Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

March 3rd, 2008

Fifty-year-old science booklet waxes eloquent

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One of the six posters produced for the National
Academy of Sciences in 1958 to mark the last
International Polar Year, also known as the
International Geophysical Year.
Courtesy The National Academies.

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.

In 1958, Paul Newman married Joanne Woodward, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Ted Williams signed with the Red Sox for $135,000, Alaska became the 49th state, and Frank Zappa graduated from a California high school.

Fifty years ago also marked the last time scientists got together all over the world for what they called an International Polar Year. As part of that effort, a renaissance man named Hugh Odishaw, who studied English literature, math, and electrical engineering, helped put together a booklet that accompanied six National Academy of Sciences posters designed to excite people about science.

He did this task with enthusiasm for the International Polar Year, an event he thought was “the single most significant peaceful activity of mankind since the Renaissance and the Copernican Revolution.”

I saw the booklet at a science conference and started browsing it. As someone on the lookout for science stuff that’s simplified but not too dumbed-down, I appreciated Odishaw and his partners’ effort 50 years ago.

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February 25th, 2008

The Climate of Alaska hits bookstores

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A lone canoeist at Ballaine Lake in Fairbanks
on a smoky summer day in 2004.
Photo by Ned Rozell, from The Climate of Alaska

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.

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 by Martha Shulski and Gerd Wendler, two climatologists who work for the Alaska Climate Research Center.

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February 12th, 2008

Tree line changes on the Kenai Peninsula

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The tree line is crawling up on north slopes
on the Kenai Peninsula.
Phtoto 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 late Yule Kilcher, a Swiss homesteader who knew the landscape around Homer better than anyone, once told ecologist Ed Berg that during Kilcher’s half century of observing the natural world around him, trees in the area had crept “at least several hundred feet” up the hills.

Two students at Alaska Pacific University recently confirmed at least part of Kilcher’s observation. They looked for changes in the tree line of the western Kenai Peninsula and found it has risen about a yard each year since 1951 on north-facing slopes. Tree line didn’t change much on south-facing slopes, but trees and bushes got denser there.

Katrina Timm and Alissa McMahon compared photos of the western Kenai hills from the 1950s to photos of the same area taken in 1996 to see the changes in tree line, which is among the most gradual and spotty indicators of warming. In comparing the photos and hiking into the hills to sample trees and take detailed measurements, the pair also found that 20 percent of the alpine tundra that existed in 1951 had become shrubbery or open woodlands by 1996.

Their results — Changes in the alpine forest-tundra ecotone commensurate with recent warming in southcentral Alaska: Evidence from orthophotos and field plots — appeared in December in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The gradual change in tree line is one of many that people have noticed on the Kenai Peninsula in recent years. The most obvious is the 1980s-to-1990s Spruce bark beetle invasion, during which the insects killed 30 million mature spruce trees on the Kenai and a wide swath of southern Alaska. (See Berg on beetles.)

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February 11th, 2008

Pipeline bounty includes long-term permafrost research

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Tom Osterkamp with his Labrador retriever Happy at a permafrost
-monitoring site near Bonanza Creek west of Fairbanks in 1999.
Photo courtesy Tom Osterkamp.

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 trans-Alaska pipeline was a boon for welders, truck drivers and thousands of others who in the ’70s helped string the silver tube across Alaska. A permafrost scientist also saw in the bonanza a great opportunity for science.

Tom Osterkamp realized that a road traversing Alaska from north to south (to enable building and maintaining the pipeline) would allow a permafrost scientist easy access to the different types of frozen ground in Alaska — the rock-hard soil hundreds of feet thick on the North Slope, the thinner but still plentiful frozen ground north of the Yukon River, the hit-and-miss permafrost south of the Yukon, and the southernmost reaches of frozen ground near Gulkana.

Osterkamp was a permafrost researcher with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the time of the pipeline’s construction. He received funding for a network of 100-to-200-feet-deep holes in the soil from Prudhoe Bay southward.

Osterkamp drilled most of the 16 holes along that route in 1983. To that network of “permafrost observatories,” Osterkamp added others over the years, the farthest south in Bethel. The holes, and his dutiful years of driving across Alaska to see what they told him, have given us a good snapshot of what Alaska’s permafrost has been doing for the last quarter century.

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January 29th, 2008

Alaska marmots trump reality TV

Alaska marmot
The Alaska marmot at Slope Mountain
in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range.
Photo by Dave Robichaud.

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.

One million dollars or a summer in the hills chasing Alaska marmots? Not many people have to make this choice, but Aren Gunderson is not like most people.

Gunderson, 27, lives in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water. He is tall, athletic, adventurous, and probably would do well on the reality television show Survivor, where contestants test their tenacity and social skills on a tropical island. The last person standing gets $1 million.

Upon the urging of his sister, Rane Cortez of Washington D.C., Gunderson, a student working on a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, made an audition video for the producers of Survivor.

In his three-minute film, the shaggy-haired Gunderson is seen dog mushing and, with his snow-covered outhouse as a backdrop, ranting as to why he needs a million dollars.

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January 21st, 2008
Updated January 21, 2008 @ 8:45 am

Hubbard Glacier refuses to fade away

Advancing Hubbard Glacier could dam Russell Fiord
Hubbard Glacier north of Yakutat crept to within
100 yards of Gilbert Point in June of 2007.
George Kalli took this photo in May 2007.

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 you read this, a rogue glacier is again threatening a small town.

Hubbard Glacier crept to within a football-field distance of ramming into Gilbert Point last June, and some scientists say that a spring 2008 closure of Russell Fiord “may be eminent.”

Roman Motyka, a research professor with the University of Alaska Southeast and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gives Hubbard a 50-50 chance of plugging the entrance to Russell Fiord this spring.

Hubbard Glacier dips its tongue into salt water about 40 miles north of Yakutat, Alaska, home to about 600 people. Fed by fields of ice so immense that the glacier will rumble forward regardless of how warm the planet gets in the near future, Hubbard Glacier made headlines in 2002 when it bulldozed gravel into Gilbert Point, pinching off Russell Fiord’s link to the sea and creating the largest glacier-dammed lake in the world. Before the gravel dam broke, water within the lake rose more than eight inches each day and threatened to spill into a world-class steelhead stream near Yakutat.

Hubbard Glacier has been thickening and advancing since scientists first measured it in 1895. After the glacier dammed the fiord in 1986, the new Russell Lake rose 83 feet above sea level before the ice-and-gravel dam broke.

In 2002, Russell Lake reached 49 feet above sea level before the dam burst and the water rejoined the ocean with a flood 30 percent greater than the largest measured flow of the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge.

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January 15th, 2008

More tales of a changing Alaska

Bear Glacier shrinkings and floats
Bear Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula floating
on a lake of its own creation, photographed in
2005 by Bruce Molnia, USGS.

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.

Here’s more Alaska-related news from the notebook after a week at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco:

In autumn 2007, temperatures north of Alaska over the Arctic Ocean were about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than longtime averages, and in November there was still open water on the Chukchi Sea.

“These are most likely the largest temperature anomalies on the globe for autumn,” said John Walsh of the International Arctic Research Center during a talk he gave at the conference.

Walsh said that open water on the ocean and the heat it absorbs make the Arctic a real driver of the entire world’s increased warmth during autumn and early winter, and that role will only be enhanced if sea ice on top of the globe continues to decline. He also said the open water at the end of summer may have made the region stormier.

Because the ice-free zone north of Alaska and Siberia persisted well into autumn, the ocean was able to provide the atmosphere with an extra supply of heat and moisture, the perfect ingredients for storms. Walsh said increased turbulent weather caused by open water is what climate models predict and what people observed in the Bering Sea region last fall.

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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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