Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

October 22nd, 2007

Alaska beetles survive ‘unearthly’ temperatures

adult and larval red flat bark beetle
The adult and larval versions of the red flat bark
beetle, one of the hardiest organisms in Alaska.
Photo by Ned Rozell

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.

As we pull on winter coats and wool hats to shield our tropical bodies from the cold, there is a creature in our midst that survives Alaska’s coldest temperatures bare-naked.

The red flat bark beetle lives as far north as there are balsam poplar trees in Alaska, hunkering down for the winter in the moist area between dead bark and tree. Scientists like Todd Sformo, from the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, find most of them in the larval stage, where they resemble segmented worms a bit longer than a grain of rice. He finds a smaller number of adults that have handsome segmented bodies the color of teak.

The beetles are special among living things in Alaska because they have the ability to spend the winter above the snow, exposed to the coldest air of winter. Sformo, a graduate student working in Professor Brian Barnes’ lab, has cooled the beetles to minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius) in the lab, and they have not died. Yellowjackets, stinkbugs, and other insects that survive winter using the same strategy, known as supercooling, perish at about minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius).

“They really have to be under that leaf litter and under the snow (for insulation from the cold air),” Sformo said.

How cold can the bark beetles get?

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October 18th, 2007
Updated October 26, 2007 @ 11:02 am

State of the Arctic: Mixed signals

Sea ice shrank to the smallest extent in modern history. An atmospheric “hot spot” drifted closer to Europe. Some caribou herds have crashed in an environment that grows shrubbier by the decade.

Yet permafrost, while warming in some places, appears to have cooled at some depths, and may be stablizing. North Pole marine waters seem cooler. And there sure are gobs of geese.

NOAA’s annual report card on the State of the Arctic found mixed signals, and has posted its findings on an easy to navigate web site.

The first update of a report tracking the state of the Arctic indicates that some changes in that region are larger and occurring faster than those previously predicted by climate models, while other indicators show some stabilizing.

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October 17th, 2007
Updated October 17, 2007 @ 7:33 pm

Land areas stay hot

World temperature anomalies show everything was warm
Source: NCDC

It’s time again to take the temperature of the Far North and home planet Earth. In a word: feverish.

So how warm was it? Just ask them up in Nome Alaska, arrayed along the Bering Sea on not-so sunny shores of the Seward Peninsula. As the Nome Nugget reported last week, the “City of the Golden Sands” simmered above freezing from May 29 to Sept. 30, the second longest period of zucchini-growing weather in the city’s history.

“Bye, bye skirts and hello long underwear,” wrote Diana Haecker in the Nugget’s Oct. 4 issue. “A distinct chill in the air on (Oct. 1) signaled the approach of the season when a change in wardrobe is called for.”

A day short of breaking the record, Nome posted 125 frost- free days, officially bringing the summer to end last Monday, when temperatures dropped to the 32 °F mark at the Nome airport. … This year’s frost-free season missed the record by one day. The record was set in 1989 and stands with 126 frost-free days.

Elsewhere on Earth, the January-to-September period posted the highest average temperatures ever recorded for land areas since 1880, with the Northern Hemisphere also experiencing the warmest nine-month period on record, with temperatures about 1.33 °F above the long-term average.

Somewhat less-warm ocean temperatures kept the global average from busting all-time records. The oceans were only the seventh warmest on record.

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October 16th, 2007

Far North winter: snowy and warm

noaatemprpre0708.jpg

The climate prediction folks at NOAA have polished the dust from their crystal spheres and conjured a winter outlook that’s warmer for North America — with relatively steamy conditions near the thinning Arctic ice and the possibility of big snow for Alaska’s southern coast.

“This winter is predicted to be warmer than the 30-year norm,” says the story posted online. “For the country as a whole, NOAA’s heating degree day forecast for December through February projects a 2.8 percent warmer winter than the 30-year normal, but a 1.3 percent cooler winter than last year.”

The Old Farmers Almanac — known for its innovative and often uncannily accurate weather predictions — also warns of higher winter temperatures: two to four degrees above normal due to a warmer January.

For all those Alaskans who love snow (and you know who you are), the Almanac offers this delicious tidbit:

Precipitation will be above normal, with much-above-normal snowfall in the Panhandle and south-central region and near- or slightly above-normal snowfall elsewhere.

The heaviest snowfalls will occur in mid- and late March in the north; mid-November, early January, and mid-March in the central region; late November, early December, late January, and mid- and late March in the Panhandle; and late November, late December, and early February in the south-central region and Aleutians.

If you drill down a little further into the NOAA forecast, you can find some alarming tidbits that portend another meltdown for Arctic ice.

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October 15th, 2007

Bar-tailed godwit goes the distance

Bar-tailed godwit standing in water on shoreline
Bar-tailed godwit
Photo by Phil Battley

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.

On the evening of Oct. 7, 2007, a female bar-tailed godwit leapt off a mud flat at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. The bird might not touch the ground again until it reaches New Zealand, more than 7,000 miles away.

Bob Gill, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, saw on his computer that the bird had taken flight on its fall migration from Alaska to New Zealand. A few weeks earlier, Gill and his colleagues had tracked another female godwit on a flight to New Zealand. They found that the bird remained in the air for eight straight days.

On Aug. 29, that bird, called E7 for a tag on its upper leg, took off from the Yukon River Delta. Biologists tracked it as it flew to North Cape, New Zealand and landed on Sept. 7. Gill knows the bird didn’t land on the journey because of its constant movement as he and others tracked it.

Biologists in New Zealand captured E7 in February and implanted a transmitter in its abdomen. That satellite transmitter showed that the godwit left New Zealand in mid-March and flew nonstop to China, a continuous flight of 6,300 miles that took eight days. The bird remained there for five weeks before taking off for its breeding grounds in Alaska.

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October 13th, 2007
Updated November 4, 2007 @ 9:29 am

Into The Wild: The False Being Within

intothewildposter.jpg
Source: Into The Wild

Many Alaskans have long been exasperated or downright hostile over the mythologizing of Chris McCandless, the hapless college graduate who starved to death in a derelict bus a day’s walk up a mining access road on the north side of Denali National Park. Here is an essay by Alaska writer Craig Medred, with new reporting and insight into what really drove McCandless “into the wild.”

Already the Interior Alaska winter has locked the spruce forests along the Stampede Trail in its long, cold embrace. Gone back to the central-heating comfort of civilization are the pilgrims who made the summer trek out to the “Magic Bus.” And playing in movie theaters across America is the story of the hero who died out there.

It was on a fall day 15 years ago a trio of Alaskans hunting moose not far from the George Parks Highway north of Denali National Park found a disturbing note tacked to the old school bus long before abandoned along the rough, old mining road.

“SOS,” it said. “I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL LONE. THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME.”

Inside the rusting vehicle, the hunters found the starved and rotting remains of a young man. The body was later identified as that of 24-year-old Christopher McCandless, a continental wanderer originally from Annandale, Va. Death was attributed to starvation.

As McCandless’s story of suffering and failure on the fringe of the last great American wilderness emerged, Alaskans largely wrote him off of as yet another of those poor, unprepared fools fallen victim to Jack London’s Great White Silence.

Four years after his death, however, author Jon Krakauer elevated McCandless to iconic status in the best-selling book, “Into the Wild.” Krakauer saw in the cross-continent wanderings of McCandless and his final, tragic Alaska death the footprints of “the grip the wilderness has on American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated,highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons.”

The fact the journey ended early in an old bus with little left behind but some sketchy journals (not nearly enough for a book), Krakauer blamed on the seeds of the wild potato. The seeds, he theorized, poisoned McCandless.

That theory was quickly debunked. The seeds weren’t poisonous.

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October 10th, 2007

Alaska simmered in summer

August Alaska temps

Alaska experienced warmer temperatures from July through September, with some monthly mercury stats rising more than 5 °F above normal in the western and northern Arctic coasts.

These relatively sizzling temps — partly generated by regional high pressure and clear skies — contributed to the all-time record loss of summer sea ice. Vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean became ice free for the first time since humans developed technology, stunning scientists and offering a dismal harbinger for the fate of polar bears.

The details can be found at the Alaska Climate Research Center, highlighted in the center’s new climate blog.

This is a site worth checking often. Call it a reality check.

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October 9th, 2007
Updated October 10, 2007 @ 12:47 pm

Out of the Wild

intothewildposter.jpg
Source: Into The Wild

Thank God for the New Yorker, at least this week. While movie reviewers all over the country have gone weak in the ankles over Sean Penn’s new movie Into the Wild — apparently so beautiful and cinematic and inspirationally episodic that oil companies might use its clips to sell drilling rights in wildlife refuges to Al Gore — David Denby cannily senses the bogus within.

Many Alaskans have long been exasperated or downright hostile over the mythologizing of Chris McCandless, the hapless college graduate who walked “into the Wild” in 1992 and starved to death in a derelict bus a day’s walk up a mining access road on the north side of Denali National Park.

That the story illustrated an unnecessary outcome, one that provides no more spiritual insight than a flattened jaywalker, has long since become a cliche in Alaska. (As the father of a 21-year-old man who sometimes pursues ideals without an eye toward practicality, I also feel terribly for the kid’s parents.)

That first Jon Krakauer and now Sean Penn have transformed this senseless death — whether triggered by poison or insanity — into an irony-free celebration has become one of the most bizarre episodes in the portrayal of modern Alaska by the media. Many people from Outside seem to dismiss the Alaskans who criticize as cranky misanthropes who failed to see a new Christ among them. Yet that’s not it.

Denby, himself sounding nauseous over the breathless canonization of a camping accident, touches on one of our gripes.

“McCandless didn’t experience enough of life for his rejection of it to carry much weight, and Penn can’t see the egocentricity in a revolt that was as naïve as it was grandly self-destructive,” Denby writes in his review published in the Oct. 15 issue.

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