Wednesday, 13 August 2014

St. Paul and St. George,
on the sub-arctic Pribilof Islands, in the Bering sea

The Pribilofs were named after the Russian navigator Gavriil Pribylov, who first visited these remote islands in 1786.

Russian fur hunters were searching for the breeding grounds of the northern fur seal when fleet master Gavriil Pribylov found the islands. He named St. George Island for his ship.

In 1867, when the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia, the federal government took over the Pribilof Islands, but it was not until 1983 that the local people were given full control of their islands.

These are two really tiny islands in the middle of the immense and tempestuous Bering sea. I had never heard of them until I recently saw St. Paul's harbour in an episode of the Deadliest Catch.

The Pribilofs have a rocky coast, some sand dunes and a treeless tundra low inland.

St. Paul island is a low, rolling plateau, with extinct volcanic peaks scattered over its surface. Bogoslof Hill, 590 feet high, a conical crater near the center of the island, and Polovina Hill, are the most relevant geographic features.

'Little Polovina', one of many small volcano craters, now filled with water.

It seems that a tundra covered rock with an harbour can be of great help for fishing boats in distress, especially if they are far away far from Dutch Harbour, Unalaska.

As I searched, I discovered two of the islands are inhabited, each has its own settlement from remote russian-siberian occupation, and of course its own wooden orthodox church !

Several small craters are visible in this satellite image.

Saint Paul, island and harbour town

St. Paul is the largest of five islands in the Pribilofs, 240 miles north of the Aleutian Islands, 300 miles west of the Alaskan coast.

Coordinates: 57° 07′ N, 170° 17′ W
Population: ~ 600

St. Paul village and harbour are located on a narrow peninsula on the southern tip the Island.

Off-loading snow crab, St. Paul harbour

The island's economy is heavily dependent on the annual taking of the snow king crab and on subsistence and commercial halibut harvests.

Support services to commercial fleets fishing on waters of the Bering Sea also contribute to the economy.

The community is served by basic facilities - community hall, a small new hospital, a school, library and museum, as well as the government´s local administration.

The orthodox church and the old Clinic are the main historic buildings in town.

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul is almost too magnificent and rich for the small hamlet. The shinning onion dome can be seen from miles away.

Built in 1907, it was then "one of the most ambitiously designed and effectively executed small churches of the Byzantine tradition in Alaska."

The King Eider Hotel:

Built in 1923 as the 'Company House', the main lobby was then a library.

A typical wooden house in St. Paul.

The Old Clinic and doctor's residence, from 1925 - served later as Hospital.

The Webster House orthodox shrine, at the northeastern extreme of the island, overlooking the Bering Sea.

Saint George, island and harbour town

Coordinates: 56° 33′ N, 169° 33′ W
Population: ~160

St. George island lies 47 miles south of St. Paul Island. The main settlement is also called St. George, and it's really quite small and lacking some of the basic services. Still there is a small clinic and a basic school.

In contrast, still richer than its St. Paul sister is the St. George the Great Martyr Church, built much later, in 1935

A Nature Preserve Site

The Pribilof Islands are better known for the wildlife they preserve.

Wooly Lousewort (Pedicularis dasyantha)

Nootka Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)

Nootka Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)

Snowy Owl on St. Paul's dunes

Lapland Longspur

And the unique blue Pribilof fox, small and endemic, a must:

Alopex lagopus pribilofensis

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Axel Heiberg ,
arctic as arctic can be, plus fossil trees from the Eocene

Axel Heiberg Island is an island in the region of Nunavut, in Canada's High Arctic. Located in the Arctic Ocean, just aside the huge Ellesmere Island, it is a large island with an area over 43 000 km2.

Coordinates: 79° 26′ N, 90° 46 ′ W
Uninhabitated -  Only in summer, a small crew works at McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS)

Ridged cliffs are a common landscape in the island

Axel Heiberg Island was discovered in 1900 by Otto Sverdrup during his Norwegian Polar Expedition of 1898-1902. Peary and Cook were also brief visitors to the island.

An ice cap covers the central area of the island, feeding several glaciers and lakes

Polar desert” is the term that best describes most of the landscape of Axel Heiberg.

A barren land that hardly supports life, but surprisingly is home to muskox herds, caribou, arctic foxes, hares and wolves, ermine and owls, as well as a spectacular flora.

 Arctic wolf.

Ermine jumping.

Flowers abound in early July, when masses of purple saxifrage make the tundra appear red, then later in the month yellow mountain avens, arctic fireweed and impressive arctic poppy which, despite of its considerable size, blossoms even in the strongest of winds.

Purple saxifrage.

Mountain avens.

Arctic fireweed.

Firewood nearby the Crusoe glacier.

Poppies around Crusoe glacier.

Phantom Lake and its surroundings is one of the most striking landscape features of central Axel Heiberg.
With a surface are of approximately 6 km2, it is dammed by Thompson Glacier.

Astro Lake and the Thompson glacier - one of the best studied glaciers on earth.

Crusoe glacier, from the tongue upwards to the accumulation area.

Midnight view of White Glacier.

But Axel Heiberg is best known among scientists for two geologic features:
- the Lost Hammer spring and
- the Mummified forest.

The unusual fossil forests date from the Eocene period:

Metasequoia occidentalis mummified.

'About 55 million years ago, the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island was a wetland forest. Temperatures hovered around the 18-degree Celsius mark, not the -10 degrees of today. Silt-rich flood waters preserved the flora - palm trees, dawn redwoods, bald cypress and cycads - perfectly.'

The trees reached up to 35 metres in height; some may have grown for 500 to 1000 years. Instead of turning into petrified "stone" fossils, they were ultimately mummified by the cold, dry Arctic climate, and only recently exposed by erosion.

Lost Hammer Spring
(79° 07' N, 90° 21' W)

The Lost Hammer Spring, located in the central west region of the island, is the coldest (it gets down to -50º C, easy) and saltiest of all springs on earth described to date, and is characterized by perennial discharges at subzero temperatures, hypersalinity, rich in sulfates - similar to possible springs on planet Mars !

While Axel Heiberg is already inhospitable enough, the Lost Hammer spring is even more so !

MARS on earth

Coordinates: 79° 26′ N, 90° 46′ W

In 1959, scientists from McGill University installed a small base in central Axel Heiberg Island - the McGill Arctic Research Station, MARS.

It consists of a small research hut, a kitchen and 2 temporary structures that can comfortably accommodate 8-12 persons. The station was busiest during the early 1960s, during which a population of 20 was present.

The station is now only used during the summer months, when the sun shines almost continuously and there is enough power, which is supplied by solar panels.

MARS is situated on the west coast of Axel Heiberg Island, just 8 km from the ocean. Although its surroundings are typical High Arctic polar desert, this local is dominated by the presence of the fjord's glacier.

The kitchen hut is a half-century old structure.

Even a small emergence library has its place in the hut interior.

MARS provides access to glacier, ice cap, and polar desert environments. The surroundings are mountainous and glaciated. Research activities include glaciology, climate change, permafrost hydrology, geology, microbiology.