It’s been a warm winter so far for Interior Alaska. The low temp for this winter season was officially -29F at the airport. At this same point last year, we already had seen two weeks worth of -30 or colder. We have not hit that mark yet, although I have seen a few -30F degree mornings at the cabin.
The winter started out with some decent dumpings of snow, but that tap has been turned off since mid-November. We have had a total of 5″ since November 16. That is well below the average of 22.4″ during that period. The record snow over that same time frame is 86.8″, which fell during the 1970-71 season.
Anchorage and Fairbanks combined have had 8/10 of an inch of snow over the past two weeks. By comparison, and I’m enjoying this, several towns in Texas have had more snow the past two weeks: Austin with 1.3″; Midland: 3.2″; Waco: 4″; College Station: 4.5″; Lubbock: a whopping 7.6″! Congrats on the snow.
The Aleutian Chain was rocked by an incredible storm over New Years. The wonderfully named Bomb Cyclone, set a record in Alaska for a low pressure system.
High and low-pressure systems form when air mass and temperature differences between the surface of the Earth, and the upper atmosphere, create vertical currents. In a low pressure system, the air currents flow upward, sucking air away from the earth’s surface like a giant Shop*Vac.
Eareckson Air Force Base on Shemya Island recorded the record low pressure at 924.8 millibars.
A sea buoy off of Amchitka Island, registered a wave at 58.1 feet. Winds at Shemya hit gusts of 83 mph. This was an impressive storm that pummeled the outer islands of the Aleutian Chain. From Atka to Adak, the islands were seeing 40-50 foot waves and hurricane force winds.
St Lawrence Island and the Yukon Delta saw high winds and blizzard conditions when the storm hit Alaska’s mainland.
Unlike a hurricane, which extract heat from the ocean, as they grow in power, a maritime cyclone creates energy by drawing together warm and cold air masses. It’s the energy created when the warm air rises and the cold air sinks, that gives rise to the cyclone.
The Eklutna River, in South-central Alaska, was once a source of a thriving salmon population. A hydroelectric dam was built in the late 1920’s to send power to the growing town of Anchorage, ending the Eklutna’s salmon run. The dam stopped being a power source in 1955, and the residents of the village of Eklutna have been trying to get the dam removed for decades.
That finally happened in 2018, when the Lower Eklutna dam was removed. That was only step one in the battle to return salmon to the river. Now, the river needs to get its water back.
The water from the river was diverted from its natural valley to a tunnel which provides power to the grid. The Eklutna power station is a clean, renewable source of power, but 90% of the water flow, only adds 3% to the power grid. The other 10% of the river’s water adds up to 90% of Anchorage’s water supply. Zero percent goes to the river.
The 8-1/2 minute video details the effort to regain some balance and allow water to flow back into the river basin.
Airmen out of Elmendorf AFB take packages by dogsled into the village of Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island. It was -20F when they unloaded their C-123, Christmas Day, 1963. The huskies look to be getting impatient.
In a normal year, Glacier Bay receives more than 150 cruise ship visits. In 2020, with the cruise industry in dry dock, Glacier Bay has seen a regular inhabitant take over. The humpback whale has been making the most of no cruise ships.
Humpbacks have been studied regularly for decades in Glacier Bay. Individual whales had been identified as far back as 1973. In 2020, the whales have been seen lounging in the middle of channels, feeding in large groups, and generally enjoying “room to roam”, as one researcher put it. Their underwater vocalizing was way up too, thrilling researchers.
The Park’s whale monitoring system has identified 740 individual whales between 1985 and 2017. The birth year of 311 Glacier Bay whales is known to researchers, because they were sighted as calves in The Bay. The oldest whale is a male, #516 or Garfunkle. Garfunkle was born in 1974. He was last seen in 2016.
The longest documented humpback was #441, who had been seen for 45 years. His carcass was found outside of Glacier Bay in 2016, his age was 66 years. The oldest documented humpback was 98 years old, when he was taken by a commercial whaler. The age of humpbacks can be determined by the layers on their ear plugs.
Most female humpback whales of Glacier Bay are able to have a calf every three years once they mature, which is at 12 years of age in Alaska waters, much later than northern Atlantic humpbacks.
Glacier Bay and Icy Strait is a regular home to 181 humpbacks, with Southeast Alaska being home to 1585 individuals. The most recent estimate has 21,063 humpback whales living in the entire North Pacific.
A link to the sounds of the Glacier Bay humpback can be found below:
On the Winter Solstice, we neither gain nor lose daylight here in Interior Alaska. The day today will be the same length as yesterday: 3 hours, 47 minutes long.
But tomorrow, tomorrow we will gain 20 seconds. Christmas Eve will see a gain of a minute, and by New Year’s, our daylight will last more than 4 hours.
It’s a big deal here in the north.
There will be a double treat in the skies this year, as we get to experience the rare “double conjunction”. Saturn and Jupiter will be so close together in the low southwestern sky, that they will appear as one bright point. The best time for viewing will be one hour after sunset.
The last time Jupiter and Saturn put on this “joint force” in the sky was in 1623.
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” –Aldo Leopold – Marshland Elegy, A Sand County Almanac.
I’m slow to embracing the virtual world, but now that winter has arrived in the North, and plenty of time on my hands, but without the inclination to travel anywhere, I’ve done some virtual exploring.
In the spring, the Platte River in Nebraska is the place to be, to see the siege of sandhill cranes flying through to eat and rest before heading further north. In the autumn, however, the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, WI is a major stopover for this ancient breed of birds.
The Aldo Leopold Foundation usually offers tours and blinds for crane viewing and photography in the fall, but 2020 is not the year for those types of activities. Instead, they offered a virtual visit to the Wisconsin River and the over 10,000 cranes that are camping out along its banks. I joined one of these visits this week, and found it incredibly informative, and well produced. Still, no virtual visit compares to seeing the sandhill crane in person, or hearing and feeling that prehistoric bugle as it flows through you from across the terrain and the eons.
Luckily, next spring, I won’t have to go beyond my deck to experience them again.
The above video is one done previously by the International Crane Foundation and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.