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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


SS Arthur M. Anderson

The Arthur M. Anderson

The freighter, Arthur M. Anderson, had been trailing the Edmund Fitzgerald during the fateful, November storm, that sank the Big Fitz in 1975. The Anderson reported the missing ship to the U.S. Coast Guard, and had made the safety of Whitefish Bay in the early morning hours of November 11, 1975. The Anderson then joined other ships, and reversed coarse back into the storm, to look for survivors.

After making the post on the Edmund Fitzgerald last week, I received a tip from Ogdensburg, New York along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, that the Anderson was back on Lake Superior on the 45th Anniversary of the sinking of the Fitz. In fact, it had passed the location of the wreck of the Fitzgerald early on the tenth, and came into the Duluth Harbor that evening.

Arthur M. Anderson coming through Duluth Harbor 10 November 2020; Photo credit: Duluth Harbor Cam

I was simply amazed that the Anderson was crossing the same waters on the 45th Anniversary.

The Arthur Anderson travels comes into Duluth under the iconic lift bridge, gives salute to the Edmund Fitzgerald

The above video is 9 minutes long, the Anderson appears at the 3:50 mark. The Master Salute to the Fitzgerald would have been something to experience in person along the canal.


Battling the Prince of Darkness

The Rover regains its sight

In late August, I had to make a run to the airport to pick up a pair of travelers. The flight landed around midnight, and I meant to hop in the Land Rover to go and pick them up. As luck, and Lucas would have it, The Rover had no headlights.

I debated. It was still light enough to technically see, even at midnight, but was it a wise decision(?). In other words, would I get a ticket if stopped by a police officer.

I took other transportation. I probably would have made it.

I should, i.e. need, to replace the wiring from headlight to taillight, but like this weekend, I found an issue, not necessarily the issue, and the vehicle has headlights once again, so I moved on.

The Ghost of Joseph Lucas is enough to put the fear of copper in anyone. Joseph Lucas is the founder of Lucas Electrics, which “powers” many of the classic British vehicles. I don’t know about Jaguar owners, but in Land Rover circles, Joseph is known as The Prince of Darkness. Joseph started out as an oil lamp manufacturer. I think he hit his peak with whale oil.

Lucas still holds the patent for the short circuit.


SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The great freighter sank 45 years ago today, taking all 29 crew members to the bottom of Lake Superior with her.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Growing up in Minnesota, and spending a fair amount of time along the shores of Lake Superior, the story of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one that I had heard from early childhood.

Construction on The Fitz started in August of 1957. The Great Lakes Engineering Works was tasked with building a freighter that would come within one foot of the Saint Lawrence Seaway’s maximum length. The customer was the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The ship was launched in June 1958, bearing the name of the president of Northwestern Mutual Life. The cost for the 729′ long freighter with a 26,000 long ton capacity, was $7 million.

For 17 years, The Fitz hauled iron ore from Duluth and Superior to cities like Detroit and Toledo. It took five days to make the run between Toledo, Ohio and Superior, Wisconsin.

The Fitzgerald set several cargo records during its time on the Great Lakes, often breaking her own previous record. In 1969, the ship hauled 27,402 long tons in a single run.

The Fitz quickly became popular with the public. Captain Peter Pulcer would play music over the ship’s intercom, whenever they went through the St Clair and Detroit Rivers. Near the Soo Locks, Pulcer would often talk to the public over a bullhorn, explaining details of the ship.

The Fitzgerald’s final run

A storm was building over Oklahoma’s panhandle on 9 November 1975. Weather forecasters predicted that it would stay south of Lake Superior. At 2:15pm, on the same day, the Edmund Fitzgerald left the port of Superior, WI.

The storm moved fast, and by 1am on the morning of the 10th, The Fitz was reporting waves at ten feet. By 2am, the National Weather Service had upgraded its warnings from gale to storm.

The SS Arthur M. Anderson, which had been traveling with The Fitz, started to fall behind the faster Fitzgerald at 3am. The Anderson recorded winds of 58mph at 1:50pm. It started to snow heavy at 2:45pm, and the crew of the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald at that time. The Fitz was approximately 16 miles ahead at this point.

At 3:30pm, Captain McSorley of the Fitzgerald, radioed the Anderson that they were taking on water and had lost two vent covers. The United States Coast Guard had closed the Soo Locks, and told ships to seek safe anchorage.

By late afternoon, waves had increased to 25 feet and wind gusts hit 67mph. The Anderson recorded gusts of 86mph and waves of 35 feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald tried to make Whitefish Bay, where the Whitefish Point light was working, but not the radio beacon. By now the Fitzgerald was blind, having lost both its radar.

At 7:10pm, Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson, that they were “holding their own”. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank within minutes of that final message. There was no distress signal.

The Edmund Fitzgerald on the bottom of Lake Superior

The fully loaded Edmund Fitzgerald went down 15 nautical miles from Whitefish Bay. All 29 crew members perished; no bodies were recovered. The Fitz now lies 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior.

A U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion, equipped with technology usually associated with finding submarines, found the wreck on 14 November 1975. The ship was in two pieces on the lake floor.

Positioning of the Fitzgerald wreck

Every year on November 10, the Minnesota Historical Society hosts the Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Beacon Lighting Ceremony at the Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, MN. This year’s ceremony will be virtual, hosted on the Historical Society’s facebook page. The ceremony starts at 4:30 CST, with the beacon lighting at approximately 7:30pm.

https://www.mnhs.org/event/7795?fbclid=IwAR1uhHGt09pDrvk7IyAuJ7SZ7hsizkzvaye4Rlcr3sRujpi_6A7dBsSP4i0

The Split Rock Lighthouse; Photo credit: Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Edmund Fitzgerald Photos Credit: Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Sources: Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum; Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Minnesota Historical Society


Cogs & Wheels

” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

— Aldo Leopold


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.


Vote!

If you live in the U.S., and have not already done so, it’s time to head to the polls.


The Sea Otter & Climate Change

Breakfast with a sea otter; Seward, Alaska

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.

Sea otter range in Alaska

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.

Kelp forest in the Aleutian Islands; Photo credit: UAF

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.

Sea urchins along an Aleutian reef, no kelp forest; Photo credit: UAF

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.


Connery, Sean Connery

Truly, one of a kind. Rest in peace, Sir Sean Connery.

On this Dia de los Muertos, let’s pause to remember all of those who have passed before us. This year, there have been many to remember.

A sea of marigolds