Surface Water in a Subarctic Desert

Posted June 10, 2020 at 6:16 am by

FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka is a new reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

Near­ly every mol­e­cule of water that now cov­ers 70% of our plan­et was spewed in awe­some vol­canic erup­tions or car­ried frozen in aster­oids or comets that pum­meled a life­less earth for eons. 

Any giv­en water mol­e­cule has sure­ly been recy­cled through untold evaporation/precipitation cycles since an ear­ly atmos­phere formed around 4,200,000,000 years ago. Suf­fice it to say; our water is very old.

Being a vital sub­stance for life, any part of any drop of water you drink today could have coursed through the steamy bio-digester gut of a Wool­ly Mam­moth or maybe been pumped to the top of a 300-foot red­wood tree or per­haps sipped by a Nean­derthal child in Spain. Use your imag­i­na­tion. So, there is more than a hint of truth in the old say­ing that cheap beer tastes like it “has been through a horse”.

Water in north­ern climes is a relent­less shape-shifter; ice, vapor and liq­uid. A con­ti­nen­tal sub­arc­tic cli­mat­ic zone is a swath of for­est geog­ra­phy utter­ly dom­i­nat­ed by win­ter. A dry, per­sis­tent win­ter that arrives with an atti­tude after just a few weeks of autum­nal glo­ry. Win­ter has been a pre­dictable and stern mas­ter of all that lives in the geog­ra­phy of the enor­mous Yukon Riv­er drainage. If the cli­mat­ic sto­ry of a year were in 12 chap­ters, like our cal­en­dar time, then below freez­ing tem­per­a­tures occur in over 8 months with the oth­er three sea­sons cram into 4 months. At high­er ele­va­tions we can say that sum­mer is just a sweet lie.

The Yukon Riv­er weaves 1,250 miles west­er­ly across the bulge of Alas­ka but orig­i­nates 800 miles fur­ther into the adja­cent social­ist ter­ri­to­ries of Hock­ey Land, ay? About now the water at that bor­der might be run­ning at about 250,000 cubic feet per sec­ond. With spring rain­fall maybe even more. The roil­ing water car­ries so much silt and White Riv­er glacial flour that you can eas­i­ly hear it scratch an alu­minum hull like the out­put of a low vol­ume Geiger-counter.

The extreme nature of that cli­mate is best described as a “mete­o­ro­log­i­cal para­dox”. Such an extreme range of annu­al tem­per­a­tures (an eye-pop­ping span of around 150 degrees F most years) can only occur in regions far from mod­er­at­ing ocean­ic warmth.

The geo-phys­io­graph­ic real­i­ties of the sub­arc­tic Alas­ka cre­ate some iron­ic con­di­tions that a per­son from south­ern climes might not imag­ine. One of those enig­mas is that there are great expans­es of sur­face water, not unusu­al at low­er ele­va­tions, in what can be defined as a semi-arid cli­mat­ic region.

Like here, there is also a pow­er­ful rain shad­ow in play. On steroids! The slow, but inex­orably ris­ing 650-mile arc of the Alas­ka Range (push­ing up at fin­ger nail growth speed), where many peaks stab near­ly three miles into the sky, is anchored by the Denali mas­sif at 20,310 feet. The gran­ite plu­ton of that range is part of the Pacif­ic Ring of Fire and a source of many earth­quakes. It also pro­vides a text­book bar­ri­er to moist fronts blast­ing in from the Gulf of Alas­ka and dries the air enter­ing the Interior.

Fair­banks is sev­er­al hun­dred miles from the near­est salt water of the Pacif­ic. Aver­age annu­al pre­cip­i­ta­tion there is just under 12 inch­es with near­ly a quar­ter of that arriv­ing as rain in the wettest month of the year, August. Much of the vast low ele­va­tion ter­rain of the basin comes in with sim­i­lar num­bers. The text­book def­i­n­i­tion of a desert (with par­tic­u­lar geo­graph­ic qual­i­fiers) is 10 inch­es of annu­al pre­cip­i­ta­tion or less.

Much of the vast Inte­ri­or of Alas­ka is ver­dant in the dry sum­mer months of June and July, with plen­ty of sur­face water in uncount­able rivers, creeks, lakes, sloughs and muskeg bogs. Fly­ing into the sun on a wind­less, late spring after­noon over the Yukon Flats in the heart of the Inte­ri­or, makes it seem that a reflec­tive mir­ror of gold­en water is everywhere.

Much of the Inte­ri­or is under­lain by depths of up to hun­dreds of feet of frozen par­ent ground, that absent removal of insu­lat­ing sur­face veg­e­ta­tion may be only thaw­ing under the mid­night sun in an “active lay­er” to a depth of a foot or two before re-freez­ing in ear­ly win­ter. It has been this way for a very, very long time. But these vast areas of per­mafrost pre­vent drainage and cre­ate the green, watery land­scapes that by the num­bers is actu­al­ly a semi-arid biome.

This cre­ates some inter­est­ing sur­face waters: some lakes have no out­lets, creeks and rivers cut­ting through per­mafrost soils all have a tan­nin “tea col­or” in sum­mer, glacial rivers run grey with a col­loidal sus­pen­sion of flour-size par­ti­cles of ground rock, while very few waters run clear, except high in the moun­tains where mon­tane glac­i­ers no longer remain. It is rare to find clear spring waters for imme­di­ate, untreat­ed drinking.

In the 1960s many a big idea, no mat­ter how loose­ly teth­ered to real­i­ty, were spawned based upon the notion that the rel­a­tive­ly unpeo­pled expanse of wild Alas­ka was per­fect for mas­sive geo­graph­ic alter­ation projects. For the dom­i­nant white cul­ture of Amer­i­ca, brim­ming with con­fi­dence after WWII tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments, activ­i­ties of this kind were most eas­i­ly rolled out where indige­nous peo­ples lived and lacked sov­er­eign pow­ers and home­land ownership.

If you are of a cer­tain age, numer­ous U.S. above ground blasts from Biki­ni Atoll in the Mar­shall Islands moved on to Amchit­ka Island, Alas­ka before test ban treaties final­ly moved det­o­na­tions under­ground in the Amer­i­can desert. Over thir­teen har­row­ing days in Octo­ber of 1962, the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis aroused images of mon­strous expand­ing mush­room clouds while we stu­dents prac­ticed duck­ing under flim­sy school desks.

Pri­or to those unprece­dent­ed above ground blasts, that were larg­er than Hiroshi­ma or Nagasa­ki by scales of mag­ni­tude, was the cocka­mamie idea (con­jured by a cadre of elite nuclear physi­cists bent on find­ing prac­ti­cal uses in order to con­tin­ue lucra­tive con­tracts for weapons pro­grams) to use five nukes to exca­vate a har­bor near very remote Pt. Hope, Alas­ka on the fringe of the continent.

In the lat­ter stages of expe­dit­ed research and plan­ning a cab­in full of uppi­ty con­ser­va­tion­ists in Fair­banks, a hand­ful of Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka biol­o­gists, and the vil­lage lead­ers of Pt. Hope, just 30 miles from ground zero, togeth­er pulled down the cur­tain of dou­ble talk and obfus­ca­tion to reveal the death­ly insan­i­ty of the project. A sil­ver lin­ing was that the con­tro­ver­sy ush­ered in the yet-to-come era of fed­er­al envi­ron­men­tal impact analy­ses, cre­at­ed a potent native-envi­ron­men­tal­ist alliance, and birthed the Tun­dra Times, a news­pa­per by and for Native Alaskans.

Even if we nar­row the per­spec­tive some, to include only the most hair-brained schemes for the Alas­ka Inte­ri­or, the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al hubris of that era, real­ly not so long ago, is enough to bog­gle the con­tem­po­rary mind. And then there are the machi­na­tions of head­line-grab­bing Alas­ka politi­cians as the 800-mile Trans Alas­ka Oil Pipeline, a breath­tak­ing engi­neer­ing feat in its own right, became a real­i­ty in the 1970s. A real 48inch steel “pipe dream” come true. But the “unholy alliance” of envi­ron­men­tal­ists and Alas­ka Natives coa­lesced again with clout to become a real force to be reck­oned with as the Great Par­ti­tion­ing of Alas­ka unfold­ed in the late 1970s.

There were always politi­cians want­i­ng to hog the head­lines tout­ing fan­ci­ful schemes because Alaskans think BIG. Much more grandiose than pis­sant Texas. The catchy tee shirt and bumper stick­ers often became avail­able before any per­ti­nent research was com­plet­ed. Or even begun. Make way for the grand exper­i­ment! The good Inu­pi­at vil­lagers of Pt. Hope, who har­vest­ed cari­bou that grazed on lichens that absorbed radi­a­tion fall­out, were not even informed that they would be part of a grand exper­i­ment with the fick­le genie of atom­ic fis­sion to carve out a har­bor that no one want­ed in a tra­di­tion­al cari­bou hunt­ing valley.

Well, all this fresh­wa­ter of the Yukon drainage cours­ing to the Bering Sea, has not gone unno­ticed by sim­i­lar schemers with land­scape-alter­ing plots and unafraid to “play God” as long as the fed­er­al cash spig­ots could be turned open while ratio­nal pub­lic con­cerns were deft­ly side-stepped and dismissed.

How about revers­ing the flow of the age-old Tanana and Yukon Rivers using atom­ic explo­sions to exca­vate new chan­nels in order to reverse the nat­ur­al flow com­plete­ly and turn it south? Nuclear reac­tors would pow­er mas­sive pumps to get all that “wast­ed” water down to the lower-48.

Gov­er­nor Wal­ly Hick­el (Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or under Nixon and twice Gov­er­nor of Alas­ka) in 1991 tried to dust off his dreams from the mid-60s about con­struc­tion of a 1,400-mile under­sea pipeline to send fresh­wa­ter to Cal­i­for­nia from Alas­ka rivers flow­ing into the Pacif­ic. As any ratio­nal per­son would pre­dict, the eco­nom­ics, envi­ron­men­tal issues, and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges even­tu­al­ly deflat­ed this real­ly bad idea before it went any­where. Wal­ly Hick­el also invit­ed the nuclear estab­lish­ment to use the North Slope of Alas­ka for fur­ther blasts, but thank­ful­ly with­out success.

More on those instances of Alas­ka-scale hubris (like open air test­ing of thou­sands of weapons of mass destruc­tion con­tain­ing bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal agents, VX and mus­tard gas south of Fair­banks) at anoth­er time. Let’s get back to the Yukon, sur­face water and the vaunt­ed Yukon Flats. You could say that the Flats, today most­ly encom­passed by a huge nation­al wildlife refuge and native owned lands that were a direct leg­isla­tive result of estab­lish­ing the pipeline cor­ri­dor, are the eco­log­ic and geo­graph­ic “heart” of the Inte­ri­or region.

Trav­el­ling through the Flats in sum­mer can be less like adven­ture and more like an unpleas­ant test of resolve. The skeets and oth­er hun­gry bugs are leg­endary, the arch­i­pel­ago of end­less islands, invis­i­ble sand and grav­el bars, lack of geo­graph­ic ref­er­ence, and chang­ing chan­nels in a slowed cur­rent can be a kind of wilder­ness purgatory.

As the Project Char­i­ot boon­dog­gle igno­min­ious­ly died in the ear­ly 1960s anoth­er mega-project, again a mon­strous­ly destruc­tive “solu­tion” for a non-exis­tent and much exag­ger­at­ed “prob­lem”, took cen­ter stage in Alas­ka. The Ram­part Dam Project on the mid­dle Yukon Riv­er. Slat­ed to become one of the largest grav­i­ty dams in the world (like Grand Coulee in WA) it was already cost­ing US tax­pay­ers mil­lions in the late 1950s as the Army Corps of Engi­neers qui­et­ly planned. Drawn to be over 500 feet tall and span 1,400 feet, con­struc­tion would require more than 20 mil­lion cubic yards of con­crete and fill mate­ri­als. Nev­er mind that at that time that the nar­row two-lane road end­ed just north of Fair­banks and the Alas­ka Rail­road ter­mi­nat­ed in the yards in Fair­banks. Build­ing norther­ly rails and high­ways up to the Ram­part site would be part of the con­struc­tion cost in order to get the build­ing mate­ri­als there.

The reser­voir (once filled after 30 years or so) would be larg­er than Lake Eyrie at 270 miles long and up to 80 miles wide and 400 feet deep. Sev­en his­toric Atha­paskan vil­lages would be com­plete­ly inun­dat­ed by hun­dreds of feet of reser­voir. Some of the most hyper­bol­ic rhetoric in sup­port of the dam made clear the colos­sal igno­rance of ecol­o­gy and com­plete dis­dain for abo­rig­i­nal inhab­i­tants and the large salmon runs upon which they depended.

Alas­ka Sen­a­tor Ernest Gru­en­ing told audi­ences that “sceni­cal­ly it is zero…” and “noth­ing but a vast wasteland…notable chiefly for swarm­ing clouds of mos­qui­tos”. When asked about the 1,200 res­i­dents of those sev­en vil­lages he said that it was a region “as worth­less from the stand­point of human habi­ta­tion as any that can be found on earth”.

The scheme was even­tu­al­ly tout­ed by Alas­ka sen­a­tors, big busi­ness and even both Nixon and Kennedy in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 1960. The pro­ject­ed need was an unabashed fairy tale that the expand­ing pop­u­la­tion of Alas­ka and asso­ci­at­ed heavy indus­try would require an unprece­dent amount of elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tion from the mid­dle of nowhere.

The high­ly effec­tive and ener­gized native-envi­ron­men­tal­ist coali­tion was already warmed up and ready for a fight. They sharp­ened their counter argu­ments about native home­land, fish and wildlife pro­duc­tion and helped expose the smoke and mir­rors and fuzzy math. In the late 1960s they final­ly helped dri­ve a sil­ver stake into the ill-con­ceived plan by forc­ing fed­er­al ana­lysts to seri­ous­ly ques­tion pos­si­ble fed­er­al inter­ests and mas­sive tax pay­er expen­di­tures over decades, in a frigid place far from pow­er markets.

(com­ing up…The Odds are Good that the Goods are Odd)

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One comment...

  1. Once again, Steve Ulvi has brought us Alaskan insights and his­to­ry, and all cre­ative­ly nar­rat­ed with his sharp and imag­i­na­tive ver­biage. My thanks, Steve! I look for­ward to your next installment!

    Comment by Gay Graham on June 10, 2020 at 9:05 am

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