27 July, 1999

July 27

For the past couple of days I have been shown the arctic research hotspots in and around Fairbanks by Renee Crain of ARCUS. It has been a highly educational tour. We began with a tour of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Museum. It presented the natural and cultural history of Alaska. We also attended a presentation on the Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights. One of the hallmarks of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is the auroral research program. The Aurora Borealis occurs when the solar winds (referred to by some as cosmic radiation, and by others as streams of subatomic parcticles originating from the sun) flow into the earth's atmosphere. The parcticles are directed to the polar regions by the earth's magnetic field. When the solar wind enters the earth's atmosphere it interacts with the elements of the atmosphere, creating a spectacular display of colors. Fairbanks is ideally situated to observe this phenomenon. Millions of volts of electricity are pumped into the earth's atmosphere via the northern lights each night. The University at Fairbanks has their own rocket launching range from which to launch measurement instruments high into the atmosphere to study the Aurora Borealis.

We also visited the ASF located at the Geophysical Institute. ASF is an acronym for Alaska SAR Facility. SAR is an acronym for synchronized aperture radar. It is a remote sensing technique in which satellites use radar to scan images of the earth's surface. ASF is one of a few facilities which is capable of directing one of the orbiting satellites to transmit SAR images to its computers. These images are used by researchers to better understand surface topographic features on the earth's surface. The Geophysical Institute has a large satellite dish on its roof to communicate with the satellite.

We also met University of Alaska at Fairbanks glaciologist Carl Benson and spoke with him about his work on an outburst lake in south-central Alaska. We also toured the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO), which is also located at the Geophysical Institute (a large facility located at the university). AVO is in existence primarily to monitor the active volcanoes along the Aleutian Islands. Numerous commercial airline flights make their course over the Aleutian Islands. A volcano erupts along the Aleutian Islands on the average of once a year. If an airplane were to fly into an ash cloud from a volcanic eruption, a crash would be likely.

We also made a trip to the Large Animal Research Station, located near the University. Research on the ecology and behavior of musk ox, reindeer, and caribou is carried out at this facility.

It was a great trip to Fairbanks. It was impressive to see the degree of interesting and significant research occurring in this seemingly out of the way place. It was both inspirational and educational.

The view of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The rocket in the foreground is an example of what lifts research instruments into the upper atmosphere to study the Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights. One of the hallmarks of the geophysical institute is their auroral research. The satellite dish sits atop the institute. It is used to capture SAR images from passing satellites. SAR is an acronym for synchronized aperture radar, a technique which utilizes radar signals to take "pictures" of the earth's surface.

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