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Frozen Alaska
Nature Bulletin No. 549-A   January 11, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

FROZEN ALASKA
Alaska, admitted to the Union in 1959 as our largest state, was purchased from Russia in 1867 for only $7,200,000. That huge peninsula has an area of 586,400 square miles -- more than twice the area of Texas and almost one-fifth of the whole United States. It is a treasure chest of vast wealth in gold, silver, copper, platinum and other important metals; of coal and petroleum; of fishes and furs; of forests, fertile soils and magnificent scenery. As our last frontier, it has become of vital strategic importance in our national defense.

Alaska was a rare bargain, obtained largely through the insistent efforts of William H. Seward, secretary of state, but most of its great natural resources were unknown then. The American people, opposed to the purchase, scornfully called it "Seward's Folly," "Walrussia," "Polaria," and "a giant icebox ".

In a way, it is an icebox. There are thousands of glaciers -- some of them immense -- in four great mountain ranges. More than a fourth of Alaska lies above the Arctic Circle which passes through Fort Yukon, only 1630 miles from the North Pole. Further, except for a relatively narrow fringe along the Pacific and Bering Sea coasts as far as the mouth of the mighty Yukon, the land is underlain with rock-hard permafrost.

Permafrost is the name given by geologists to permanently frozen ground, and it is responsible for some unique phenomena. Near its southern limit the depth is only a few feet, and each year enough of the upper portion thaws to permit tree growth and bountiful harvests of hardy crops. Above the Arctic Circle, where there is an enormous area of tundra -- bleak treeless plains known as the Barren Grounds -- permafrost extends two or three hundred feet below the surface, and only the topmost few inches ever thaw during the brief arctic summers.

At Nome, a gold mining town about 130 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the permafrost heaves and shifts during all seasons, and its surface becomes mushy or like quicksand in summer. A house may tilt one way and then the other but most of them are built on big skids that may be jacked up and kept level. Otherwise, walls cannot be plastered, doors won't close, and pipe lines break. On a slope they creep downhill. The federal building, although supported by piling driven deep into the frozen subsoil, has shifted so much that it must be replaced. Beneath Nome's new school, refrigerating pipes were installed to keep the permafrost from thawing.

The tundra, except for a few low mountains and a few shallow meandering streams, is a vast flat prairie spangled with innumerable lakes, ponds, marshes and muskeg bogs; because none of its small annual precipitation can seep into the permafrost. During nine months of the year, in addition to a few musk oxen, ptarmigan and snowshoe hares, there are innumerable lemmings, small rodents which furnish food for foxes, wolves and snowy owls. As the snow and ice melt, its carpet of lichens and mosses becomes visible. Then it comes alive with millions upon millions of birds, especially shorebirds and waterfowl. In June, it burgeons with green, and is gorgeously covered with plants that swiftly grow, bloom and make seed in the few weeks when there is warmth and no darkness. By late September the land again is white and desolate.


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