Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Variety trials, vegetable workshops set for August

Heidi Rader stands in her corn plots at the Georgeson Botanical Garden,
Heidi Rader will lead three workshops in August on the vegetable variety trials she is conducting at the Georgeson Botanical Garden and offer tips for growing the vegetables she is testing.

The free workshops will take place in the garden’s Beistline Outdoor Classroom from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Rader, a tribes Extension educator for the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, will talk about growing carrots, beets and beans on Aug. 7; corn and celery, Aug. 14; and Brussels sprouts and watermelon, Aug. 28. Participants may taste test the varieties and learn about the best practices for growing these crops.

Six varieties of celery are being tested in the trials.
This is the second year of a five-year variety trial project funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Rader said the goal is to help gardeners and farmers choose varieties that grow well in the Interior. As the vegetables mature, they will be evaluated for yield, taste, plant and seedling vigor, harvest period and susceptibility to pests.

Eleven varieties of beets, 12 varieties of carrots and six celery varieties are being grown in replicated trials. Twelve varieties of Brussels sprouts, 10 bean varieties, 14 varieties of corn and four types of watermelon are also being evaluated for more rigorous tests in the future.

Participants are asked to sign up for the workshops at Rader is also taking recommendations on what should be tested in the future. A short survey is available at For more information, contact Rader at or at 452-8251, ext. 3477.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Alaska's longest-running weather station to be honored

A small, fenced-in area at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm contains the longest continuously running weather observation station in Alaska.

Alan Tonne with the cylinder he uses to collect
precipitation at the farm.
The experiment farm began recording the weather on July 1, 1911 and has been doing it ever since.

Rick Thoman, the climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service in Alaska, said other places in the state have recorded the weather longer, but their locations have moved around a great deal. The farm’s weather station has remained in virtually the same spot since 1911.

Thoman said that consistency is important, because shifting the station even a short distance can make quite a bit of difference in readings.

“The places that haven’t moved much are so valuable when we look at climate records,” he said.  He notes that the longtime observations are critical to understanding the changing environment.

The station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of four long-term observing stations in the U.S. that the World Meteorological Organization will recognize this fall. The United Nations’ agency notified the National Weather Service recently that the station will receive a bronze plaque this fall. Other stations to be recognized are at the Buffalo Bill Dam in Wyoming; Purdum, Nebraska; and Saint Johnsbury, Vermont.

An early photo of the experiment farm shows the weather station a short distance uphill from its current location in front of the old visitors center. During the 1950s, the station moved for a couple of years to where the farm’s Georgeson Botanical Garden is now, but for most of its history, it’s been within a few yards of its current location.

Alan Tonne, the farm’s manager, records weather observations at 8 a.m. each day. The maximum and minimum temperatures are measured electronically but he makes all of the other observations on site. He measures evaporation, precipitation, snow depth and wind volume.

“You have to go out and measure the snow if it snows and the rain if it rains,” he said.

A National Weather Service sign recognizes
the weather station for being the longest continously reporting site in Alaska.
Rain is measured in a canister used at all weather stations, but if it snows, he has to melt the snow to measure the amount of moisture.

You might say weather runs in Tonne’s family. His grandmother made weather observations for 55 years in Fort Benton, Montana, and his parents have recorded observations for the Weather Service for 34 years in Stanford, Montana.

Tonne said it was strict coincidence that he also became a weather observer. He started working as a technician at the Delta Junction research site 34 years ago, and became the farm manager and chief weather observer 13 years ago.

He shares the weather data with anyone who requests it, including researchers and farmers.

Thoman said that weather, because of its importance to agriculture, was recorded at all of the early experiment farms, but the two remaining farms, which are part of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, continue making weather observations. He notes that the station at the Matanuska Experiment Farm is the oldest continuous weather station in Southcentral.

A weather cabinet at the farm houses alcohol and mercury
thermometers that used to record maximum and
minimum temperatures.
Thoman said that the Fairbanks experiment station took over weather observation duties from the Episcopal Church, which started taking weather observations in 1904. The earliest records were signed by Episcopal priest Hudson Stuck.

The experiment farm remained the only weather station in Fairbanks until the U.S. Weather Bureau opened an office in downtown Fairbanks in 1929. That station moved to the Fairbanks International Airport in 1951.

A recognition ceremony is being planned for the the weather station in early fall. The experiment farm is one of several active cooperative weather sites in Fairbanks. The others are located at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF, North Pole, the Gilmore Creek Tracking Station, Ester, Goldstream Creek, Keystone Ridge near Murphy Dome and in Fox.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

UAF researcher with SNRE receives presidential award

By Heather McFarlane
Elena Sparrow was recently honored with a U.S. presidential award for her excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics mentoring.

Elena Sparrow, teaches a group of educators about climate
change during a June workshop. Heather McFarlane photo
Sparrow is a University of Alaska Fairbanks research professor and the education outreach director at the International Arctic Research Center.

The award, which includes a $10,000 National Science Foundation grant, recognizes the important role mentors play in the academic and professional development of future STEM professionals. Sparrow was one of 27 individuals chosen for the award and the only recipient from Alaska.

“Each day more and more jobs require a strong foundation in STEM education, so the work that you do as teachers and mentors helps ensure that all students can have access to limitless opportunities and the brightest of futures,” said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president for technology policy, in a June 25 news release.

Sparrow founded the Alaska Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program more than 20 years ago. The Alaska GLOBE program brings science content and the scientific process into K-12 classrooms. The program has mentored and trained over 1,400 teachers and trainers from more than 50 countries.

Throughout her career, Sparrow has also mentored students through other programs, such as the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research site and the Alaska Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. She created a high school summer research internship program for rural Alaska students. She helped recognize female K-12 students with outstanding science fair projects. She currently leads the Experience Science, Expect a Challenge event, where Alaska Girl Scouts participate in hands-on activities related to soil science, wildlife biology, botany and other fields. She also mentors for the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists.

Sparrow is a research professor with SNRE and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Heather McFarlane is the science communication lead for the International Arctic Research Center.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Wine & Peonies to celebrate New Zealand connection

Jan Hanscom and Curtis Thorgaard show their wares during last year's wine and peonies
event. Photo by Joy Morrison

 The Georgeson Botanical Garden will host its annual Wine and Peonies gala on Friday, July 20.

The event will run from 5-7 p.m. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks botanical garden and will celebrate Alaska's peony connections with New Zealand. The fundraiser will feature peonies, New Zealand wine and music. Each participant will receive wine, hors d’oeuvres and a bouquet of fresh-cut peonies.

UAF horticulturist Pat Holloway said a couple from New Zealand, who happened to visit the garden in 2004, encouraged her to help develop a peony industry in Alaska. She had already started variety trials at the garden three years earlier.

"They were the ones who told me we were sitting on a gold mine," she said.

Peonies bloom in the July sun.
The couple, Tony and Judy Banks, were peony growers,  and they offered to host any Alaskan who wanted to come to New Zealand and learn more about how to grow peonies. Jan Hanscom, a peony grower who worked with Holloway at the experiment farm, and several other peony growers took the Banks up on their offer in 2008.  Hanscom came back and presented her findings to other growers at an Alaska Peony Growers conference.

Holloway said, "That connection would never have happened if the research trial plots were not a public botanical garden. It was sheer luck that Tony and Judy just happened to like plants and toured the garden on their vacation. It was even more lucky that I worked on Saturday when they wandered through. Sheer happenstances!"

There are more than 130 peony growers in Alaska now. Peony growers harvested more than 200,000 stems in 2016 at $5 or more a stem. Cut flowers are exported all over the Lower 48 and to Taiwan, China and Vietnam.
Jan Hanscom with peonies in the garden.

During the wine and peonies event, Holloway will give a garden tour. Posters and limited-edition giclee prints of a painting by Fairbanks artist Karen Stomberg, “Green-up Day,” will also be for sale. The Georgeson Botanical Garden Society organized the fundraiser to support operations of the garden.

Tickets are $35 when purchased by July 13 at or $45 when purchased after July 13 and at the door.  Attendees must be 21 or older unless accompanied by parent, legal guardian or adult spouse.

The garden is located at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, 117 West Tanana Drive. For more information, contact the Georgeson Botanical Garden Society at 907-474-7222 or at

Monday, June 25, 2018

Birthday Bash and Mud Day packs in a crowd

A celebrant at the Georgeson Birthday Bash and Mud Day makes bubbles.

The Georgeson Birthday Bash and Mud Day event drew more than 600 people to the Georgeson Botanical Garden on Sunday.

Mathew Carrick, the garden’s program director, said 649 people came, 100 more than last year. Kids made bowls and figures out of clay, poured paint on a spinning wheel to make patterns on paper, created bubbles and got their faces painted. Many visitors wandered through the garden and enjoyed the early summer flowers, but the mud pit drew the most attention. The bigger kids slid on clear plastic into a sizable mud pit in the Babula Children’s Garden and the younger kids splashed in an adjacent, shallower pit and made mud pies.

Garden manager Katie DiCristina said the mud pit is always a big draw. "I think it's just free play," she said. "Kids can go out there and play in the mud."
Action centered around the mud pits.

Many volunteers assisted with the event, including members of the Georgeson Botanical Garden Society, the Fairbanks Children's Museum and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They sold herbs, served up birthday cake, painted faces, blew up balloons, ran the art stations and chaperoned the mud pit. Carrick said that the Fairbanks Community Food Bank also collected 133 pounds of food. The garden requested donations of food to celebrate the birthday of Charles Georgeson.

The event is sponsored by the Georgeson Botanical Garden Society, the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the School of Natural Resources and Extension.

A young artist splashes paint on a spinning wheel to create art.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Researcher studies Alaska's resources from afar

Dave Verbyla stands by a downed birch tree on the
UAFcampus. He is studying how freezing rain
affects tree mortality,especially white spruce.
Dave Verbyla has used remote sensing and geographic information systems to study shrinking boreal lakes, the breeding range of trumpeter swans, spruce beetle infestations, and the flammability of aspen and birch stands.

Verbyla, a professor of geographic information systems at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, specializes in analyzing natural resource trends associated with a changing climate. He likens remote sensing to looking at a historical photo series in which one can see how images have changed.

Verbyla said he likes working with GIS because of its capability to analyze and because he’s always been an analytical person, a trait that came from his mother.

“If anything broke, she was the one to figure it out and fix it,” he said.

Verbyla taught himself how to use GIS while earning a doctorate in forest resources at Utah State University in the mid 1980s. The software had been around for a few years, but instructional classes were rare. GIS is a computer system for storing, checking and displaying all types of geographic data.

Compared to aerial photography, which is what he had been using, Verbyla said, GIS was a major advance. Information for his remote sensing research is collected by sensors, usually on satellites or aircraft, that detect energy reflected from Earth. The data is analyzed and mapped with GIS software.
He recently determined the elevation of spring snow lines in mid-May as part of a NASA-funded study with several other scientists that considered why Dall sheep populations have declined more than 20 percent rangewide since 1990. The decline was the worst in the western Brooks Range, where the population had dropped more than 70 percent. 

Dave Verbyla looks at remote sensing data on elevation that is displayed using
ArcGIS mapping software.
Verbyla said the species is thought to be sensitive to spring snow conditions. If the snow line is at a lower elevation during the cold spring weather, sheep may be more susceptible to predators because forage above the snow line is lower quality and covered by snow. Below the snow line, sheep present an easier target for predators.

The professor analyzed the dynamics of the snowpack from 2000 to 2016 during the spring lambing season. He used satellite data to estimate the snow line elevation in 28 mountain areas from British Columbia to the Arctic in Canada and Alaska.

Verbyla said this was possible with the development of a regional remote sensing snow measurement tool, which provided daily images of 500-meter grids that showed whether snow was present.

When researchers compared their data to information from aerial sheep surveys, they found that fewer lambs survived when the snow line elevation was lower, and mortality increased with higher latitudes.

Verbyla, who grew up in central New Jersey, taught GIS at universities in New Hampshire and Idaho before coming to Fairbanks in 1993. A professor with the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension, he teaches remote sensing applications in natural resources and provides GIS analysis for other researchers.

Todd Brinkman, a wildlife ecologist with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology, has worked with Verbyla on several projects, including the Dall sheep research and analysis of how a changing environment affects hunter access to fish and game.

“He has a great command of what’s possible with spatial analysis today — and what’s not possible," he said. “I’ve always appreciated his pragmatic approach to things.”

Brinkman said Verbyla is also a willing resource when graduate students hit a roadblock with spatial analysis.

Much of Verbyla’s work has focused on boreal forests. A current project at the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest near Fairbanks looks at how freezing winter rain affects white spruce mortality. He used a remote sensing method that relies on pulsed laser to identify trees in 2004 that were taller than about 100 feet, which, in Fairbanks, typically means white spruce. He studied data from the same one-meter grids 10 years later to determine which trees were missing. He spent two days on the ground confirming tree falls in 30 locations. In each case, he found fallen spruce trees that had been uprooted or their trunks broken.

Freezing rain makes the forest canopy heavier, making spruce trees like this
one  in the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest more prone to
breaking their trunks.
“The spruce needles get iced up and the forest canopy gets very heavy,” he said. Even a small amount of wind can take the tree down.

Verbyla is looking at whether spruce that grow singly might be more vulnerable than trees growing in a cluster and whether trees at lower elevations are more or less susceptible to falling over. Learning about trees’ susceptibility is important in part because falling trees cause power outages, Verbyla said.

Verbyla is proud of former students who are using GIS for a variety of purposes. One works at Disney World and uses GIS to study traffic patterns. Another is mapping routes for mountain bikers. Others work for natural resource agencies.

While he’s still working on many research projects, Verbyla plans to retire next year and to spend more time with family, including an identical twin who lives in Virginia and is also a forester. He hopes to do more hunting, hiking and canoeing.

“I’m going to enjoy Alaska,” he said.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Birthday Bash and Mud Day to take place June 24

Revelers enjoy a past Mud Day event.
The Georgeson Botanical Garden will combine two popular garden traditions on June 24 with its Birthday Bash and Mud Day.

The event will go from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the garden. From 10 a.m. to noon, the public is invited to enjoy the garden, educational booths, kids’ activities, harp music and birthday cake to celebrate the 167th birthday of Charles Georgeson. The garden’s namesake was an agronomist who founded experiment stations in Alaska  and stayed to conduct research.

From noon to 2 p.m., kids of all ages are invited to romp in the mud pit in the Babula Children’s Garden. The garden hosted Mud Day for several years but the event has been on hiatus for the past two years. Towels and clean clothes to wear afterward are recommended. Participants will be able to rinse with water.

Mud Day participants enjoy the mud pit in 2014.
Educational booths will include information on beekeeping, herbs and peonies, and a potter will demonstrate clay pottery making. Activities will include face painting, origami, dragonfly crafts and other games. The Boreal Charter School, the Fairbanks Children’s Museum and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are leading kids’ activities.

Admission is free but cans of food for the Fairbanks Community Food Bank are requested as a Georgeson birthday gift. The event is sponsored by the Georgeson Botanical Garden Society, the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension.

The garden is located at the farthest west edge of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, 117 W. Tanana Drive. For more information, contact Mathew Carrick at 907-474-7222 or email