Above the Yukon River, beyond the vast Brooks Range, nearly 80,000 square miles
of tundra unrolls a carpet of delicate wildflowers to meet the Arctic coast. The population of the North Slope and Northwest
Alaska boroughs, which cover almost all of Arctic Alaska, is about 10,500. Nome
and Alaska’s two largest Eskimo communities, Kotzebue and Barrow, are the major
settlements in this region, with many smaller villages scattered throughout.
This is the traditional territory of the Inupiat
people, and Native culture and natural phenomena highlight this region.
Inupiat Eskimos still hunt from small boats, residents dry fish on top of their
houses and traditional dances and celebrations are held. Ancestors of today’s
Inupiat used to collect chunks of oil-soaked tundra and use it as fuel.
Arctic Region is bounded by the
Beaufort Sea to the north, the Chukchi Sea to the west, and north from
the southern edge of the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. It is
crossed by numerous northward-flowing rivers, the largest of which is
the Colville. The region has never been subject to glaciation.
Much of the land is treeless tundra underlain with permafrost; the
Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers flow through this harsh land on the final
leg of their journey to the sea. It consists of the northern
slopes and low foothills of the Brooks Range and a large Arctic coastal
plain, popularly called the Arctic Slope, North Slope, or simply the
Slope. The eastern portion of the plain is narrow, extending only 12
miles from the mountains to the sea at Demarcation Point, marking the
boundary with the Yukon Territory, but reaches a width nearly ten times
as great at Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United
States. Western Alaska and the Bering Sea coast stretch from the
Arctic Circle down to Bristol Bay.
This region contains enormous deposits of coal,
petroleum, and natural gas. Prudhoe Bay is the largest single source of petroleum in the United States. The
area east of the Colville River is encompassed by the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge, the area to the west by the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Small
deposits of petroleum and natural gas, as well as huge deposits of coal, are
known to be in the National Petroleum Reserve, but the largest petroleum
deposits are believed to exist in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
High winds are common along the Arctic coast, and average temperatures are too
cool to permit trees to grow. Near Nome, summer temperatures can climb into the
60s, but the high 30s and 40s are more common. Winter temperatures, though
extreme, are never as low as some Interior temperatures. This is also an
extremely dry area, receiving only minimal amounts of moisture every year.
Arctic Alaska contains primarily tundra vegetation
with tall brush and some forests in stream valleys. Tundra consists of mosses,
lichens, and grasses 1 to 2 inches high, sedges and heather up to 8 inches
high, and willows taller than an average adult person. Tundra is
characteristic of the northlands around the Arctic Ocean and of other areas in
Alaska above the timberline. Huge stretches of spectacularly colorful flowers
carpet the tundra in the nightless summer. Plants grow well although the soil
thaws less than 1 foot before the long winter returns. Here and there,
dwarf willows are found.
The boreal forest from Fairbanks
to Coldfoot is a cold, dry climate and permanently frozen soils dictate
what can grow here. Those tiny, ragged spruce trees may be more than 100 years
old! Lightning-caused wildfires benefit wildlife by recycling nutrients into the
soil and creating new sources of food and shelter within the old forest. Scan
the edge of the forest for moose, fox, wolves and bears.
Alaska's Arctic, that is to say the land mass
above the Arctic Circle, is split in half by the Brooks Mountain range
(The Continental Divide). The Brooks Mountain Range extends across Alaska
in an unbroken arc from near the western coast to the eastern border with
the Yukon Territory. Averaging 6,000 feet in height, the Brooks is the
oldest mountain range in Alaska. Once an active rim of volcanoes, the
Brooks is now semi-dormant, with only a few smoking volcano vents. Yet
there are many thermal hot springs along both the northern and southern
slopes, the larger springs providing water for the rivers even when the
winter temperature is sub zero.
The scenery in the Brooks Range is most
spectacular. It is a complex maze of canyons whose bottoms are usually flat with
meandering and/or braided rivers and many lakes and meadows. The divides between
the canyons are sometimes sheer rock walls and sometimes mellow, undulating
ridges. The only road access into the range is via the Dalton Highway which
transects the range on its way from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay on the shore of the
Arctic Ocean. Only a narrow corridor of the range within hiking distance of the
road can be reached via this access. The remaining 95% of the range's area is
accessible only by airplane.
Little has been known about the Brooks Range until
recently. The foothills of the
Arctic Mountains - the Brooks Range - begin at Coldfoot and ascend to the
crest of the continental divide at Atigun Pass. The range
extends across the entire width of Alaska and consists of a complexly folded
sedimentary mass with a series of longitudinal valleys, chiefly those of the Kobuk and Koyukuk
Rivers. Maximum elevations reach only about about 10,000 feet. The area
north of the Brooks Range is a region of tundra (arctic)
climate and has weeks of continuous darkness in winter and of daylight in
summer. Moderated by ocean influences, the winter is somewhat less harsh than in
interior Alaska. While the snow cover is thin, strong winds at times create
extremely cold wind-chill temperatures. The average annual precipitation is less
than less than 8 inches. Golden Eagles soar above this mountainous expanse
in search of arctic hare, lemmings or ground squirrels. Specks of white on the
mountainsides may be Dall sheep basking in the sun on the rocky slopes.
National Preserve lies in the western Brooks Mountains and includes
Anaktuvuk village and pass. Here there are two branch wings of the Brooks
Mountains. The Noatak River forms up from snow melt near Anaktuvuk and
flows westward nearly 400 miles to the Chukchi Sea. The Noatak river is
classified as a wild and scenic river for its entire length, and is the
largest un-touched mountain ringed river in North America.
Brooks Mountains serve as a barrier against winds and the heavy Arctic
air to insulate half of Alaska's Arctic territory. Thus the lower half
of the Alaskan Arctic is given a less harsh subarctic climate and it
has sparse rain and snowfall. This southern half of Alaska's Arctic are
the Alaskan steppes which gradually slope to the Kobuk, Koyukuk, Yukon,
Chandalar, and Porcupine river valleys. Within this 150 mile
north/south band there is a furthest north tree line that exists about
halfway down these broad steppes. The scrub growth at the tree line
changes to ever-larger growths of dense fir, aspen and birch forests in
the river valleys.
In Alaska's Arctic and near-Arctic, seasonal changes are dramatic. In
midsummer, when the Earth's northern pole is tilted toward the sun,
days are tremendously long-in fact, from the Arctic Circle north, the
landscape can be bathed in sunlight 24 hours a day around the time of
summer solstice. But as the Earth revolves around the sun towards
winter, the pole tilts further and further from the sun; days shorten,
and shorten-until midwinter, when, north of the Arctic Circle, there
are days when the sun does not rise above the horizon at all.
Descending from Atigun Pass to the North Slope, a
transition in landscape begins. The arctic presents itself and stretches
to an indefinable horizon. Beyond the protection of a tree line, plants grow
close to the ground to survive the brutal arctic winds. Here the caribou,
muskoxen and wolverine wander, and snowy owls or gyrfalcons streak across the
tundra in search of prey.
The Arctic Coastal Plain is one of
tundra. This region gets very little snow or rain and bio-geographers
have termed this type of region a "cold desert." Annual precipitation at Barrow is around 4 inches - far less than annual
rainfall of the Mojave Desert.
Despite the low rainfall, though, Alaska's tundra is rich in wetlands.
This is because of permafrost, which acts as an impermeable layer
under the thin tundra soil, trapping moisture close to the surface.
The landscape is
mostly flat, with a few scattered undulations due to the freezing and thawing of
the ground above the permafrost. Most of the hills in this region are therefore,
in effect, frost heaves. The flatness of the area results in poor drainage,
hence the many thousands of lakes that cover some parts of the region.
Additionally, the North Slope is underlain by shallow bedrock, which aids in
retaining groundwater. These conditions make arctic tundra a complex mosaic of wet and dry
sites. Ice shapes the subtle features of this extreme northern
landscape, pushing up pingos and frost boils that become perches for arctic
foxes seeking prey. Intense cold cracks the surface, creating polygon-shaped
ponds where waterfowl and shorebirds feast on a banquet of bugs (mostly
mosquitoes!) each summer.
The tundra is a windy place. A contrast in temperature between the
land and the ocean creates persistent breezes that sweep across the
treeless landscape. These winds can pose challenges for life: wind
dries and chills, and can pick up dust, snow, and debris, scouring any
exposed plant or animal tissue. The area is all but unpopulated by humans. Herds of
caribou roam the area in the summer.
Most of the North Slope has short mild summers, except for a few Arctic
Coastal areas where the temperature rarely exceeds 40° Fahrenheit. All other
seasons are brutally cold throughout the region.
The climate in the Arctic Tundra Plains is
characterized by storms with high winds and blowing snow, deep cold of -40
to -70°F from November through March, long nights and short days. Winds
are common during all seasons and there is heavy snow from fall to spring
that buries the earth to depths of six feet or more. From early December
to mid January the sun does not appear above the horizon. High noon is dim
twilight And, in June through July the sun does not set below the horizon.
Midnight in June is twilight. During the summer the snow melts to form
thousands of lakes and flowing rivers. The air becomes dense with
mosquitoes and black flies making human life untenable except along the
The climate in this southern arctic region is rather mild and dry in contrast
to the climate
along the north slopes and coast. The summers are somewhat longer,
beginning in early June and extending through mid September. Daily mid-day
temperatures range as high as 90°F from June through July. The Brooks
Mountains shield this region from the fall and winter howling blizzards of
the North. Winters do bring short periods of low temperatures of -50°F and
sometimes -70°F, but there is little wind and the air is crisp and dry.
Throughout the winters the temperatures are mostly between -25°F and
-35°F. High pressure systems bring in clearing of the skies and arctic
cold. Low pressure systems bring clouds and warming.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
includes nearly 20 million acres, three designated wild rivers, and the
largest designated wilderness (eight million acres) in the National
Wildlife Refuge system. The refuge contains the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected
area in the circumpolar north, including nearly 180 bird species, 45 species of
mammals, boreal & arctic tundra plant communities, and 36 species of fish.
During the short
summers the arctic tundra accommodates the largest herds of wild
animals in the world. Called the skin of the earth by the Natives, the
tundra is a spongy 1-4 foot thick mat on top of the earth and is a living
microcosm of grasses, lichens, tiny flowers, and berries, nourished by the
captured snowmelt on top of the permafrost below. Wolves, polar bear and grizzly
bear come too, and some of them are resident animals. Other resident
wildlife are Arctic hare, lemmings, snow owl, raven, ptarmigan, wolverine,
ermine, fox and musk ox, to name a few. Wild sheep and goats reside in the
higher elevations of the Brooks Mountains. Caribou migrate there in huge
herds to bear their calves, remain during
the summer to graze the rich tundra, then migrate south across the passes
of the Brooks Mountains to the subarctic rivers and forests in the fall.
Great flocks of birds, including
waterfowl, shorebirds, and many raptors, including peregrine falcons,
migrate to the tundra slopes from as far away Florida and Mexico. Some molt and become land borne, and all hatch
their chicks during the summer months, teach them to fly, and then they
migrate south in the fall. Nowhere on earth is wildlife more abundant than
in the Arctic Tundra Slopes during the summers.
The only road access into the Far North is the
216 mile-long Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Carved from the last great wilderness in
the United States, the Dalton Highway
is a gravel service road that was
completed in 1974 to service the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Access to the rest of the
area is via commercial or charter air service. In the winter many people
travel by snowmachine and some mush dogs or
cross-country ski. Dalton is the only highway in the Alaska system that
extends north of the Yukon River and the only U.S. highway to reach the
Arctic Circle. During pipeline construction
the work camps hummed with big equipment and tough operators. The
camps—Happy Valley, Old Man, Prospect, Deadhorse—became new names in the
The cry of "Gold!" lured fortune seekers
up the Koyukuk River at the turn of the century, and they left their names
on places like Nolan, Coldfoot and Wiseman. Writers and scientists, such
as Robert Marshall and Olaus Murie, ventured into the region and brought
its outstanding wilderness values to the attention of the nation.
The land holds even older names: Kanuti, Yukon, Atigun and Sukakpak. They
echo the heritage of the Inupiat Eskimos, who were the first people to
live here. Today these people still depend on the land, its animals and
As Alaska’s visitors cross the Arctic Circle, many pilots give the plane a
slight “bump” letting passengers know they’ve crossed the legendary circle. The natural
phenomena and native culture make the Far North like no other place on earth.
It's a land where legends are passed from generation to generation, yet modern
life coexists with wildlife and traditional lifestyles.
Alaska is the land of Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun. Of all
naturally occurring heavenly phenomena, few come close to a night with a
magnificent northern lights display. Flickering curtains of dancing light
against the dark skies - northern lights is certainly one of the most
spectacular of nature's phenomena.
The aurora borealis or "northern lights" may be
seen from late August through April. Ancient Inuit believed that the northern
lights were the torches of spirits guiding souls in these shimmering bands of
lights to a land of happiness and plenty. Turn of the century gold
rush prospectors believed the colors were rising from the Mother Lode. Although
Interior is considered one of the best spots on earth to view the aurora
borealis, on clear winter nights especially, one will still the flickering
lights dance quite well in this Far North Region.
The sun gives off high-energy charged particles (also called ions) that
travel out into space at speeds of 300 to 1200 kilometers per second. A
cloud of such particles is called a plasma. The stream of plasma coming
from the sun is known as the solar wind. As the solar wind interacts with
the edge of the earth's magnetic field, some of the particles are trapped
by it and they follow the lines of magnetic force down into the
ionosphere, the section of the earth's atmosphere that extends from about
60 to 600 kilometers above the earth's surface. When the particles
collide with the gases in the ionosphere they start to glow, producing the
spectacle that we know as the auroras, northern and southern. The array of
colors consists of red, green, blue and violet. The
Northern Lights are constantly in motion because of the changing
interaction between the solar wind and the earth's magnetic field. The
solar wind commonly generates up to 1000,000 megawatts of electricity in
an auroral display and this can cause interference with power lines, radio
and television broadcasts and satellite communications.
See an animated aurora borealis movie Aurora
Movie 1 - ©Dick
Hutchinson, movie by D.C.
Spensley (748k, QuickTime Player is
required. Download it here
Hear the sounds made by an aurora borealis "Listening
to the Northern Lights" -
from National Public Radio (RealAudio is
required. Download it here
Those communities found in the Far North region are: