Tag Archives: UAF

Glacier on the move

Muldrow Glacier in Denali National Park is surging:

Muldrow Glacier, with Traleika Glacier coming in from the top left

In early March, pilot Chris Palm, who took the photo above, noticed something very different about Denali Park’s famed Muldrow Glacier. The normally smooth surface of the glacier was broken up by crevasses stretching across the width of Muldrow.

The long awaited surge had begun.

The 39 mile long, Muldrow Glacier last surged in 1957, so scientists were thrilled to study a natural phenomenon that has not occurred here in 64 years.

Surge-type glaciers are relatively rare, with approximately 1% of the glaciers world-wide being surge glaciers. Denali National Park has several, most of which get their start from the face of North America’s tallest peak.

Newly formed transverse crevasses on Muldrow

As snow and ice builds up at the higher elevations of a glacier, meltwater is also building up underneath the glacier. This meltwater acts as a lubricant when the weight from above passes equilibrium. The glacier then surges downward at a rate of up to 100 times faster than normal. At some point, the meltwater trapped under the glacier will be released in an outburst flood. Once the water is reduced significantly, the glacier’s surge will slow and it will go back to a state of quiescent (non-surge) once again. Over time, the process repeats itself. Muldrow Glacier has a history of surging roughly every 50 years.

An animated time-lapse of Muldrow Glacier on the northeast flank of Denali. The starting time is August 2018.

There are two GPS stations on the glacier to monitor its movement. There are also four time-lapse cameras facing different areas of the glacier, including one at the terminus to monitor the glacier’s “bulldozing action”. Another is looking over the McKinley River in order to capture images of the outburst flood. The Alaska Earthquake Center also has a seismic monitoring station, and a sound station has also been installed in an attempt to capture the grinding sound of the surging glacier.

Mapping Muldrow’s movement

In 1957, most accounts have the surge starting in May, 1956 on Traleika Glacier, which is the main tributary of Muldrow. Muldrow Glacier would advance over 4 miles before the surge ended in September of 1957. Approximately 3.3 cubic kilometers of ice was redistributed from the upper reaches of the glacier to its toe. At the upper levels, the ice thickness had dropped as much as 170 meters, but the toe rose to a 200 foot tall ice wall.

Currently, the Muldrow Glacier is moving between 10 to 20 meters per day, and is only 800 meters short of the 1957 terminus. At the current rate of surge, Muldrow will reach the 1957 distance in June.

All images, photos and maps are courtesy of the NPS; Sources include: NPS – Denali NP&P, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, University of Alaska – Fairbanks


Bowhead Whale Exhibit

Bowhead whale skull at the Museum of the North

In 1963, a young, male bowhead whale was harvested by Native Whalers in Utqiaġvik. The skeleton of the 43′ whale was eventually offered to the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, and it has been in the collection of the Museum of the North ever since. Only the skull has been put on display.

That is about to change, as the Museum is currently putting together the entire skeleton, and will display it from the lobby ceiling once it is complete.

The above video from the UAF Museum of the North, details some repair that had to be done to the ribs of the bowhead whale.


Bomb Cyclone

New Year’s Eve storm over the Aleutians; Image credit: CIRA/NOAA

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.

The record breaking low pressure system; Image credit: Tomer Burg

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.

Graphic credit: National Weather Service – Fairbanks

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.

Sources: NOAA, UAF, NWS, NASA


Losing Darkness

Happy Winter Solstice

Photo credit: University of Alaska Fairbanks

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.

Saturn and Jupiter join forces; Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

And for any readers south of the equator:

Cheers!


Aurora Watch

There is a Geomagnetic Storm Watch in place for December 9-11. A coronal mass ejection (CME) happened on December 7, and that explosion of energy is headed our way.

The aurora should put on quite a show over the next few nights for those of us in viewing range and with clear skies.

Fairbanks, which is usually dead center of aurora viewing, is actually on the northern end of the spectrum. Looking south for the northern lights!

Map credit: University of Alaska Geophysical Institute


Up river with a cabin

Cabin floats up the Nome River; Photo credit: Jim Dory

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, at its new location on the Nome River; Photo credit: James Mason

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.

Sources: The Nome Nugget; UAF’s ACCAP; @AlaskaWX


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.


Sunset over the Alaska Range

Film Friday:

Camera: Leica M3; Film: Fujichrome 35mm, Velvia 100


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.


Bus 142

The famed Magic Bus; Fairbanks Transit Bus #142

The bus is a 1946 International Harvester K-5. Originally, it was a part of the Fairbanks City Transit System. Since 1960, #142 has been sitting in a clearing along the Stampede Trail.

The Stampede Trail runs from the Parks Highway, north of Healy and Denali National Park almost due west to an abandoned antimony mine. Prior to the building of the Parks Highway, the trail, which dates to 1903, was accessed from the Alaska Railroad.

Bus 142 and two others, were hauled down the Stampede Trail by bulldozer. The busses were equipped with bunks and a wood stove, for construction workers maintaining the trail for the mine. In 1970, the mine ceased operations. Two of the busses were hauled back out, but #142 was abandoned to the elements, due to a broken axle.

Over the years, Bus 142 served as a shelter for hunters, trappers and snowmachiners in the area. Other than that, hardly any thought was given to the old transit bus.

That all changed in 1993, when Jon Krakauer published an article in Outside magazine. The story detailed the travels and subsequent death of Chris McCandless, at the bus, the previous year. The story also inspired a book, as well as a major motion picture. The book is great; the movie: “meh”.

The Stampede Trail is not considered “remote” by Alaska standards, but like any travel off the road system, the Stampede can, and does, have hazards. McCandless unfortunately found them, and tragically perished.

The bus now became a pilgrimage for many people from all around the globe. People flocked to take a selfie, while leaning against the bus, in the chair that McCandless took one from, just prior to his death.

The first 8 miles of the Stampede is maintained, partly paved and partly gravel. After that, the trail becomes more suited to ATV/off-road/hiking. The bus sits 28 miles down the trail. The main summer obstacle is the Teklanika River, although none of the rivers the trail crosses has a bridge. The flow of water can change drastically in the Teklanika with a rain storm or snow melt. When the river is rushing, it is an absolute torrent.

Two hikers who traveled out to see the bus, were swept to their deaths in the rushing water of the Teklanika. Many others were evacuated, after being caught on the wrong bank of the rushing river.

Bus 142 gets flown out by Chinook

The Denali Borough and State of Alaska had grown tired of the rescues. This summer, as training for the Alaska Air Guard, Bus 142 was flown out to the Parks Highway by Chinook helicopter. It spent the better part of the summer at an “undisclosed location”, probably in Anchorage.

Bus 142 in front of the Museum of the North

This past week, Bus 142, or as McCandless called it in his diary, “the Magic Bus”, returned to Fairbanks after 60 years. It came up the Parks Highway on a flatbed and posed for pictures in front of the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. The bus will be stabilized, preserved and displayed at an outdoor exhibit on campus. Its entire history will be detailed with the new exhibit.

Anyone who wants to support the Museum’s conservation effort for Fairbanks City Transit Bus #142, can donate to the cause at the following site:

https://crowdfund.alaska.edu/project/22255