Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

November 16th, 2007

Northern Hemisphere heats the planet

Source: NCDC

It’s still getting warmer out there. In its monthly climate roundup for the home planet, the National Climate Data Center reports that the first 10 months of 2007 flat out sizzled in the Northern Hemisphere.

Northern land masses logged the highest average temperatures since weather dudes began etching reliable records some 127 years ago — more than 2 °F above the long-term average and significantly above any previous record.

The southern hemisphere was no slouch, either, with land and ocean brewing up the ninth warmest year-to-date on record.

These new climate figures come only days before the release of the final synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that zany group of supercomputer jockeys who just shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. Watch for news of this final chapter, with recommendations for what people can do to head off planetary disaster, over the coming weekend.

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November 15th, 2007
Updated November 16, 2007 @ 7:45 am

Arctic surf threatens Shishmaref

Shishmaref house falls over
Storms have undercut houses in Shishmaref
Source: Shishmaref Relocation Coalition

It’s the return of an annual erosion nightmare for Alaskans living in barrier island villages along the Chukchi Sea. Once again, Shishmaref faces another storm with potential to consume more its diminishing beach.

A legacy of the 2007 record meltback of sea ice, a vast expanse of open ocean now stretches for hundreds of miles off Alaska’s Northwest coast. (See the current sea ice analysis.) The relatively warm fall weather has not built shore-fast shelves of ice that could armor the beaches from surf. Add in a 40 mph north gusts and the possibility of 12-foot waves against exposed permafrost of the beach bluffs — and Shishmaref may suffer yet more damage to a sea wall intended to buy time until the village can move to a safer location.

“Everybody’s kind of anxious, but we’ll just have to see what the storm does, I guess,” said Tony Weyiouanna, Shishmaref’s transportation planner, told the Anchorage Daily News in a story published Thursday. “This is supposed to be one of the worst storms so far for this year.”

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November 15th, 2007
Updated November 16, 2007 @ 7:49 am

Indoor air quality rises in winter

In Alaska, indoor air quality was better in winter
than in summer for homes with attached garages.
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.

The National Safety Council once reported that Americans spend 90 percent of their lives inside buildings. The council didn’t say how Alaskans affected that number, but it’s a good bet most of us spend a lot more time indoors in winter.

With this inner migration comes the peril of breathing mold spores, overshot hair spray, gases wafting from new carpet, the feces of dust mites, and other indoor pollutants.

Maggie Isbell once did (an award-winning) study of indoor air pollution in Alaska, specifically two compounds in gasoline that often find their way into Alaska homes from engines stored near or inside the house.

Isbell, now on the chemistry faculty at Sacramento City College, earned a degree with her work from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

She spent a one winter and summer sampling air in Fairbanks homes and checking it for levels of benzene and toluene.

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November 15th, 2007
Updated November 15, 2007 @ 2:12 pm

How the Arctic Ocean swivels its hips

Here is an Arctic Bottom Pressure Recorder
deployed to the Arctic Ocean floor to monitor changes
in Arctic Ocean circulation.

Round and round it goes, and where it stops, the ice still floes.

Or at least that’s what a team of scientists — equipped with a gravity-detecting satellite and ocean-bottom sensors — have discovered about a dramatic reversal in the power and direction of air and ocean currents circulating around the North Pole.

This Arctic Oscillation — one of the main drivers of weather in the Northern Hemisphere — has stopped moving as it did during the 1990s, suggesting that the causes of the climate change may be even more complicated than we thought.

“Our study confirms many changes seen in upper Arctic Ocean circulation in the 1990s were mostly decadal in nature, rather than trends caused by global warming,” said lead scientist James Morison, with University of Washington’s Polar Science Center Applied Physics Laboratory, in an online news story from the Jet Propulsion Lab.

“While some 1990s climate trends, such as declines in Arctic sea ice extent, have continued, these results suggest at least for the ‘wet’ part of the Arctic — the Arctic Ocean — circulation reverted to conditions like those prevalent before the 1990s,” he added.

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November 14th, 2007
Updated November 17, 2007 @ 5:27 pm

Sea Lions may be slowly rebounding

Steller sea lion bull bellows
Steller Seal Lion
NMML photo library

Summer counts of Steller sea lions along Alaska’s rugged coast suggests the Far North’s most endangered pinniped may be continuing a slow recovery that first appeared three years ago.

But gnarly weather hampered the 2007 surveys and kept biologists from visiting some sites. Combine that difficulty with continued declines at certain central and western Aleutian locales, and the overall prognosis for the species remains very much guarded, according to a memo released this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Still, this “mixed” news contrasts sharply with the precipitous plunge of the 1980s, when the number of sea lions between the Gulf of Alaska and the tip of the Aleutian chain seemed trapped in a population tumble that scientists could not explain and managers could not derail.

“Looking at western stock trends since 2004, our surveys show mixed results — increases here and decreases there — but the overall picture indicates that the Steller sea lion population west of Cape Saint Elias in 2007 was similar in size to the population in 2004,” said Doug DeMaster, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in a press release from NOAA Fisheries.

“This year’s count, while incomplete, supports that big-picture impression.”

1978: Before the decline
Sea lions on Middleton Island
NOAA photo library

Declines are more prominent in the western part of the survey area, with some gains appearing further eastward.

The 2007 count in the Central Gulf of Alaska, from the central Kenai Peninsula through the Semidi Islands, is the first showing a population increase since the 1970s, when the time series began.

Even such an inconclusive finding offers good news in Alaska’s epic sea lion saga, a high seas conundrum that evolved into one of the most intractable scientific problems in the history of the North Pacific marine management.

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November 12th, 2007

One of Earth’s great canyons

Golden king crab in the Bering Sea canyon
A tiny golden king crab living within
an orange sponge in Zhemchug Canyon.
Photo: Warshaw/Greenpeace

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.

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

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

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

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November 8th, 2007
Updated November 9, 2007 @ 9:47 am

October’s ocean breezes warm Far North

Time for a quick climate update. A batch of warm weather may not prove anything, even in the Far North, where the looming afternoon outlook is almost always colder, darker, snowier, icier and rainier than anyone can remember. (If you don’t believe me, just mutter to a random stranger in Anchorage — “Man, the weather sure seems weird” — and stand back.)

Still, the weather in Barrow has been downright balmy. As University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist Martha Shulski points out in the latest climate news from the Alaska Climate Research Center, it’s been one of the warmest Octobers on record for America’s most northern town.

The average temperature of 23.4 °F was almost 9 °F warmer than normal and ranks in the top 10 warmest Octobers. … The average high temperature was 26 °F, about 7° above average, and the average low temperature was 20 °F, almost 11 °F above average.

Blame the Chukchi Sea, still largely unfrozen after the most extensive meltback in modern history. The rest of the state has been mixed, says Shulski.

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November 7th, 2007

Alaska blueberries: brain food

Blueberries grow all over Alaska
Alaska blueberries
Source: NPS

Talk about living off the fat of the land. Alaska’s wild berries — especially the blueberry species that emerge from countless tundra slopes and forest glades — may be one of nature’s miracle foods, chock full of powerful nutrients that feed the brain and protect the nervous system from old-age breakdown.

New research has continued to show that blueberries, along with walnuts and strawberries and certain other fruits and nuts, contain high concentrations of antioxidant chemicals that can actually protect the brain from neuron-damaging substances known as free radicals.

In some cases, exposure to blueberry extracts reversed age-triggered ailments in lab animals, according to a story posted online by Society for Neuroscience.

And so, scarfing down gobs of Alaska blueberries, walnuts and other foods appears to improve cognition, maintain brain function and possibly help treat brain disorders, the story says.

While much of the story concentrates on research into the power of walnuts, conducted by James Joseph, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University in Boston, one section focuses on neurological studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks into blueberry magic.

UAF researcher Thomas Kuhn has discovered that Alaska wild bog blueberries simply drip with elixirs that combat inflammation in the central nervous system.

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