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Alaska was much different 25 years ago when this writer arrived

Ned Rozell
Courtesy Ned Rozell

Not long ago, I passed a milestone that doesn’t really mean much but is a nice round number. Twenty-five years ago, I drove a Ford Courier pickup from upstate New York to Fairbanks, Alaska. I rolled into town in August, started college in September, and have lived here ever since.

Twenty-five years isn’t such a long time, but it’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Scientists consider one quarter-century a long-term study, and I wish I followed that professor’s advice long ago when she urged I stake out a forest plot and measure its changes through the years. And I should have picked up a few pounds of gold back when it was $326 per ounce instead of $1,600.

Other things have changed in 25 years.

Back then, Canada had no Nunavut and Alaska had a Sheldon Point (now the village of Nunam Iqua). The oil tanker now known as Oriental Nicety plowed through Alaska waters with Exxon Valdez on its hull, soon to become famous.

I remember a few things vividly from that time. The scent of burned spruce was in the air on the lonely road to Alaska; 6.5 million acres of Alaska burned that summer, about six times Alaska’s yearly average of more than 1 million acres per year. Last summer, fewer than 300,000 acres burned.

After a few weeks in town, I watched on TV inside the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Wood Center as a baseball trickled through Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs at a pivotal moment in the 1986 World Series. Outside, the ground was hardening on a chilly October night. A few years later, I felt the sting of my coldest-ever Alaska air; in January 1989, my home thermometer bottomed out at minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though it was right next to the wood stove, my dog’s water dish froze to the floor.

Despite a recent trend toward warmer temperatures in Alaska and elsewhere, the coldest calendar month I’ve experienced was January 2012, when Fairbanks’ average temperature was minus 27 degrees.

To my great disappointment, I was driving through Montana in 2002 when I heard on the radio of a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in Interior Alaska (where I was going). The Denali Fault Earthquake was one of only two Alaska earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater in the past 25 years. Though I was here in December 2007, I have no story for the 7.2 earthquake in the western Aleutians, which was too far away to shake books from my shelves. I have, though, detected a few of the 1,382 earthquakes greater than magnitude 5 that have occurred in and near Alaska since 1986.

Alaska volcanoes have erupted 58 times since I’ve lived here; Mount Cleveland has blown 11 times in that span, but the most notable for their proximity to Anchorage have been Mount Spurr in 1992, Mount Redoubt in 1989 and 2009 and Augustine Volcano in 1986 and 2005. Ash from an Alaska volcano has never stranded me in an airport, but Kasatochi came close in 2008 when I traveled a few days after its ash cloud cancelled or delayed 44 flights in and out of Anchorage.

Alaska’s permafrost, as monitored in boreholes along the length of the trans-Alaska pipeline, has for the most part warmed in the last quarter century, leaving much of it in Interior Alaska within one degree of thawing. But, for some unknown reason, permafrost at the Yukon River Bridge and Livengood has become a bit cooler.

The first glacier I ever stepped on, the Canwell in the Alaska Range, is much smaller now than it was then. Glaciers worldwide have shrunk by about the height of a two-story house in the last 25 years, with Alaska glaciers among the biggest losers.

Alaska’s human population has increased at a lesser rate than the whole world, which has absorbed 2 billion new souls in the last quarter century (from 4.92 to 6.92 billion).

Alaska is still home to more caribou than people, but we are catching up — there were 722,718 of us in 2011, compared to the 550,000 when I cleared the border station at Beaver Creek and chugged the few hundred miles to a new home.

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Contact him here.