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Kivalina's great orange goo mystery takes another twist

Alex DeMarban
McQueen School with children playing on the playground in September 2011.
The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment photo
The Kivalina seawall after the November 2011 storm.
Photo courtesy Janet Mitchell
The coastal village of Kivalina in Northwestern Alaska
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Kivalina seawall in 2009.
Peter Law photo
The narrow village of Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
The remote Alaska village of Kivalina in winter.
Alaska Dispatch staff
An old church bell in Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
A honeybucket dump in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
A whalebone arch in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
A sandbar off Kivalina, Alaska
Tony Hopfinger photo

Recent headlines have declared Alaska's orange goo mystery solved, but how did a parasitic fungus that needs spruce trees to survive end up near a treeless Northwest Alaska village?  

"Someone please show me where all the spruce trees are," joked Colleen Swan, a city councilwoman in the Inupiat village of about 400. "Gosh, I would like to climb a spruce tree. Or even know what one looks like."

Millie Hawley, tribal president and environmental manager for the regional health organization, said the country around Kivalina is treeless tundra unless you count the "invasive" willow and alder trees that have grown up from shrubs in recent years.

Marci Johnson also knows the lay of the land. She's a biologist for the Western Arctic National Parklands headquartered in Kotzebue. She recently conducted aerial musk-oxen counts in the area, descending to check out "every little black dot." If there are spruce trees anywhere near Kivalina, they're pretty random -- maybe a scraggly one here and there, she said.

But in an unprecedented event that baffled the village last year, fungus spores colored the lagoon and the Wulik River mouth near Kivalina orange, generating Internet speculation about the mysterious blob's origin. Some of the orange stuff ended up in buckets for collecting rainwater, too.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration erroneously determined the substance was millions of microscopic eggs. Later, the U.S. Forest Service and the Canadian Forest Service eventually fingered the culprit: spores from Spruce-Labrador Tea Needle Rust. The rust colors both spruce tree needles and Labrador tea leaves orange, and relies on both hosts to thrive. There's plenty of Labrador tea around Kivalina, though Hawley said people didn't report seeing any discolored leaves last summer or fall when they were out berry picking.

Despite the big news, the Forest Service never sent anyone to the scene. Rust doesn't endanger humans or its hosts, and the agency generally doesn't spend money to investigate harmless outbreaks, said Nick Lisuzzo, with the Forest Service in Fairbanks.

But Forest Service experts were pretty certain the rust spores caused the colored water, in part because the state has a history of large outbreaks of the spruce-rust, said Robin Mulvey, a forest pathologist in Juneau. Using a scanning electron microscope, an expert determined that the spore's physical characteristics showed it indeed was Spruce-Labrador tea needle rust. The expert determined it came from spruce needles, not Labrador tea leaves, said Mulvey, with the division of Forest Health Protection.  

Looking at maps and plant species at the University of Alaska Fairbanks herbarium, Lisuzzo determined there are known stands of white-spruce trees in the Northwest region, though the nearest ones are 40 miles south and east of Kivalina.

But based on those known stands, it's not unreasonable to think there are other spruce stands well up the rivers feeding into the lagoon. After drifting off trees, the spores may have floated downstream, ending up at the Wulik River mouth and in the lagoon, said Mulvey.

But how did the spores get into the villagers' water buckets? They could have drifted miles and miles on the wind, Mulvey said. But she added there's not conclusive evidence the fungus came from white spruce, since genetic testing wasn’t done.

Everyone agrees the mystery remains open. Villagers say they'll be on the lookout for rust on Labrador tea leaves when they're out picking berries. Johnson, the park service biologist based in Kotzebue, said she'd like to have "citizen scientists" keep an eye out and report any rust they find. And maybe the Forest Service will also make a special trip for an aerial survey in the Kivalina area this summer, said Mulvey.

"It'd be nice to see if this is continuing, and the fact more people are aware of this, maybe we'll get reports from them," she said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com