Category Archives: Alaska

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.


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


Iditarod 2019


Aily Zirkle and her team mush out of Anchorage on Saturday.

This weekend was Iditarod weekend in Anchorage & Willow. The ceremonial start to the “Last Great Race” was on Saturday in Alaska’s largest city. The race officially began, for the 52 competing mushers, outside of Willow the next day.


Sea ice image of Norton Sound; Satellite image credit: NASA

This year, the race will follow the southern route, which goes through the old mining town of Iditarod, the race’s namesake. Normally, mushers travel the sea ice of Norton Sound when they approach Nome. This year, however, the sea ice is at a minimum, and the trail has been routed over land, adding approximately 40 miles to the 1000 mile sled dog race.


Iditarod Trail Map


Hard Evidence…

… that wood frogs freeze in the Alaskan winters


Ice Alaska

The World Ice Art Championships has returned to Fairbanks. The Ice Park opened on Valentines Day. I checked it out the other day, but the vast majority of the sites had blocks like the one pictured above. No carvers were working when I stopped by.

Fairbanks is known for its crystal clear ice, which the carvers love to use. There will be single block, double block and multi-block carving contests. Plus, there are single carver and two person carver events. I’ll stop by a few more times after the carving is done, and everything on display.

The “luge” track, set up for the kids, looked particularly fast.


An ice outhouse: as long as there is a styrofoam seat…

The Ice Park is located at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds, and is open 10am to 10pm, until nature melts the carvings.


Open Water on the Chena


It was -20F on the morning that this picture was taken; Cellphone camera