Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

January 7th, 2008

Alaska and Far North hot topics in San Francisco

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Shepard Glacier is one of the disappearing glaciers
of Glacier National Park in Montana.
Courtesy USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.

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.

Some Alaska-related news, culled from the notebook after a week at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco:

  • Forest ecosystems dominated by black spruce trees in Alaska and Canada cover an area one-third the size of the land surface in the Lower 48, according to Eric Kasischke of the University of Maryland. That’s significant because the tree Alaska firefighters have called “gasoline on a stick” holds a lot of carbon that would be released to the atmosphere if it burns.

    “We estimate that the black spruce forests in the North American boreal region store . . . nearly double the amount (of carbon) found in the forests of the 48 coterminous United States,” Kasischke wrote.

  • Temperature inversions, a common occurrence in Fairbanks and other parts of Alaska with bowl-type topography, low winds, and not much sun in winter, seem to be getting stronger, according to Stefanie Bourne of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She studied Fairbanks weather records from 1957 to 2005 and found that Fairbanks is seeing more days with strong inversions, where temperatures at the ground surface are colder than those at higher elevations.

    “If inversion strength is really increasing it’ll have strong implications for pollution,” she said, adding that temperature inversions form a “cap” beneath which foul air can accumulate.

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January 7th, 2008

The physics of life at 40 below

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Ice fog forms at about minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
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. This column first appeared in 1999.

A father wakes, rolls out of bed, and steps onto 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 minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

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 of the cranking strength available in summer.

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