This past weekend, a surprisingly large section of open water showed itself on The Pond. A steady stream of bubbles came up to the water’s surface. The bubbles were methane escaping the mud below.
The next morning, the temp at the cabin was -27F, so at ice level it was easily -30F. Much of the open area had frozen over, but a neat circular hole remained in the ice. From the hole, a trail led off across the pond’s snowy surface. One of the resident beavers had come out to explore the area. It followed all of the trails we made in the snow the previous day, and then it went off on its own, exploring at its leisure.
There were several times, where the trail dipped below the snow, and the beaver tunneled for quite a distance, before popping up again to the surface. I had never seen where a beaver had gone swimming in the snow. Most of these tunnels were near the cat tail stands, but not all.
The day after I followed the beaver trail, the open water had completely closed over. The methane is the clear culprit in the open water, especially such a large opening. As the bubbles rise to the surface, the ice thins due to the movement of the water. Most of the methane pocket locations are known, and those areas are avoided when anyone traverses The Pond. We are guessing that this opening was caused by a large, unknown pocket, that gave way. The bubbles that we watched coming up were in three distinct trails, but we wondered if the beaver had helped things along. Surely, the beaver knew about the location of the thinning ice, and kept one section open longer than the rest. Did their movement below, open up the large section we found? The beaver is an intriguing species of rodent.
I was invited earlier in the week to attend an online screening of the new documentary Frozen Obsession. For 18 days, a research crew ventured into the Northwest Passage on board the Swedish ice breaker, Oden.
The ramifications of the opening of the Northwest Passage for those of us in the Arctic are large. The documentary explores some of that, along with the drastic changes we are seeing, and some of the history of what truly has been an obsession at times, regarding the famed passage.
The expedition was clearly geared towards education, with 28 undergrad and graduate students on board the vessel, conducting research. It’s extremely rare to see undergrads involved in research at this level. This included two Inuits from Nunavut. The team also did 40 live Q&A sessions via satellite, to museums and education facilities back on the mainland, including institutions in Alaska.
One of the frightening takeaways was the amount of plastic that was found frozen in the sea ice. Researchers could not contain their surprise at the amount that was discovered in the core samples. In an area that is still considered pristine by many, plastics and micro-plastics have made their way to the far northern waters.
The documentary is an hour long, and well worth the time if it becomes available to your community or streaming service. The excitement of the young researchers alone is rewarding to see.
November in Haines, Alaska normally means bald eagles. The largest concentration of bald eagles in the world happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where the Tsirku River, warmed by ground water, meets the Chilkat River. This span of open water, and a late run of chum salmon bring in eagles in large numbers. In normal years, one spot on the river can contain 500 eagles, with the total number of the raptors in the thousands.
Haines is the home of the festival, and it brings in visitors from around the globe. People come year after year to photograph and hang out with the bald eagles, mingling with fellow birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This year, the festival was canceled due to Covid-19. It’s just another blow to local businesses, in a year full of them.
Oddly enough, the eagles didn’t show up either. One count had 46 bald eagles on a spot along the river, when in normal years, there would be around 500. The eagles didn’t come to the Chilkat, because the chum salmon never showed up. The run was a record low, and that has hit eagles, bears and fishermen alike. The bears, who normally fatten up on the late season salmon bounty, have been breaking into local homes and cabins more than usual, seeking out food.
Like all of our salmon runs that have been in decline, no one can answer the “Why question”. Is it the warming ocean and rivers? Over fishing? Are the hatchery fish too much competition for the wild ones for food out in the ocean? Or, are all these theories tied in together?
One thing is for certain: The entire ecosystem up here runs off of a strong salmon run. And so does the economy.
A recent storm that hit Nome, Alaska had such a storm surge, that it took a cabin off its foundation, floating it upstream on the Nome River.
The cabin, owned by Rita Hulkill (82) of Nome, had been on the site for decades. According to Hulkill, the water had never been that high, ever. Without any sea ice, there was nothing to protect Nome from the surge. The cabin sat on a parcel of land that was a part of a native allotment that belonged to the Hulkill family. Much of that allotment has been eroded away, and only a few feet remain.
The cabin, originally built in the 1970’s, was deposited, intact, up river from its original location. It had been used primarily as a subsistence residence in recent years.
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.
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
The sea otter is the largest of the weasel family; it is also the smallest marine mammal. Adult males average five feet in length and ninety pounds. Females are about the same length, but run about thirty pounds lighter.
Life span is between 15-20 years in the wild. Sexual maturity happens at 2-3 years for females, and 4-5 years for males. It should be noted, it may take several more years for a male to breed, until one holds a breeding territory. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and young can be born during any and all seasons, but in Alaska, birth usually occurs in the spring. The female raises one pup per year.
In order to maintain body weight, a sea otter must eat 25% of its mass, every day. They have the densest fur of any mammal, with between 800,000 – 1 million hairs per square inch.
Alaska has three distinct populations of sea otter: The Southwest, South-central and Southeast. Alaska is home to 90% of the world sea otter population.
The Southeast and Southcentral population is stable, but the Southwestern population has been listed as threatened since 2005. This population, which runs from Kodiak Island west throughout the Aleutian Chain, has lost roughly 65% of its numbers since the 1980’s.
Sea otters are considered a keystone species in the Alaska coastal environment. Now, they are proving to be the protectors of the underwater kelp forests. As the sea otter population plummeted in the Aleutians, the sea urchin population exploded. The sea otter is the number one predator of the sea urchin; sea otters will eat them like popcorn.
The number one predator of the kelp forest, is the sea urchin. Without the sea otters to keep the sea urchin population under control, the urchins have decimated the kelp forest along the Aleutian Chain. Now, the sea urchins are destroying the reefs along the Chain. With the drop in kelp, the sea urchins are eating the algae that creates the reef. These reefs are disappearing right before researchers eyes.
The kelp forest are now gone from the central and western Aleutians. In their place are often 400 sea urchins per square meter. The loss of the kelp is huge on several fronts. It is a home and safety zone to numerous fish species, cod among them. The 1200 mile Aleutian Chain supports two multi-million dollar fisheries: Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.
Kelp is also an extremely efficient absorber and holder of CO2. Like all land plants, kelp forests take CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis. Without kelp, the oceans lose a tool in lowering carbon in the atmosphere. Kelp forests also help reduce the force of storm surges, which Alaska is facing more and more.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, there are several potential drivers for the western sea otter population drop. Overharvest, disease and predation. The new predator on the block in the Aleutians is the killer whale. Prior to 1991, there was not a documented case of an orca singling out sea otters for a food source. Now, it seems to be common. What changed? Something else changed in the diet of orcas that now makes the sea otter worthwhile. There are several theories, but no definitive answer.
Currently, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Fairbanks Daily-News Miner; Alaska SeaLife Center; Ocean Conservancy.
Part III: “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of food.”
This is the third part of the After the Ice series. The video is less than 6 minutes long. Part III delves a bit into the Arctic Report Card, which is an annual assessment, and how our local Arctic population is finally getting a seat at the climate table.
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.
This summer, Fairbanks has seen its 7th wettest since 1925. With 12.6″ of rain recorded as of last Friday, climatologists tell us that we are on a new trend. The typical summer rainfall is now 30% higher than in the 1920’s-1930’s. Juneau also saw its 6th wettest summer in 96 years. That’s saying something about our very wet capital city.
Fairbanks also had 19 days with thunder, which tied a record. We were 3.6 degrees warmer than average, which puts 2020 in the Top Ten, since recording began. Much of the change came in the rise of nightly low temperatures, due to the rain and cloud cover.
Officially, Fairbanks had a growing season of 130 days in 2020. That ties us for the 7th longest. Since 1950, the growing season in Fairbanks has increased by 16 days.
Wildfires burned a total of 181,000 acres in Alaska for the season so far. That is the lowest total since 2002. For one season, at least, wildfire crews did not have to worry about hotshotting into the Alaskan Bush. They have more than enough on their plate, as it is, in 2020.