copyright Alan A. Lew, 2004, all rights reserved
Chapter 11 - ALASKA: THE FAR NORTH
Note: Links marked with an asterisk (*) are optional.
Alaska Virtual Field Trip
Alaska is a land of extremes. It is the largest state, twice the size of Texas and one-sixth the size of the "lower 48" states put together. It has the longest coastline and the largest single oil field in the US. It has the highest mountain and the coldest temperatures in the country. Alaska also has the highest percentage of veterans of any state and has one of the highest percentage growth rates in the US. Despite its massive land area, Alaska ranked as the smallest state in population in the 1980 census. Its rapid population growth, however, moved it up to 49th place in the 1990 census and 48th by 1993 (with almost 600,000 people), ahead of Vermont and Wyoming. The name "Alaska" comes from the Aleut word alayeska, meaning "great land."
Alaska compared to the Lower States Map
Proposals to Divide Alaska
Proposals were made at various times
to create four states out of Alaska (1904) and to make Alaska part of the states
of Montana and Washington (1956). The enormous size of Alaska still generates
calls for its division. In recent years it has been suggested that the northern
part of the state, where most of the 86% of Alaska's land that is federally
owned is located, should become an entirely federally managed state. Southern
Alaska, where most of the population and agriculture is located, would become
a separate state.
Geography of Alaska
The major physiographic features
of the vast state of Alaska are
Alaska and the Earth - Physiography Globe
Pacific Ring of Fire
Southern Alaska, from the Aleutian Islands through the Alaska Range to the Alexander Archipelago, is part of the volcanic and earthquake-prone Pacific Ring of Fire. Most of Alaska's most potentially active volcanoes are located on the wind-blown Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. Much of Alaska's 34,000-mile coastline is located in this southern coastal region, where continental subsidence and faulting have created numerous steep islands, peninsulas, and inlets. The faulting in the Anchorage area, which is particularly severe, resulted in a major (8.3 Richter scale) earthquake in 1964, devastating the city. More recently, Redoubt Volcano to the southwest of Anchorage dropped large amounts of ash on the city from eruptions in 1989 and 1990. The highest active volcano in Alaska is Mt. Wrangell (14,005 feet), located where the Alaska Range meets the Coast Mountains, northeast of Anchorage.
Global Plate Tectonics Map - showing the Aleutian Trench
Katmai Volcano photo - in Katmai National Park* on the Alaska Peninsula
The Panhandle and Marine West Coast Climate
The Panhandle area is the narrow southeastern extension of the state and is primarily made up of the 1,000-island Alexander Archipelago and the peaks of the Coast Mountains bordering British Columbia, Canada. Fjords cut by glaciers form a deep interlacing waterway among the islands and the coastline. Some 60 glaciers flow out of the higher elevations of the Coast Mountains. Mt. Saint Elias, the highest peak in the region at 18,008 feet, has a single glacier (Malaspina Glacier) that is as large as the state of Rhode Island. Nearby Mt. Wrangle is the world's highest active volcano (14,005 ft.). Located at the northern end of the Marine West Coast climate zone, the mountain peaks receive plenty of snow, although most of the glaciers are currently retreating (shrinking). Most scientists now agree that this is due to human-caused global warming. The Marine West Coast climate brings over 100 inches of rain (and snow equivalents) a year, across all seasons, to the Panhandle's lower elevations, which are covered with dense temperate rain forests. For example, Ketchikan, at the southern end of the Panhandle, averages 164 inches of rain a year. Farther north, it is not unusual for the area around Anchorage to receive over 300 inches of snow in a winter season. Anchorage itself, however, receives only an average of 70 inches of snow due to protection from surrounding mountains.
Coast Mountains in the Alaska Panhandle photo
Ocean Currents and the Valdez Oil Spill
Glaciers are primarily found along the southern coast of Alaska where they annually discharge more fresh water than does the Mississippi River from their melting ice. This water flows northward toward Anchorage through the Alaska Current. (The Gulf of Alaska has a counterclockwise, back-current circulation pattern, as opposed to the clockwise circulation of the North Pacific Current.) It was this northward current that brought the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil slick to Kodiak Island, devastating the fish populations for the largest fishing community in the US.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Map
The Alaska Range
The Alaska Range extends 650 miles in an arc across the southern portion of the state from Cook Inlet to the Canadian border. The highest peak in the Alaska Range is Mount McKinley (a.k.a. "Denali"), which, at 20,320 feet, is the highest point in North America. This range was heavily glaciated during the last ice age, and glaciers of permanent snow and ice still remain year round at the higher elevations. Rain and snow from north Pacific low pressure systems bring cloud cover (cloudy to partly cloudy) to Anchorage on an average of 301 days a year and heavy precipitation to the southern face of the Alaska Range. The famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race* crosses the Alaska Range through its approximately 1149 miles between Nome and Anchorage..
Denali/Mt. McKinley photo
Polar Air Mass
North of the Pacific low pressure systems, which bring the maritime weather to southern Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, lies the dry and cold polar high pressure region. The principal dividing line between these two air mass regions is the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range creates a rainshadow to the north in much the same way that the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Ranges do on the West Coast of the lower 48. As one moves farther northward from the Alaska Range, the climate becomes increasingly colder and drier. The northern coastline of Alaska is essentially a frozen desert.
Global Hi and Low Pressure Belts diagram
The Interior and Brooks Range
The Brooks Range, extending across the north-central part of Alaska, is part of the Rocky Mountain system. It is just as long as the Alaska Range, though lower in height (peaks below 9,000 feet). Located between the Brooks Range and the Alaska Range is the Interior of AK. Most of this deeply eroded plateau of rolling uplands is drained by the Yukon River. In the summer, the Yukon is navigable through dense forests as far east as Dawson in Canada's Yukon Territory. Like most of the rivers in Alaska, it is heavily braided due to a high sediment load and varying runoff. Permafrost close to the surface also increases the meandering of streams. Ice dams, created in the winter, can cause flash flooding of rivers during the spring thaw.
Coastal Lowlands and Prudhoe Bay Oil
The only true lowland areas exist along the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea coastlines. Unlike the south, these northern and eastern coastlines are relatively straight and flat, with an extensive offshore continental shelf. As in the low-lying coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana, organic material has created pockets of fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) off the coast of Alaska. The Prudhoe Bay oil field, located off Alaska's Arctic Ocean coastline, is the largest in the US. The field contained 10 billion barrels of oil in 1968 when it was first leased. Environmental concerns and native land claims (both important issues in Alaska) delayed production until 1978, when the Alaska oil pipeline was completed. By 1989, only 5 billion barrels of easily extractable oil was left. This is equivalent to a two-year supply for the US.
Alaska's Boom and Bust Oil Economy
The Alaska oil pipeline is 800 miles long and 48 inches in diameter. It runs from Prudhoe Bay to Prince William Sound, and half of its length is above ground to prevent it from heating up permafrost soils. Ten pump stations are necessary to get the oil past the mountains of interior Alaska. When the pipeline was being built (1974-78), workers were making over $1,000 a day. People in search of high-paying jobs poured into Alaska, causing housing and living costs to soar, while cities such as Fairbanks boomed. The bust came when the pipeline was finished. Fairbanks unemployment reached 20% in 1979. However, soon thereafter the state started receiving its share of oil revenues. Alaska, with only half a million people, generated $26 billion in state revenues between 1980 and 1986. Declining oil prices in the mid-1980s, however, reduced state revenues and forced budgetary cutbacks. There has also been talk of instituting a state income tax to cover state budget shortfalls.
The Midnight Sun
The earth circles the sun at an angle of 23.5 degrees. The Arctic Circle lies at 66 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. (The North Pole is 90 degrees north and 90 minus 23.5 equals 66.5 degrees or 66 degrees and 30 minutes.) All of the area north of the Arctic Circle receives 24 hours of sunlight on the summer solstice (June 21 or 22) and 24 hours of total darkness on the winter solstice (December 21 or 22). These events occur only one day of the year on the Arctic Circle itself but last for a month at Barrow on the northernmost tip of the state (at 71.2 degrees north latitude). Just below the Arctic Circle, sunrise in summer occurs between 1 and 3 a.m., and sunset takes place between 9 and 11 p.m. Winter is the opposite. At the South Pole, the Antarctic Circle experiences these same extremes, but with winter in June and summer in December. North of the Arctic Circle is also the best place to regularly see the enchanting Aurora Borealis, or "Northern Lights," dancing in the night sky.
Aurora Borealis photo
The Arctic Circle Homepage* --maps, resources and especially the Native peoples -- it is a different world up there!
The "Cold Triangle"
The "Cold Triangle" is an area enclosed by Fairbanks in Alaska, Snag in Canada's Yukon Territory, and Good Hope in the Northwest Territory of Canada. This area regularly has the coldest temperatures in North America, with -60 to -80 degrees F cold periods lasting for weeks at a time. Dawson, on the Yukon River, and the "Klondike Region," bordering Alaska and Canada, lie at the center of the Cold Triangle. Summer high temperatures in this area are typically in the 70s F, although temperatures in the 90s F are also common. It is in the summer that the melted permafrost marshlands of interior Alaska become infested with vast numbers of mosquitoes.
The Superfreeze of January 1989
resulted from an intense high pressure system over interior Alaska and an intense
low pressure system over the Gulf of Alaska. Nome reached -54 degrees F and
broke 13 cold records in 13 days. Fairbanks experienced 14 straight days of
temperatures below -40 degrees F, and Coldfoot unofficially reached -82 degrees
F, which is the coldest ever recorded in North America. At -40 degrees F, ice
fog becomes a serious driving problem, home heating oil freezes, open windows
result in the rapid freezing of water pipes, fan belts break in cars, and flights
out of Alaska to Hawaii get overbooked. The Superfreeze of January 1989 eventually
made its way down into the lower 48, setting numerous cold records there as
Geography of Alaska
The pre-Columbian peoples of North and South America are believed to have all come from Asia via a land bridge that existed across the Bering Strait during past ice ages. While it has traditionally been believed that this occurred about 15,000 years ago (during the last major ice age), recent archeological sites in the US and South America have indicated that these migrations may have occurred as early as 40,000 years ago. The land bridge to Siberia has been named Beringia and it was probably populated by herds of grazing animals feeding on grasses and tundra in non-glaciated areas. Over thousands of years different ethnic populations followed these animals into the Americas.
Alaska's Native Peoples
The major pre-Columbian native ethnic groups of Alaska are Inuits (Eskimos), Aleuts, Athabascans, and Northwest Coast Indians. While all four groups were based on hunting, fishing and gathering food, each developed a distinctive culture and skills suited to the environments in which they lived.
Inuits (also known as Eskimos) traditionally lived in coastal areas in the far northern reaches of Alaska, Canada and Russia (on the Arctic Ocean) and along the Bering Sea where they harvest fish and mammals from the sea and the fruit and game on the land. They are able to travel through featureless terrain by noting wind direction, the position of the stars, the shape and size of snowdrifts.
Athabascans are a traditionally nomadic tribal people who live in the spruce forest interior of Alaska and Canada's Yukon. They depended more on large land mammals, such as moose and caribou, for their subsistence, as well as fishing. Migrating out of the far north, some Athabascan groups settled in Arizona and New Mexico about 500 years ago, where they are known as Navajo and Apaches.
Aleuts are the traditional people of the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan Peninsula. The more mild temperatures here provided for a greater variety of foods than was available north of the Alaska Range, as well as a more complex cultural practices. They were skilled sailors and had developed some 30 different harpoon heads for different types of fish which they caught from their elaborate boats (baidars). Many today practice the Russian Orthodox religion due to their long years of association with Russian traders. The Alaska Peninsula has the largest concentration of prehistoric dwelling in the entire US (about 900) in Katmai National Park.
The Northwest Coast Indians occupy the Alaska Panhandle region and are culturally closely related to the coast Indians as far south as the Pacific Northwest. Salmon, totem poles, the 'potlatch' tradition, and a complex clan system are characteristics of all of these north Pacific Coast Indian societies.
From Russia to Statehood
In the latter half of the 1700s, the area from Alaska down to Oregon was known as "Russian America." It was dominated by Russian traders and explorers. (The Aleut peoples on the Aleutian Islands still practice the Russian Orthodox faith today.) After the end of the American Civil War, the US government was pressured by West Coast American fishermen to purchase Russian America from Russia. In 1867, Secretary of State William Henry Seward negotiated a payment of $7.2 million (less than 2 cents an acre) to the Russian Empire. After a period of neglect, Alaska was finally made a district of the US in 1884, and in 1912 it was upgraded to a territory. In 1959, Alaska became the 49th US state.
Soon after Seward's purchase of Alaska from the Russians, gold was discovered in the Klondike Region just across the border in Canada (1896). Large numbers of prospectors (and "gold diggers" after their money) from the lower 48 (as well as Asia and Europe) made their way into the Yukon River interior of Alaska. "Seward's Folly," as Alaska came to be known, was suddenly a billion-dollar opportunity. Although major gold mining activities are still found today near Fairbanks, most of the major deposits had been mined out by World War I, after which Alaska again reverted to a backwater frontier. The Japanese threat in World War II transformed Alaska into a major military outpost, and the federal government continued to be the major employer in the state until the oil boom in the late 1970s. The 1980s oil bust slowed the rate of settlement somewhat, but, as with Texas (another oil bust state), more people continue to arrive than are leaving the state.
Alaska Census Areas Map (good for regional names)
Alaska National Parks Map
Alaska has 90% of all US fisheries, and fishing ranks behind oil as the second most important sector of the economy. Port Valdez, where the Alaska oil pipeline ends at the head of Prince William Sound, is the main salmon-breeding area in the state. There are three types of fishing permits in Alaska: commercial, recreational, and subsistence. Commercial and recreational fishing is strictly controlled. Subsistence fishing is unlimited but primarily restricted to the many isolated and sparsely populated parts of the state.
The Matanuska Valley (around Palmer, Alaska, just northeast of Anchorage) was settled in the 1930s by 202 families who moved there from the Midwest to colonize the valley under a federal government depression relief program. The climate of the valley was similar to that of the Dakotas and northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, from where the settlers came. Today, the Matanuska Valley is the main agricultural region of the state. The two other major agricultural areas in Alaska are the Delta area southeast of Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula, southwest of Anchorage. Agriculture in Alaska is highly subsidized by the state (through oil revenues). The main crops are potatoes, barley, and dairy. Barley is used as a feed grain for fattening beef. Greenhouse-grown lettuce, cabbage, and some carrots are the major vegetables. Because many vegetables do not rest during long summer daylight hours, they sometimes grow into giant proportions.
Living Off the Land
Civilization has barely scratched the surface of Alaska. Only 20% of the state's land area is accessible by roads. Native peoples make up 15% of the state's population (the highest proportion of any US state). Many of them still live in isolated villages accessible only by float planes. They continue their traditional lifestyle of living off the land and from salmon-filled streams. Many non-Natives also live this type of lifestyle and homesteading is still possible (through a lottery run by the State of Alaska). Home vegetable gardens are said to be more common in Alaska (due to its long summer daylight hours) than in any other state in the US.
Anchorage: Modern Alaska
Anchorage, with almost half of the state's 525,000 people (1987), is the major metropolis of Alaska. Called "Los Anchorage" (comparing it to Los Angeles) by rural Alaskans, its demographics are typical of the state as a whole. It was the sixth fastest growing city in the US between 1980 and 1988, growing 41% to 246,139. Among its residents, 77.8% were born outside of the state. Grocery prices are among the highest in the US because of the freight costs, higher costs of operation, lower sales volumes, and higher wages in Alaska. Most perishable produce costs about $1.00 more per pound in Alaska than in the lower 48. However, Alaskans currently pay no state income taxes and real estate prices are comparable to those in the rest of the US. Residents of a number of the boroughs (similar to counties) in Alaska also pay no property or sales taxes.
Alaska, Russia, and Japan
The 1867 sale of Alaska created a 1,500-mile sea border between the US and Russia. This is the longest border that Russia shares with any country. In addition to the border, eastern Russia and Alaska share a continental shelf, similar climate, flora and fauna, domesticated reindeer herds, the Russian Orthodox church, and at least 10,000 years of native settlement. The recent policy changes in the former USSR increased contacts between Alaska and Russia. Flights from Nome in the north and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians now depart for Russian cities. The port on the island of Attu, at the westernmost tip of the Aleutians, is now open to Soviet fishing ships. Contacts between Russian and American scientists who specialize in Arctic environments have become commonplace in recent years. In addition to Russia, the close proximity of Japan has made it a major market for Alaska's fishing industry, and the Japanese today are an important source of development capital and investment in the state.
The Last Frontier
People go to Alaska seeking opportunity, freedom, and sanity from the urban rat race. Some go to get lost in the wilds of Alaska, one of the last remaining places left in the US where that can still be done. Many who go to Alaska find what they are seeking. For many others, their stay is only a temporary respite before returning to the lower 48. The long, dark, and cold days of winter can easily bring on depression. The isolation and sense of independence can be more than one bargained for. In every respect, however, Alaska remains "The Last Frontier."
the Sun Stopped Shining
If the sun were to stop shining at 6 p.m. (sunset) on Monday with an average global surface temperature of 80 degrees F,