Author Archives: icefogger

About icefogger

Just a basic, down to Earth, laid back type of guy here, who loves the outdoors, the indoors, jazz on the turntable, a fire in the woodstove, the northern lights blazing across the sky, and the company of good friends.

Sea Ice? Not in 2019


Open water at Nome, Alaska; Photo credit: James Mason/Nome Nugget

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race had a new winner last Wednesday. As interesting as the race is to most Alaskans, the pictures from Nome and the Norton Sound area is what really caused a buzz.

There was no ice. Open water along the beach front of Nome in March is unheard of. “Unprecedented” the Nome Nugget called it.


Aily Zirkle mushing along the beach into Nome, Alaska. Zirkle finished fourth in the Iditarod. Open water of Norton Sound in the background

“You can take a boat from Dillingham to Diomede.” I’m not sure how I can stress how unusual that is. In March, the sea ice should be at its thickest, but Norton and Kotzebue Sound have open water. That would normally happen in June.


Map credit: NOAA

The map above shows how much warmer Alaska has been above average during the first half of March. As I type this out, Fairbanks is 20 degrees warmer than normal. The rest of March looks to stay the warm course.


Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery

The Rose Berry Art Gallery is located on the upper floor of the Museum of the North. The Alaska Territorial Legislature included the museum in the charter for the University of Alaska in 1917. The museum had its first exhibit in 1929, a collection of ethnological, archeological and paleontological material that had been collected by the famed local naturalist, Otto Geist. The large brown bear at the entrance to the museum’s Alaska Gallery is named “Otto” in honor of Mr Geist. In 1929, the University’s small collection of paintings were also placed on exhibit.


Warning: Do not touch the bear! I think it’s safe to say the bear’s nose gets rubbed for luck on occasion.

The art gallery is home to 2000 years of Alaskan art, from ancient ivory carvings, to contemporary sculpture and paintings.


“The Muries in Alaska”, oil on canvas by M.C. “Rusty” Heurlin

Artwork by “Rusty” Heurlin is displayed throughout the gallery. Heurlin spent several years living in the bush with his Alaska Native friends. The Muries, subject of the painting above, traveled throughout Alaska by dogsled. Margaret Murie was the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska.

The gallery has over 3700 works of art on display. The current building was completed in 2005. Prior to that, much of the artwork was not displayed. Even with the new space, the vast majority of the collection is not on display. The Archaeology Collection alone has over 750,000 artifacts.

The work ranges from photographs by Ansel Admas, a painting of Denali by Sidney Laurence, to sculptures including the two thousand year old Okvik Madonna which originated in the Bering Sea region.


Walk to the River

In addition to paintings of wooly mammoths, there is a large selection of contemporary art as well. One of the most prominent is a rather large and elaborate outhouse. I did not take a picture of the impressive throne, but I did check to see if it was authentic. It was; it had a styrofoam seat. I did not check to see if it had been used recently.

Admission to the art gallery comes with admission to the museum. Don’t forget to check out the Place Where You Go to Listen. An “ever changing musical ecosystem, giving voice to the darkness, daylight, phases of the moon, seismic activity of the earth, and the dance of the aurora borealis”. It is honestly, quite the experience.


2018 Earthquake Review


Alaska: 2018 Seismicity; Color coded by depth, Notable events labeled

The Alaska Earthquake Center at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, has done their annual year in review for 2018. We set a record for earthquakes within the state, with over 55,000 events during 2018. That blows past the previous record of 42,989 set in 2017. The next highest number occurred in 2014 with 40,686 quakes. We had so many earthquakes in 2018 that AEC is still counting to get a specific number.

It needs to be noted, that much of the increase in numbers is due to advancing detection techniques, as well as additional recording stations. The purpose of this post, is not to imply that Alaska is about to break off from the Yukon, but to show how seismically active Alaska is.

The two largest earthquakes have set off thousands of aftershocks. The 7.9 magnitude quake in the Gulf of Alaska was the largest, followed by the now rated 7.1 near Anchorage in November.

We also had a couple of “swarms” in the northern part of the state, in the Brooks Range & on the North Slope, that lasted for months, and accounted for over 17,000 events.

The surprise earthquake of the year, happened near Kaktovik, on Alaska’s north coast. The 6.4 mainshock and 6.0 aftershock, were by far the largest ever recorded north of the Brooks Range.

On Saturday, March 9, a sudden jolt went through the cabin as I worked about the place, while listening to Minnesota hockey swarm the Michigan Wolverines. Sure enough, a 3.7 magnitude quake had occurred roughly 15-20 miles from the cabin.

A very special thanks to the Alaska Earthquake Center for the above graph and earthquake information.


Stairway to…

Camera: Leica M3; Film: Kodak 35mm, T-Max 100


Poker Flat Research Range


The entrance to Poker Flat

The Poker Flat Research Range had its 50th Anniversary party over the weekend, and Fairbanks residents showed up in droves to celebrate. I think it is safe to say that Fairbanks is quite proud of its far-north launch facility. I was amazed at how many people came out for the event.

Owned by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, Poker Flat is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The 5132 acre site is located 30 miles from Fairbanks, just north of Chatanika, on the Steese Highway, where Poker Creek flows into the Chatanika River.

More than 300 major, high altitude rockets and 1800 meteorological rockets have been launched from Poker Flat to study the Earth’s atmosphere, and the interaction between that atmosphere and the space environment. The rockets launched are sounding rockets, which are designed to operate between the height that a weather ballon can reach, yet below satellites. Sounding rockets are relatively low cost, with a quick lead time, which is advantageous in the world of research.


NASA launches a sounding rocket at Poker Flat; Photo credit: PFRR

NASA, Wallops Flight Facility, the Department of Defense, and many universities world-wide, have launched rockets from Poker Flat.


A recovered payload from a March 2017 launch

One busy week at Poker Flat had four launches in 33 minutes during a night with high aurora activity. One mission saw two rockets launched to measure the turbulence in the upper atmosphere: was it two dimensional or three? Also measured were air density along the rocket’s parabola, which had an apex of 100 miles above northern Alaska. Also measured was the lowest reaches of where the aurora interacts with the upper atmosphere.
On the same night, two rockets from Clemson University launched. These rockets released a white vapor, trimethyl aluminum, so that researchers could visualize the turbulence 60 miles above the ground.
Not to be outdone, two nights later, a rocket launched for Utah State that released instruments to measure the voltages and currents in the aurora display over Kaktovik, Alaska.


Weather balloons ready to launch

I’m glad I arrived early, because I think turn out was greater than expected. After visiting the main offices, I walked down to where the shuttle busses were hauling people to the various sites. Poker Flat is fairly spread out, plus there was a cow moose and a calf wandering about, and officials seemed wary that someone could get stomped. Weather balloons were launched every 15 minutes or so, which I watched while waiting for a shuttle. Turns out there is an advantage to attending things like this solo. A University police officer offered rides to the upper facilities, and he had room for three. The first couple climbed in, and I seemed to be the only single paying attention, so I volunteered to climb in the back of the squad SUV.


Some NASA & PFRR “Rocketeers”

The facility is really quite impressive. I was able to talk to several NASA scientists, as well as some Poker Flat “rocketeers”. Everything was available to view, from the radar screens to the “catwalk” outside, and the green lidar beam, which is part laser and part radar, and is shot 50 miles into the sky. There wasn’t one person involved with the sounding rockets, that didn’t get excited talking about what they did, or what they had planned for next year. The representative from Wallops told me they were excited now to get down under to Australia to launch rockets next. It will be their winter soon, and they had some rockets designed that would open in the back with telescopes to get images of the southern sky.


A NASA launch as viewed by the Poker Flat Skycam; Image credit: PFRR

One thing about the aurora borealis that is not widely known, is that, due to the Earth’s magnetic field, what we see here in the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere sees the mirror image of. I have always found that fascinating.*


Early artwork of auroral display

The earliest written record of an auroral display was from 567 BC on a Babylonian clay tablet. The tablet describes a “red glow in the sky” lasting two hours. The red aurora was often thought of as an evil omen in medieval times. Nearly all northern native cultures associate the aurora with spirits of the dead.

Some statistics from PFRR:
First launch: March 1969
Heaviest rocket: Aries – 11 tons
Longest rocket: Black Brant XII – 85 feet
Heaviest payload: 2200 pounds
Highest altitude flown: 930 miles
Distance downrange: 1100 miles
Rocket acceleration: 17 Gs
Rocket speed: Mach 2


The view from a very bouncy squad SUV. The ride is not as comfortable as one might think.

The peak season for launches at Poker Flat is between January and March. Most often launches occur when the aurora is going, and the moon is down. Cleary Summit is a great place to watch and/or film a rocket launch. Poker Flat also streams launches live on its youtube channel.


The line for the shuttle bus, or the reason I took the police car; Image credit: PFRR

*See: Rockets Over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat by Neil Davis


“The Cutest Dragon”

World Ice Art Championships 2019:

This carving won first place in the two-person carving competition. The artists, Junichi Nakamura & Hiroaki Kimura are from Japan.

I must admit, it is the cutest dragon I’ve seen in Fairbanks.


The Dragon at night


Gentle Alaskan Giants

More from The Museum of the North


A pair of whale skulls

The smaller of the two skulls came from a gray whale. Gray whales typically show up in Alaskan waters during April. May and June are the best months for sightings. After that, these whales make their way up to summer in the cool waters of the Bering & Chukchi Seas. Their migration in the Pacific Ocean can be as much as 7000 miles one way. They start their journey south again in mid-October, reaching Baja California in December and January.


A breaching gray whale

Male gray whales reach 45 feet in length on average, with females growing a bit larger. Weight runs between 30-40 tons for both sexes. Unlike humpbacks, they have no dorsal fin. Lifespan is estimated to be 50-60 years. Of the three original populations of gray whales, the eastern Pacific stock that spends part of the year in Alaska waters, is the largest. The northern Atlantic population is extinct, and the Korean, or western Pacific population is now severely depleted.


Bowhead whale skull

The larger of the two skulls is from a bowhead whale. The bowhead is Alaska’s official state marine mammal. Unlike the gray whale and humpbacks, bowheads spend their entire year in arctic and sub-arctic waters. Their great arching head can break through sea ice to create breathing holes, and their blubber can reach 20 inches thick, accounting for half their weight. Bowheads are extremely vocal mammals, which in addition to communication, seems to aid in navigating the ice filled waters of the Arctic. The bowhead may have the longest lifespan of any mammal on the planet at an estimated 200 years.


Bowhead whale

Bowheads run 45-59 feet in length, and weigh 75-100 tonnes as adults. Their population is still listed as threatened, with a world-wide population of 8000-10000. The Alaska population is doing the best, with the population tripling in the past 30 years.


Humpback whale tail

In all, Alaska has at least 14 species of whales that spend some, if not all of the year in its waters. The museum expects to put a full humpback skeleton on display soon. This particular humpback whale washed ashore near Anchorage, where a team from the museum collected the skeleton, then transported it over land to Fairbanks. The skull alone, weighed 807 pounds.


Pachyrhinosaurus skull

Alaska once had dinosaurs. A pachyrhinosaurus skull like this one, was found along the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope. The pachyrhinosaurus roamed northwestern North America between 71 million and 67 million years ago. Distantly related to the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus was a large, if unaggressive beast. Reaching 20 feet in length and around 4 tons in weight. They lived in herds, were herbivores, and seemed to migrate long distances.


A rendering of a pachyrhinosaurus

In Greek, pachyrhinosaurus means “reptile with a thick nose”. Like the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus had a thick, boney neck frill. Unlike the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus did not grow horns, but had a large knobby growth protrude from it’s nose.

Thanks to the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the pachyrhinosaurus rendering; and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game for the whale photos. And a special thanks to Ancient Greece for the name pachyrhinosaurus, which in a perverse way, I enjoyed typing over and over, because the word seemed to freak out my computer.