Alaska Science Forum

Northern Alaska joins the cryosphere

A lake star on Smith Lake in interior Alaska.

Photo by Ned Rozell.

It's mid-October, 118 miles from the Arctic Circle. Time for a walk to work.
 
Since I last wrote about my three-mile commute through the raindrops of August, the 1,100 acres of boreal forest between my house and the university has undergone the most drastic change of the year. Ankle-deep snow covers the North Campus and most of Interior Alaska.
 
Steps on the forest floor, which sinks like a frozen piecrust, are silent. The wet snow soaked the crunch out of leaves. It's quieter still because thousands of bodies have moved on from their temporary occupation of the spruce. The kinglets, warblers, thrushes and even the lagging juncos have made their final leaps from northern branches.
 
Now, one hears only the locals on the North Campus: redpolls, pine siskins, chickadees, grosbeaks and ravens. It's possible that tundra swans — the last of the migrants to exit the dining room — are arcing overhead. But the forest has returned to its most common mode. This snow may stick until April.
 
Interior Alaska is once again part of the cryosphere, the area of the globe covered in white. Anchorage and southwest Alaska are not currently part of the cryosphere, but they will soon join. The average date of enduring snow in Anchorage is October 16.
 
Once it falls, snow takes care of its own preservation. The reflective albedo affect is so powerful it can cause an early winter. A remembered example: When eight inches of snow fell here in mid-September 1992, fall never returned, and the temperature plunged to 3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the month.
 
This morning's air pooling in UAF's cold spot is 6 degrees. Nearby Smith Lake, its summer-resident arctic terns now approaching Antarctica, is coated with a lid of gray strong enough to support a walker. The ice has blossomed with lake stars, spidery cracks extending from fist-size frozen holes. A physicist once explained how the stars grow: warmish lake water flows upward through the hole and flows out in radial tendrils that cool and freeze. Victor Tsai, the physicist, a the paper on lake stars after duplicating them in a Massachusetts lab.
 
This Alaska day will later warm above freezing, showing that the sun still has some punch. But the snow will stay, and the countdown to winter solstice has begun.
 
Near the lake, a spider looks out of place on the snow. A touch does not inspire it to move. The spider was perhaps blown from a tree into which it crawled a few weeks ago. Exposed to frigid air, it chose one of two strategies to overwinter: tolerate its body freezing or remain liquid after flooding its cells with spider antifreeze.
 
Looking up from the spider, I see a woman in ski hat and winter skirt approaching on the frozen trail. I recognize her from my daughter's school.
 
"Did you see the moon?" she says, referring to the blue-white ball dropping behind spears of white spruce in the T-Field. "We're so lucky to live here."
 
She is right. With this, the final of four columns of walking UAF's North Campus in different seasons, I have tried to engage my dull senses and share the wonders of my backyard. My inspiration is David George Haskill, a biologist from Tennessee who observed a patch of ground for one year. He then wrote The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature.
 
In his book, published in 2012, Haskill gave this advice for seeing what’s out there: “Leave behind expectations. Hoping for excitement, beauty, violence, enlightenment, or sacrament gets in the way of clear observation and will fog the mind with restlessness. Hope only for an enthusiastic openness of the senses.”

Since the late 1970s, the director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has supported the writing and free distribution of this column to news media outlets. This is Ned Rozell's 20th year as a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

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