Akasofu at his office in the building on the UAF campus named after him. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Akasofu at his office in the building on the UAF campus named after him. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Alaska Science Forum: Syun-Ichi Akasofu’s Alaska journey

It started 60 years ago .

By Ned Rozell

On a December night more than 60 years ago, a 28-year-old Japanese student touched down in Fairbanks, Alaska. He set down his suitcase as he stepped off the plane and looked northward, hoping to see the aurora borealis.

On Dec. 4, 2020, Syun-Ichi Akasofu will celebrate his 90th year on the planet. Akasofu has lived in Fairbanks ever since that frigid evening of his arrival, back when Alaska was not even a state.

Syun-Ichi Akasofu smiles while on a mountaineering trip shortly after his arrival in Alaska in 1958. (Courtesy Photo / Syun-Ichi Akasofu)

Syun-Ichi Akasofu smiles while on a mountaineering trip shortly after his arrival in Alaska in 1958. (Courtesy Photo / Syun-Ichi Akasofu)

Here, he became an authority on the aurora, and after that the director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He later used his reputation and connections to establish the International Arctic Research Center. His look-away-from-the-crowd nature once made a writer describe him as Alaska’s climate change skeptic.

Wearing suspenders and a button-up dress shirt, Akasofu would — every weekday until the 2020 pandemic — drive 3 miles into the university for a few hours. His work space is a cubicle in the Akasofu Building. That sun-catching, metal-and-glass structure on the highest part of the Fairbanks campus houses a science institute — the International Arctic Research Center — that would not exist without him.

Akasofu’s Alaska journey began when he wrote a letter to Sydney Chapman, a British space physicist who lived a reverse-snowbird existence, living in Fairbanks in the winter and Boulder, Colorado, in the summer.

University of Alaska officials had persuaded Chapman, an authority on the electrical activity in the thin air a few hundred miles above our heads, to come to Alaska. He said yes, but only if he didn’t have to be an administrator and could work on his studies.

Akasofu was interested in the aurora and was having trouble understanding a space-physics paper Chapman had written.

Chapman replied to Akasofu’s letter. He answered a few Akasofu’s questions and asked if the young man might want to answer some himself, in Alaska. Chapman included a check for $500. Akasofu spent the money on a ticket to Alaska.

Akasofu and Sydney Chapman after one of Chapman’s walks on the UAF campus. (Courtesy Photo / Syun-Ichi Akasofu)

Akasofu and Sydney Chapman after one of Chapman’s walks on the UAF campus. (Courtesy Photo / Syun-Ichi Akasofu)

That $500 gamble paid off for Chapman, who was looking for graduate students to populate the Geophysical Institute.

Akasofu looked at films of aurora from stations all over the top of the globe. He saw how the aurora was an oval, rather than a perfect-circle halo around Earth’s poles, which was the theory at the time. He later noticed nightly patterns of auroral explosions, which he called “substorms.” Akasofu’s 1964 paper on substorms, co-authored with Chapman, became a classic scientists still cite today.

Despite him establishing a paradigm, Akasofu said he is not a fan of scientific theories set in concrete. He once challenged students and researchers to trust their instincts.

“When you find something that doesn’t fit, don’t throw it away,” he said in 1998. “You may be wrong, but if you’re convinced you’re right, pursue it. You might be the one who establishes the next theory or paradigm.”

Akasofu speaks with his friend Alaska Sen.Ted Stevens. (Courtesy Photo / Syun-Ichi Akasofu)

Akasofu speaks with his friend Alaska Sen.Ted Stevens. (Courtesy Photo / Syun-Ichi Akasofu)

A career contrarian, Akasofu after retirement studied the history of global temperatures. He pointed out that if one looked at climate records from long enough ago, a person could argue we are living in a warm period between ice ages. His contemporaries were not all thrilled with this theory, especially after Rush Limbaugh and others cited Akasofu’s arguments.

Their reactions reminded him of earlier in his career, when reviewers rejected ideas in his space-physics papers using the words “naive,” “rebellious” and “mystical.” He kept a list of those words in his office.

Akasofu has come a long way from the Nagano, Japan, where one of his first memories is his mother singing him a song about Siberia. The 5-year-old boy could understand most of the lyrics, except for “aurora borealis.” She told him it was “something beautiful in the sky.”

His interest in the aurora, beneath which Akasofu has lived most of his life, led him from research to management. He became the director of both the Geophysical Institute and later the International Arctic Research Center.

The latter was first planned as an expansion of the Geophysical Institute but evolved into its own research entity. Akasofu raised millions to make construction possible, finding contributors in Japan and anywhere he could.

I remember a photo from the groundbreaking for the International Arctic Research Center. Akasofu was standing there in a hard hat, in a line with other university bigwigs. Very serious. But on closer look, he was holding up two fingers behind the hard hat of the man next to him.

He laughs a lot. I’ve wondered how much that endearing trait contributed to this boyish Japanese guy rising to such a high rank in America.

He was the director of the Geophysical Institute when I first hiked along the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline in 1997 and wrote columns along the way. He said he wanted to come along with me for a bit of walking, but he was a busy guy.

One warm summer morning, as a friend and I camped on the north bank of the Yukon River, we heard the whop-whop-whop of a helicopter. It landed nearby, and out of a cloud of dust stepped Akasofu, along with the president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. We chatted for a bit, then he passed us a bag of cookies his wife, Emiko, had baked.

A month later, on the wintry day I completed that 800-mile walk, Akasofu showed up at Prudhoe Bay. In Pump Station One, where Alyeska officials let me stay for the night, Akasofu walked in wearing hiking boots and wool socks. He shook my hand, said good job, and handed my dog, Jane, a rawhide bone the size of a mammoth femur.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in News

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Friday, Jan. 22

The most recent state and local numbers.

A Coast Guard Station Juneau 45-foot Response Boat-Medium patrols Auke Bay during an exercise in 2018. A response boat similar to the one in the photo was struck by a laser near Ketchikan on Saturday, Jan. 17, prompting an investigation into the crime. (Lt. Brian Dykens / U.S. Coast Guard)
Coast Guard wants information after laser pointed at boat

“Laser strikes jeopardize the safety of our boat crews…”

The valleys of Jim River and Prospect Creek in northern Alaska, where an official thermometer registered Alaska’s all-time low of minus 80 degrees F on Jan. 23, 1971. Photo by Ned Rozell
Alaska’s all-time cold record turns 50

The camp was there to house workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Thursday, Jan. 21

The most recent state and local numbers.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses the public during a virtual town hall on Sept. 15, 2020 in Alaska. ( Courtesy Photo / Austin McDaniel, Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy pitches dividend change amid legislative splits

No clear direction has emerged from lawmakers.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom, right, wearing a bib with ExxonMobil lettering on it, congratulates Peter Kaiser on his win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska. The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor as the Iditarod prepares for a scaled-back version of this year’s race because of the pandemic, officials said Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. ExxonMobil confirmed to The Associated Press that the oil giant will drop its sponsorship of the race. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
ExxonMobil becomes latest sponsor to sever Iditarod ties

The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Friday, Jan. 22, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, orange, isolated from a patient.	(THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/National Institutes of Health)
State reports 24 COVID-19 deaths

Only 1 of the deaths happened recently, according to the state.

Most Read