Tag Archives: alaska

Trump auctions Arctic refuge to oil companies in last bid against the environment

In one of its last strikes against the environment before leaving office, the Donald Trump administration auctioned yesterday oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The move comes after decades-long push by some Republicans to drill in one of the United States’ most vast unspoiled wild places.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Still, the auction had a bitter-sweet result for the Trump administration. Most oil companies didn’t even try to buy the leases amid low oil prices and pressure from environmental groups, leaving the state agency Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority as the main bidder alongside two smaller energy firms.

The sale of 11 areas on just over 550,000 acres achieved $14.4 million, a small fraction of what the government initially predicted it would get. Only two of the bids were competitive, so most of the land was auctioned off for the minimum price of $25 an acre. Still, Interior Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor described it as “truly historic.”

Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, told NPR that the sale results weren’t as “robust” as expected. But she said the industry still supports future access to the coastal plain. In a statement, she said the sale “reflects the brutal economic realities the oil and gas industry continue to face.”

“They held the lease in ANWR — that is history-making. That will be recorded in the history books and people will talk about it,” Larry Persily, a longtime observer of the oil and gas industry in Alaska, told NPR. “They had the lease sale, the administration can feel good about it, but no one’s going to see any oil coming out of ANWR.”

According to a 2017 law, the US government will have to carry out more auctions in the same area for several hundred thousand acres by the end of 2024. But the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden could overturn this requirement, especially with Democrats now having control of the Senate.

A group of environmental and conservation organizations claimed the Trump administration cheated on the way it crafted the leasing program and tried to block the sale. Nevertheless, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason rejected their request for a preliminary injunction on Tuesday and the auction moved forward.

The ANWR has been a rallying point for both Republicans and environmentalists, who have put up a strong fight for 40 years over whether fossil fuels should be tapped into. The US estimates there could be 7.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the coastal plain, though seismic surveys have not been conducted since the 1980s.

Covering some 19 million acres, the ANWR is usually described as America’s last great wilderness. It’s the home of many species such as the Porcupine caribou, with one of the largest herds in the world living there. The herd moves to the coastal plain region of the ANWR in the spring as it’s their preferred calving ground.

Environmental campaigners argue that the habitat is also crucial for polar bears, which are already struggling because of development in the area and rising temperatures that are melting sea ice. Polar bears numbers in Alaska and western Canada dropped 40% from 2001 to 2010, Steven Amstrup of Bolar Bears International, told The Guardian.

Native groups in Alaska have fought drilling proposals with lawsuits over the years. The Gwich’in, indigenous Alaskans who have migrated alongside the caribou and relied upon them as a food source, formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee in 1988 to oppose drilling in the coastal plain, which they call a sacred place.

“In their push to sell off our lands to the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration has engaged in a corrupt process and disrespected and dismissed the Indigenous people,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee in a statement. “We will continue to fight this illegal sale in court.”

Trump approves plan to open oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

Raising widespread criticism from environmental groups, the Trump administration has officially approved a plan to open an Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska for oil and natural gas drilling. The idea has been in the works since 2017, with the first leases to drill expected to be granted by the end of the year.

Credit Frank Camp Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The news was confirmed to the Wall Street Journal by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department will be in charge of the auctions. The fact that they will take place this year might make it difficult for Democrats to reverse the decision if presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the election in November.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the area to be auctioned off, is considered a wellspring for wildlife, housing polar bears, foxes, and migratory birds, among many other species. Of the 19 million acres of the refuge, 1.6 million will be available to be leased to fossil fuel companies.

Although many of them have long wanted access to the ANWR, it remains to be seen how many of them are willing to take a risk on an unexplored stretch of land where little data on its oil and gas resources is available. Bernhardt expects strong interest despite the lack of such vital data.

Companies have actually been leaving Alaska due to the high costs of drilling and shipping the oil and gas compared to the cheaper options in other states that already have pipelines installed. British oil giant BP was the last one to leave the area, selling its operations to Hilcorp.

Environmental groups reacted with anger to the news, and are likely to sue to stop the move. Once the drilling rights are allocated, it will be harder for a future president to reverse course, they argued. Oil operations in the area would severely threaten the pristine landscape, they added.

“This plan will not only harm caribou, polar bears, and other wildlife, it is foolish in the face of rapidly advancing climate change,” said, Jennifer Rokala the Executive Director of the Centre for Western Priorities in a statement.

“Oil companies will have to harden their infrastructure to withstand melting permafrost and rising seas, leading to an even greater impact.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation, including Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Don Young, celebrated the news, thanking President Trump and Bernhardt for what they said will be a boost for their state’s economy. It’s a “capstone moment,” Murkowski said, in their decades-long push for “responsible” oil extraction in the area.

A significant number of major global banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs have already said they will not provide financing for drilling in the area. Environmental activists have also said that the reputational risks to companies operating in the ANWR would be severe.

The US government authorized drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge in December 2017 when Congress added a stipulation to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The law states that the Interior Department has to make “at least two lease sales” within 10 years, with each lease containing “at least 400,000 acres.”

The sun is setting over Barrow, Alaska. It will rise again in 2020

As winter takes over in the northern hemisphere, there is less and less daylight — but some places have it worse than others.

Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) won’t be completely dark, despite no sunrise for months. Image credits: US DoE.

The city of Utqiagvik hosts over 4,000 people and is the northernmost place in the United States. Just 2.6% of the Earth’s surface lies farther from the equator than Utqiagvik.

The city lies way north of the Arctic Circle and has been home to the Iñupiat, an indigenous Inuit ethnic group, for more than 1,500 years. The city was called Barrow until 2 years ago when a referendum was held to change the city’s name back to its Inuit roots. Utqiagvik, one of the oldest permanent settlements in the United States, is now bracing for a long period of darkness.

The official term is polar night. It happens in the world’s northernmost and southernmost areas when the night lasts for more than 24 hours. Because the Earth rotates around the Sun at an angle, the polar areas are tilted away from the sunlight during winter — for the North Pole, that falls roughly fro September to March, and for the South Pole, in March to September. The closer an area is to the pole, the longer the polar night — and subsequently, the polar day.

But just because there’s no sunrise, it doesn’t mean that Utqiagvik will be drenched in complete darkness. It will be dark, but there will still be some light.

The light is coming from below the horizon. Even though the sun isn’t visible, some light from it can curve around the Earth and go above the horizon. It’s the same reason why during sunrise you see some light from the sun before actually seeing the sun.

Sunrise in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

However, because light has to travel a longer path through the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s more likely to be diffracted, and often ends up with reddish/violet/orange hues. During Utqiagvik’s 66 days of “polar night”, the “days” are likely to have some light, but also some bizarre colors.

Defining sunrise in this situation is also interesting. Is it the top of the Sun, the middle, all of it? The US Naval Observatory define sunrise/sunset as follows:

“Sunrise and sunset conventionally refer to the times when the upper edge of the disk of the Sun is on the horizon, considered unobstructed relative to the location of interest. Atmospheric conditions are assumed to be average, and the location is in a level region on the Earth’s surface.”

With that definition, Utqiagvik’s next sunrise will have to wait until Thursday, 23 January 2020, local time 13:10. The sun will only make a brief appearance before setting approximately one hour later.

However, due to the area’s geography, the weather will actually get colder after January. February is generally the coldest month, averaging −14.2 °F (−25.7 °C).

Utqiagvik during the day. The roads are unpaved because of the permafrost. Image via: Wiki Commons.

This legendary massacre may have been started by a children’s game

The Yup’ik people in Alaska have a gruesome legend: 400 years ago, a brutal massacre took place in the city of Agaligmiut (which today is often called Nunalleq). Now, an archaeological study has not only found evidence to back this legend up — but it also suggests that the whole thing may have started from a game of darts.

This aerial photo of the Nunalleq site was taken by a drone in 2017. Image credits: Sven Haakanson.

Researchers have found around 60,000 well-preserved artifacts that tell what life was like at Agaligmiut before the massacre. The artifacts include dolls, figurines, wooden dance masks and grass baskets, and the good preservation is largely owed to the permafrost. Life would have been fairly prosperous given the harsh environmental conditions — but, at some point between A.D. 1590 and 1630, things took a turn for the worst.

“We found that it had been burned down and the top was riddled with arrow points,” says Rick Knecht, who along with Charlotta Hillerdal, spearheaded the study. Both are archaeology lecturers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

The team found evidence of 28 people who had been tied up with grass rope and executed.

“They were face down and some of them had holes in the back of their skulls from [what] looks like a spear or an arrow,” Knecht added. The discovery of so many arrow points confirms one part of the Yup’ik legend, which called the conflict the “bow and arrow wars.”

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”A brutal legend” footer=””]When Russian fur traders began exploring southwestern Alaska in the early 1800s, they met native Yup’ik people who told horrific tales of violence and revenge. In one of these stories, two boys were playing with bone-tipped darts when one accidentally blinded the other in one eye. This prompted the father of the boy to take out both eyes of the other child, only to have his son murdered in revenge. The tit-for-tat violence escalated until it became a full blown war between two settlements, killing numerous people and wiping out entire villages. But, these legends were widely discarded as fiction, especially since they came from the Yup’ik — a population sometimes called the “peaceful Eskimo”, with little history of waging war.[/panel]

According to the legend, the conflict started when the people of Agaligmiut set up a party to raid a nearby village. The other village had prior warning of this and set up an ambush, killing the entire party with bows and arrows. They then went to the defenseless Agaligmiut, killed its inhabitants, and burned the place down. Women, children, and older people were not spared.

The archaeological finds seem to lend at least some support to this idea: the remains of the 28 executed people are all men of fighting age, and the city appears to have been burned down. However, it’s still not clear what caused the conflict in the first place, and why Agaligmiut set up a raiding party in the first place. The legend says it all started from a game of darts — another, more prosaic possibility, is that it was a squabble over resources.

Another, more prosaic possibility, is that it was a squabble over resources.

“There’s a number of different tales,” Knecht said, adding that “what we do know is that the bow and arrow wars were during a period of time [called] the little ice age, where it went from quite a bit warmer than it is now to quite a bit colder in a very short period of time.”

For now, researchers are digitizing the discovered artifacts. The team has already produced highly detailed 3D scans of several artifacts creating an education package to show how life was like at Agaligmiut before the massacre began.

Infant skeleton sheds new light on early Native American populations

The remains of a six-week-old infant cast new light upon the Native American founding population.

Scientists divided the ancient American populations into two categories: the Southern and the Northern Native Americans. The two groups are related, but a link between them and an ancient Siberian population was missing, until now.

Pictures were taken at Upward Sun River site. Credit: Ben Potter

“It’s the first time that we have had direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to one source population, via a single, founding migration event.” said evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge in the UK, the research team leader, in a press release.

Researchers named this population “Ancient Beringians” after Beringia, the land bridge that connected northeast Asia with northwestern North America, during the Pleistocene epoch — sometimes called the Ice Age.

Via Wikipedia

The girl was named Xach’itee’aanenh t’eede gaay, or Sunrise Child-girl, by the local Native community. Her skeleton was discovered at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Alaska in 2013. Scientists say the child lived 11,500 years ago, long after the first wave of migration occurred, but her genome was consistently different from the two types of ancient Native Americans.

“The Ancient Beringians diversified from other Native Americans before any ancient or living Native American population sequenced to date. It’s basically a relict population of an ancestral group which was common to all Native Americans, so the sequenced genetic data gave us enormous potential in terms of answering questions relating to the early peopling of the Americas,” Eske Willerslev said.

The excavation site from Alaska. Credit: Ben Potter

This is the first ancient skeleton ever discovered in Alaska — acidic soils make bone tissue and DNA preservation very difficult.

“We were able to show that people probably entered Alaska before 20,000 years ago. It’s the first time that we have had direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to one source population, via a single, founding migration event.” said Professor Willerslev.

The Northern and the Southern branches are thought to have separated somewhere between 17,000-14,000 years ago. The two groups probably went separate ways as they passed through or around the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets that covered present-day Canada and a part of northern United States.

Scientists believe that the Ancient Beringians were left behind the ice sheets and remained in Alaska. Next, the population was absorbed by other Native groups derived from the Northern branch, that migrated back after the ice had melted away.

“One significant aspect of this research is that some people have claimed the presence of humans in the Americas dates back earlier – to 30,000 years, 40,000 years, or even more. We cannot prove that those claims are not true, but what we are saying, is that if they are correct, they could not possibly have been the direct ancestors to contemporary Native Americans”, added Willerslev.

The paper was published in the Nature journal on the 3rd of January 2018.

 

Alaskan butterfly may be a rare hybrid

It takes some hardcore survival skills to make it to the frozen wastelands of Alaska – and this butterfly has what it takes. Oeneis tanana, or the Tanana Arctic has the ability to produce antifreeze-like substances in its blood to stave off punishing Alaskan temperatures.

A scattering of tiny white freckles give the Tanana arctic butterfly a “frosted” appearance. Photo by the University of Florida/Andrew Warren

It’s the first species discovered in the state in the past 28 years, and may very well be the only endemic butterfly species to Alaska. It was hiding in plain sight, as researchers have probably seen it before several times, but they didn’t recognize it as a new species because it’s so similar to the Chryxus Arctic species.

The butterfly may have emerged as a hybrid between two other species — a very rare process for animals.

“Hybrid species demonstrate that animals evolved in a way that people haven’t really thought about much before, although the phenomenon is fairly well studied in plants,” said Warren, senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “Scientists who study plants and fish have suggested that unglaciated parts of ancient Alaska known as Beringia, including the strip of land that once connected Asia and what’s now Alaska, served as a refuge where plants and animals waited out the last ice age and then moved eastward or southward from there. This is potentially a supporting piece of evidence for that.”

Furthermore, its evolution may even shed light on Alaska’s geologic past, especially regarding the events that happened during the last glaciation.

“Scientists who study plants and fish have suggested that unglaciated parts of ancient Alaska known as Beringia, including the strip of land that once connected Asia and what’s now Alaska, served as a refuge where plants and animals waited out the last ice age and then moved eastward or southward from there,” Warren explained. “This is potentially a supporting piece of evidence for that.”

However, in order to prove this theory, they first need to conduct genetic studies on the butterfly.

“Once we sequence the genome, we’ll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments,” he said. “This study is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many on this cool butterfly.”

For now, Warren wants to return to Alaska, hoping to find out new clues about the butterfly, and perhaps even more species.

“New butterflies are not discovered very often in the U.S. because our fauna is relatively well-known,” Warren said. “There are around 825 species recorded from the U.S. and Canada. But with the complex geography in the western U.S., there are still going to be some surprises.”

Full study here.

Scientists reveal the first ever digital geologic map of Alaska

Scientists working at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have released the first ever digital geologic map of Alaska. This map (Part 1 – the western part of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and Part 2 – the eastern part of Alaska and the list of map units) is a completely new compilation.

Image via USGS.

“Covering the entire state of Alaska, it reflects more than a century of work by a host of geologists and almost two decades of compilation work,” the scientists said.

Alaska is easily the largest state in the US, but it’s one of the least populous in the country. Its geology is also one of the most complex in the US and over 750 scientific references were used to digitize this map, some as old as the early 20th century. Scientists have worked on this one for over 20 years, but the results are finally in and they’re definitely worth it.

“This map is the continuation of a long line of USGS maps of Alaska, reflecting ever increasing knowledge of the geology of the state,” said USGS research geologist Dr Frederic Wilson, who is the lead author of the new map.

Alaska is also not only one of the richer states in natural resources, but it’s also one of the more hazardous.

“The data contained in this digital map will be invaluable. It is a great resource and especially enhances the capacity for science-informed decision making for natural and cultural resources, interpretive programs, and visitor safety,” added National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

“A better understanding of Alaska’s geology is vital to our state’s future,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “This new map makes a real contribution to our state, from the scientific work it embodies to the responsible resource production it may facilitate. Projects like this one underscore the important mission of the USGS, and I’m thankful to them for completing it.”

All in all it’s a remarkable contribution

What polar inhabitants want from a climate deal

While the climate talks in Paris are carrying on in full force, it’s important to keep in mind that most of climate change isn’t actually affecting the ones causing it. The polar regions, the south Pacific and small islands are the ones suffering the most. The governments of Nunavut (Canada) and Greenland (Denmark) and the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) released a joint statement on climate change at the COP21 climate meeting in Paris today.

“We are here to deliver an urgent message on behalf of the people of the North. When it comes to climate change, Nunavut is one of the most vulnerable areas on earth,” said Nunavut Premier, Peter Taptuna. We are deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change on sea ice and our way of life. We therefore stand before you today, with the Government of Greenland and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, asking the United Nations to reach an agreement that accounts for the impacts of climate change on the Arctic.”

Nunavut is the largest but least populous district of Canada, with a population of about 31.000 people. Greenland has almost twice as more people, and it also has significant scientific importance, with a permanent HQ set up there.

“Greenland has an important responsibility in promoting international climate research. Greenlandic climate research combines international cutting-edge research with an Arctic human dimension. Our joint Inuit voice and our traditional know-how from across the Arctic should be heard and included in international policy-making. Most importantly, Arctic indigenous peoples have to be ensured an equal access to the right to development. Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests must be included in the COP21 outcome document.” – Greenland Minister, Vittus Qujaukitsoq

Climate change isn’t uniform throughout the globe, and some areas are suffering more than others. The Arctic is already experiencing acute impacts related to climate change, with significant rise in temperatures, permafrost thaw, loss of glacier ice and disruptions to wildlife. Furthermore, the areas in the Arctic are virtually without fault, considering the scale of global emissions. With this in mind, they proposed a climate deal that:

 

  • Strongly reconfirms the principle of a common but differentiated responsibility in tackling climate change.
  • Takes enhanced measures to stabilize global greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations below ~450 parts per million by volume to make certain global temperature increases will remain between 1.5°C and 2°C.
  • Recognizes and protects the rights of Indigenous peoples and the values, interests, culture and traditions of the peoples of the Arctic.
  • Ensures equal access to the right to development, also for the peoples of the Arctic.
  • Acknowledges the extremely high cost of living in the Arctic and does not impose further financial burden to Arctic regions.
  • Advocates the development and expansion of energy solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, also for areas like the Arctic.
  • Ensures that Inuit food security is protected.
  • Promotes the need for adaptation action in areas that are disproportionately affected by climate change, such as the Arctic, and for sustainable funding to support such initiatives.
  • Recognizes the importance of indigenous knowledge, its significant contribution to our understanding of climate change, and acknowledges its value being on par with scientific data.

While some of the points are definitely debatable, ensuring the people’s food security and supporting their sustainable development should definitely be a priority, especially considering how disproportionately they are affected.

 

 

New species of duck-billed dinosaur discovered in Alaska’s North Slope

A new species of plant-eating dinosaur was discovered in Alaska, a variety of hadrosaur — duck-billed dinos that roamed in herds, said Pat Druckenmiller, earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. Researchers named the creature Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis (oo-GROO’-nah-luk KOOK’-pik-en-sis), meaning “ancient grazer,” chosen by scientists with assistance from speakers of Inupiaq, the language of Alaska Inupiat Eskimos.

The presence of this dinosaur suggests that northern Alaska was likely warmer and covered in forests some 69 million years ago — that’s how old the stone deposits that preserved its bones were. For at least 25 years, the fossils stayed lumped together with another hadrosaur, Edmontosaurus, a species that spread wide across Canada and the U.S., including Montana and South Dakota. The formal study of the Alaska dinosaur revealed differences in skull and mouth features that made it a different species, Druckenmiller said.

Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have found a third distinct dinosaur species documented on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope. The new species is a type of hadrosaur, a duck-billed plant-eater.
Image via al.com

The differences were not immediately apparent because the Alaska dinosaurs were juveniles. Researchers worked out differences in the Alaska fossils by plotting growth trajectories and by comparing them with juvenile Edmontosourus bones. Museum scientists have excavated and catalogued more than 6,000 bones from the species, more than any other Alaska dinosaur. Most were small juveniles estimated to have been about 9 feet long and 3-feet tall at the hips.

“It appears that a herd of young animals was killed suddenly, wiping out mostly one similar-aged population to create this deposit,” Druckenmiller said.

At their biggest, they would grow up to 30 feet long, and dined on coarse vegetation using hundreds of hardy teeth. They probably walked primarily on their hind legs, but they could drop to all fours to escape predators or if the terrain got rough, he added.

Most of the fossils were found in the Prince Creek Formation of the Liscomb Bone Bed along the Colville River more than 300 miles northwest of Fairbanks. The bed is named for geologist Robert Liscomb, who found the first dinosaur bones in Alaska in 1961 while mapping for Shell Oil Co.

Researchers are now working to identify and name other Alaskan dinosaurs.

“We know that there’s at least 12 to 13 distinct species of dinosaurs on the North Slope in northern Alaska,” he said. “But not all of the material we find is adequate enough to actually name a new species.”

Alaskan shore overrun by thousands of walruses – here’s why

Thousands upon thousands of Pacific walrus were captured by photographer Gary Braasch as they came ashore on the northwest coast of Alaska last week, in an event believed to be triggered by global warming.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, walruses prefer to haul out on sea ice, rather than on land. But, researchers say that the loss of sea ice, brought on by ever increasing temperatures in the area, forced the walruses to haul out for rest on land.

Hauling out on land could put young walrus calves at risk of being trampled, and it could be difficult for the marine mammals to find sufficient food close to shore, scientists say.

No ice to chill on

The photographs were taken near Point Lay in Alaska on Aug. 23.

Aerial photographs made by Gary Braasch on Aug. 23, 2015 show thousands of Pacific walrus coming ashore near Point Lay in Alaska.

For about eight years now, more and more walrus have been coming to shore on the coast of Alaska. Estimates put last year’s number of walrus on shore to a staggering 35,000. Right now, there are an estimated 5,000-6,000 walruses on shore near Point Lay, a largely Native village in northwestern Alaska.

These photos were taken just one week before President Obama’s scheduled visit to Alaska on Monday, where he is expected to urge more action to fight global warming.

Walruses live a pretty simple and straightforward life: they wake up, find something tasty to eat, then hang around on a piece of ice to socialize and mate. They prefer shallow waters as they can’t swim for long and according U.S. Geological Survey that’s exactly what draws them to this part of the ocean:

“Most of the world’s ocean is 10,000 feet deep. Beneath the Chuchki Sea is an immense continental shelf that is only 150 feet deep. This vast shallow sea is extremely rich in the clams and worms so vital to the walrus.”

Rising temperatures are pushing the ice further and further north, into the deeper water, earlier each year, leading to these massive haul-outs.

But it’s no picnic on land either

Haul-outs of such proportions put the walruses at constant threat of human disturbance. Stressors such as planes flying by, shipping or just an amateur photographer can incite a violent response in the males, triggering stampedes that put the calves at risk of injury or death

Haul-outs of this size also put walruses at constant threat of human disturbance. Ships, planes, and even jerks with cameras can trigger stampedes that put calves at risk of injury or death.

This is why officials released a statement instructing media, tourists, and even locals to maintain their distance from the thousands of walruses crowding the shores.

Natives worried

The walrus is an important part of native Alaskans’ culture. They count on the walrus for food, clothing, boat building, tools, art, and a lot more. But rapid ice melt in the region, says the USGS, could create even more barriers to recovery:

“This longer season of open water has created the potential for greater human presence. Now, there is more opportunity for trans-ocean shipping, fishing, offshore oil and gas development, and tourism. Walrus and their calves must now contend with increased human presence, just as the security of their summer sea ice disappears.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks the walrus should be classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. But a decision won’t be made until 2017, once researchers have done their digging. Hopefully, they won’t be too late.

Check out this video put together by the U.S. Geological Survey to learn more about the walrus, it’s importance and the threat it’s facing.

Obama bans drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, citing risk to salmon fishery

In what is not only a laudable initiative but also an interesting precedent, president Obama has declared a large swath of southwest Alaska’s coast off-limits to oil and gas drilling. He stated that the environmental risks are the main reason why he is taking this measure – the oil exploitation could endanger fisheries which are vital for the area.

“It is a beautiful natural wonder and it is something that is too precious to just put out to the highest bidder,” Obama said, announcing the drilling ban. He also called the 250-mile-long stretch of coastline “one of America’s greatest natural resources.”

Bristol Bay is located in South-Western Alaska. The is 400 km (250 mi) long and 290 km, (180 mi) wide at its mouth; it is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery as well as strong runs of chum salmon, silver salmon and king salmon, each occurring seasonally. Kings are usually the first to run up the river followed by reds and chums. The major industries associated with the area are sport fishing and tourism, but recently area has also experienced significant interest in oil and mineral development. The Obama ban puts a stop to oil exploration there.

The decision means that federal water will remain permanently off limits for oil and gas exploration. While the decision was expected, it was still hailed by workers in the area and environmentalists.

“This action ensures Bristol Bay will remain America’s fish basket for generations to come, unspoiled by additional industrial activity and safeguarded for the benefit of Alaskans and all Americans,” said Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy for the ­Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

However, mineral exploration in the area is still debatable. The EPA is considering whether to preemptively ban mineral extraction in the region, and this decision gives a strong indication of what the EPA will decide.

 

By the time the oil stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

One of the most devastating oil spills 25 years later

By the time the oil stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

By the time the oil stopped flowing, nearly 11 million gallons had leaked out, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline and stretching over 470 miles from the crash site. Photo: Bettmann / Corbis

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a mile off-course in an attempt to avoid icebergs, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, gashing its hull and releasing oil into the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil leaked into pristine Alaskan waters – it was an environmental nightmare, one that still echoes 25 years later. For the residents of the small Cordova community, the accident lingers much deeper.

Some 2,000 sea otters, 302 harbor seals and about 250,000 seabirds died in the days immediately following the spill. In the long run, however, the spill continued to wreck havoc, both to wildlife and the local economy, destroying whole businesses. Before the spill Cordova consistently ranked in the top 10 most profitable U.S. seafood ports. A quarter century later, it’s not even in the top 25. Herring fishing was the life and blood of Cordova, but 25 years layer herring population still has yet to recover in Prince William Sound.

Exxon’s army

At its peak, the effort involved more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats. Workers skimmed oil from the ocean's surface and had to hose down goo-covered beaches, forcing the oil into traps for collection. Photo: Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Landov

At its peak, the effort involved more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats. Workers skimmed oil from the ocean’s surface and had to hose down goo-covered beaches, forcing the oil into traps for collection. Photo: Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Landov

It took more than four summers of cleanup efforts before the effort was called off. Not all beaches were cleaned and some beaches remain oiled today. At its peak the cleanup effort included 11,000 workers, about 1,000 boats and roughly 100 airplanes and helicopters, known as Exxon’s army, navy, and air force. It is widely believed, however, that wave action from winter storms did more to clean the beaches than all the human effort involved.

Many years later, damage still linkers both the environment and to people’s hearts. It’s not only about the local economy – serious community conflicts and psychological breakdowns followed as well. This is what Liesel Ritchie, assistant director of CU-Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center, thinks. He and colleagues were part of a collaborative 24-year longitudinal study of Cordova and the impact the spill had on the local community.

“What has fostered so much stress and anxiety in the community as a whole is different science says different things,” she said. “For example, Exxon scientists say everything is fine, that the impacts were minimal to begin with and that they subsided very quickly. Then other scientists who are not being paid by Exxon have other findings. What we’re talking about here at that level then is contested science which tends to cause uncertainty and stress in populations that are receiving this information and not knowing entirely how to interpret that.”

From one direction you hear from people who say everything will be alright, while others tell you all hell is loose. A conflicting tug of war, with the Cordova community in the middle. Another huge stress factor was the exhausting litigation that finally ended in a judgment against Exxon in 2008 – almost 20 years after the spill.

25 years later

One fisherman told the Anchorage Daily News that getting the check was "a damn small bone for an old, angry dog is what it is." Still, despite the emotional scars, many parts of Prince William Sound have returned to their previous, pristine state. Photo: David McNew / Getty

One fisherman told the Anchorage Daily News that getting the check was “a damn small bone for an old, angry dog is what it is.” Still, despite the emotional scars, many parts of Prince William Sound have returned to their previous, pristine state. Photo: David McNew / Getty

During this time, some people may have developed serious internal conflicts. Even though the litigation is now finished in the people’s favor, many are disappointed in the compensation.What was once a $5 billion judgment in 1995 was reduced, through appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, to $507 million.
“The way most people describe it was a slap in the face because although they won the judgment against Exxon, the punitive damages were just that, puny, in most of the people’s minds in Cordova,” Ritchie said. “And there were some people that were really hopeful. And those people were the hardest hit in terms of the frustration and to an extent the anger that they felt with the Supreme Court and the way things went down.”
“You know, I think one of the most important things that I would like to share that I’ve learned over the years in working with people in Cordova, Alaska, in particular, is how strong and truly resilient they are,” she said. “I’m happy to say that at this point we have turned a corner on the stress associated with the spill and the ongoing litigation. The most recent data collection this past year suggests that the level of stress has dropped in the community as a whole, which is the first time since 1989 that we’ve seen that happen.”

Read more about the 24-year longitudinal study here.

The ‘orange goo’ in Alaska is actually fungal spores

The orange goo that collected on the shores of Alaska and baffled scientists at first was believed to be a mixture of microscopic eggs and/or embryos deposited by some sort of crustacean. However, researchers at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research, based in Charleston, South Carolina conducted another examination and concluded that in fact it is of fungal origin.

The material is consistent with a species that causes a plant disease, “rust”, which infects plants and impregnates them with a rust-like colour.

The spores are unlike others we and our network of specialists have examined; however, many rust fungi of the Arctic tundra have yet to be identified,” Steve Morton, a scientist with the NOAA Charleston lab, said in a statement.

When the material first washed up on the shore, locals were afraid it was pollution, and for good reason – the Red Dog Mine is the biggest zinc producer in the world. However, the material is harmless to humans, even though it can be deadly for plants.

“Rust is a disease that only affects plants, so there’s no cause for alarm,” she said, adding that details about its origins remained a mystery. “There just has not been a lot of research done on rust fungi in the Arctic. This is one that we’ve never encountered before that we know of,” she said.

Aerial image of Cleveland Volcano. (c) Alaska Volcano Observatory

Alaskan volcano shows signs of eruption

Aerial image of Cleveland Volcano. (c) Alaska Volcano Observatory

Aerial image of Cleveland Volcano. (c) Alaska Volcano Observatory

Increased heat emissions by a volcano located in the Aleutian were detected via satellite by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which has issued an eruption advisory alert. Recent activity has increased the volcano to a Yellow Alert.

Mt. Cleveland, 5,676 ft. AGL, also referred to as Cleveland volcano is emitting seismic activity that seems to correlate with the heat emission reports. These measurements indicate the volcano could erupt at any moment, spewing ash clouds up to 20,000 feet (3.7 miles/6 km) above sea level with little further warning, the observatory said.
Located on a deserted island, 45 miles west of Nikolski and about 150 miles west of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, in case of an eruption Cleveland is too far off any major settlements to cause any damage. A great incovenience might lay, however, with the International Trans-Pacific flights using the great circle route make flights daily over this portion of the Aleutian Islands. So far, airlines have not changed their flight patterns because of Cleveland’s heat emissions, said Steve McNutt, a University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist who works at the observatory.
The last time Clevaland erupted was in 2001, when it blasted ash more than 5 miles (8 km) into the sky and spilled lava from the summit crater. Cleveland has experienced several smaller eruptions or suspected eruptions since then.
Volcanoes are pretty unpredictable, and although scientists know from current measurements that its at risk of eruption, they can’t tell without a real-time seismic network at Cleveland, AVO when its going to eventually pop-out exactly. It could happen tomorrow, or just as well ten years from now.
“Short-lived explosions with ash clouds that could exceed 20,000 ft. above sea level can occur without warning and may go undetected on satellite imagery for hours. Low-level ash emissions at Cleveland occur frequently and do not necessarily mean a larger eruption is imminent.  AVO continues to monitor the volcano using satellite imagery,” website source explain.

The biggest tsunami ever recorded was taller than 500 meters

On the night of July 9, 1958, an earthquake struck Fairweather Fault in the Alaska Panhandle. The result was that about 30.6 million cubic meters of rock were loosened, being thrown from a height of 914 meters down onto the water mass. Here’s a picture so that you can get a perspective on what that means:

tsunami

The impact generated a tsunami that crashed against the shoreline of Gilbert Inlet. The water hit with such power that it totally destroyed the spur of land that separates Gilbert Inlet from the main body of Lituya Bay and continued its road towards the Gulf of Alaska. It destroyed all vegetation from elevations as high as 500 meters, uprooting millions of trees. It is the biggest wave ever known to man.