The Yukon River, seen here as a wide white band, is freezing later in fall and breaking up earlier in spring than it was a few decades ago. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

The Yukon River, seen here as a wide white band, is freezing later in fall and breaking up earlier in spring than it was a few decades ago. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Alaska Science Forum: Long-term views of a changed Alaska

As an instructor for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I have stood before a group of Alaskans every Tuesday night this November. During the most recent class session of Ned Rozell’s Alaska I asked 17 people what changes they have noticed in this giant peninsula during their time here.

These are long-haul Alaskans: Class members have combined for 747 years of living in the state. The average number of years each of them has lived here is 44!

Last week, a few were talking about changes they could feel as they walked into the Geophysical Institute’s Elvey Building.

The air temperature outside that door was 20 degrees F. The average for Fairbanks for the first 28 days of November 2023 was 15.7 degrees F, much warmer than the long-term November average of 4.1 degrees.

The paucity of stinging air and nostalgia for cars bumping along on wheels squared by 50 below was a common theme.

Sue McHenry remembered when she chose Halloween costumes for her kids that fit over snowsuits, “because it was 25 below.”

Ken Russell visited Kaktovik, a community in northern Alaska, in the early 1990s and saw sea ice hugging the shore in late summer. “But by a decade ago there was no ice to be seen,” he said. “It was 300 miles offshore.”

The dwindling extent and thickness of ice that forms on the ocean off the northern and western coasts of Alaska has been a major reason northern Alaska has warmed at five times the global average since the early 1970s. A dark ocean does not reflect the sun’s energy like blue/white sea ice. It absorbs heat that would have been reflected to space.

Janna Miller was born in Fairbanks on a January day long ago when the temperature dropped to minus 45. That was part of the reason her family soon moved to Chugiak, she said. In that town and most of Southcentral Alaska, she remembers being able to cross-country ski all winter long. Now, she says, it seems like Southcentral experiences four or five “breakups” each winter: Rain falls on the snowpack and wrecks the skiing. Then it gets cold again.

Larry Fogleson and others spoke of the rain-on-snow event in Fairbanks on Dec. 26, 2021 that turned local roads into a skating rink. It also created an inch-thick pane of ice within the snowpack that forced moose to wander the roads and trails.

Linda Casassa was in the Southwest Alaska village of Chuathbaluk in the winter of 2008 or 2009 when the Kuskokwim River ice moved downriver in midwinter. It usually stays locked in place once it freezes. “No elder had seen it before,” she said.

Because a thawed-ground-induced landslide closed the only road into Denali National Park, Krista Holbrook can no longer duplicate a drive she had repeated many times over the years.

Ann Wood O’Brien mentioned how she and her friends could no longer fish for Chinook and chum salmon on the Yukon River due to dwindling numbers of fish. Though she and others often faced fishing restrictions for Chinooks, runs of chum salmon seemed almost infinite less than a decade ago.

Laurel Devaney spoke about how milder Fairbanks winters are more hospitable for birds that now seem to be able to overwinter here, such as golden-crowned kinglets. Tennessee warblers are now also breeding in Alaska (while still overwintering in Central America).

Barb Pierson guides groups of Alaska visitors north from Fairbanks into the Arctic. During the recent past, she has noticed the enhanced growth of dwarf birch shrubs north of the Brooks Range. She has also watched as the larval stage of aspen leaf miners have etched leaves from Fairbanks to as far north as aspens grow along the Dalton Highway.

All of the seasoned Alaskans noticed what scientists call “Arctic amplification,” the accelerated warming at extreme northern latitudes. But they agreed that all is not yet lost. Nor is it all unpleasant.

“The temperature is warmer now, and I like it,” said Carol DeVoe, who has lived in Alaska since 1961. “I get outside every day and I don’t like (the extreme cold) that lasts for weeks.”

Doug Best said that his air-cooled Volkswagen bug would probably be more feasible now than it was in the frigid 1970s, when he set the car on fire trying to keep the battery warm.

I had hesitated to talk about climate change because I had figured it might bum people out, but my audience didn’t get too worked up.

Mike Potter — the class leader with 81 years in the state — summed up the mood when asked what he thought about the many changes he has seen.

“I’m the type of person who accepts what’s there,” he said.

• 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 is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

A chum salmon decays after spawning on the upper Chena River near Fairbanks. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

A chum salmon decays after spawning on the upper Chena River near Fairbanks. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Sun strikes Fairbanks for a few hours on a midwinter day. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Sun strikes Fairbanks for a few hours on a midwinter day. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

A trucker drives the Dalton Highway toward Prudhoe Bay beneath the withering Gates Glacier. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

A trucker drives the Dalton Highway toward Prudhoe Bay beneath the withering Gates Glacier. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

More in Sports

Barn swallows firmly attach their nests to walls, so they support the weight of nestlings and visiting adults.  (Photo by Bob Amrstrong)
On the Trails: Spring to summer

Spring temperatures were cool this year, but the lengthening days gave birds… Continue reading

In the spirit of Dolly Parton’s country music roots, race participant Mendenhall River Community School Principal Eric Filardi runs in costume with young Lucy Vogel wearing heart-shaped sunglasses as they enjoy the sunny Saturday weather on the Airport Dike Trail race course. About 85 runners participated, many wearing pearls and pink hats provided at the starting tent. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)
Busting out the pink and pearls at the first Dolly Dash

Dolly Parton-inspired fun run raises funds for free books for kids.

People often use sea ice, as seen here off Alaska’s northern coast outside the town of Utqiagvik, for travelling. (Photo by Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Did sea ice help populate the Americas?

Human footprints preserved in mud at White Sands National Park in New… Continue reading

A cruise ship makes its way through early morning fog last summer. The passengers who have been arriving lately have not been experiencing similar tranquility. (Photo by Jeff Lund)
I Went to the Woods: Racing the weather

Daylight is unstoppable this time of year. Not like up in the… Continue reading

Juneau’s Nate Fick leaps to make a catch while another Eagle River run scores during the opening game Thursday of the Division I Alaska School Activities Association Baseball State Championships. (Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report)
Crimson Bears finish sixth at state baseball tournament, coach calls season promising for young team

JDHS loses to Chugiak in consolation finale; scenarios for next season expand due to TMHS merger.

Brown-headed cowbirds are professional egg-dumpers, always parasitizing the nests of other species. (CC BY 2.0 public domain photo).
On the Trails: Egg dumping behavior

Egg-dumping refers to the behavior of a female who puts her eggs… Continue reading

Members of the Thunder Mountain High School softball team pose for a shot following their 18-0 victory against North Pole High School on Friday during the Division II Alaska School Activities Association Softball State Championships in Fairbanks. (Thunder Mountain Softball photo)
Final flight of the TMHS Falcons ends with 6-4 loss on final day of state softball tournament

“It’s been a fun ride,” coach says as team wins conference title, goes 29-12 during its final season.

Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé’s Landon Simonson is greeted at home after hitting a grand slam on Friday during the Division I Alaska School Activities Association Baseball State Championships in Anchorage. (Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report)
JDHS baseball, TMHS softball teams make it to final day of state tournaments

Crimson Bears play for consolation title after grand slam win Friday; Falcons still in title hunt

The Fairbanks Experimental Farm on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus opened in 1906. (UAF photo by Todd Paris, taken in September 2014)
Alaska Science Forum: The gardening potential of the Last Frontier

More than 100 years ago, a man traveled north on a mission… Continue reading

Thunder Mountain High School’s Ashlyn Gates, seen here pitching against Sitka High School during the Region V softball conference tournament last Saturday in Juneau, was named player of the game in an 8-0 win over Delta Junction High School to open the state softball title tournament on Thursday in Fairbanks. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire file photo)
TMHS wins state softball tournament openers 8-0, 16-1; JDHS falls short in baseball title quest

Falcons face Kodiak High School on Friday, Crimson Bears play consolation game against Colony.

Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé’s Ida Meyer (301) and Etta Eller (294) lead the 3,200 at the ASAA/First National Bank Alaska Track and Field State Championships on Saturday. (Pete Pounds / Alaska Sports Report)
JDHS’ Etta Eller takes gold, Ida Meyer silver in 3,200 at state track and field championships

Eller also wins 1,600; Wilder Dillingham wins 200 during event in Anchorage.

An orange-crowned warbler looks for bugs on a willow (Photo by K.M. Hocker)