13 July, 2002
Before I leave Nome to board the Healy, I want to add a few more observations about this wonderful area. These are in no parcticular order.
When I came into Nome on the first day, I met Jack, a teacher from White Mountain. Jack is the only science teacher in the high school of 15 students! He teaches one subject to all 15 each year; this year it will be biology. By the time the students graduate, they will each complete four years of science.
On Friday, we went out on one of the Nome roads. There are approximately 250 miles of roads, mostly unpaved but well maintained, in the Nome road system. Two of the three main roads end at a small settlement, the other just ends. As we headed out to the Pilgrim River where Taylor and Banner wanted to fish, we spotted muskoxen on a hill in the distance. We parked the truck and hiked to the top of the hill where we were able to get close enough to identify more than 25 muskox enjoying an afternoon rest. The muskox is the only surviving member of a large group of ice-age “oxen” that are all now extinct. As the only High Arctic mammal that does not seek shelter during winter blizzards, they are incredibly well adapted to this harsh climate. Their outer coat of coarse guard hairs, reaching nearly to the ground, covers an inner layer of thick, soft, fleecy, extremely fine wool which the Inuit call quiviut. Interestingly enough, the muskoxen were re-introduced here and have been very successful without disturbing the natural ecosystem.
On our walk up the hill, we passed many beautiful tundra plants (and two piles of bear scat). All are adapted to the short growing season with limited sunlight. The Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum), for example, turns constantly to face the sun. This allows the flower to become much warmer that the surrounding air, offering a hospitable landing site for potential pollinators!
In the picture taken at the Pilgrim River, you will see cottonwood trees, an uncommon sight on the tundra since trees are generally not seen here. If you think about what plants need to grow, it’s easy to see why. Plants use photosynthesis (photo means light and synthesize means to build) to collect the sun’s energy in order to make food. Although there is plenty of sunlight during the arctic summer, photosynthesis cannot happen unless the plant is warm enough. With such a short time when both sunlight and warmth are available, the plant needs to use all its energy to make new leaves and to store food for the long winter months. A plant simply does not have the energy to grow tall. Another factor that limits tree growth is the depth of the permafrost (permanently frozen ground). A tree’s height is limited by the soil which supports its roots.
Although the boys were fishing, I would not have been allowed to get a permit if I had asked. Only those who live here can fish right now, and they must fish on a subsistence level. That means they must eat all they catch. The fish population has dropped substantially over the last few years, and fishing is being strictly regulated. There is no identified reason for the decline, but most feel it is related to warmer ocean temperatures. Many of the game fish are ocean fish which return to these waters to spawn. Although we spent an hour at the river, we spotted only a few red salmon and one or two arctic graylings in an area that would have been teeming with fish only a decade ago. The ocean warming may be something new or it may be a part of what seems to be a natural cycle of ups and downs in the fish population.
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