I arrived in Anchorage a couple of weeks prior to my start date with high hopes of seeing some wildlife, and at the off chance of catching the northern lights in a late winter sky. Almost a month later and two weeks into my work with the BLM Fairbanks office and I’ve seen moose, caribou, bald eagle, peregrine falcons, a black bear wandering the boreal forest, and even managed to catch a glimpse of the aurora.
Botanically speaking, we’re still a week or two from the legendary “green up” that occurs over a matter of days. The stoic frost covered landscape buttressed by white birch bark and evergreen spruce will soon give way to a flurry of spring foliage, the chirp of songbirds, and endless sun. Through phenological adaptations, vegetation has managed to survive harsh seasonal changes that limit their growth this far north. Dwarfism in arctic and alpine plants is common; warmth near the surface is highly valuable, and the differences in temperature between a few inches and a few feet above the ground is larger than in a more temperate climate. Staying small allows plants to hold on to moisture and warmth. Other struggles associated with harsh winters include freezing rain as well as the freeze thaw cycles that result in bowed and partially fallen trees. You can see in this photo the dramatic bowing of birch trees that are rooted into an expanding wetland – they’re often referred to as “drunk trees” because they’re falling all over the place! This is caused by pressure exerted on the soils through expansion during the winter freeze followed by a release of pressure in the spring thaw – it’s the same process that causes all those potholes in Chicago, just on a larger scale!
The real botanic work of the internship won’t begin until leaves and wildflowers sprout in the coming month, of course along with all those not so lovely invasive plants too. Nonetheless, preparations for the field season are well underway with bear awareness training, shotgun certifications, and the occasional field trip to make sure monitoring equipment survived the winter. We drove out to the White Mountains last week to check in on some stream monitoring gear and set up a camera to capture ice break up at Birch Creek with the BLM hydrologist in the photo below. Snowmobiling out there was a bit of an added bonus as up there in the Whites the truck couldn’t quite make it out to the creek!
The first couple of weeks have been an incredible welcome to Fairbanks and the state of Alaska as a whole. I can’t wait for more of the same as the field season kicks off soon!