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Alaska Science Forum: A walk through the UAF Cold Preserve

Posted: February 21, 2014 - 1:03am
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A very cold spot on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.                                 Photo by Ned Rozell
Photo by Ned Rozell
A very cold spot on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

It’s mid-February, 118 miles from the Arctic Circle. Time for a walk to work.

The trail through the boreal forest is right outside my door. The North Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks is 1,100 acres of spruce trees, ski trails, two lakes, an exotic tree plantation and a few dozen subtle research projects. Some are humming, twirling, measuring. Others are stained by leaf litter, falling back to the soil.

On a campus of about 2,250 acres, only 10 percent is roads, parking lots and clusters of buildings. My office and destination is in one of these developed areas called West Ridge. A north-facing window there provides a view of the same forest I see looking south from the kitchen table. The North Campus is quiet enough that if I see any creature except a raven during a morning commute, it’s a surprise.

Some days, like this one, are cold enough that I walk in rather than ski. A trail designated for dog walking offers the straightest line, just more than one mile.

The dog-trail network consists of a few loops through the heart of the North Campus area. In winter, boots and paws press a path one foot wide in the snow. In summer, the trail is spongy and wet. The permafrost beneath the Labrador tea and tamarack holds surface water like a plastic liner. Wetness, and the mosquito habitat it fosters, keeps people out in the summertime.

Today the mosquitoes are sleeping beneath 20 inches of snow. But their time is coming. Now arcing four fingers (13.5 degrees) above the horizon, the sun reaches through sprucetops for a butterfly kiss to the cheek.

Squeaking down the path of new snow, I turn onto a spur trail broken by someone on snowshoes. Though I traveled it two days ago with my dog, a spiky three inches have fallen since then. The snow makes a hollow sound as the trail suspends me a foot above frozen tussock tundra.

After their seeds helicoptered down on a forgotten wind, a few forehead-high black spruce pioneered here amid the tussocks. Some of these trees, thin as broomsticks, were alive when UAF was established in 1917.

After the path through shadowed forest, the open landscape is jarring for both its brightness and its slap of biting air. I like this ephemeral path because the snowshoer walked right through what I call the UAF Cold Preserve. On topographic maps, this bald wedge of tundra looks like a white splotch of frostbite on your cheek.

For the last decade, Japanese scientists doing research at the International Arctic Research Center have used instruments here to sniff for carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Their 20-foot tower also holds four thermometers at different heights. Whether by design or chance, they have placed their instruments in the mouth of the cold drainage, where dense air oozes from the surrounding forest onto the white deck of Smith Lake.

This morning in the UAF Cold Preserve, at nose level it is minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit. A few weeks ago, it was minus 45 degrees here.

This windless pool shows the unique upside-down atmosphere at the junction of the Chena and Tanana river valleys. Because of the box created by local hills and so little sunlight to stir the air, severe temperature inversions settle in here until wind or warmer weather kicks them out.

The scientific proof of the temperature inversion reveals itself at the end of my walk. When I reach work and step out of my down clothes, I click to my bookmarked online thermometers. At the same time the Cold Preserve was minus 27, air at the top of the Elvey Building, 200 feet higher, was minus 5.

• Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute. Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community.

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