Posted July 22, 2021
By Byron King
Baked Alaska: When I Visited the Burning North
The other day we had a weather advisory in the area where I live. Don’t go outside, exercise, jog, etc., all because there was too much particulate matter in the air.
The explanation was that fires out west, in Oregon and Washington, are emitting so much smoke that it’s all drifting across the country, back east. And our air is fouled, alas.
You likely know that it’s dry out west. Parts of the region are in the midst of long-term drought. In terms of weather, there’s what’s called a “heat dome” settled in. And this dryness and heat facilitates forest fires.
Now, for lack of other news (just kidding), the smoke has become a big story. Indeed, fires out west even made headlines in The New York Times: “Fire Generating Its Own Weather.”
This kind of news takes me back two years, when I was up in Alaska and the place was on fire. Seriously. There were fires everywhere. Alaska was burning. I even have photos! (See below…)
When a place like Alaska is burning, you might think it would have made the news, but it just wasn’t a story back then. I suppose it takes fouling the air in New York to become real.
Then again, those Alaska fires were very real. I spoke with a rep from the U.S. Forest Service who said that in 2019 his agency tracked over 400 separate blazes ranging from “small and not too significant” to mega-fires, some covering over 100,000 acres.
Let’s do some math. That is, 100,000 acres is over 156 square miles. Or not quite five times the area of the island of Manhattan. And there were many such big blazes, with land packages many times the size of Manhattan that went up in smoke.
Now what happened in Alaska has migrated south to the lower 48. So people are paying attention.
Let’s dig into this…
My story begins two years ago, pre-COVID, obviously. I traveled to Alaska to visit Trilogy Metals, a mineral exploration-development project in a very remote locale called Ambler, on the south slope of the Brooks Range.
If you’re not familiar with the Brooks Range, it’s about the size of the Appalachians, except it trends east-west across the top of Alaska, just south of the fabled North Slope. Yes, despite being vast, the Brooks Range gets kind of lost unless you’re into geography.
Here’s a map of Alaska, showing major cities and the state’s extensive array of national parks. Ambler is on the southwest side of Gates of the Arctic National Park. It’s inland, about 125 miles from the Bering Sea.
You want remote? This area in northwest Alaska is remote! And you might think — well, at least I thought — that this part of Alaska would be near-pristine. Plenty of unspoiled nature.
Yes, the “nature” is mostly unspoiled. As in, it’s not spoiled by the hand of man. There are few people and almost no roads. No power lines. Next to no development. The human footprint is just a scattering of native villages, where people live a relative subsistence existence through fishing and hunting, albeit with snowmobiles in winter and all-terrain vehicles in summer.
For a semblance of modernity, people in the area haul supplies via airplane, leading to $100 boxes of laundry detergent. And in winter, they haul items via snow-sleds or the occasional “ice road” up a frozen stream. It’s a tough, basic “au naturel” existence.
The human impact in this area is minimal. Then again, nature can be vicious; and in this case, she was a real pyromaniac in Alaska.
When I was there, vast swaths of Alaska and its forests were quite dry, and they have been that way for a while. The state has had several years of drier-than-normal winters, and not as much summer rain as in the past.
According to a statement by NASA in 2019, “An upper-level ridge of high pressure that slid over Alaska in June 2019 unleashed a heat wave of astonishing intensity.” It’s part of a NASA article entitled “Historic Heat in Alaska.” (((REF: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145294/historic-heat-in-alaska )))
Here’s NASA’s heat map of the state, from early July 2019.
With the heat and dry forests, even a modest lightning strike can cook off a blaze. And when I was there, we had many blazes.
My site visit to Ambler began in Fairbanks, about the middle of the state (see map above). Then to get to Ambler you must fly because there are no roads.
We took off from Fairbanks International Airport in a single-engine Cessna Caravan. I was in the co-pilot’s seat. At about 400 feet above the runway, we flew into smoke and haze. Visibility simply went away.
Smoke and haze above Fairbanks International Airport. BWK photo.
We climbed out, 3,000 feet, 5,000 feet, 8,000 feet… smoke and haze.
This crud out the window was not really “weather.” There were no significant clouds. The air was rather smooth, actually. Just smoke and haze, along with a pungent odor of burnt wood.
Here’s a shot of the mighty Yukon River, wending its way west, with the south peaks of the Brooks Range in the far background.
Yukon River and south peaks of the Brooks Range, occluded by smoke. BWK photo.
Oh, wait. Not much of a view, sad to say. It’s because of all those fine particulates in the air from ground fires.
As a matter of federal aviation law, visibility was so limited that we were flying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The pilot and I hawked the instruments for most of the time as we headed northwest of Fairbanks, about 325 miles toward the Ambler area.
Flying on instruments, Fairbanks to Ambler. BWK photo.
I was of mixed emotions here. It was fun to fly on instruments. And it’s been a while since I had an instrument rating, although it’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back to you.
Then again, I had anticipated seeing some fabulous scenery. Alas… I mostly witnessed visible occlusion by smoke and haze.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Brooks Range, occluded. BWK photo.
We made it to the area we wanted to visit. As geology goes, the Ambler site is superb. It’s a fabulous belt of mineralized rock, rich in copper, zinc, lead… and gold and silver.
Once there we did some “helicopter geology,” which involved hopping from ridge to ridge. Beats climbing mountain slopes, that’s for sure.
Eventually, there was a break in the smoke and haze. The atmosphere wasn’t exactly pristine, but you could see what you wanted to see.
Your editor on a ridge near Ambler, Alaska. BWK photo.
When we flew back to Fairbanks, it was more of the same. More smoke. More haze.
Flight back to Fairbanks. Smoke, haze. BWK photo.
But really, “baked Alaska” just doesn’t seem normal to me. I’ve been up there many times, from Seward in the south to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay in the north. I’ve even stood on the ice of the Beaufort Sea.
And yes, there are summer forest fires. But that summer of 2019 we saw something unusual, which prompted me to investigate some more. I learned that in recent years, heat waves and Arctic-region fires aren’t confined just to Alaska.
For example, per the Russian news site RT, “An unprecedented number of wildfires have been ravaging the Arctic for weeks following the hottest June ever recorded on Earth. Now the fires are so huge and intense, the smoke can literally be seen from space.”
Forest fire smoke, visible from space. Courtesy NASA.
According to RT, “Satellite images show more than 100 long-lived wildfires with huge plumes of swirling black smoke covering most of the Arctic Circle including parts of Russia, Siberia, Greenland and Alaska.”
Much of this may be due to the jet stream “meandering.” That is, the jet stream is a west-to-east flow of air in the Northern Hemisphere. In the past it moved fairly straight. But now, it’s changing shape and meandering in a loopy, north-south fashion.
The jet stream loopiness emplaces high-pressure dry air in certain locales — like Alaska — and prevents low-pressure moist air from moving in to provide rainfall.
Now this year, that same jet stream is looping even more to the south. It’s blocking movement of wet air from the Pacific Ocean into the western U.S. Then on the northerly turn, in about midcontinent North America, it moves moist air up into the Midwest and New England, bringing more than usual amounts of rain.
There are many questions here. Is this jet stream perturbation a temporary phenomenon? Will we have just a year or two, or perhaps a few years at most, of this heat and dryness? And then will things resolve back to previous trend lines?
Or are we witnessing a long-term phenomenon?
One thing is for sure. It’s hard to say. Nobody really knows the answers. Even so-called climate “experts” disagree. And as to my expertise, I’m a geologist, not a climate guy.
Still, I recall a geological field trip, some years ago in Alaska. Our group began at the Pacific coastline in the south. We drove all the way north to Prudhoe Bay.
Along the way we crossed mountain ranges, valleys, rivers… and looked at all manner of geological phenomena during the adventure.
One of my companions was a Ph.D.-level forester. He wasn’t so much interested in the rocks as in the flora and fauna.
Along one stretch, we drove past mile after mile of native Sitka spruce trees and observed the changes in how plants adapt to different elevations and microclimates. The forester kept referring to the “fire cycle.”
In essence, natural forests evolve over time. They reach a point at which the soil is crowded with root systems. The airspace aboveground is crowded with branches. Everything from bacteria in the soil to trees growing to whatever height is competing for sunlight, water and soil nutrients.
In Alaska, the life of a “climax” forest is from 200–400 years. The end state is a crowded ecosystem of plants. And then there’s no escaping the inevitable.
That is, a dry spell comes along. And per the fossil records, there have been many dry spells over the past 10,000 years since the glaciers retreated.
When forests dry out, they burn down. It’s going to happen. All you need is lightning, which is quite common. Then you combine heat, fuel and oxygen… there’s your fire triangle.
Forest fires may seem unsightly and inconvenient to our human way of observing things. They lead to smoke and weather advisories. You’re not supposed to go out and exercise, jog, etc.
But in nature, fire clears out old growth and leaves ash, which renews the soil. It all sets the stage for the next cycle of regrowth and renewal.
Meanwhile, if you thought I was going to make some pointed comment about “climate change,” and how it’s going to kill us all off, well… no. Although what happens to forests also tends to happen to governments if you want to analogize.
But like I said, I’m a geologist. I simply accept the changing nature of the Earth. Natural cycles come and go. And I’ve always liked the quip by the historian Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”
I certainly wish more people thought that way…
And on this last point, I’ll rest my case.
Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Byron W. King
P.S. Feel free to forward Whiskey & Gunpowder to friends, family and colleagues. If you received this article from someone and would like to subscribe, click here. Thank you.