Book explores the natural phenomena of Alaska

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2000

A Dutch airliner, with 244 people aboard, flew into a cloud of volcanic ash south of Anchorage in 1989, lost power in all four engines and plummeted 13,000 feet. The pilot finally restored power only 6,500 feet above the ground.

Volcanic eruptions, such as that of Mount Redoubt 11 years ago, are among the natural phenomena highlighted in a new book by Robert Armstrong and Marge Hermans called ``Alaska's Natural Wonders.''

The Juneau naturalists will present a program next week on some of the phenomena described in the book and will talk about how they wrote it.

Volcanic activity, earthquakes, tsunamis and aurora are among the most dramatic of Alaska's natural phenomena. But Armstrong and Hermans also appreciate the subtler wonders of the north -- tundra and permafrost, and the dynamic balance of life in Southeast's coastal rain forests and in the shifting pack ice of the northwest coast.

``I've been fascinated by pack ice for a number of years -- how it works, the whole ecosystem surrounding it. It's something that's so unique to Alaska as far as the United States is concerned,'' Hermans said.

Algae doesn't seem like a natural wonder, but without algae there would be no polar bears.

Armstrong said the special algae adheres to the undersurface of the ice and hangs down in long, filmy strands. Millions of tiny shrimp-like crustaceans feed on the arctic seaweed, and in turn feed the vast schools of arctic cod. Seals feed on the fish, and polar bears feed on the seals.

``It's a very dynamic system and it appears to be driven by ice algae,'' he said.

Armstrong has already written several books about the animals of Alaska, including ``Alaska's Birds'' and ``Alaska's Fish,'' and ``A Guide to The Birds of Alaska,'' which has been one of Alaska Northwest Books' best sellers.

Armstrong said the new book, a 100-page pocket-sized guide, deals more with habitats than creatures.

``Some of the animal relationships are brought out,'' he said.

The book is divided into three sections -- land, water and sky -- and looks at features such as wetlands, hot springs and glaciers. Conservation notes in each section highlight related topics, such as the introduction of foxes for fur farming, or the international importance of Alaska's wetlands.

Armstrong said he used to write a nature column for the Southeast Log, a regional magazine-newspaper, and those columns grew into the book. He and Hermans are free-lance writers and regular contributors to The Alaska Southeaster magazine.

Hermans, who could not be reached this week, co-edited the atlas ``Alaska in Maps,'' and helped develop five correspondence courses on Alaska wildlife for the University of Alaska Southeast.

The authors' presentation is at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 20, at the downtown library. The writers will not only talk about Alaska's natural wonders, but also the collaborative writing process, Armstrong said.

``We'll talk about why we write and the usefulness of collaboration. We've both been writers as individuals before, and we found that working together has opened up a whole new area. It also makes writing much easier in many instances,'' he said. ``We hope to bring out where we get our ideas and our information. We'll show slides from the book and from other articles we've written.''

Armstrong is a retired state fisheries biologist. He lived and conducted fisheries research on Admiralty and Baranof Islands for 10 years in the 1960s and '70s.

``We would encounter brown bears every day,'' he said. ``Living out there -- it was pretty much natural history 24 hours a day.''

The presentation next week is free. Copies of ``Alaska's Natural Wonders'' will be available.

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