Category Archives: Alaska

Entering Polar Night

Credit: National Weather Service – Fairbanks

The village of Utqiagvik is the northernmost “city” in the United States. On Wednesday, the sun set at 1:30pm, and it will rise again in the new year on January 23.

In contrast, Fairbanks saw the sun rise at 9:39am on Wednesday, and saw it set at 3:35pm. For a length of day of 5 hrs 55 mins, and 8 hrs 5 mins of visible daylight. Thursday will see 6 mins and 19 secs of less daylight.

Only a month more of losing daylight for Fairbanks, but another 66 days for Utqiagvik to turn that corner.

Fairbanks is 502 miles south of Utqiagvik.


The shrinking of Alaska’s salmon

Salmon returning home to spawn

Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.

Graph credit: University of Alaska – Fairbanks

The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.

The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.

At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.

Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.

There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.

Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.

Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner


Courtesy of Alaska’s Department of Health & Human Services

Alaska, which had been doing fairly well in the fight against Covid-19, has been trending in the wrong direction ever since we started to venture back inside. During the summer months, social distancing is kind of a way of life up here. However, I fully expected the cases to rise once the weather cooled and the snow came. Unfortunately, that has proved to be accurate.

On Friday, the State had over 500 new cases, and 1100 more over the weekend. Saturday alone, set a record for number of positive cases with 604. That makes six consecutive weeks where the number of Covid cases have increased. The positivity rate and hospitalizations are also increasing.

There have been over 19,000 confirmed cases in Alaska since the start of the pandemic, with 84 deaths.


Calvin Kline hits Fairbanks

A CK billboard along the Richardson Highway in Fairbanks

The new billboard along the Richardson Highway, here in Fairbanks, grabbed my attention immediately, when I drove by it.

For most places in the U.S. that would not be the case, but in Alaska, billboards are illegal. In fact, my immediate, internal response when I first saw it was: “Well, that’s illegal.”

We do not have billboards in Alaska; we’d rather look at the scenery and wildlife. So Alaskans passed the Prohibition of Billboards Initiative in 1988, and reaffirmed it again in the late 1990’s. Alaskans were overwhelmingly in favor of the ban, with 72.38% of the voters agreeing that we did not want to see billboards along our highways. I can’t even fathom how bad it would be between here and Denali Park. There would be no glitter in Glitter Gulch.

My guess is that CK knew all about the ban from the get-go, and that the additional media coverage, at least locally, has done as much for the brand as the actual billboard. I don’t think Carhartts is worried about market share in Fairbanks.

Although, I am firmly in favor of the billboard ban, I was thrilled to see local native, and Fairbanks resident Quannah Chasinghorse Potts, become a part of the recent Calvin Kline CK One campaign: There’s not just one race here in America. A sincere congrats to her.

As for the billboard, the owners have 30 days to take it down, or the State DOT will do it for them, and no doubt charge for the effort. I think CK should respect Alaska voters and take the billboard down, then come up with a new way to advertise the campaign, with Ms Potts, and place the advert elsewhere and in another form. I’m sure they can get creative; no doubt they make enough to travel outside of the rectangle.

Just don’t block the view of the moose.


Alaska Jökulhlaup

A large glacial dam gave way in Southeast Alaska this summer. Known by its Icelandic term: jökulhlaup, the power of this sudden release of pent up water can be incredibly destructive.

The terminus of Lituya Glacier; Photo credit: NPS/J. Capra

Desolation Lake, which sits above the Lituya Glacier in Desolation Valley, collects meltwater from both the Desolation and Fairweather Glaciers. That meltwater is normally blocked by the Lituya Glacier, forming the roughly four square mile lake.

The water level suddenly dropped 200 feet.

A commercial fisherman, Jim Moore, along with his two grandsons, tried to enter Lituya Bay to fish for Chinooks in August. They should have been riding the tide into the bay, but the unusually muddy water was moving outward, and it was filled with trees and other debris. The bay was also filled with small icebergs. Moore managed to bring some of the ancient ice onboard for his coolers, then left the bay, instead of fighting the dangerous current.

Lituya Glacier terminus and delta; Satellite image credit: USGS

It is one of the largest jökulhlaups known to have occurred in Alaska. The water found a path under the Lituya Glacier, causing a rush that would have rivaled the hourly discharge of the Amazon River. It would have lasted for several days.*

Lituya Bay has a history. In 1958, an earthquake triggered a landslide that started one of the largest known tsunamis at over 1700 feet.

*NPS Geologist, Michael Loso


I try to avoid politics on this site…

Walking bridge over the Chena

It is a conscious decision on my part to keep the politics to a minimum, here between The Circles. Whether that is good or bad is open to interpretation, and we will keep that discussion for another time.

Recently, however, a nasty debate has been growing in Fairbanks. The debate has divided families, and wedged itself between friends. Today, I feel obligated to throw in my two cents.

The question: Now that we are into mid-October, are you excited to see snow?

When I say that people in Fairbanks are passionate about this question, I am not exaggerating.

Since we have not seen so much as a flake, other than the residents, the question is getting asked more & more. On average, our first snowfall occurs on September 22. Only twice since record keeping began, have we had a later first snowfall than today. October 16, 1911 & October 20, 2018. The current forecast remains snow free.

Snowshoes, skis, snowmachines and dog sleds all remain off to the side, in limbo, and dead grass.

Many are desperately anxious to see some powder. I think it’s safe to say that an equal number of people are thrilled with the idea of a Brown Halloween.

The Interior is divided. The tension thick. Personally, I’m just going where the Chinooks send me.

Camera: Minolta SRT201; Film: Kodak 35mm, Tri-X400


We are making ice

although, not sea ice… not yet…

The Pond is now iced over

The switch has been flipped.

October started out fantastically mild. Fairbanks even saw three consecutive days over 60F, which is quite rare. As in, three times in the past 100 years, rare. The high temps have consistently been 10-15 degrees above average.

Temps in the teens this morning

For the next week, lows are looking to be in the low to mid teens, and highs hovering around freezing. I think The Pond will remain coated with ice until the spring. Of course, we can certainly hope for some strong Chinook Winds, which drive our temps upward.

Winter seems to be entering the neighborhood.


After the Ice: Our Food

Part I:

The Arctic Research Consortium of the United States has put together a series of videos entitled After the Ice. The videos highlight the changes and the dangers to Alaska’s remote communities, that have relied on the sea ice for their livelihood and sense of community. The first video, which runs approximately 7-1/2 minutes, shows the extent that residents of remote Alaska rely on the sea ice for their source of food.

Much of Alaska, including many in communities like Fairbanks, live a subsistence lifestyle, relying on the land to provide sustenance. It’s a good series, on a population that few Outside even know exist.

Our garden is dying, is a line that cuts to ones heart.


LARS

Musk ox at LARS; Photo credit: UAF

We toured the University of Alaska’s Large Animal Research Station late this summer. LARS is located on the old 130 acre Yankovich homestead, which is basically adjacent to the Fairbanks campus. Originally homesteaded by Mike Yankovich in 1923, Yankovich donated the property to the University in 1963.

For much of the summer, tours had been cancelled due to Covid-19, but late in August, small groups were allowed to visit the research station. Our group of three, joined two groups of two, for a total of seven. Masks were required. Like most outdoor Alaska activities, social distance was not hard to maintain.

Two male muskoxen; the one on the right was in charge.

Muskoxen and reindeer are the most common animals at LARS, although at times other large animals, such as other bovines, are studied. Research is run by University scientists, but projects from all around the globe are supported here. This includes both wildlife, and veterinary studies.

Both the male and female muskoxen have horns, although the males are much larger. A male muskox can be 5 feet at the shoulder and weigh 600-800 pounds. A female usually runs a foot shorter, and can weigh between 400 and 500 pounds.

They have two types of hair: guard hair and qiviut. Qiviut is the very soft underwool nearest the body. It traps air, therefore acting as an insulator. The qiviut is shed every summer and can be spun into a fine yarn. In fact, LARS collects the quviut when the animals shed, and sells the yarn in their gift shop and online.

The guard hair is the long, coarse outer hair, that often hangs to the ground. It protects the qiviut. The insulation is so good, that snow on a muskox back will not melt from the animals body heat. It also allow them to live in the harsh Arctic climate without migrating or hibernating.

As the last ice age closed, muskoxen thrived across northern Europe & Asia, North America, and Greenland. By the mid 1800’s, muskoxen were gone from Europe and Asia, and by the 1920’s they had disappeared from Alaska.

In 1930, 34 animals were captured in Greenland, brought to Fairbanks and then transferred to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea. The population took off. By 1968, Nunivak had 750 muskoxen. Since then, Nunivak muskoxen have repopulated several areas in Alaska, and even in Russia. Today, Alaska has a muskox population of roughly 4300. Of the 143,000 global population, Canada has by far the most with a population of 121,000.

A hungry cow reindeer at LARS

LARS also had a population of 42 reindeer when we visited. Considered domesticated caribou in North America, reindeer can also be found across the Arctic.

The caribou population can have major ups and downs across any given range, although they have never been threatened in Alaska. Currently, of the 4-1/2 million animals world-wide, Alaska has a population of 900,000.

Since I already have written a post on caribou, with the Alaska Big Five series, I won’t repeat all of that.

With the warming of the Arctic, research at LARS is in as high demand as ever.


Already missing our midnight sunsets…

Map credit:@Climatologist49

Our length of day has dropped below 12 hours, here in the Interior of Alaska. 11 hours and 22 minutes, to be exact. The length of visible light has shrunk to 12 hours 59 minutes. Yesterday had 6 minutes and 38 seconds of more daylight.

Sigh.

There have been several hard frosts already, but no snow in Fairbanks. The low, so far at the cabin this autumn, was 22F.

Check those headlamps; it’s all downhill until December 21.