Monday, September 29, 2008

Conference draws geographers to Fairbanks

Nearly 100 geographers will gather in Fairbanks Oct. 8-11 for the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers (APCG) annual conference. The APCG is the western regional component of the Association of American Geographers with members representing Alaska, Arizona, British Columbia, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Researchers will present papers on a broad range of geographic topics, including climate change, geographic information science and technology, natural resource management, indigenous peoples, as well as the physical and built environment.

Conference keynote speakers include University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, Dr. Terrence Cole, UAF professor of history and author of Crooked Past: The History of Fairbanks, Alaska, A Frontier Mining Camp; Dr. John Walsh, director of UAF’s Center for Global Climate Change and Arctic Systems Research; and Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. For more information on topics, visit the university's geography program Web site.

Hosted by the University of Alaska Geography Program (UAGP), School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, the conference will take place at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel. UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers and UAGP Director and Associate Dean Mike Sfraga will host a conference reception and lecture at the UA Museum of the North Oct. 9. The conference concludes on Oct. 10 with an awards banquet, APCG presidential address, and an Evening with Pamyua: Tribal Funk in the Last Frontier - a unique blend of traditional Alaska Native music with a twist of a cappella funk. A “field trip” on Saturday, Oct. 11 includes stops at the Large Animal Research Station, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline visitors’ center and Chena Hot Springs Resort.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Axes to fly Oct. 4 in Forestry Fest

Lumberjack types will compete in ax throwing, log rolling on land and water, bowsaw and crosscut sawing, fire building and more at the 11th annual Farthest North Forest Sports Festival Saturday, Oct. 4 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Participants are welcome to join the event as individuals or as teams of four to six. Observers are also invited to this free event. Awards will be granted to individuals, teams and the “Bull of the Woods” and “Belle of the Woods.”

The competition was started by faculty and students at UAF’s Department of Forest Sciences as a way to commemorate old-fashioned forest festivals. While today’s professional foresters and natural resource managers use high-technology tools, the festival pays tribute to simpler times when traditional woods activities were the basis for work and play, survival and revival.

The morning events begin at 10 a.m. on the UAF campus at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm field across from the Georgeson Botanical Garden, and at 1 p.m. the games move to Ballaine Lake on Farmers Loop Road. A warming fire and hot drinks will be available at the lake. Participants are advised to dress warmly.

The festival is sponsored by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, the Department of Forest Sciences and the Resource Management Society. For more information, contact John Fox at 474-7084 or

Friday, September 19, 2008

Alaska Grown food on the menu for FFA fundraiser

Hydroponically grown tomatoes at Chena Hot Springs Resort. SNRAS scientists are working with growers at the resort to create optimum controlled environments for fresh vegetables for the restaurant.

A feast of locally grown foods is planned for Saturday, Oct. 4 at the 4th annual Chena Fest. This Alaska Grown harvest celebration is a fundraiser for FFA clubs of the Tanana Valley, including Fairbanks, North Pole, Delta Junction and UAF Collegiate. The feast, which will be prepared by the executive chef and professional staff of Chena Hot Springs Resort, will feature fresh meats, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, and fruits of the Tanana Valley. The meal will also feature the Tanana Valley State Fair Grand Champion Market Beef raised by Kelly Schmitz of the North Pole Ptarmigan 4-H Club.

The event is at Chena Hot Springs Resort at 6 p.m. Oct. 4. Entertainment will feature Isaac Courson of Palmer FFA, the 2008 Alaska FFA representative in the National FFA Talent Show, and Rachel Kenley and friends providing music. Tickets are $25 per person. Call 474-6916 to reserve tickets or visit Alaska's FFA Web site.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fish waste enriches Alaska soil

Bob Van Veldhuizen and Mingchu Zhang test temperatures in a compost pile in Homer, Alaska.

Thinking about the waste left over after 2 million metric tons of fish are filleted in Alaska each year is almost painful for Dr. Mingchu Zhang.

Rather than stew about the problem, Zhang, associate professor of agronomy and soil sciences at SNRAS, cooked up a solution. Through research and testing he and his associates created a recipe for fish compost that can be used to enrich the soil and improve agricultural yield while at the same time making use of a byproduct that would ordinarily be discarded in the state’s seas or rivers.

“Using fish waste in the soil works,” Zhang said, due to the nutrient content. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, zinc, and copper, found in fish waste, are essential nutrients for plant growth.

While the fishing industry routinely grinds up its waste and returns it to the local water source, waste for compost doesn’t need to be processed at all. Heads, tails, and other fish parts are mixed with peat moss and allowed to heat up in the summer sun, creating an organic, inexpensive solution for gardeners. The fishermen in Homer were so supportive of the tests and pleased that they didn’t have to grind up and dispose of the waste that they even made regular deliveries of their byproducts to the farm.

With the summer warmth heating the compost piles, it took only two months to complete the process. Probes measuring the internal temperatures showed that at times the mixture was as hot as 120˚F. The only maintenance throughout the composting process is occasional turning of the mixture and sometimes adding moisture.

Working with a Homer farm called Ocean Earth in June and July of 2008, Zhang conducted field trials that demonstrated the nutritional value of the compost. Plots were tested at different ratios of compost to soil and resulting salt concentrations were measured. One of the most visible signs that the compost is useful is a photograph Zhang took of a hay field where half the crop had no compost applied and the other had a generous portion. The side with the compost turned out lush and green, while the other appeared pale and sickly.

Bob Pawlowski, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, has been a supporter of Zhang’s research because “it’s very important we do everything we can to use seafood processing waste versus just dumping it.”

Calling this “a good environmental project,” Pawlowski said he envisions the fertilizer being useful in all areas of the state. Rural places can create community gardens and grow their own produce. In urban areas he pictures school lawns and golf courses perking up when the mixture is applied.

“The obstacles are minimal,” Pawlowski said. “On one acre you can mix 100,000 pounds of salmon waste with 400,000 pounds of peat. The yield is one million pounds of garden soil.”

He believes that down the road there could be a market for selling the product to customers in California and Arizona who would appreciate the water retention properties the compost has.

“It’s an excellent university project,” Pawlowski said. “It will be applicable throughout Alaska wherever there are peat bogs.”

Most often, regions that are tied to the fishing industry also have rich reserves of peat moss. This makes for a low-cost way to transition the waste into a valuable product. In addition to the Homer testing, experiments are being conducted in Fairbanks and Palmer. At the Matanuska Experiment Farm, Zhang’s doctoral student Jodie Anderson is using plastic containers as “cookers” to try new ways of creating fish compost. In addition to working peat moss into the fish waste, she is experimenting with cardboard and hay. “We are working toward concrete solutions,” Zhang said.

He is creating a users’ manual so farmers will know how to produce the product to an optimum blend and apply it properly. A proposal to the USDA to get fishing communities involved in the project is also in the works.

A composting workshop was taught in Dillingham in April and Zhang plans to teach a course in Fairbanks in the near future.

When making presentations about the compost project, Zhang likes to quote a poem by Ryan Bundy he found on a plaque near the shoreline in Homer.

The sea tells a story
It tells of the cycle of life
Running through the waters
Fish, spawning, dying, sinking to the ocean
Returning to the circle that engulfs life.

“That says what we do,” Zhang said.

Publications, related information, and links on composting and fisheries in Alaska:
Indian Country Extension, Tanana Chiefs’ Conference. Webpage and links on rural agriculture and traditional knowledge in Alaska.
Composting tips provided by UAF Cooperative Extension Service.
*Alaska Fish Byproducts Information from the State of Alaska Office of Fisheries Development

UAF Alumni Association honors Sfraga

The UAF Alumni Association has selected Mike Sfraga, associate dean of SNRAS, to receive an award for outstanding contributions to the university.

Sfraga has worked at the University of Alaska for over 23 years in several administrative, academic, and research leadership positions. Sfraga is the founding director of the University of Alaska Geography Program. Before that, Sfraga served as associate vice president for the University of Alaska and director of Research and Program Development for the College of Rural Alaska.

Sfraga received his PhD in Geography and Northern Studies in 1997 from UAF, the first such degree to be granted by the University of Alaska. Sfraga's areas of academic concentration are polar geography, exploration, geography of the circumpolar north, geography of Alaska, and the history of field science.

He is the author of Bradford Washburn: A Life of Exploration (2004), the first comprehensive biography of celebrated American explorer Bradford Washburn. Sfraga lectures frequently about Washburn’s work and legacy.

Sfraga is chairman of the Denali Education Center, and serves on several community and national boards, including the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, Alaska Geographic Association, Interior Issues Council (Fairbanks), and the Institute of the North. He is chair of the UA International Polar Year Community Outreach and Engagement Committee and a member of the UAF IPY Steering Committee.

Sfraga is a member of the Explorers Club, American Alpine Club, and past executive secretary of the Arctic Institute of North America. He is a mountaineer and often speaks at community programs and corporate conferences on the topics of leadership and organizational effectiveness by using mountaineering, exploration, and humor to underscore critical components of both areas.

His next book covers the history of the first ascent of Mount Fairweather. Sfraga will be recognized with the alumni achievement award at the UAF Alumni Association reunion luncheon Sept. 26 at the Princess Hotel.

SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis said, "Dr. Sfraga is adding excitement and new dimensions to the school in his role as associate dean. I congratulate him on the alumni award; he has excelled in his extensive service to UAF and certainly deserves recognition for his efforts."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

SNRAS faculty speak at arctic science conference

Four professors from the school are making presentations at the 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science Arctic Division Conference Sept. 15-17 in Fairbanks. “Growing Sustainability Science in the North: The Resilience of the People in the Arctic” is the conference theme.

Gary Kofinas, associate professor of resource policy and management, is discussing Integrated Graduate Education and Training in Sustainability Science at UAF: The Resilience and Adaptation Program. Dr. Kofinas is also moderating a session on Policy, Sustainability Science and Adaptive Governance.

Daniel Mann, assistant professor of geography at UAF, will talk about Prehistoric Changes in Climate, Landscape, and Large Mammal Faunas in the Arctic Foothills, Northern Alaska.

Patricia Heiser, assistant professor of geography, will discuss Integrated Records of Holocene Landscape Change: A Holistic View of Vegetation Response to Climate, Geography, and Disturbance in Southwest Alaska.

Nancy Fresco, network coordinator of the SNAP program, will present the Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning: Landscape Management Collaboration and Planning in a Climate of Change.

Monday, September 15, 2008

SNRAS picnic draws crowd

Students and guests who attended the 2008 Welcome Back Picnic on Sept. 12 enjoyed visiting with Rip, the reindeer. Thanks to everyone who helped with the annual picnic -- giving students, staff and faculty a chance to meet in a casual, fun environment at the Georgeson Botanical Garden. At right, Leslie Davis, Reindeer Research Program graduate student, escorts Rip around the picnic site.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Google takes geography to Alaska Bush

High school students and teachers in three Western Alaska communities will be touring the virtual globe with Google Sept. 16-19. A team from Google’s Geo Education program and the University of Alaska geography program will travel to Barrow, Kotzebue and Nome, to demonstrate technology that enables students and teachers to explore virtual worlds and even create Alaska content within Google Earth. The idea is to encourage teachers to incorporate new technology in their classrooms, said Mike Sfraga, director of the UA Geography Program and associate dean in UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences.

“This isn’t your grandmother’s geography class,” said Sfraga. “Students throughout Alaska can now see the earth in a dynamic format, manipulate the landscape, create maps, and take virtual tours of the globe. Our goal is to help teachers incorporate this resource into their classrooms without adding to their already busy schedule and ever-growing demands on their time.”

The students will participate in hands-on training to learn how to overlay existing information into Google Earth and create their own maps using the My Maps feature.

John Bailey with the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center introduced several students to Google Earth last spring. Students quickly figure out how to use the tools to benefit their own interests, said Bailey.

“Students love to view things in 3D,” said Bailey. “If they can fly around the slopes of Denali or tour down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon it seems so much more real than if they just view flat pictures on a screen. When you combine this landscape with features, such as placemarks, which have pop-up balloons that contain text and videos telling you about that mountain or canyon, you get a truly immersive multimedia experience. When students see this their eyes are really opened to the possibilities.”

The Google team is working on this project as part of the company’s 20-percent time program, in which employees are encouraged to use a portion of their normal work hours working on projects they are passionate about.

“At Google we’ve been very impressed by the creative ways that educators are integrating new technologies into their classrooms, and we started the Geo Education program to make it easier for teachers using Google Earth and Maps to develop lessons and share ideas,” said Anna Bishop, coordinator of the Geo Education program.

The team plans to document the trip on a Web site and post information about the educational modules and Alaska. The collaboration is partially funded through a grant from the National Geographic Society, which supports the K-12 outreach through UA’s geography program. “Technology is a critical component of education because it provides a comprehensive understanding of the world in which we live, and has become an essential skill set of the 21st century workforce,” Sfraga said.

Related links and information:
Google Earth educators' site
University of Alaska Geography
Blog for the Google Earth/UA Geography education trip to rural Alaska
"Google heads to Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome classrooms," the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Visit the Google Earth blog

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Arctic soil reveals climate change clues

Newly published UAF research shows that frozen arctic soil contains nearly twice as much organic material that gives rise to planet-warming greenhouse gases as was previously estimated.

School of Natural Resources & Agricultural Sciences Soil Sciences Professor Chien-Lu Ping published his latest findings in the Nature Geoscience and Scientific American websites, after conducting extensive examinations of a wide range of landscapes across Alaska. Ping and his team of scientists took soil samples at 117 sites. Rather than testing to a depth of only 40 centimeters, as previous researchers had done, the team consistently dug down to more than one meter at each site. Similarly conducted Canadian research was added to Ping’s study.

Wielding jackhammers, the scientists discovered that underneath the surface, there is a second layer of organic matter (carbon) accumulation right on top and in the upper part of permafrost, ranging from 60 to 120 centimeters deep. This “buried” organic matter is produced on the surface of the tundra soils, where it accumulates and is then dragged down because of frost heave and patterned ground formation. Due to the turbulent nature of the arctic landscape, arctic tundra soils are characterized by warped, broken, and distorted soil horizons. Movement is routinely caused by cracking of the Earth’s surface during freezing and thawing cycles, transporting organic matter to the lower active layers and upper permafrost.

The resulting patterned ground plays a key role in determining tundra vegetation and the dynamics of carbon storage and release, Ping found. When temperatures warm and the arctic soil “churns,” less carbon from the surface gets to the deeper part of the soil, and the carbon stored in the deeper part of the soil is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases.

Ping predicted that with even a two to three degree rise in air temperatures the arctic tundra would switch from a carbon sink (area that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits) to a carbon source (area that emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs). The greater the carbon store the greater the impact of any future releases, Ping stated.

“The distribution of the Arctic carbon pool with regard to the surface, active layer and permafrost has not been evaluated before, but is very relevant in assessing changes that will occur across the Arctic system,” Ping wrote in his study. “Where soil organic carbon is located in the soil profile is especially relevant and useful to climate warming assessments that need to evaluate effects on separate soil processes that vary with temperature and depth throughout the whole annual cycle of seasons.”

Since earning his doctorate at Washington State University in 1976, Ping has been researching soil, particularly permafrost soils, volcanic soils, organic carbon dynamics, and soil climate and its application in land-use interpretations.

Colleagues on the project were Gary Michaelson, UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station; Mark Jorgenson, Alaska Biological Research; John Kimble, professional soil scientist; Howard Epstein, University of Virginia Department of Environmental Sciences; Vladimir Romanovsky, University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute; Donald Walker, UAF Institute of Arctic Biology.

Contact Chien-Lu Ping at the Palmer (Alaska) Research and Extension Center. 907-746-9462. E-mail:

Further reading:
"Not-So-Permafrost: Big Thaw of Arctic Soil May Unleash Runaway Warming" by David Biello, Scientific American, 8-26-2008.

"Global warming time bomb trapped in Arctic soil: study", published 8-24-2008 by

•Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, "Permafrost study reveals larger global warming problem"

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Welcome Back barbecue!

The 2008 Welcome Back Barbecue for students is this Friday, starting at 5 pm at the Georgeson Botanical Garden. Meet the faculty and staff of the school and enjoy burgers and brats, with meat provided by the experiment farms and potluck dishes from the faculty. Good for you and tasty too!

At right: Dr. Milan Shipka barbecuing bratwurst at the Matanuska Experiment Farm. Photo by Nancy Tarnai.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Kerttula Hall dedication and party

Senator Jay Kerttula and Dean Carol E. Lewis in front of the newly-designated Kerttula Hall.

The Palmer Research Laboratory was renamed “Kerttula Hall” Friday, Aug. 29 in honor of Alaska’ longest serving state legislator, Jay Kerttula.

“This is a celebration not of a building but of a vision and a man,” SNRAS Associate Dean Mike Sfraga said. He added that many of today’s trendy topics, such as organic gardening, supported farming, food safety, and sustainability, were in Kerttula’s vocabulary decades ago. “Jay helped make agricultural research happen.”

Other speakers, including University of Alaska regents, chancellors from UAF, UAA, and UAS, the UAF Alumni Association president, and the UAF president, called Kerttula the dean of Alaska agriculture, a statesman of the highest order, and a friend of the university.

UA President Mark Hamilton speaking at the dedication. Seated to the left is UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers. At right are Regent Kirk Wickersham, UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer, UAF Alumni Association President Gail Phillips, and SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis.

UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers said the Board of Regents exhibited unprecedented support for renaming the research facility. “It’s the right thing to do for the university and the right thing to do for Jay,” Rogers said.

Dean Carol Lewis said it was fitting to name one of the most important buildings in the Matanuska Valley after Kerttula. “He made it possible for us to dream and do new things,” Lewis said. “When I look at Kerttula Hall I don’t see a lab; I see classrooms and new students learning. I see a place for the community to participate in outreach.” She thanked Kerttula for his vision that will carry agricultural research into the future.
Members of the Kerttula family at the ceremony with a framed mockup of the bronze plaque that will be placed on the building. From left to right: Joyce Kerttula, Representative Beth Kerttula, and Senator Jay Kerttula.

Kerttula came to the Matanuska Valley as a child with his family who were part of the Matanuska Colony farming families that helped to settle the Valley in the 1930s. The family farm gave Senator Kerttula the inspiration and skills to establish his own successful farm. He is the only legislator who has served as both Speaker of the House (1968-1970) and President of the Senate (1980-1984).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Memorial service for Dr. Leslie Viereck

Leslie "Les" A. Viereck, respected botanist and forest ecologist, died this weekend. A memorial service will be held at the Georgeson Botanical Garden September 6, 3:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations go to the botanical garden.

Viereck was a research professor of forest ecology with BECRU and an affiliate professor with SNRAS. He earned his PhD at the University of Colorado in 1962. He was the first president of the Alaska Conservation Society, the first statewide conservation organization in Alaska. Viereck founded the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest research program with Dr. Keith Van Cleve in the mid 1980s. He retired as principal plant ecologist from the U.S. Forest Service’s Institute of Northern Forestry in Fairbanks in 1996, but continued on as emeritus scientist. [amended 9/3/08]

Some information and links about Dr. Viereck:
• Viereck, with Elbert L. Little, Jr., was the coauthor of Alaska Trees and Shrubs, a popular and time-tested guide recently republished in an updated edition by the University of Alaska Press. He was coauthor on Alaska's Changing Boreal Forest, published by Oxford University Press in 2006, and Forest Ecosystems in the Alaskan Taiga, published in 1986 by Springer-Verlag, and authored numerous scientific book chapters, reports, and journal articles.
• "Alaska's Trailblazers for Academic Freedom," an article on the website of the American Federation of Teachers, describes Viereck's role (with William O. Pruitt) in the grassroots movement to prevent Project Chariot from going forward. The men later received honorary doctorates from the University of Alaska for their actions.
interview with Dave Krupa on climbing the South Buttress of Denali in 1954 (Denali National Park Jukebox Series)

9/3/08: An obituary and guest book for Dr. Viereck have been posted on the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's website.