Paint The Sky With Stars

“Oh My God, it’s full of stars”…  These were David Bowman’s last words as he moved toward the monolith orbiting Jupiter at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic work – “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  I loved this work, as well as many written by Mr. Clarke, and I’ve never forgotten that incredulous statement made as Dr. Bowman was being prepared to ‘enter’ the monolith.  Flash forward to this past week in south central Alaska and the amazingly clear nights we’ve experienced; living semi-rural I’ve been able to view the only recently returned dark night skies every night for the last six evenings and they have been spectacular!

Initially I was looking to view ‘Nature’s light show’ – the Aurora Borealis – and I was just blown away by the displays from Tuesday late evening right through early Wednesday morning.  It was the best display I’ve observed since I moved up here in August of 2013 and second only to an incredible display I viewed with a friend up on The Haul Road (aka ‘The Dalton Highway’ AK 11) in early September of 2000.


Alaskan aurora courtesy Jan Curtis

But the aurora are fickle and despite forecasts from UAF of ‘high+’ (between 6 and 7 on the 0 to 9 scale) across the next four evenings I never saw any additional displays.  But every night I was treated to a star filled sky; in the early evenings I could easily see the edge-on view of the Milky Way.  As the night progressed I saw many of the now familiar constellations such as Ursa Major – the same depicted on the Alaska state flag – and Ursa Minor along with Cassiopeia, Cygnus and Pisces.  By early morning when the air temps hovered around -6.67° C (20.00° F) the night sky was often crystal clear with the stars twinkling like icy diamonds.  Although I’ve seen this sight many, many nights now it still never ceases to evoke a sense of awe and wonder to realize as I view the incredible night sky I’m looking back in time and any given point of light could be a star now gone due to novae or supernovae but the light of said destruction has yet to reach Earth.  So just by looking up at the clear night sky I could easily utter those now famous words from David Bowman’s encounter with the monolith.  But I feel more comfortable with a line from a favored Enya song named, appropriately enough, “Paint The Sky With Stars”:

Place a name upon the night
One to set your heart alight
And to make the darkness bright
Paint the sky with stars.


The amazing view of our spiral galaxy – The Milky Way!

Mother Nature Says ‘Good Morning’!

This (Monday, May 18th) morning started off as the previous three with mainly sunny skies, slightly cool morning temps bound for well above normal evening high temps and light variable air along with a deep silence. I was sitting at my system reviewing some news stories and working on a cup of coffee; in the back of my mind I was prioritizing what I needed to get handled today. Being retired normally leaves me with wide open days in terms of scheduling but Monday’s mean I have to account for my KTNA music show (“Take A Little Trip Back…”) which airs from 20:00 to 21:00. The same is true for Friday evenings when I handle the local newscast although since my accident Thursdays have cropped up in this category as well since I have a morning OT session from 08:00 to 09:00. Because these are in Wasilla, which is 60+ miles to the south, I have to get moving by 06:40 to insure I am on time.

At 07:49 AKDT as I reached for my coffee I heard a distant rumble which reminded me of a jet aircraft spooling up its engines for take-off. This surprised me because usually it is dead silent outdoors during the spring mornings with just the intermittent sounds of the local bird population. Quickly I recognized this was not just noise but rather an earthquake as my monitors began to vibrate in an ‘up/down’ motion. The sound continued to build in sympathy with the vibrations and I could hear many other objects around the house shaking and adding to the din. Just as I was starting to become concerned, maybe 15 seconds into the event, the rumbling subsided as did the vibrations and within a few seconds all was again quiet. The birds had stopped their singing and my German Shepherd Dog – Qanuk – rushed into my tiny office looking for attention and security. Just a moment later I heard my Alaskan Malamute – Anana – walking the steps and joining us. My poor little angel is just coming up on six years of age but already suffers from arthritis and the steep stairs in this place are not her friends so I knew she was a bit disturbed as well. I took a few minutes to soothe and pet both my canine companions all the while telling them ‘everything’s okay’ and ‘it’s just an earthquake’…

My very limited experience with earthquakes was reflected in my guess as to the magnitude; I was thinking it would rank a magnitude between 5.5 and 6.0. However, when the Alaska Earthquake Center at UAF posted this tremblor they initially classed it as a magnitude 4.2 then moved it to a 4.5 before finalizing it at a magnitude 4.26. It was located 14 miles deep and centered just 30 miles SSW of Talkeetna; the relatively shallow depth and close proximity probably caused some of my error in guessing its magnitude. After ‘the Kidz’ were a bit more calm I toured the house and found a few items knocked askew but I’ve seen much worse in past tremblors. All told this was an interesting diversion to a bucolic Monday morning in rural south central Alaska but nothing more.

I knew before I relocated up here Alaska is by far the most seismically active of the fifty states and the Susitna River Valley area is one of the more geologically active in the state.   As such I have learned to both expect and endure periodic tremblors; in fact I must say I take a degree of interest as to their magnitudes, locations and properties.  Some are preceded by noise while others are silent; some show a ‘side to side’ motion while others produce an unmistakable ‘up and down’ sine wave motion and no two are exactly alike.  However, I also remember viewing images in National Geographic of the devastation wrought by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake which, at a magnitude 9.2, devastated most of Anchorage, Seward, Valdez and many points in between.  I sincerely hope I never experience an event of seismic power but then I am one of many living in a very geologically active area.  Like so much that’s a part of living in ‘The Great Land’ one takes the negatives with the positives…

UAF AEC tremblor data

UAF AEC tremblor data


Condensation, Cold and Mold

With the beginning of the New Year Talkeetna and its immediate environs have seen a switch from above normal temps to those which even the locals would find a bit on the ‘cool’ side. Yesterday (01/03) we never reached 4.0 F (-15.6 C) and just at sunrise this morning – which occurred at 10:24 AKST or 19:24 UTC – we bottomed out at -8.3 F (-22.4 C). As a broad generalization Talkeetna ‘expects’ to see high temps around 19.2 F (-7.1 C) and lows around 0.9 F (-17.3 C). Based on this you can see we’re a bit on the cool side although for me it just feels great! Anana and Qanuk cannot get enough of these temps although I have to time Qanuk’s exposure as when it’s 0 F (-17.8 C) to -10 F (-12.2 C) he should have no more than 40 minutes of exposure as even his tough GSD pads will begin to crack and bleed. One of the local mushers gave me a tip on some cream and thus far it seems to be really helping the poor boy but I still must be wary when the air temp is below zero.

One of the less pleasant issues with which I’ve had to grapple involves the build-up of condensation on the interior of the windows when the temps do drop below 25 F (-3.9 C). Understand my place has double pane glass in all the windows and this does a reasonable job of insulation; without question I really need triple pane glass and I’m looking into options to make this happen. But once I see outdoor temps drop much below 25 F (-3.9 C) the condensation really does begin to accumulate. As I have wooden window frames having water pool on the frames for any period of time is not good! I have played around with numerous methods in an attempt to decrease this condensation with very little luck. I have an inquiry into UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) which has a world renown department on building insulation regarding any suggestions. For now I’m reduced to using a sponge on a daily basis to try to manage the moisture. I’ve also tried laying out strip of highly absorbent material along the glass/window frame interface; this works but requires the material be wrung out every day. In addition when it is below zero the material gets trapped on the windows frame by ice and cannot be removed.

But the buildup of condensation has another negative consequence which can be even more destructive in the short term; mold quickly grows on the spots where the condensation pools. Because of the extremely low angle of the sun this time of year the naturally anti-microbial properties of sunlight cannot hit the corners of the windows where the mold loves to grow. And this stuff must be ‘Alaskan mold’ as it thrives at temps right down to 32 F (0 C) and can withstand being frozen in water for weeks yet still emerge viable once the ice melts. The stuff is the classic ‘green/black’ mold which I immediately associate with Rhizopus nigrificans; however, this stuff is definitely a psychrotroph and R. nigrificans is not so my next guess is some form of Aspergillius. If I had access to my old micro lab from 30 years back I could ID the beggar within a week. I am planning to see if API test strips can be purchased for ID’ing molds; if so I’ll be getting some. Anyway, whatever the stuff is it has no issue growing stoutly at freezing temps and hence it spreads out even in the cold. I’m trying a 20% chlorine to 80% water solution in spray form but thus far this hasn’t been effective; next step is to increase it to a 50% solution.

Having come from the lower 48 I was much more aware of trying to keep moisture in the air during the winters; this was caused by the prevalence of forced air heating. As the standard in Alaska is fuel oil via a Toyo stove or wood stove the air doesn’t get a chance to dry out like that run through a gas furnace and hence retains a much higher relative humidity. I remain impressed to this day as to the amazing differences I’ve encountered in such seemingly simple things like interior humidification and condensation formation when comparing the lower 48 to Alaska. Without question things are ‘different up here’ and I continue to learn just how different they can be! The following are some images pertinent to this posting:

Icy window glass with mold in the corner; outside air temp -7.7 F

Icy window glass with mold in the corner; outside air temp -7.7 F

The yellow is a highly absorbent felt like material which has become frozen to the window; outside air temp -7.7 F

The yellow is a highly absorbent felt-like material which has become frozen to the window; outside air temp -7.7 F

Just rising sun illuminates a south facing window and highlights the amount of condensation followed by ice at the edges; outside air temp -7.7 F

Just rising sun illuminates a south facing window and highlights the amount of condensation followed by ice at the edges; outside air temp -7.7 F

The result of closing off the NE bedroom on the second floor and an outside temp that never reach 0 F for two days and dropped to -23 F at night.  The ice in the corner was 0.6 inches (15.24 mm) thick!

The result of closing off the NE bedroom on the second floor and an outside temp that never reach 0 F for two days and dropped to -23 F at night. The ice in the corner was 0.6 inches (15.24 mm) thick!

The Sound of Thunder!!

Yet another milestone in my Alaskan adventure occurred this past Monday afternoon when the faint albeit unmistakable sound of distant thunder reverberated through the boreal forest.  This is the first time I’ve heard thunder in my new home and it was most welcome!  If there’s one thing I really miss from my time in the lower 48 its the seasonal presence of thunderstorms in general and severe thunderstorms in particular.  As a very young child I remember being terrified of both lightning and thunder; I actually dreaded the steamy hot July and August evenings in SE Michigan because such weather often brought on thunderstorms.  I’m forever grateful to my father for finally taking me out on the family home’s back porch as a thunderstorm approached and explaining just what was happening; we talked about the genesis of the storm, the lightning being the precursor to thunder and he taught me to estimate the distance to a storm by counting the seconds between a lightning flash and its resultant thunder.  I never again feared thunderstorms and, indeed, grew to absolutely love the phenomena to the point I regularly walked in such storms.  In hindsight probably not the wisest thing to do but I loved feeling the energy and power of the storm all around me.  One time I remember actually feeling a weak electrical shock from a close by strike; I never wear shoes when I walk in such storms as they just become saturated and dead weight.  And on a couple of occasions I’ve smelled ozone from a very close by strike; these events always included that incredible ‘flash-boom’ effect of a truly close lightning strike in which the flash and resultant boom are virtually simultaneous.

Anyway, the thunderstorms I’ve seen up here – mostly on radar or satellite – are pale comparisons to the gully washers of the SE or the incredible towering cumulonimbus of the plains storms but at least they are around.  Indeed, there is now little call for the weather spotter training I cultivated while living in the lower 48.  I still do participate in CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow reporting network) and I have sent in reports of extreme weather to the Anchorage NWS office during a winter storm but I do not expect to do as much in these areas as I did while living in the lower 48.  Yet there’s no shortage of fascinating meteorology up here and I’m in seventh heaven re-learning so much of what I took for granted as ‘immutable knowledge’ regarding the weather.  Weather in the higher latitudes is quite different from that found in the middle latitudes so this a fertile area for learning’s; it’s just a great coincidence that I’m fascinated by meteorology in general.

Another area of great interest to me, and one of which I know little but am working to improve, is that of geology and the physics of earthquakes.  Prior to relocating to Alaska I had minimal experience with earthquakes and found them to be curiosities which might occur every decade or so.  This changed a bit while I was employed with The Clorox Company as its headquarters is in Oakland with its technical center located just a bit further east in Pleasanton; as such I did experience more tremblors while visiting the west coast.  Even so noticeable shifts in the earth were still just a curiosity.  With my relocation to south central Alaska the frequency to which I would experience tremblors has changed dramatically as I’ve felt three very pronounced seismic events since moving up here and that’s been just 10 months.  This past Monday afternoon a magnitude 7.9 event occurred in the Aleutian Island chain which prompted a short-lived tsunami warning; no damage was reported.  While we did not feel anything up here the folks in Anchorage could feel just a bit of that event.  I knew prior to moving up here Alaska was the most seismically active of the fifty states but I had no idea just how active it is; if you’d like to get some perspective visit this website:  It’s run by UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and is the clearinghouse for information on Alaskan seismic activity.  Indeed, a quick perusal of the current data shows 79 events recorded for Wednesday, June 25th as of 12:18 AKDT.  I’ve taken the liberty of pasting a copy of the activity map for June 25th at the end of this piece; it was copied as of 12:32 AKDT.  Granted, most are very small as in the magnitude 1 to 2 range but this still illustrates Alaska can truly be ‘seismically active’.  This is the only place I’ve heard sound associated with seismic activity; back in the winter a magnitude 5.9 event was accompanied by two very loud ‘booms’ which actually awakened my soundly sleeping Alaskan Malamute (Anana).

I guess I could say there’s rarely a dull moment in this amazing state I now call home and I like it this way.  We’re looking at the potential for some heavy rain across the next 12 to 18 hours; we need moisture so it is welcome although it will put a damper on riding my bicycle.  But in true Alaskan fashion I’ll just substitute an extended walk in the rain with the dogs; they don’t mind the rain although they won’t like having to remain in the mud room for a few hours after we return so they can dry off and I can take a couple of shots at removing a bit of that glacial silt and dirt that is ubiquitous to this area.  These kinds of adjustments are becoming almost routine and I like this realization as it means I am definitely becoming an Alaskan!