State's landscape has seen some changes

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2000

A brief timeline of the 1900s in Alaska

1900: Gold rush makes Nome the largest city in Alaska with 12,500 residents.

1902: First Alaska oil production at Katalla, near Yakutat; Fairbanks begins as gold-rush trading post.

1906: Governor's office moves from Sitka to Juneau.

1912: Congress grants Alaska territory status.

1915: Anchorage begins as a railroad tent city.

1917: Mount McKinley National Park created by President Woodrow Wilson.

1923: Alaska Railroad completed.

1935: First families arrive for Matanuska Valley Project, created to develop agriculture in Alaska.

1940: Military buildup begins in Alaska.

1942: Japanese bomb Dutch Harbor, capture Attu and Kiska in Aleutians. Islands recaptured the following year.

1957: Oil discovered at Swanson River on Kenai Peninsula.

1958: Congress passes statehood act; Alaska holds first general election.

1959: Alaska becomes 49th state; First state Legislature convenes in Juneau.

1964: Good Friday earthquake measuring 9.2 kills 131 people, causes widespread damage in Southcentral Alaska.

1967: Fairbanks devastated by Chena River flood.

1968: Nation's largest-ever oil find made at Prudhoe Bay.

1969: $900 million North Slope oil-lease sale held in Anchorage.

1971: Congress passes Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

1973: First Iditarod sled dog race held. Dick Wilmarth of Red Devil wins in 20 days.

1974: Construction of trans-Alaska oil pipeline begins.

1976: Alaska voters approve Willow as site of new state capital.

1977: First North Slope oil pumped down oil pipeline.

1980: Alaska Legislature repeals state income tax and establishes permanent fund. Congress passes Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

1982: First Permanent Fund dividend checks issued for $1,000; Voters reject funding request for new capital.

1983: Nearly all of Alaska becomes one time zone.

1985: Libby Riddles becomes first woman to win Iditarod.

1989: Tanker Exxon Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound, dumping 11 million gallons of North Slope oil.

1992: Anchorage Times newspaper shuts down.

1994: Jury finds Exxon guilty of recklessness in Exxon Valdez spill, hits company with $5 billion judgment.

1996: Southcentral wildfire causes millions of dollars in damage.

1999: Third straight year of poor salmon returns to Yukon-Kuskokwim area; Federal government takes over management of subsistence fishing in most of Alaska.

ANCHORAGE - Those who live in Alaska today probably wouldn't have a hard time recognizing the Alaska that existed at the turn of the last millennium.

The snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range are likely a few feet taller, areas that once were meadows are now covered with black spruce, glaciers have advanced and receded and bison no longer roam the Interior.

But the Earth's age is measured in billions of years and, with only a few exceptions, the past 1,000 years haven't brought dramatic changes to Alaska's landscape, said Paul Matheus, director of the Alaska Quaternary Center at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. And despite the strip malls and subdivisions of Alaska's urban centers, vast areas of the state are still untouched by human activity.

``Things looked a lot like they do now,'' Matheus said.

The Quaternary Center coordinates research and education on the changes in climate, biology and geography that occurred during the last major ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago. The goal is to get a better understanding of the effects of future climate changes by looking at what happened in the past.

``We've been studying global climate change since before it got popular,'' Matheus said.

That research has made it possible to piece together a picture of Alaska at 1000 A.D.

It was a time of relatively warm temperatures before the era known as the Little Ice Age. That's the period from about 1550 to 1850, a time of unusually cold weather in the northern hemisphere.

It was the Little Ice Age that left Glacier Bay buried under 4,000 feet of ice as recently as 200 years ago.

Alaska was a little less soggy at 1000 A.D. than it is today. It had more open grasslands and fewer of the black spruce forests that thrive in muskeg, Matheus said.

``It meant there were areas available for bison. They existed in Alaska as recently as 400 to 500 years ago,'' he said.

Matheus says the fact that there are more words for bison than moose in the Athabascan language indicates bison probably played a more significant role in the diet of Interior Natives than moose, a staple today.

Many of the same animals that roam Alaska today - caribou, sheep and moose - were here at the turn of the last millennium.

By the year 1000 A.D. the state's mountains and rivers had long been carved out of the landscape and the rivers were rich with salmon then as now.

The Denali fault system, which forms the Alaska Range, is still active and still exerting pressure that's pushing the mountains higher. Mount McKinley is growing by about 1.5 millimeters a year, said Peter Haeussler, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage.

``The remarkable thing with respect to the Alaska Range is that it's very young. Five million years is young in terms of mountains. The Appalachians are about 300 million years old,'' Haeussler said.

Not all of the changes in Alaska's landscape have been imperceptible. Two of the most dramatic took place within the past century.

On June 6, 1912, the massive eruption of Mount Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula dumped a thick blanket of volcanic ash over hundreds of square miles, creating the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

The magnitude 9.2 Good Friday earthquake that shook Southcentral Alaska on March 27, 1964, was the strongest ever recorded in North America, displacing almost half a million square miles of land surface. Evidence of the quake's power can still be seen today in the stands of petrified spruce trees killed when land dropped and the water table rose.

At the turn of the last millennium, the Bering Land Bridge that linked Alaska with Siberia was long gone, having disappeared as sea levels rose with the melting of glaciers about 9,000 years earlier.

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