It’s been widely accepted in the science community that melting permafrost means more carbon in the atmosphere. But a new study has identified a quirk in that process.
Permafrost is a layer of subsurface soil that stays frozen year-round. And it’s generally understood that melting permafrost in the north means more methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — bad for global warming.
But a new study published in Nature suggests that some of the carbon stored in permafrost meets its bitter end like Bootstrap Bill Turner in “Pirates of the Caribbean” — Davy Jones’ Locker.
In other words, it gets buried at the bottom of the ocean.
Dr. Valier Galy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is one of the study’s authors.
“The burial of permafrost carbon in marine sediments offshore of the river is something that matters in terms of fluxes when it’s taken for several thousands of years,” he says.
Down in Davy Jones’ Locker, that carbon is sequestered; It becomes a carbon sink as opposed to a carbon source. And it’s in a format that won’t contribute to climate change or ocean acidification.
“That’s correct… as long as permafrost carbon reaches marine sediments and is being buried in marine sediments. It is then stable for really long periods of times,” Dr. Galy says. “We can be talking hundreds of thousands of years. Millions of years.”
High-latitude rivers are the engines at work here. Dr. Galy and his colleagues did their study on the Mackenzie River in Canada:
“So what we did is, we took samples from different places of the river system… and we took samples offshore — sediment core — and then we looked at the organic carbon concentrations, but also its composition using geochemical tools. And what this shows is that a lot of these carbons are pretty old and come from the permafrost.”
Finding those permafrost carbons offshore was somewhat of a surprise.
It was previously understood that these carbons made their way back into the atmosphere when permafrost melted — and that’s still the fate of the majority of the carbon stored in permafrost. Year to year, what’s buried at sea is fairly insignificant, but it adds up over thousands of years.
The Mackenzie is a massive river (the second largest on North America behind the Mississippi) — and the study estimates it buries more than 2 million metric tons of permafrost carbon per year. The power of the Mackenzie is what makes the river so good at burying permafrost carbon.
“The Mackenzie has very high physical erosion rates, and that’s what makes it very efficient at burying permafrost carbon at sea.”
Dr. Galy says some version of this carbon burial process likely happens in most watersheds at high-latitudes. More so with big rivers, including Alaska’s Yukon:
“In the Yukon the physical erosion rates are also very high. And so it’s pretty likely that we’ll find the same things that we’ve been finding in the Mackenzie system.”
Even though some permafrost carbon is being cycled to the bottom of the ocean, it’s a process that takes thousands of years — much slower than the rate at which greenhouse gases are being emitted.
Seventy years ago this month, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, prompting it’s surrender and the end of World War II. Now, the two nations’ armed forces are collaborating in Alaska.
As part of the Alaskan Command’s Red Flag exercises this summer, two dozen Japanese paratroopers are training with Army soldiers based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. After 10 days of exercises, the group flew north in cargo planes before jumping into the Donnelly Training Area near Fort Greely.
It’s not the first time the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force have partnered with Alaskan troops. Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown says in the past, soldiers have gone through cold weather training at the Army’s Black Rapids site.
“The airborne capability is something that Japan has been developing in recent years. Our first experience with it recently is jumping with them over in Japan as part of an exercise this February.”
Brown says the goal is building a firmer partnership with one of the U.S.’s most important Pacific allies.
“The deeper the foundation, the more readily we’ll be able to integrate with them in an emergency situation–a contingency like a human disaster, where we need to assist in concert with that country for Recovery operations, or Search and Rescue, those types of things.”
The U.S. is increasingly shifting it’s military focus to the Pacific.
According to the Army, Tuesday’s jump was a success, with no reports of injuries.
A man dressed in a bear costume was reported to state troopers this week for harassing a sow and bear cubs on the Chilkoot River.
Mark Sogge with Fish and Game in Haines says their weir technician witnessed and wrote a report about the incident.
Technician Lou Cenicola reported that around 7:30 p.m. on Monday, a man in a ‘realistic-looking’ bear costume ran through a group of people standing on the side of the road bear-watching. The man ran ‘waving and jumping’ up to the weir gate, apparently trying to get the attention of a sow with cubs. Cenicola says the man in the costume got within 5 to 10 feet of the cubs.
Cenicola reported that he ran toward the man to stop him, telling him he could be cited for wildlife harassment. The man then left without identifying himself. Cenicola did get the man’s license plate number, and he reported the incident to state troopers.
Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters says they know about the incident and are investigating. No charges have been filed.
Sogge, with Fish and Game, says getting that close to bear cubs when their mother is present could have ended tragically. He says wearing a bear costume will not deter a mother bear from attacking a person if she thinks her cubs are threatened.
A grimly familiar sight to Nome dog owners returned with the fatal goring of a local musher’s dog by a bull muskox Wednesday.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Bill Dunker said Nome police called his office Wednesday afternoon to report two dogs were injured—one fatally—in the attack before the bull muskox was killed in what Dunker calls a clear case of “defense of life or property.”
“Everything appears to be a justifiable DLP,” Dunker said.
The dogs belonged to musher Rolland Trowbridge, who ran the Kuskokwim 300 earlier this year. He also ran the Yukon Quest in February—withdrawing near the race’s midpoint. Daughter Janelle Trowbridge also ran dogs from the family kennel in her 2014 Junior Iditarod run.
Trowbridge declined to comment on the incident.
Dunker said it’s the first fatal clash between muskox, and Nome residents and their animals, so far this summer. That’s a far cry from the multiple gorings and dog fatalities seen last year, including a DLP kill of a muskox harassing a dog and a similar DLP kill in the community of Wales.
“This summer has been much better with regard to conflicts with muskox,” Dunker said. “We’re still having them on occasion, but certainly last year was kind of the ‘perfect storm’ of muskox conflicts in the Nome area. It’s certainly been the case that this year has been much less active with regard to muskox conflicts.”
But just what makes up that “perfect storm” isn’t fully understood. Dunker said “anecdotal” observations on brown bear predation may have pushed muskox into the Nome area last year. But so far this summer, that’s not the case.
“We haven’t made those same observations this year,” he said, “so we can’t say one way or the other that it was brown bear predation that was the smoking gun that ultimately drives them into the Nome area.”
Dunker said Fish and Game’s muskox mitigation is ongoing. Failed attempts last year included everything from rubber bullets to bear decoys and the spraying of bear urine. This year he said ADF&G is trying an experimental electric fence installed at the Nome airport. Biologists are still waiting to see if the fence is effective.
“But to be honest,” Dunker said, “we haven’t had a muskox bump into the fence yet. So we’re still investigating its effectiveness.”
As for the DLP kill, salvage requirements include surrendering the meat from the animal, but in this case, the meat will stay local: its been donated to the Nome Covenant Church. The animal’s hide and the skull were salvaged and turned over to the department.
Pastor Harvey Fiskeaux with the Covenant Church said the muskox in currently hanging in a church member’s shed, and a group from the church will be processing the meat tomorrow and putting it into the church’s freezer.
Fiskeaux said they’ll be serving musk ox roasts and stew at their Friday soup kitchens beginning in September.
A massive software project that’s run millions of dollars and years over budget was halted today by Anchorage’s new mayor. The move is meant to reexamine the city’s path forward, but won’t totally shut off money for the project.
Implementing the SAP software across the municipality’s offices is–to put it mildly–a pretty giant mess. There are a lot of unflattering numbers associated with the program’s over-runs. When former mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration announced the project in 2011 it was forecast to cost around $11 million ($10.6 million, to be exact), and take just a year-and-a-half to come online. But Assembly Member Elvi Gray-Jackson ran through a much different timeline at a the start of a committee meeting.
“September 2014: project now two years behind schedule. Budget is $31.4 million, tripling the projected cost.”
Currently, it costs the city $50,000 a day to pay for employees, consultants, and office space–all without a clear end date. So, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced his administration has decided to take what he’s calling “a pause.”
“At this juncture the responsible course of action for us to follow is to take a pause, assess where we are, make a determination what options we’re going to have moving ahead.”
The length of that pause has yet to be determined. It will cost the city several hundred thousand dollars just shutting down current operations–that is, paying consultants as their jobs wind down, keeping up with rent payments, and other obligations. No city employees are losing work, they’ll all be reassigned internally.
This is the third time the SAP project has been put on hold. And Assembly member Amy Demoboski–who was critical of the last administration’s spending on the project–reminded the new administration that the longer the pause, the more costly it is to resume operations down the line. Asked whether full termination was a possibility, Berkowtiz replied:
“We’re gonna be reviewing all options.”
The administration has recruited a team of seven Alaskans mostly from the private sector to review the project.
Authorities have arrested the former computer network manager at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation who is accused of possessing and distributing child pornography.
An Anchorage grand jury indicted Gene Geisler Wednesday and authorities said in the afternoon that the man’s whereabouts were unknown after he had fled the state.
He was arrested the Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. in Goose Creek, South Carolina and booked in the Berkeley County jail. He’s held on $200,000 bail.
About 30 earthquakes have hit the Yakutat area this week.
The Gulf of Alaska city, about 250 miles northwest of Juneau, is in a fault zone and quakes aren’t unusual.
But this swarm is caused by calving glaciers in a nearby bay, not movement of the Earth’s crust.
Alaska Earthquake Information Center Seismologist Natalia Ruppert says it happens all the time. But she says at least one of this week’s quakes were stronger than usual.
“Maybe the size of this particular ice chunk was very large and as it fell into the water it created lots of energy,” Ruppert said.
She says there’s no connection to the Yakutat Fault, and a block of the Earth’s crust that’s slowly moving under that part of Alaska.
Most glaciers are retreating and thinning as climate change increases melting.
Seismologist Ruppert says that could eventually lead to more quakes from moving blocks of crust.
“If the glaciers keep melting and if they keep losing the mass, the pressure on the surface of the Earth becomes less,” Ruppert said. “And so, on a very long time scale, the lessening of this pressure might actually influence the tectonic forces and the pressure on the faults in that area.”
Since Monday morning, 28 glacial quakes have hit the Yakutat Bay area. Another 11 hit Cape Yakataga, about 100 miles to the northwest. That’s as of midday Thursday.
Unalaska’s population could nearly double Sept. 15 when the Celebrity Millennium docks here.
Community leaders are worried enough, they’re holding a town hall meeting on how to handle—and help—the onslaught of tourists at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Burma Road Chapel.
“It’s going to be overwhelming,” Unalaska/Dutch Harbor ports director Peggy McLaughlin said.
Cathy Jordan with the Unalaska Convention and Visitors Bureau said she’s expecting at least 2,100 passengers and 1,200 crew.
They will have spent three days at sea and will be spending five days at sea after their day in Unalaska.
“We expect all the passengers to disembark,” Jordan said.
The occasional cruise ship is nothing new to Unalaska, but this floating city is much bigger than usual.
“Typically, we’re in the hundreds, not in the thousands,” McLaughlin said. “This is the largest one we’ve seen.”
Alaskan towns like Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan often see their populations double when several big cruise ships come to town. Unlike those towns, Unalaska isn’t set up to handle a large influx of cruising tourists.
“Generally, cruise ships and industrial working ports is not really a good mix, unless you’re set up that way,” interim Unalaska city manager Don Moore said.
Moore told Unalaska City Council Tuesday night that there’s always a risk passengers will step off their cruise ship go wandering around docks where cargo handling and other industrial activities are going on.
“That is an issue that probably needs to be addressed,” Moore said.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to hear people’s suggestions for how the community can help the throngs of people enjoy their eight-hour visit to Unalaska, and how the community can weather the storm of tourists.
They’re looking for bus drivers and volunteers to help out on the big day as well as businesses that might want to exploit a brief opportunity to have a large number of customers.
The Unalaska School District has offered its gyms and auditoriums for lectures, dances or other activities for the cruise passengers. Entrance fees would raise funds for the school district.
The 965-foot ship will dock at the U.S. Coast Guard dock off Ballyhoo Road.
“This is a new arena for us,” McLaughlin said. “It’ll be sidewalks full of people wearing the same jackets, is my guess.”
An Anchorage teen who ran over a cyclist with a pickup truck and drove away will soon find out whether her plea agreement will be accepted, putting her behind bars for up to three years.
KTUU-TV reports that 18-year-old Alexandra Ellis is scheduled to appear Friday in Anchorage Superior Court for the July 2014 crash that killed 51-year-old Jeff Holder Dusenbury.
Court documents say Ellis had just taken a friend home from a large party she hosted while her parents were out of town when she hit Holder-Dusenbury, an avid cyclist.
A plea agreement reached by state prosecutors and defense lawyers would put the teen in jail for one to three years for negligent homicide.
The judge will decide whether that agreement is fair.
A former Southeast Alaskan police officer and an Alaska-based U.S. Coast Guard officer have been indicted for defrauding the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend system.
The Juneau Empire reports a grand jury on Friday brought indictments against Valent Maxwell, a former officer for the city of Klawock, and in a separate case, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Geoffrey Michael Barela.
Both men allegedly broke their Alaska residency but still continued to apply for PFD money.
Maxwell faces three felony counts for providing false information on his 2013-2015 applications to the state. Barela faces two counts for the same charge for his paperwork filed in 2011.
Barela and Maxwell are expected to appear in Juneau Superior Court at a later date. It is not clear whether they have attorneys yet.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald has paid tribute to those who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II.
McDonald addressed seven surviving members of the largely Alaska Native militia, thanking them during a brief ceremony Wednesday in the northwest Alaska town of Kotzebue. Event representatives say the veterans attending the ceremony came from Kotzebue and three villages.
Alaska was still 17 years away from statehood when the 6,400-member militia was formed in 1942 to defend the vast territory from the threat of Japanese invasion.
But members of the militia weren’t formally recognized by the Army at U.S. military veterans until 2004.
The unit was activated after Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor and points along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
The militia disbanded with little fanfare in 1947.
The U.S. Coast Guard says it is fining five Greenpeace protesters $5,000 each for dangling from a bridge over the Willamette River and blocking a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker from leaving Portland for an Arctic drilling operation.
The protesters facing fines include three who dangled on lines below the St. John’s bridge for 40 hours late last month and two support staff on the deck of the bridge.
The violations have been referred to a Coast Guard hearing office in Virginia. The protesters have the right to appeal.
A Greenpeace spokeswoman told Oregon Public Broadcasting she was working to confirm the charges.
The icebreaking vessel Fennica arrived in Portland late last month for repairs to its hull after sustaining damage in the Aleutian Islands. More than a dozen Greenpeace protesters suspended themselves from the bridge, but the ship was able to leave the city on July 30.
Bering Air is upgrading its fleet with eight brand-new airplanes — Cessna Caravans worth about $2.5 million dollars each.
The regional airline — which flies to 32 communities in western Alaska — is replacing older C208B Caravans with the newer EX model, which has features that Bering’s director of operations, David Olson, says will improve safety and speed of travel.
The new planes are equipped with an anti-icing system, which prevents ice from forming and weighing down planes in cold conditions. That means easier handling for pilots and quicker travel for passengers. Olson says the anti-ice capability improves safety “very much.”
The Caravans also come with standard glass cockpits, new GPS technology, and bigger engines. While glass cockpits are not a recent innovation, they are new to the region and the company, according to Bering’s chief pilot, Fen Kinneen.
Paired with a new Garmin navigation system, the cockpits need less on-the-ground equipment and lower minimums for approach requirements like visibility — which Olson says is great for flying to smaller villages and in poor weather. The larger engines add nearly 200 horsepower and also help with taking off in bad weather and on short runways.
According to Olson, the new Caravans mean less maintenance, shorter inspections, and greater reliability. “It’s mostly done for the safety and convenience of the traveling public,” Olson said.
Bering Air already has three of the new planes flying, and the other five are expected by November. The older planes will be sold.
The University of Alaska system has defined “consent” for the first time when it comes to sexual misconduct terminology. The definition is in the university’s new student code of conduct, which is the basis of university disciplinary proceedings. One expert calls the definition good, but thinks it could go further.
“Consent is defined as being clear, knowing and voluntary. It can be withdrawn at any time. It’s defined as being active, not passive and cannot be given while an individual is incapacitated,” says Michael Votava, reading from the University of Alaska’s updated Student Code of Conduct.
Votava is the director of student conduct and ethical development for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was part of the working group that established the definition.
“Past consent does not imply future consent. And that silence, or an absence of resistance, cannot be interpreted as consent,” Votava adds.
It can be words or actions that create mutually understandable clear permission.
“So in other words, UA is not requiring a verbal yes,” Votava says.
He gives this example:
“If there were two parties that were involved in a romantic encounter and one party started removing their clothes and started motioning with their finger for the other party to come toward them and had a smile on their face, that’s in my mind, I think a reasonable person would argue that that was a form of nonverbal consent,” Votava says.
“Why not start with verbal? Because verbal is the most common way we make agreements for anything,” says Mandy Cole, deputy director of AWARE, Juneau’s domestic abuse and sexual assault prevention nonprofit.
“What I would like to see and what I think is kind of a best practice is that we get more used to getting verbal consent and that we get more used to saying the words, ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’” Cole says. “Because honestly if you feel comfortable enough to have sex with somebody, you should be comfortable enough to say the words.”
Cole says UA’s definition of consent has the necessary elements. Other higher education institutions like The State University of New York, Northwestern University and University of California have similar language defining consent as either words or actions.
Cole says it’s difficult to require a verbal agreement, but she’d like society to move in that direction.
“It’s kind of a new thing really. When I went to college, no one said a word to me about consent. Certainly no one ever said a word to me about getting verbal consent before sexual contact, so I think this is developing,” Cole says.
One company Consent Game Changers has gone beyond verbal by selling consent kits. Each pouch comes with a contract card, breath mints and a condom. The company’s website says the contract gives both parties “the confidence of a documented consensual encounter (or to at least remind you to have the consent conversation).”
Cole says she’s happy UA has defined the term and is part of a national conversation, even if it was prompted by an increasing number of sexual assault reports in colleges.
More than a year ago, the U.S. Department of Education put UA on a list of about 60 colleges nationwide being investigated as part of a compliance review or for mishandling sexual assault complaints. That list is now at about 130.
Cole says advancing the conversation about consent keeps people safer and more prepared to discuss sexuality.
“So that we don’t continue propagating this idea that sex is about power,” Cole says. “So if we talk about sex being more about consent and agreement, and it’s freely and knowingly decided by both people, then it takes away some of the old thinking about what is legal and what’s not legal.”
Cole says it’s more about what’s right.
A woman has died in Alakanuk after crashing an ATV into a shipping container.
Alaska State Troopers say 21-year-old Cecila Chikigak of Alakanuk was driving fast near the city office when she left the roadway, crashed, and was thrown from the ATV. Investigators say she died on impact. She was the only person involved.
Alakanuk is a village of around 700 located about 160 miles northwest of Bethel. Her body will be sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy. Chikigak’s next of kin have been notified.
Alaska is ground zero for climate change — that’s the message of a new video issued by the White House detailing president Obama’s upcoming visit to the Last Frontier.
“In Alaska, glaciers are melting. The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended—for their way of life, and for their jobs—are threatened,” the president says. “Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages. As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground. The state’s God-given natural treasures are at risk.”
President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaska Arctic. He will also be visiting Anchorage, where the U.S. has called a summit to discuss climate change with representatives from other Arctic nations.
Former YKHC Network Manager Indicted for Child Porn Distribution
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel
A former computer network manager at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is accused of possessing and distributing vast amounts of child pornography.
Berkowitz Moves to Unravel The ‘Gordian Knot’ of City’s Homelessness Problem
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
The city of Anchorage is hiring a new coordinator to deal with issues associated with homelessness. Though the topic is usually framed as an urban issue, politicians often complain the city is shouldering the burden of a state-wide problem.
Shell Ready To Drill For Arctic Oil As Delayed Icebreaker Arrives
John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska
Shell’s wayward icebreaker made it to the company’s Arctic Ocean drilling site Tuesday. The arrival of the Fennica after a month’s delay means the company could get to drill for oil beneath the Chukchi Sea this summer.
Looking (And Listening) For Alaska’s Rarest Whale
John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska
It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. But at least these needles make noise. Researchers are cruising the Gulf of Alaska looking, and listening, for one of the world’s rarest animals. It’s the North Pacific right whale.
As The Final Dock Pilings are Drilled, a Hoonah Controversy is Put to Rest
Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau
The final pilings for a new cruise ship dock are being driven at a Hoonah tourist attraction, marking an end to the nearly decade-long saga that split the community.
Marijuana Regulators Run Low on Time And Money
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
The group setting up Alaska’s rules for commercial marijuana is on pace to finish regulations by a November 24th deadline. But just barely.
A Two-Wheeled Crusade Against Transphobia Hits the Road
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Reports show that violence against transgender people is rising nationwide. But one Anchorage woman is trying to fight transphobia locally by raising awareness that they’re part of the community, too. Her plan involves a bike, flashy pink nails, and an achingly long ride.
A former computer network manager at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is accused of possessing and distributing vast amounts of child pornography.
An Anchorage grand jury on Tuesday indicted 38-year-old Gene Geisler on 76 counts of child pornography possession and distribution.
Prosecutors allege the man used the hospital’s network infrastructure to distribute the pornography as well as his home computers. Officials say Geisler is at large and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Adam Alexander is an assistant attorney general with the office of special prosecutions for the state of Alaska. He says information first came up in August of 2014 and they issued search warrants in September.
“Over 500 pounds of digital devices were seized that examination involved an examination of over 80 digital devices, each requiring a pretty serious expenditure of resources and time,” said Alexander.
Of the 76 counts, 20 are for distribution. Prosecutors say he shared videos with an investigator through peer-to peer-software. Investigators identified 56 children in photos that prosecutors believe represent known victims of child sexual exploitation identified through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In total, Geisler is charged with possessing two million images and 13-thousand videos, amounting to 29 terabytes of child pornography.
“This is, as alleged one of the more significant cases just in terms of the raw quantity of data and the number of images of child sexual exploitation involved,” said Alexander.
Alexander says there’s no indication or charges related to Geisler being involved in making of child pornography but he says the investigation is ongoing.
YKHC officials confirm Geisler was employed at YKHC in the IT department, but did not want to comment further, other than to say that they are cooperating with law enforcement on their investigation.
Geisler’s LinkedIn profile says he worked at three IT positions at YKHC after March 2011. YKHC officials could not say when Geisler left YKHC, but did confirm that he is no longer employed there. The profile says from July 2013 to September 2014 he worked as a network, telecom, server, virtualization, and systems manager for YKHC, managing a team of ten people. A spokesperson says the dates on Geisler’s LinkedIn profile look accurate.
In August of last year, investigators saw videos coming from a location in Bethel. When they came to town, they visited YKHC and Geisler’s home. There they saw a computer downloading images. He explained that he could piggyback on the hospital’s network from home.
He initially denied involvement in child porn, but in a later interview admitted that he had images and videos on his computers. In later search warrants, investigators examined dozens of devices, including a private server he installed at YKHC for use. During the investigation, he fled the state.
For the last six months, his profile says he’s worked for the Navy in North Charleston, South Carolina, in the advanced technology SPAWAR group.
Officials ask people with information about Geisler to contact the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. He faces two to 12 years in prison for each count, if convicted, and could face 99 years behind bars.
KYUK’s Daysha Eaton contributed to this story.
Researchers are cruising the Gulf of Alaska on the lookout for one of the world’s rarest animals: the North Pacific right whale.
Their needle-in-a-haystack quest is made slightly easier by one fact: These needles make noise.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration left Kodiak on Sunday for a month-long research cruise to track down the critically endangered whales.
“There’s so few of these animals, and we know so very little about them,” spokesperson Maggie Mooney-Seus with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said. NOAA’s fishery survey vessel, the Reuben Lasker, cruised up from California studying gray whales. Now it’s turning its attention to the scarcest whales known to science.
“It’s going to be definitely difficult,” Mooney-Seus said. “We actually did hear this morning that they had heard a right whale call, that gunshot call that we have a recording of up on our website.”
Here’s that gunshot call of a right whale.
Underwater microphones can usually hear the deep tones of a whale call much farther away than the human eye can pick out a whale when it surfaces.
“Even if they hear an animal, by the time they locate it, the animal’s moved on,” Mooney-Seus said.
The best estimate is that about 30 right whales survive today in the eastern Pacific Ocean, with perhaps 20 males and 8 females. A few hundred live in the western Pacific and a few hundred more in the North Atlantic.
Nineteenth-century whaling and illegal Soviet whaling in the mid-20th century decimated the populations, and they have not bounced back.
Researchers spotted a young right whale off Kodiak in 2012 and heard others in 2013. The vast majority of eastern North Pacific right whales have been detected in the Bering Sea between Bristol Bay and the Pribilof Islands.
Interior Department funding for right whale studies in the Bering Sea dried up after the Obama administration put plans for drilling in Bristol Bay on hold in 2009.
NOAA still has four mooring buoys that listen for whales in the Bering Sea. Researchers gather data from the buoys annually.
Bioacoustician Ana Širović with the Scripps Insitution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, studies right whales. She has heard the up-calls, down-calls and shotgun calls of right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, but said she’s never seen one.
“They’re very rare,” she said. “There’s been a lot of effort studying right whales in the Bering Sea, and very little in the Gulf of Alaska. Given how small their population is, it’s important to know what their range truly is.”
If NOAA researchers can get close enough, they hope to get photos, tissue samples and even attach satellite tags to whales to monitor their movements.
The NOAA cruise will run a zigzag pattern from Prince William Sound almost the full length of the Alaska Peninsula and out to about 200 miles offshore.
Mooney-Seus with NOAA could not provide an estimate of the cruise’s cost.
Whalers considered the species the “right whale” to hunt because they would swim slowly and close to shore and because their carcasses float.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union carried out what NOAA scientists call a “massive campaign of illegal whaling.” Soviet ships killed 372 right whales in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, severely depleting what was likely a recovering population.
Today, the biggest threat to the tiny population’s survival may be collisions with ships.
“These whales cross a major trans-Pacific shipping lane when traveling to and from the Bering Sea; their probability of ship-strike mortalities may increase with the likely future opening of an ice-free Northwest Passage,” NOAA scientists warned in a 2010 study in Biology Letters.
The right whale was declared an endangered species in 1970, under the precursor to the 1973 Endangered Species Act. A recovery planfor the North Pacific population was not issued until 2013, 40 years later.
The final pilings for a new cruise ship dock are being driven at a Hoonah tourist attraction, marking an end to the nearly decade-long saga that divided the community. The publicly financed dock is being built where it serves a local Native corporation’s interests, only indirectly benefiting residents — although many are also shareholders.
On the grounds, tourists wander in and out of a historic salmon cannery turned museum. They skim the treetops on more than a mile of zipline and bask in front of a crackling wood fire that an employee keeps going.
Tyler Hickman is the vice president of Icy Strait Point, owned by the Huna Totem Corp. He says it’s important to maintain the cannery’s off-beat charm.
“It just starts feeling fake when you overdo something,” he says. “We try to make sure that everything we do is authentic.”
Part of that is making sure visitors feel comfortable when they arrive and leave. About 150,000 cruise ship passengers travel to Hoonah each year. To get to Icy Strait Point, they have to schlep over on a small tender boat. There’s no place for the big ships to dock.
Hickman points to 60 people on a cruise ship waiting for a tender to transport them to shore. In the future, he says, those passengers will be able to grab their raincoat and wander off the boat on their own.
From there, they could walk through second-growth forest. Not everyone is as enchanted with the location of what Hickman estimates is a $22 million dock, paid for primarily by a grant from the state.
Ken Skaflestad is a shareholder in the Native corporation. He says before the cruise ships started arriving back in 2004, the village felt like a different place. Its population was around 750.
“I remember a day when somebody might wear their pajamas down to pick up the newspaper or groceries on a Saturday morning. If a cruise ship’s in town, that’s changed now,” he says.
A mile past Icy Strait Point’s traffic gate is the city of Hoonah. Tourists shuttle through for bear watching tours and to ride the zipline.
Back in the mid-2000s, the city proposed a multi-use dock located closer to the city center.
“This commercial dock that was going to help with barging, that was going to help with freighting, was going to be a place for fishing boats to tie up to,” he says.
Cruise ships weren’t the main focus, but Skaflestad says the conversation shifted after the success of Icy Strait Point as a tourist destination. A public-private partnership was created. The state put in $14 million to build the dock; the corporation put in $8 million. Although the inclusion of cruise ships was decided, the location of the dock wasn’t.
Skaflestad says the Icy Strait Point developers disagreed with where the community wanted the dock, which was about 800 feet toward town from their existing facility.
The city selected Shaman Point. He says the argument became not only about where it should be, but also what: a multipurpose dock close to downtown or a cruise ship dock on private land.
“I can say that I was one … that adamantly took opposition to that whole initiative.”
And the town, he says, was split down the middle.
“I refer to it as World War III. It was horrible,” he says.
A Royal Caribbean executive sent a letter to the city stating that if the dock was built at Shaman Point, cruise lines might not moor there. Skaflestad says the cruise ship passenger experience outweighed the community’s interests in the dock.
“The opinion of the customer’s experience was touted to far outweigh the community’s need to all of the other uses other than a cruise ship dock,” Skaflestad says.
Eventually, the city council turned over. A new mayor was elected and it was decided the dock would be built at Icy Strait Point. Skaflestad says he never did agree with how everything went down. But when he became mayor in 2014, he wanted to make the best of it.
“I had to really work to be open minded about this and listen to the other points of view. The other opinions were that right now the important thing is the development of this industry and that those other uses are really relatively small uses. They’re not going to be big booms to our economy or anything,” he says. “Truthfully, this dock, it’s primarily income that’s going to come through the cruise ships.”
As the final pilings go in, Tyler Hickman says there’s no need to discuss what happened in the past.
“To me, it’s about today. When you go and walk around the corner, it’s being installed where it is and it’s in the right place,” Hickman says. “The experience the cruise ship guest is going to have is going to be the best in the world.”
The new dock could attract more cruise lines such as Disney, which would mean more visitors to Icy Strait Point and Hoonah.
Skaflestad says he’s trying to be welcoming. He leads the bear watching tours when they get overbooked. He says before, the locals just wanted the tourists to pass right through.
“This metamorphosis has happened and the town is saying ‘I can make a buck here,’ ‘Hey, I’m finding a little niche over here,’ or ‘I’m just going to sit here like I used to sit and watch the birds on the beach and now I’m going to watch tourists,’” Skaflestad says. “There’s this significant change that the presence of these visitors has brought to Hoonah.”
The dock is expected to be completed in October just as Icy Strait Point closes for the season.