay fever didn't appear until 1852. In Japan, it was virtually unknown before the 1950s.

There's always a suspicion that minor diseases appear or increase when people are less plagued by major illnesses (why worry about a seasonal runny nose when you're dying of tuberculosis?) and are more willing to report comparatively trivial symptoms to their… read more

I've recently had the privilege of following the Alaska Commission on Science and Engineering through a series of public meetings in Southeastern. I earned the privilege chiefly by throwing myself across my commissioner-spouse's luggage and sniveling loudly until he agreed to buy me a ticket. Even as a mere tagalong, I learned a lot on the trip.

Southeastern Alaska covers a lot of territory, and people have many different concerns. Yet one theme kept reappearing in different connections everywhere: from atmospheric chemistry to zoology, Alaska is short of baseline data.

"Baseline" is something of a buzzword. It emerged from scientific publications into popular consciousness at about the time the Environmental Protection Agency hit the headlines. Originally borrowed from engineering, where the baseline is the primary line, the one from which others are measured, it has come to mean something akin to a definition of the natural state of a system.

If… read more

Releasing a mass of multicolored helium balloons as part of public celebrations is poor form. The balloons look gorgeous, but we now realize they're litter in the making--sometimes dangerous litter at that, since curious animals may eat the deflated remnants when they descend to earth or sea.

To celebrate Earth Day this year, the citizens of Sitka were able to incorporate a splendid replacement for a balloon launch: they released bald eagles.

Sitka is home for the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, and bald eagles are the center's specialty. Eagle releases are nothing new to center personnel; they see successful freeing of these great birds as their chief reason for existing. Over the decade the center has been working with ill and injured raptors, they've retumed over 60 healed eagles to the wild, including a dozen this spring alone. Other eagles, beyond rehabilitation for one reason or another, have gone to zoos and captive breeding programs Outside.

read more

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

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

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

A quiet revolution in procedure has taken place at the National Cancer Institute. In a way, as if the manuals have been rewritten by Henry Ford, the assembly line has come to the laboratory bench.

For better than three decades, NCI has been studying compounds for possible activity against cancer. The job of its Frederick Cancer Research Facility in Bethesda, Maryland, is making the first crucial assay: does a substance kill cancerous cells? All other considerations--what side effects a tested compound might have, how it can be delivered where and as needed, what concentrations are effective--are for subsequent research.

Until recently, the chief tools in this phase of testing were legions of leukemic mice. If a test compound apparently retarded the progress of mouse leukemia, it went on to further testing. If it didn't, it was discarded. The mice have screened hundreds of thousands of compounds. From that effort, 36 licensed drugs have emerged.

As might… read more

"The thing about field work," said my friend Beth Bergeron recently, "is that you rack up experiences stay-at-home types wouldn't believe." She was back on solid ground after weeks aboard the university's research vessel Alpha Helix, where her technical expertise keeps numbers flowing accurately from an array of sensitive electronic equipment.

The ship had passed the Barren Islands on its way home to Seward when, according to Bergeron, "the bridge called down and said there were fins off to starboard. Big fins. Way off. Not killer whales."

With that kind of bait, both the scientific and ship crews quickly agreed that a little change in course was appropriate. The vessel's decks grew crowded with people all humming the theme from the movie "Jaws." Those were big fins indeed, and they were unmistakably the proper shape for shark fins--the arch of a dorsal, the curve of a tail lobe.

The Alpha Helix had found a shark, all right, but not… read more


Don Schell does isotopes. That means when he says you are what you eat, he's speaking factually, and in a special sense.

From his base at the Institute of Northern Engineering of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Schell studies isotope ratios in the tissues of different kinds of northern animals. It's informative work, thanks to the property of plants to pick and choose among different isotopes of carbon.

Almost 99 per cent of all naturally occurring carbon has an atomic mass number of 12; almost all the rest is a heavier isotope, carbon 13, with a smidgin of radioactive carbon 14. As a plant takes in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, it slightly alters the initial proportions of the carbon isotopes. In the marine environment, geographic differences in environmental conditions cause distinct geographic signatures in the isotope ratios of the plants. These isotopic signatures are conservative; that is, they can be traced through the food… read more

Not so long ago, it looked as if medical research had pretty much whipped diseases caused by bacteria. The scourges of the past--bacterial pneumonia, tuberculosis, the various and often lethal illnesses generated by the streptococcus and staphylococcus families--seemed to be licked for good. Just as DDT wiped out noxious insects, so antibiotics promised to do away with deadly microscopic bugs. Thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry, research could move on to the more challenging realm of diseases caused by viruses or mysterious molecular malfunctions, such as those leading to cancer and various hereditary problems.

It's turning out that the DDT analogy is uncomfortably exact. At first, that powerful insecticide seemed to do the job perfectly. Then horrifying side effects turned up, leading to the near-extinction of numerous species of birds. Finally, the sprays were no longer effective. They had simply promoted development of insects resistant to DDT.

In… read more

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

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

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

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

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

Weather permitting, most Alaskans will see a partial solar eclipse on the evening of July 21 this year. The zone of full lunar shadow, where the moon's disk seems to black out the entire sun, is called the umbra. On the 21st, it will touch Earth at sunrise in Finland, sweep along the arctic coast of Siberia, cross into the North Pacific, and leave at sunset over the ocean between Hawaii and California.

Except for the mid-Aleutians, most of Alaska will lie outside this path of totality. The penumbra--the path of the partial eclipse--will reach more populated parts of the state.

In Fairbanks, people will see a small bite vanishing from the lower edge of the sun beginning at 6:21 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time. The bite will grow, leaving a crescent sun with its horns pointing downward, to a maximum at 7:17 ADT. Nearly three-quarters of the sun will be covered by the moon at that time. The sun's apparent altitude will be 23 degrees above the horizon.

The… read more

The right of Alaska's salmon to live free was one of the battles engaging Alaska's legislators during the past session--or so the debates over fish farming might have seemed to someone catching only the occasional headline or sound bite. Legislative action killed possible salmon farms for now, but some Alaskans are still puzzled over the fuss.

Theoretically, the idea seems sound. Instead of letting young hatchery-produced salmon run away to sea, they are raised in big floating pens. Safe from natural predators and offshore factory ships, they are fed and tended in a protected patch of sea. The eventual result is a living for the fish farmer and a few hired hands and a better supply of affordable and good-quality seafood for consumers.

Of course, problems appear once fish farming gets past the theory stage. Early this year, Science magazine gave space to some controversies about the industry in Washington state that echoed--and perhaps clarified--the… read more

Sometimes I put things together and think I've answered a scientific question. It's great fun and dangerous only if I start to believe my own theory. This week's answer to an idle question: spruce trees growing on permafrost are skinny because their cold feet make them think they're growing farther north.

That's not as silly as it sounds. Honest.

The background for my hypothesis comes from a research paper given to me by geologist Don Triplehorn: "Climatic Indications from Growth Rings in Fossil Woods," by British scientists G.T. Creber and W.G. Chaloner. It explains why forests once grew at far higher latitudes than they now do.

Real forests, with big trees, did grow at very high latitudes indeed. An abundance of fossil wood, including rooted stumps, lies in the high Arctic and even in Antarctica to prove it. Creber and Chaloner showed that warmth, not light, limits the growth of ring-forming trees. In June, struggling plants on Cornwallis Island, near… read more

People have long awaited the perfect docile machine that washes windows or shovels snow. Instead, technology has given us awkward brute robots good for building cars in a factory but terrible for moving and doing everyday chores.

Scientists long believed the solution lay in devising a robot brain that processed information sequentially. A robot would first analyze information its sensors picked up from its environment to identify where it is and what surrounds it. Then it would figure out what to do about that environment--in effect, make an action plan. Finally it would produce a set of directions to its motor controls to carry out the planned action.

In short, the robot would do a great deal of pseudo-thinking, making models of external realities and internal possibilities and comparing them against one another, before it could accomplish anything. That's slow and takes a lot of processing capability. Even with miniaturized electronics, this means a… read more

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

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

On any list of useful stars, Polaris would have to rank second only to our sun. North Star, Pole Star, by whatever name, it can be found easily by a sky-watching novice seeking direction. Alaskans have even claimed its image on the state flag and in our official song: "The great North Star, with its steady light..." Ah, but its light hasn't been so steady.

Supergiant Polaris lies far from Earth, so distant that its light takes from 500 to 800 years to reach us. The glittering point we could see this spring, marked by the Big Dipper's pointer stars, showed light that perhaps set off on its journey while the first telescopes were being crafted in European workshops.

That light varies in intensity, partly because Polaris is not a solitary star. It's what astronomers call a binary, a stellar duet. Polaris the bright has a small, invisible companion. The twinned swings of these two bodies orbiting about one another puts some shifts in the starlight… read more

Scientific fieldwork in Alaska seldom runs smoothly. Study sites can be hard to reach, weather rarely cooperates, bears looking for snacks can demolish a camp. Then there's the problem that Frederick E. Nelson encountered on the North Slope: curious foxes.

As he reports in the British journal Nature, Nelson was making measurements of ground temperatures in the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay. A fox den was near one of his study locations, and the foxes were gnawing the plastic-sheathed electrical cables. Arctic foxes are small, as foxes go, but they have sharp teeth and--evidently--stubborn dispositions. At least the fox family near the temperature-sensing stations did; once they'd ruined one cable without finding anything edible, they'd chew up another one. Nelson's experiment was endangered by a furry demolition team.

Killing the foxes was unacceptable, but so was letting them ruin the study. A good field scientist learns to improvise with materials on hand,… 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

Ladies and gentlemen, guard your breakfasts: the banana is under attack. A plague pursues the United States' favorite fruit--in fact, two plagues.

To explain the concern and the fight to solve it, one must first delve into banana history. Although commonplace today, bananas only became a staple in North America's diet late in the last century. They could do so because of a genetic freak--a spontaneous mutation in a kind of banana native to Southeast Asia.

The new banana was big, sweet, and seedless. (Those little black flecks near the center of a banana are vestigial seeds, mere echoes of the real thing. A full banana seed is big, hard, and neighborly; scores of them stud a seeded banana.) It was a natural triploid, meaning it had three sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two.

The new mutation also had a characteristic that made long-distance transport possible: all the bananas on a stalk ripen at once, about three weeks after they've grown to… read more

One day in November 1934, distinguished anthropologist Nels Nelson received a little box that had traveled a long way from the Territory of Alaska to reach his office in New York's American Museum of Natural History. Inside the box lay an array of small stone artifacts, and the corroboration of a controversial theory. As he wrote later, some of the implements "...are identical in several respects with thousands of specimens found in the Gobi desert." It was the first concrete evidence supporting the hypothesis that humans had crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to populate the Western Hemisphere.

That is one of the often-surprising details I learned while copyediting a manuscript for the University of Alaska Press recently. The author is Charles M. Mobley, probably better known as Chuck to the oil cleanup workers he herded away from prehistoric and historic sites on the shores of Prince William Sound throughout summer 1989.

Mobley's manuscript isn't about… read more

For high-latitude gardeners, the worst time of year is the span between the arrival of seed catalogs and the day the soil is warm enough for planting. Often enough, impatience leads to a clutter of potted seedlings on every windowsill, and elongated, scrawny plants at transplanting time.

This year I found a good scientific reason to give plants room. It explains why seedlings crowded on the sill may elongate to an unhealthy degree, even if they have plenty of food, water, and light.

Shaded plants usually become spindly and pale. Their stems are long and thin, with leaves far apart along puny stalks. They look as if they need light, and seem to be reaching for it. Well-lit seedlings don't become pale, but when they are crowded, may behave like shaded plants. They develop proportionately thin stems and big gaps between pairs of leaves as they shoot skyward.

That young plants growing in a crowd should race upward makes evolutionary sense. If a seedling's… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why did I wake up before the shaking began?

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

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

Years ago, a friend of mine took a snapshot of a flying bird. The photograph isn't great, but the bird is: it looks sculptured, artificial, a composition in colors of fog and cloud. It's also huge.

"That bird looked like a cross between a seagull and a Cessna," my friend reported. He wasn't far wrong, at least about size. With a wingspan that can exceed 11 feet, the wandering albatross is the largest seabird in the world.

But it doesn't wander every sea. My friend took his photograph from the deck of a ship nearing Antarctica, in the most likely waters to find these rare birds. They live only in the Southern Hemisphere, usually very far south.

That limitation has given me occasional regrets, since I'd like to see one of these giants someday. Other kinds of albatross visit Alaska waters; why not wandering ones? Why are they so stubbornly southern?

The answer has been found. French scientists Pierre Jouventin and Henri Weimerskirch, who… read more

Medical research keeps coming up with bad news for the self-indulgent. I've felt personally attacked by discoveries showing my favorite foods, drinks, and behaviors are likely to shorten my life.

Probably the saddest news was that overindulgence in sunshine was downright unhealthy. I've always found some excuse to be outside at noon on sunny December days, and in June I've found excuses never to come inside at all. It was hard to think of giving that up in the interest of preventing skin cancer at worst, wrinkles at best. I even wrote a column back in 1988 sharing the bad news with fellow northerners, so we'd feel better about our midwinter sunlessness.

Perhaps I was whistling in the dark. A recent study by Cedric Garland, Edward Gorham, and Jeffrey Young seems to indicate that sunshine also offers benefits.

The first statement in the announcement of their work reads, "A new study of the association between sunlight energy striking the ground and age-… read more

Scientists can be an amazing lot. Sometimes it seems to me they thrive on difficulty. Take, for example, the work I saw in a poster at the recent Ocean Sciences Conference, which is a joint meeting of the American Geophysical Union and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography. Three scientists set themselves the problem of figuring out how an invisible animal feeds.

Properly speaking, the tiny marine animal in question isn't invisible. It's just transparent--so transparent that it makes a typical jellyfish seem as obvious as a gob of peanut butter.

The subject of the study conducted by C.C. Morris, D. Deibel, and P.F. Flood is the larvacean tunicate Oikopleura. These tunicates are only a few millimeters long; a big one may reach ten millimeters (still less than half an inch). Most of that largely gelatinous speck is surrounded by a filmy veil of mucous that the animal excretes---the so-called house--which struck some early observer as being like… read more

Most Alaskans have never been to a science conference and wouldn't dream of going to one. Yet these meetings are a terrific source of information on what's new in research, and often have something interesting and understandable for the public.

This state hosts many meetings of scientific groups every year, from anthropology associations to zoological societies. They're a necessary part of a scientist's career, but they're accessible to non-scientists as well.

Conventions of scientists aren't like the annual gatherings of other organizations. Science meetings are mostly continuous seminars, a chance for people working in fast-changing and specialized research fields to hear what their colleagues elsewhere are doing. People are there to learn and to inform.

The procedure is called "presenting papers," but the actual paper may be little more than an outline. The rest is in the presenter's head, and perhaps on some illustrative slides. Most of the work is… read more

Roger Powers gave a seminar at the Geophysical Institute a few weeks ago. His topic was evidence of past global climate changes. Climate change--past, present, and future--is a common subject for talks at the institute, but not from his particular perspective. Dr. Powers is a member of the University of Alaska Fairbanks department of anthropology, and he's an expert on northern archaeology.

Some of what he had to say and show was tough going for the assembled meteorologists, glaciologists, and geologists (not to mention at least one science writer scribbling away in the back row). Slide after slide illustrating stone tools appeared on the seminar room screen, while Powers explained changes in form and technology in characteristic points, scrapers, and the cores from which the tools were made.

The audience needed to understand that the suites of implements were diagnostic. They're nearly all we have to understand and categorize cultures that rose and fell in the… read more

Salt, sweet, sour, and bitter--these, we're assured, are the basic tastes. Somehow the cells in our taste buds can communicate the whole symphony of flavors in a Sunday dinner from these basic building blocks.

The sense of taste has been a tricky one for scientists to study. For a long time, biologists were willing to assume that the sensory structures of the tongue and mouth were fairly passive relays, picking up and sending on basic information to the brain where all the real work was done. The closest analogy might be to the sense of touch, as pressure sensors indicate how strongly something presses upon us, and over how large an area.

Now, with vastly improved microtechnology to guide their studies, the experts believe the taste bud should be seen as a kind of biological microprocessor. A host of taste cells--as many as 100 at a time--react to the chemical and electrical information in a bit of food or drink. Each cell responds to some degree to sweet, sour… read more

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

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

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

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

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

This winter a team of people at the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service is playing a computer game, but with a very serious purpose. The game is fire management, and at stake is the future cost of fighting forest fires in Alaska.

Headed by Fire Management Officer Dave Uebersbach, the team includes Mark Jones, Mike Silva, Joe Ribar, Dan Burrows, Vince Mazzier, Brian Fox, and Dave Dash. They're working with a computer model that knows the cost of the elements of fighting fires, and it's been given historically accurate fire and weather data for Alaska from 1980 to 1986. Team members try different responses to the imaginary but realistic fires the model sets for them, trying to find the most economical and effective effort.

"Our job is to find the point of least acreage burned for least cost," said Liebersbach. "The model generates a fictitious fire, and we tell it what resources it has to fight the fire. Based on such things as the historic average… read more

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

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

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

Now that quantities of research have been applied to the problem, it sometimes seems as if anything people eat, drink, breathe, or think about affects their chances of developing cancer. Recently, a scientist bumped into an odd finding that might add one improbable item to the list: Having gray hair may increase your cancer risk.

Wait, don't panic. First, nobody knows for sure. It's only a possible implication of an interesting development that turned up quite incidentally in the course of unrelated work. That's a far cry from an identified hazard. So take this odd little report as--at worst--a cautionary tale.

The apparently outrageous suggestion comes partly from the technology known as fiber optics, which has given us better communication using light, but it stems mostly from the curiosity of a British scientist who studies ways of measuring radiation doses received by animals.

The scientist, John Wells of Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories, has been… read more

Recently the powerful computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, were turned to an unusual application: putting events in ancient China in terms of the contemporary calendar.

The long journey by which questions from antiquity reached high-tech machines better known for directing space flights began with observations made and recorded more than 3,000 years ago. The observers could not be called Chinese; then China as we know it did not exist. The scribes who recorded what they saw in the great Yellow River valley would have considered themselves subjects of one or another of three near-legendary dynasties, Zhou, Shang, or Xia.

In fact, the founding of China led to the loss of almost all the bamboo strips on which the deeds and observations of those predecessor dynasties had been recorded. Emperor Shi Huang Di (221-209 B.C.), first ruler of all China, ordered the archives' destruction. His eager minions overlooked only a few chronicles,… read more

Sentimental parents may complain that children grow up too quickly, but no human child leaves home as swiftly as the offspring of a little northern seabird. Two days after hatching, chicks of the ancient murrelet flee their nests, never to return.

Members of the auk family--the Northern Hemisphere's answer to the penguin clan--ancient murrelets are found all along North Pacific shores, from China and Korea through the Aleutians, southcentral and southeastern Alaska, and British Columbia. Small creatures themselves, with adults weighing about half a pound, they feed far from land on the much smaller animals comprising the zooplankton.

We share the planet with perhaps a million ancient murrelets; nearly half of them breed in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. That is where Canadian zoologist Tony Gaston spent four years studying them, as he reports in the magazine Natural History.

Reef Island, where Gaston worked with student Ian Jones, seems a… read more

Every year as the calendar runs out of pages, a depressing inner voice nags me: Well, there goes another year. You're running out of them, you lazy old bum. When are you going to do something useful?

This year, a small technological breakthrough gave me hope that there's time yet. I read about it in New Scientist, a rather reader-friendly British journal.

The report concerned a record-breaking speed run by an electrically powered boat. Speed isn't something one usually thinks of in connection with electric boat motors. The kind most of us know best are the very quiet but very low-powered electric outboard motors sometimes seen on the sterns of fishermen's watercraft. I'm told they're great for slow trolling in calm water, but somehow Alaskans--me included--are always in a hurry to get to the fishing grounds. Outdrives and jetdrives and multi-horse kickers are more popular in the north. We like speed.

It turns out the British do too, but they also… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charley the cold-nosed caribou doesn't have quite the same ring as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, but why shouldn't caribou qualify for places on Santa's sled team? Are there any true differences between caribou and reindeer?

There's only one really good answer: ten thousand years of domestication.

Caribou certainly look like reindeer. Both female reindeer and female caribou grow antlers; they are the only deer-family females that can do so. Both animals are classified taxonomically under the same Latin name, Rangifer tarandus, which means that scientists think they are the same animal.

The deer themselves don't see any significant differences. In fact, the animal that most worries the reindeer herders on Alaska's Seward Peninsula isn't a mighty predator nor a disease-bearing insect--it's caribou. When a migrating caribou herd sweeps past, domestic reindeer are likely to hear the call of the wild and join right along. That kind of mass elopement… read more

The gift-giving season is here, and people have been asking me about books on scientific topics as presents for general readers.

Taste in books is about as personal as taste in clothing, so that's not an easy question. And I'm no expert; I just read as much as I can, about nearly everything. But of course I have favorites, and have asked others for opinions.

For people living Outside or newcomers to Alaska, I've never found a better gift book than Alaska Science Nuggets, by Neil Davis ($14.95 in paper, $19.95 hardback). It's definitely not a glitzy coffee-table kind of publication, but its 400 very short essays on matters mostly northern are clear and often entertaining. Browsers can pick up more than most sourdoughs know about auroras and ice worms, glaciers and earthquakes. Originally published by the Geophysical Institute, it's now been reprinted by the University of Alaska Press.

Since that book is in the old-reliable category, I checked with… read more

Do we really know what music is? When we speak, we transmit concrete messages. The thought conveyed may be abstract, or even nonsensical, but the sound content offers information. When we listen to environmental sounds--animal cries, thunder, rain--we do so because of the ancient drive to become aware of our surroundings by using all our senses. Listening confers a survival advantage; interpreting acoustical information offered by speech and by the environment is of fundamental biological importance. But what information does music transmit?

Music in nearly all musical cultures consists of organized, structured, rhythmic successions and superpositions of tones, selected from a very limited set of discrete pitches (the scales). Environmental sounds provide no direct equivalent, and imitating environmental sounds has never been the prime force driving the development of a musical culture. (Bird song is music to us, but to birds it's pure information--"This territory is… read more

Recently I had the chance to spend an afternoon in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, home of a splendid collection of Pacific Northwest Native art. It's a place worth a pilgrimage. The spectacular building, designed by Canada's famous architect Arthur Erickson, echoes themes borrowed from a Haida longhouse; it's constructed so that one gallery is tall enough to house full-size totem poles.

Despite the magnificence of the many gigantic carvings, my attention kept turning to carvings of a smaller sort--the raven rattles. Superbly detailed, always beautiful though often highly stylized, these captivating objects looked to my untrained eye like variations on a theme, but I couldn't decipher what the theme actually was.

Fortunately, I found a slim publication at the museum gift shop: The Raven Rattle, UBC Museum Note No. 6, by Marjorie M. Halpin. From it, I learned much about raven rattles and what some specialists think… read more

Most of us, sometime during childhood, learned a little verse to use in one of life's unpleasant moments. There are variants, but the basic form is: "A little birdie flying by/ Dropped a present in my eye/ But I'm a good kid, I don't cry/ I'm just glad that cows can't fly."

Readers, I regret to inform you that they've found a flying cow.

Let me clarify, before you grab for the nearest hard hat. It's not that scientists have stumbled on a herd of winged Holsteins lurking in some hidden meadow. What they have discovered is that one bird has a remarkably cow-like digestive system. To science, that was nearly as surprising as finding a bovine version of Pegasus.

The hoatzin (hoe-AT-zin) lives in the tropical zone of the Western Hemisphere, ranging from the Guianas to Brazil. It's a member of the cuckoo tribe, but looks rather like a small skinny chicken in fancy dress. (For the issue of Science magazine reporting the research, the cover photo showed… read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voyager came and Voyager went, leaving in its wake the planet Neptune and, on Earth, many happy scientists. The little spacecraft performed beautifully, and--as hoped--called home with bountiful news about Neptune, its moons, and planetary science in general.

One valuable lesson is that a lot of what we thought we knew before the flyby is wrong. This is such a standard occurrence in research involving new technology and new data that scientists don't see it as a setback. Of course, individuals who must surrender a beautiful theory because of an ugly fact have cause to be unhappy, but they too accept that the trip back to the metaphorical drawing board is the most well-beaten path in science.

Some of the scientists challenged to rethink by Voyager information are specialists in planetary magnetic fields. It's a lively study subject; no one really understands in detail even how Earth's interior generates the terrestrial magnetic field, so there's room for argument… read more

It pains me to read studies in human nutrition. Most of the news seems bad. Worse, I develop a yen for anything put on the dietetic hit list. Eggs were dull sustenance until someone got serious about studying cholesterol; now I collect omelet recipes.

It's different with things we're supposed to add. When research showed that some members of the cabbage family seem to stave off a few types of cancer, I happily added broccoli to salads and stir-fries. For me, maybe the best of the foods now bearing the Eat Me for Health label is oats.

Oat bran--the outer portion of the oat grain--has received most of the publicity. Soluble fiber, such as that in beans and especially in oat bran, apparently lowers blood cholesterol in people who eat fair quantities of it. Other kinds of things our mothers urged us to eat for bulk or roughage, like wheat bran, don't have that result. The fiber they contain is considered insoluble. It's useful and healthy enough, but doesn't seem to… read more

Spawned-out salmon carcasses aren't a pretty sight. The tattered bodies littering Alaska's watersides every year seem not only a sad reminder of mortality but a waste; all that food, too much for even the greediest gulls, quickly becoming too rank even for rodents or ravens.

Or so I used to think, until Tom Kline set me straight. I should have known that nature doesn't waste anything, but graduate student Kline has proved it--at least in the case of salmon.

His Ph.D. work, as reported in a recent newsletter from the Alaska Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, involves figuring out the sources of nitrogen in several Alaska lakes. Nitrogen is vital stuff for all life--it's virtually synonymous with "fertilizer," and plants grab it as fast as they can. Kline tackled the problem by studying the natural abundance of nitrogen isotopes in the food webs, the what-eats-what connections, in the lakes.

This was a useful approach because… 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

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

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

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

If the headline had appeared in the National Enquirer or some such tabloid, no one would have thought it remarkable. But it turned up in the newspaper published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and in a professional publication it did catch the eye: "Utilities engineers meet to discuss invisible threat from outer space."

What alarmed the engineers was not an invasion of bug-eyed monsters or little green men, but it did arrive unseen from a source beyond Earth, and it did cause big trouble. The same gigantic flare on the sun that brought Alaska a red aurora this past March brought problems to utilities engineers from California to Sweden. Transformers overheated, relays tripped spontaneously, capacitor banks misbehaved.

Those were the minor nuisances. In Canada, the solar flare led to a power outage for virtually the whole province of Quebec.

The villain in these problems is known as geomagnetically induced current, GIC… read more

As winter approaches, many northerners turn to house plants for a touch of growing greenery - tough, reliable plants that can survive the low light and humidity of most homes during the cold season.

Among the plants often found on northern windowsills are the succulent jade plants, Crassula portulacea and its kin. Their thick, rounded green leaves don't look much like jade, but they are not much harder to care for than pet rocks (and sometimes seem to grow little faster), so a stony name seems suitable.

All members of the Crassula family came originally from the Southern Hemisphere, and many species live naturally in some of the hottest and driest portions of southern Africa. That may seem an unlikely source for plants that do well in Alaska, but the relative humidity of our indoor winter climates can sink lower than the 15 or 20 percent prevailing in summer on the Crassulas' native deserts. The mechanisms these plants have evolved to survive in… read more

With every hunting season, hand-loaders renew the quest to squeeze that extra bit of velocity out of their pet load. The problem of projectile velocity haunts military minds as well as hunters' dreams.

In the 1930s, it seemed as if the ultimate had arrived with the .220 Swift, which produces muzzle velocities of over 4,000 feet per second (fps). Modern big game hunters typically rely on weapons of larger caliber but lower velocity, about 3,000 fps. The standard in hunters' ammunition is still the old reliable .30/06. This venerable cartridge has a diameter of approximately .30 inches, giving its caliber, and was introduced in 1906, giving its suffix.

The "aught-six" fires a 180-grain bullet (one grain weighs one seven-thousandth of a pound) with a velocity of about 2,700 fps, a combination producing about 2,900 foot-pounds of energy. That's adequate for a pot-hunter sighting on a caribou at a reasonable distance. It won't do for a tank commander… read more

Kelp and other big seaweeds grow along North America's rocky Pacific coasts from California to the Aleutians. Although few sea creatures graze on kelps directly, marine biologists did have good evidence for seaweed's value in the multi-step food chains supporting ocean life. Now, thanks to a clever experiment in the Aleutians, the evidence is specific--and very convincing.

In a way, sea otters helped the scientists. In their slow return from the brink of extinction, the animals have recolonized only portions of their old range. Where otters live, underwater kelp beds are likely to be thick and healthy, because otters eat great quantities of sea urchins. Some sea urchins' favorite food is kelp, and the prickly urchins can eat away whole beds of the big algae. Where otters have not returned, the urchins abound, and the heavily grazed kelp beds are sparse.

The scientists, D.O. Duggins and C.A. Simenstad of Washington state and J.A. Estes from California,… read more

The German Shepherd zigzags across the raw, snow-patched earth ahead of his handler, nose to the ground. Suddenly he stops, concentrating on a bit of earth no different from any other to human senses, then begins to dig furiously. His handler rewards the dog with a tidbit and an affectionate hug, flags the spot the dog has marked, then sends the dog out ahead again, searching for more pipeline leaks.

Pipeline leaks? Found by a dog?

Back in 1974, a new buried natural gas pipeline was due for opening in Ontario. The line, however, leaked -- and engineers and scientists using every bit of technology at their disposal had been unable to find the leaks. Sections of the pipeline would literally burst from overpressure before the leak rates became high enough to be detected. The line was due to be opened in just nine days when someone thought to consider dogs and contacted dog trainer Glen Johnson.

Johnson took three dogs already trained in scent work, and in two and… read more

Late in August, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is throwing a party. It will be a broadcast celebration of a successful mission, with lots of information available. Alaskans are invited, but the guest of honor will be 2784 million miles away---only images of the planet Neptune will attend.

The pictures will be provided by Voyager 2 (and, if all goes well, relayed to Alaska from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California through the Aurora 1 communications satellite). NASA's little spacecraft will come within 4,850 kilometers (about 3000 miles) of the planet on August 25, passing over Neptune's north pole. That's a close pass in planetary exploration--closer than Voyager 2 has come to any other body during the 12 years since it left Earth.

If planets had personalities, little-known Neptune would be classed as very shy. Appropriately, its existence was predicted by a shy person. John C. Adams, a mathematics student at Cambridge University, was… read more

Domestic cats are an oddity in the animal kingdom. All other domesticated mammals are social animals that travel naturally in herds, flocks, or packs. Cats would rather be alone.

Since people are also social animals, it's no wonder the two species have suffered from occasional missed signals as they've tried to get along together over the centuries. Successful dog training, for example, depends on a human's ability to mimic the natural authority of a pack leader; once a dog has decided its owner is, so to speak, a top dog, then discipline comes easily. There's nothing in a cat's instinctive background to make it believe in a higher authority.

Nevertheless, perhaps for their own amusement as much as practical reasons, cats usually attempt to gain the approval of the people with whom they live. They also develop