Saturday Wrap-Up: Squirrels on the mind

Arctic ground squirrels are Alaska’s Rosetta stone to unlocking hibernation. Hibernation’s an amazing skill to have. It helps us understand how zombies and lengthy space travel could exist. I’ve talked about how ground squirrels avoid heart attacks when putting their body through the jolt of hibernation — a skill humans would like to learn.

“What the Supercool Arctic Ground Squirrel Teaches Us about the Brain’s Resilience” – This week, Scientific American took its readers on a trip across the street from researcher Kelly Drew, to Brian Barnes’s lab.

One of the things Barnes studies is torpor — it’s a sleep-like state animals enter during the hibernation season. As in, ground squirrels wake up in the winter — briefly. This is key to their survival, the article points out. The article journeys into ground squirrel brains and examines individual neurons throughout the winter months.

Yes, it’s a short wrap-up today. We’re getting ready for a trip to Eagle Summit tomorrow. Never been out there, quite excited to see what plants we can find.


Ice Lens: Relics dot boreal landscape with glimpses into unwritten history

Mysterious machinery in the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research forest on June 11, 2012. 

Yesterday, we were trudging through a third of a mile of brush back to the car when my supervisor told me we had to swing by a tree stand. I glanced up. We were surrounded by a field of Labrador tea, young trees, and dead burnt black spruce twisted and bent like driftwood. Past that, a birch and alder forest signaled our upcoming uphill climb.

“We walked through that stand of trees to get here,” I thought. “Why are we walking out of our way to re-enter the same forest?”

I shifted the shovel to my other shoulder and tried to catch up. When I looked up again, I saw a platform of wood bridging two trees.

“Oh! Another moose lookout!”

“That’s what I was talking about,” my supervisor said. Oh, that kind of tree stand. Another reminder that I’m not up-to-date in hunter vernacular.

I can’t write about the Alaska outdoors without talking about the people who enjoy them. Rather, what they leave behind. We pass by reminders of human recreation and resourcefulness every day — logs that trucks haven’t collected, a moose camp with a gorgeous red-stone-ringed firepit and a derelict house boat surrounded by grassy dry land.

I’m no urban explorer, but Adak’s abandoned buildings tickled a newfound interest in these sorts of artifacts. How eerie it is to find buildings without residents. It’s nearly as enchanting to walk through a forest four days a week to spot our flagging, holes in the ground and plywood grids. Humanity’s leftovers are everywhere, inviting you to mull over their stories long after their owners forget about them.

The forest leaves its own teasers for us, too. We next visited a steep hillside with moss-covered quartz jutting out from under a thin layer of soil. We passed by a spot where the ground collapsed in on itself some years ago, revealing soil and rock and enterprising lichen. Much deeper, wider and longer than I am tall. Did an ice lens melt?

“Put some flagging around it and we could have called it the soil pit for this site,” I said. The hillside was cutting off its own clothing to reveal its history to us, but we ignored the mysterious offering for science’s sake. We kept our own slice of earth smaller and more symmetrical, but the degrading, rough-hewn, nature-made pit was more memorable.

More of the arm, surrounded by trees, fireweed and one very angry bird. June 11, 2012.

A few weeks ago, we discovered a crane arm in the alder off the road, rusted over and boasting well-greased pulleys. No telling why it was there — a forgotten mining dredge, perhaps? The alder and grasses ignored it, a bird chattered at us angrily from a nearby nest.

We spun the pulleys, created a story for the arm and went on our way.

What man-made have you seen around the Alaska forests? How do you feel when you see them?

(as a side note, if I had my phone on me yesterday, you all would be treated to a picture of me underneath the moose lookout with the caption “I under stand.” The low battery saved you from that one.)

Saturday Wrap-Up: Gold, red and swept-away treasures

A soccer ball with Japanese writing, which came from a school in the tsunami zone and later washed up on an Alaskan island. The ball was found on Middleton Island in March, and more debris is headed for Alaska. (Photo by David Baxter via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Happy weekend! Glorious and sunny here in Fairbanks, but the clouds are starting to roll in. For today’s Saturday Wrap-Up, we’re going to take a break from the boreal and travel around the state to see how the summer is going for treasure hunters.

Crew will attempt to recover millions from Southeast Alaska shipwreck – A 1901 Gold Rush-era shipwreck is at the top of the salvage list for the state. Up to 3,000 shipwrecks litter the coastline, and lucky Ocean Mar, Inc. gets to look for gold on the SS Islander off the coast of Admiralty Island.

Excellent news for the treasure hunters in all of us, but closer to home, the red gemstone of Alaska’s rivers and dinner tables isn’t doing too well this year.

Dismal king salmon returns across Alaska stokes fear of a crisis – Empty nets keep returning to homes in Fairbanks. Salmon runs have been terrible this year. It’s too late even for a late start, but the late ice might have had something to do with it, according to this Dispatch article (from Suzanna Caldwell, formerly of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner). No matter when the first pulse does come, it looks to be a disappointing year.

And for those who find treasure in trash, we return to Southeast Alaska…

Scientists kick-off first NOAA-led survey of Southeast beaches for tsunami debris – The first wave of debris from Japan’s tsunami last year is hitting Alaska shorelines, according to Ketchikan-based SitNews. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists will cruise up and down the coasts of Southeast Alaska to survey what items made their way to Alaska. Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski asked President Barack Obama and NOAA for funds to clean up and track the debris. Up to three billion pounds of trash will journey to Alaska, Begich said, cluttering the state’s coastal ecosystems with plastics.

What’s happening this summer in your life? How does Alaska reassert its power over you each summer — and, should you face it, what treasures does it hold?

Saturday Wrap-Up: Birch, bears and Denali basecamp

Happy weekend! Today marks the beginning of a new weekly series here at Boreal Bites, the Saturday Wrap-Up. I’ve curated links from Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, news — looking everywhere I can for anything I can find — and fetched for you the most intriguing stories of the bunch.

Whether you’re able to enjoy an iced tea this summer Saturday, or are warming yourself with a mug of coffee in your unheated dry cabin, I hope you’ll look through the gems of the week.

I have the outdoors on my mind today — Alaskans transform summer into a series of short trips, several-day excursions, or all-out expeditions, and here are examples of each of those.

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Scientist storytellers bridge the gap between life and textbooks

When I’m listening to an engaging story, I prefer to look away from the storyteller. Part of this is due to my poor hearing in crowds — I subconsciously turn my ear toward the person. I admit it’s also a lot easier for a story to engulf me if I’m not staring at the narrator. The best stories don’t require the expressions and hand motions of their tellers. I don’t want to be in the present, at the party, I want to see and touch and hear what the storyteller weaves for me.

Jad Abumrad of Radiolab fame appeared in a Big Think video to explain audio’s power over video.

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Stumps trump time travel by revealing decades in one glimpse

A stump bares its tales before and after death through rings and decomposition, May 26, 2012.

A conk sprouts from an old stump, May 26, 2012.

Your neighbor dies. No one knows why. With family consent, pathologists perform an autopsy to find the cause of death – be it a poison, allergic reaction or chronic malady. People you see every day look fine on the outside, not drastically different now than yesterday, or last year.

Between what you see and what doctors see is a scalpel, a cut, a way of making the unseen seen. What we cannot see is free to swell unchecked. Autopsies allow doctors to travel into the past and see how time, exposure and chance treated a person.

Place a hand on a stump of an old tree. If you walk your fingers ring-to-ring, you can explore and sidestep where (and often when) branches start, fires scar and fungi flourish. Here, as with humans, you can see what brought the tree down.

You can time travel with trees, visually and musically, and you and I likely have more access to stumps than cadavers and time machines, anyway.

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I give a few mosses their name tags and get a diploma in return

I found the strangest packet of tiny mosses while identifying — many species were half their regular size.

I’m done. Graduated. No longer a student fumbling through science and journalism — though I don’t know how to work through things any more now than I did last week.

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Alaskans can bring ‘Suburban Safari’ to their own backyards

Why do we put New Year’s resolutions smack in the middle of winter?

In Alaska, snowmelt refreshes the ecosystem, preparing it for spring’s rebirth. As the snow shrinks back, the season inches forward into spring. I’m noticing more activity – not because the chickadees, the ravens and the squirrels were not around in winter, but because I’m not rushing from place to place.

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Time sings and dances with or without the help of technology

A little more than a year ago, the show Radiolab set out to take the pulse of a city. It’s surprisingly predictable. People walk and talk at a different pace depending on where they live. All the melodies of different lives are set together against the same metronome.

It’s easy to appreciate the rhythm of cities. Simon Christen decided to transcend civilization’s buzzing and meet the steady thrum of the sky.

Everything is poetry when viewed on its own time scale, translated into senses we can understand. Time can sing.

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Fairbanks’s frigid history from the vantage point of a fantastically warm February

Richardson Highway bridge over Tanana River near Big Delta. Air temperature -40 degrees Fahrenheit. February 7, 1950. Photo by JR Williams via USGS

Finally, a breath of rejuvenating air. Fairbanks welcomed February by finally breaking 0 degrees, the temperatures highest in the hills.

Before we continue in celebration, may I ask for a moment of silence for dearly departed January? Fairbanks suffered through an average of minus 26.9 degrees, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. While Bettles, Galena, and Nome got bragging rights for the coldest January on record, Fairbanks settles for fifth place.

The record in Fairbanks has gone uncontested for more than 100 years. Which makes me wonder – what was Fairbanks like then?

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