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Ever feel like you just want to be left alone? You should try Alaska! This US state has six times the amount of land that the UK does but's it home to just 730,000 people, most of whom live in a few cities and towns. The rest is wilderness. Alaska's nickname, 'Last Frontier,' is certainly fitting.
If you are talking about wildlife and natural resources, Alaska is one of the wealthiest and most spectacular places on Earth. But it is also a land of extremes. While Indigenous people have lived there successfully for thousands of years, outsiders struggle to survive the bitter cold climate, months of night, brutal storms, dangerous wild animals, and almost no chance to farm or raise domestic animals.
First, let's figure out where we are! Check out the map below.
During the summer, when Alaska gets up to 24 hours of sunlight, it can become quite hot. In winter, many areas do not climb above freezing, and temperatures commonly plunge to 40 below!
Not all of Alaska is that cold, though. In fact, most people live in the warmer climate along the Pacific Coast. The warm current of the Pacific blesses southern coastal Alaska with an oceanic or maritime climate. A mild, mid-latitude maritime climate is also found along the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Alaska. Meanwhile, the Bering Sea creates a subarctic maritime climate on Alaska's western side.
Much of interior Alaska has a continental subarctic climate with short, warm, dry summers and long, frigid, and snowy winters.
Less than one-third of Alaska falls within the true Arctic climate zone. This part is called the North Slope- the northern side of the Brooks Range and the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean.
The true Arctic is warm and dry inland in the brief summer and extremely cold and dry in the long winter. Along the coast of the Arctic Ocean in the summer, sea breezes make the climate much cooler and more humid than a few kilometres inland.
Alaska's extremes are 37.8ºC and -62.2ºC, both in the interior continental climate zone. The average high in this zone in January is only -22ºC; in July, it is 23ºC.
On the southern coast, average January temperatures are around 0ºC, rising to 18ºC in July. It is cooler than the interior in the summer because of its maritime climate.
In the Arctic, temperatures don't get quite as cold as in the interior, but the winter is much longer than anywhere else. Average high temperatures don't get above zero until June, and the highest average is only 9 degrees in July! By September, Arctic temperatures have plunged below zero.
Fun fact: Aside from the temperate climate regions of southernmost Alaska, which have rainforests, the true cold environments in Alaska are characterised by just two main types, tundra and taiga.
The term 'boreal forest' is more often heard than 'taiga' used for forests in Europe and Asia. These are conifer evergreen forests of black spruce and white spruce, some deciduous trees like aspens and birches, and a thick shrub layer of willows and other species.
The boreal forest ends in the north as you approach the Brooks Range.
Tundra contains some plants, shrubs and grass but no trees. Alpine tundra is often found near icefields and other glacial environments without vegetation.
Once you are too far north for trees to grow because the climate is too cold, there are vast expanses of Arctic tundra. Tundra is filled with lakes and other wetlands. It has migrant breeding birds, migrant herds of caribou (reindeer), musk oxen, Arctic foxes, and many others.
Alaska's wetlands biome is extensive and includes around three million lakes. Many of Alaska's wetlands are considered globally significant.
The Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea areas contain some of the richest fisheries and marine life on Earth. The Arctic Ocean is known for its pack ice, which during much of the year allows polar bears and other animals the ability to walk out to sea to catch their prey.
Alaska may not always be so cold. Global warming is already having disastrous effects. The Bering Sea's ecosystem has changed radically as ocean temperatures rise, while the melting of the Arctic Ocean's pack ice is also causing problems in the Arctic tundra.
Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil that has not reached above 0oC for at least 2 years.
In the tundra, a considerable problem is the melting of permafrost. It is usually located a few inches below the land surface. As more melting happens every summer, the land becomes unstable, and buildings collapse. Black spruce trees fall over as the ground turns to mush, and these areas are known as drunken forests.
Let's take a look at some of the animals you may see if you ever visit Alaska!
The polar bear is the world's largest bear. It is an apex predator and a symbol of the Arctic. There are between four and seven thousand in Alaska. Though humans can be prey for this giant mammal, human activity is its greatest enemy. Global warming is causing the Arctic pack ice to break up earlier in the year, stranding many polar bears at sea.
Apex predator: a species at the top (apex) of the food chain in a given biome, such as a polar bear (Arctic). An apex predator has no natural predators. Humans are not considered apex predators because, in the natural world, we are a prey species for several apex predators.
Caribou, known as reindeer in Europe, is a major prey species for Alaskan predators. Alaskan caribou live in 32 different herds, numbering 750,000 animals. They are migratory- they spend winter in the interior boreal forests, then move north to the Arctic tundra to have their calves in the spring.
The timber or grey wolf is one of the apex predators humans fear most. As a result, it has been wiped out in many countries. In Alaska, up to 11,000 still exist, and unlike in many areas, Alaskan wolves are doing fine even though people can legally trap them.
Timber wolves live in packs of up to 30 and survive on a diet of moose and caribou calves, when available, as well as any smaller bird and mammal prey.
This avian predator is found across the world in the Arctic biome and occasionally wanders further south. Like polar bears and Arctic foxes, many gyrfalcons are white, helping them blend into their surroundings. The gyrfalcon has almost no natural enemies and is known for fearless attacks on animals such as brown bears. Its regular diet is small mammals and birds.
People have lived in Alaska for over 14,000 years and adapted to its extreme climates and other challenges. Indigenous people still live in Alaska and comprise about 15% of the population.
In the 1700s, Russians arrived and colonised Alaska, but they mainly stayed along the warmer coasts. It was only in the 20th century that non-Indigenous people from the south (mostly the Lower 48 states of the US and Canada) came in numbers to the Alaskan bush. Many could not survive there and left, but those who stayed have learned to cope with the temperatures, dark winters, high food prices, and other issues.
An essential activity for rural Alaskans is subsistence hunting, trapping, fishing, and plant gathering. While Alaska's tourism-based economy partly depends on expensive licences out-of-staters pay to come and do these activities, native Alaskans can engage in them with little cost. Thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live off Alaska's natural bounty.
Subsistence activities make sense in Alaska- outside of a few coastal areas, there isn't enough warm weather to farm or even garden. The growing season is too short. In addition, the soil is frozen most of the year. For food, you either have to buy what is shipped in from the outside world, which is very expensive (up to 3 times as expensive as in the Lower 48 states!), or you can get what you need from the land.
What if you wanted to raise sheep, goats, cattle, or other animals? The problematic climate is just one issue you would have to deal with. In a land where wild animals dominate, your domestic herd would quickly become breakfast for a wolf, bear, or other predators.
Oil is both a blessing and a curse in Alaska. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline connects the Arctic oilfields to shipping ports on the Pacific Coast. Every Alaskan receives a yearly check from the state's oil profits, but there is also a high cost.
Oil spills, such as that of the Exxon Valdez ship in 1989, devastate wildlife and natural ecosystems. There has also been a long-running struggle between environmentalists and oil companies to open up more Arctic tundra to drilling, including globally important parks like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is argued that too much drilling would harm caribou herds, breeding birds, and other species.
Alaska has maritime, continental, and Arctic climate zones.
Alaska's warmest and coldest temperatures occur in the continental climate zone of the interior and its warmest in the maritime climate of the south.
Alaska's biomes are alpine and Arctic tundra, boreal forest (taiga), wetlands, and oceans, with temperature coastal rainforest in the south.
Alaska's animals include the polar bear, caribou, gyrfalcon, and timber wolf.
Alaska's extreme climates make surviving there tricky for humans, but Indigenous people have done so for 14,000 years, living on subsistence diets based on hunting, fishing, gathering, and trapping.
The weather in Alaska ranges from wet with relatively mild temperatures all year along the southern coast, to -40 C and colder in the interior during the weather. During the brief summer, temperatures can reach as warm as northern Europe, regularly into the 20s and warmer. As you go north, there is less and less precipitation.
Yes, Alaska is one of the coldest places on Earth.
Extreme cold is dangerous for humans. Also, the growing season is so short that it is difficult to impossible to grow crops, meaning most food must be acquire through subsistence (hunting, gathering, fishing) or shipped in from elsewhere, and this is very expensive.
Alaska has maritime climates that are cool and wet, continental climate with war to hot summers and dry, extremely cold winters, and Arctic climates that are cold all year round, ranging from dry inland to humid along the coast.
Alaskan animals include polar bear, caribou (reindeer), gyrfalcon, timber wolf, and many others.
Alaska has _______ times the land area of the UK.
Alaska is bordered by the _______ Ocean in the North.
Two Arctic regions of Alaska are _______ and _______.
Brooks Range and North Slope.
Indigenous people have lived in Alaska for around _______ years.
The first Europeans to colonize Alaska were _______.
The coldest temperatures ever recorded in Alaska were in the tundra.
Humans are not an apex predator.
Pick the true statement about Alaska's timber wolves.
They have a large population.
The _______ moves oil from the north to the south in Alaska.
_______ is a white bird and an apex predator in Alaska.
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