Photo credit: National Weather Service – Fairbanks
A smokenado rose up from a wildfire near Fairbanks. Over the weekend, 23 new wildfires were started by lightning in Alaska. The sheer number of strikes was impressive: there were 1860 recorded lightning strikes on Saturday, and an additional 2900 by 8pm on Sunday.
Wildfires are the last thing that is needed right now, on top of everything else going on, but the month of May has been dry across much of Alaska, so the scent of wildfires was not a surprise.
People from Outside are often amazed at how short the “transition” seasons are in Interior Alaska. Often, spring and autumn seem like they are only days long.
Spring is especially quick to show itself in Fairbanks. Our trees literally go from brown twigs to green leaves in a matter of hours. On Sunday morning, the hillsides were a drab gray and brown, by afternoon, they were a vibrant green.
A pollen scientist by the name of Jim Anderson, working for the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, starting logging the official Greenup Day in 1974. He continued to do so until his death in 2007. Ted Fathauer, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, independently did the same thing from his place on Chena Ridge. Fathauer died in 2013.*
Current meteorologist, Rick Thoman, has taken up the green lantern, and called Mother’s Day as the official Greenup Day of 2020.
When I say that there is nothing gradual about the leaves coming out in Alaska’s Interior, I’m not kidding. It is a sudden burst of green that immediately overtakes the land. It doesn’t come in the form of a wave, it just comes, all at once. Our days are over 18 hours long now, and the amount of visible light is closing in on 22 hours. That’s a lot of photosynthesis power.
Alaska saw its first 80F degree day on Saturday, as Ketchikan hit the mark. Juneau hit 76F degrees, which was a record high for the date, and Fairbanks saw 70F degrees for the first time on Saturday.
The warm air mass brought 80F degrees into Alaska’s Interior on Sunday, which made for the years’s first 80 degree day for Fairbanks. This is four weeks earlier than the average first 80 degree day. It is the second earliest on record.
Sitka and Yakutat also saw high temps on Mother’s Day.
90F degrees is not in the forecast for Monday.
Utqiagvik Sea Ice Cam
The sun rose over the village of Utqiagvik at 2:46 am ADT on Sunday, it will set in 85 days. The village also set a record high temp of 36F.
“If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first”
— Henry Gannett
The Harriman Alaska Series
“If you are old and want to see the finest scenery in the world, there’s no time like the present. And if you are young, what are you waiting for? Check the ferry timetable, grab a sleeping bag, and go. Stay for a while. Believe me, it could be the event of a lifetime.”
— Mark Adams
Tip of the Iceberg
My little corner of Alaska
On a personal note: I took the second quote’s advice, loading my Labrador Retriever, camping gear and typewriter into a 1974 Ford Bronco, drove across half of the northern U.S, and took the ferry from Bellingham, WA through the Inside Passage to Haines, Alaska, and stayed a while…
In fact, today is the anniversary of my arrival to the State of Alaska.
It has been several events of a lifetime. With a little luck, I expect to have one or two more.
The North Slope village of Utqiagvik woke up to -20F degree temperatures on Wednesday morning. That was a record low for the day for the village. It was Utqiagvik’s first recording of a record low since 21 December 2007. During that same time span, the village had set or tied 112 record high temperatures.
Alaska has started to “reopen” businesses throughout the state, with everyone seemingly holding their breath as it happens. Travel restrictions into the state remain in place. Restaurants are now able to seat to within 25% of capacity, and members at a table are supposed to be from the same household.
The Fairbanks Borough had seen two weeks go by without a new case of Covid-19, but that ended on Sunday with a case in North Pole. Since then, North Pole has seen another diagnosed case. The State had six new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 351. 228 individuals have recovered from Covid-19, and nine Alaskans have died from the virus. Concerning, to me at least, is the first recorded cases in small, isolated, communities like Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka after a long period of social distancing.
Fishing communities are still struggling with what to do for the summer season. Valdez has decided to allow fishermen into town without any quarantine, where several smaller communities are demanding a quarantine. The State of Alaska has agreed to allow fishermen to quarantine on their boats, although a realistic plan for that option remains elusive, considering most fly into these small communities, and air travel between towns not on the road system is off limits. Travel between communities on the road system is now being allowed.
Denali, and the Alaska Range
Tourism is all but scrapped for the 2020 season. The two main cruise ship companies have written off Alaska for the year, and have even decided to keep their lodges and hotels closed until late spring 2021.
Denali National Park has now opened the Park Road to Mile 12. As spring takes a stronger grip on the land, the Park will continue to open up more of the road as conditions allow. Denali Park is also considering having additional road lotteries in 2020. The lottery, which allows permit holders to drive well into the Park, where usually only busses are allowed, takes place in September. Additional opportunities would be extremely welcome. I’m thrilled with the idea, since the State is all but closed to Outside tourists this year.
Moose Crossing: Denali Highway at Tangle River
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is NOT open. Yet, people keep getting stuck on the road between Cantwell and Paxson. The Denali Highway, possibly the best drive in Alaska, is not maintained during the winter. It is also not paved, which keeps the riffraff numbers down. Or at least, the tour busses.
The ice went out on the Tanana River at the village of Nenana on Monday. The tripod officially moved the distance to trip the clock at 1:56pm.
This was the second time that I have guessed the correct day the ice went out. I was so close, so tantalizingly close. As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and bear encounters.
Between the years of 1917 and 1989, the ice went out this early only three times. Since 1990, the ice has gone out this early 11 times.
Ice Classic officials say it may be a month before winners are notified and announced. They are running a skeleton crew due to Corvid-19. They have also stated that the number of tickets sold are well below normal numbers due to the difficulty after the virus forced businesses to close.
Dall Sheep, Ovis Dalli dalli, can be found throughout Alaska’s mountain ranges. Dall Sheep prefer relatively dry country, their territory is the open alpine ridges, mountain meadows and steep slopes. They like to keep an extremely rugged “escape terrain” close at hand, and are not often found below tree line.
The rams are known for their massive curling horns. The ewes have shorter, more slender and less curved horns. The males live in groups and seldom interact with the females until breeding season, which is in December.
Lambs are born in late May to early June. Ewes usually reach breeding age at 3-4, and have one lamb each year after that. The lambs are most vulnerable during their first 30-45 days of life, and mortality rate is high during this time. Wolves, black & brown bears and golden eagles are the main predators.
Dall sheep horns grow steadily from early spring to late fall, but tend to slow, if not stop growing altogether, during the winter months. This leaves growth rings on the horns called annuli. These growth rings can help identify the age of Dall Sheep. In the wild, 12 years of age is considered old for a Dall Sheep, but rams have been identified as high as 16, and ewes up to 19 years of age. A Dall Sheep ram can weigh up to 300 pounds, with the ewes being about half that weight.
Between 1990 – 2010, Dall Sheep numbers had dropped by 21%, from 56,740 to 45,010. Numbers started increasing up until 2013, when a later than average snowfall put a damper on recovery efforts. Dry, heavy snow loads appear to have little effect on sheep population, but the heavy, wet snowfalls, with a frozen crust can make foraging and travel difficult. Freezing rain has also become more prevalent. All of these factors contribute to more avalanches, which have become a significant cause of death for Dall Sheep in the state.
Caribou are the only members of the deer family where both sexes grow antlers. The bulls’ antlers are massive, but the cows’ are shorter and slight. The hooves of caribou are large, concave and they spread out wide to support the animals on snow and tundra. The hooves also act as paddles when swimming.
There are 32 herds of caribou in Alaska, with each herd occupying a distinct calving ground. Calves are born in late May in Alaska’s Interior, and in early June in northern and southwestern Alaska. The vast majority of calves are born as singles, but twins do happen, although rarely. They weigh, on average, 13 pounds at birth, and grow quickly. By 10-15 days after birth, the weight of a calf doubles. A calf is running alongside its mother within hours of birth.
Bull caribou will reach a weight of 350-400 pounds as an adult, although they can get as large as 700 pounds. An adult cow caribou averages 175-225 pounds. An average male lives to 7-8 years, while the females can live to 10 years.
Caribou can migrate huge distances between their summer and winter range. The larger herds may migrate 400 miles between their two ranges, where a small herd may barely migrate at all.
The caribou population in Alaska is currently estimated at 750,000. Their population can be cyclic, and can fluctuate widely in a rather short period of time. The declines and increases in numbers can be extremely difficult to predict. Predation, climate, weather, disease, population density and hunting can all have an effect on the caribou population.