You are currently viewing Big Denali glows beautifully in the evening Sun
Denali as seen behind the Chena Ridge from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in the sunset in November

In Alaska, view points have a plaque showing the panorama of the Alaska Range and pointing out Mt. McKinley instead of the correct name Denali. Very old plaques also display an incorrect height. Recently, photogrammetry measured the altitude above sea level America’s highest mountain more exactly then before. Read when and where you can see Denali from Fairbanks.

Contents
  1. An Office with a View on Denali
  2. The Mountains and What They Mean for Interior Alaska
  3. Cold Dry Days Allow to See Denali from Fairbanks
  4. Great view points on Denali
  5. Wildfires are a natural part of the boreal landscape evolution
  6. Smoke from a Human Made Fire

 

An Office with a View on Denali

My office at the Alaska’s first university’s campus has a south view on the Alaska Range. It’s a beautiful view (see photo below). However, I am in modeling, performing numerical simulations on weather and air quality. Thus, I work most of the time on the computer while at work when I’m not mentoring my students or in class. My curtains are always closed ( 🙁 )  because of the light pollution. When they are open, I can’t see what’s on my screen. What a waste of a view! Indeed, it is.

#Denali as seen from Fairbanks
Denali glowing behind the Chena Ridge from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus during sunset in November. The wind up on the top is strong and blows of snow

 

Typically, in November, Interior Alaska gets its first dry cold snap. This means dry air, cold heavy and you could hear noises from far away. When the train passes – the tracks are a mile away from our house as well as from my office – it sounds as if they drive thru our living room or my office, respectively! The noise of the airplanes starting and landing on Fairbanks International Airport seems like you are standing on the taxiway of the airport. The airport is on the other side of the river and the landing stripe for small aircrafts flying to rural villages is about 2 miles away bird view or so. When the propeller airplanes from and to Anchorage arrived, it sounded like an old WWII documentary film of bombers approaching Cologne, Leipzig, Dresden, you name it. Now the route is flown again by small city jets.

 

On the first of these days of about -20F (-28.9oC) with barely no wind at the surface and low humidity, the air is clear. You have a great visibility. The Alaska Range seems to be so near that you could touch it. In other words, like it is around the corner. I love the first crisp cold days of November here in Alaska. It’s so different from November in Germany where humidity was high, the sky was gray, the winds were nasty, and the high humidity was creepy, even though temperatures were just around or even slightly above the freezing point. November in Germany made me depressed. Everything was gray. Every floral or gardening store displayed cemetery grave decoration. I hated November ever since I learned the months in 1st grade.

 

Denali on a sunny day
View on Denali in Denali Park, Alaska on a pristine, clear day. “Alaska 2005 1 (172)” by raer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The mountains and what they mean for Interior Alaska

This November is so different from the Novembers I experienced before here in Alaska. Typically, the first cold snap of winter hits in November. Actually, it’s not something that moves into the Interior like the Polar Vortex hits the northern mid or eastern US. When air moves into the Interior from the North, it is relatively warm because it comes with a Chinook from the Brooks Range. When in late fall/early winter, air moves in from the West, i.e. the Bering Sea, it is moist and windy and comes with a lot of snow. In the Interior you fear wind more than 40 below zero. This weather situation often leads to long snow storm outages. When in winter, air moves in from the South, it’s warm and moist and comes with a Chinook from the Alaska Range. The Interior produces cold air itself when the Canadian High is strong and extends thru the Interior.

#Denali and satellite dishes in sunset
View onto the satellite dishes in the ski trail area of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus after the Sun set

Cold dry days allow to see Denali

Under these condition, we get below -20F (-28.9oC) temperature with low humidity in the first days. These are the days with great visibility. On these days, you cannot only watch the aurora at night (if there is one), but I can see Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) from the office. Well, since I always have my curtains closed, I can’t see Denali from my desk. However, I saw Denali, when I went to the restrooms. When I came back, I took my iPad and went to the fifth floor to take a photo of Denali. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. I would have used the tele-objective to capture the snow that was blown of the top of Denali that day. Well, winds were calm at the surface, but in the troposphere (first 10 km, i.e. 6.2 miles or so above sea surface), wind speed increases with height. Nevertheless, I can share a photo of Denali as seen from the Alaska’s first university, which is 157 miles (252.7 km) bird-view away from Fairbanks. How cool is that? Great pristine air!

 

Great view points on Denali

One day in summer, when I drove down West Ridge, I pulled out onto the tourist viewing point from where one can see Denali on a clear day. No, it wasn’t because there was a view on North America’s highest mountain. On the contrary, Denali was not in sight at all. This viewpoint isn’t one of the best to begin with. In my opinion, one of the nicest views I ever had on Denali where on my first flight to Alaska where the great one was just left outside the window. You had the feeling you can walk over the wing and just touch it. Beautiful in pink in the 11 something pm evening midnight sun. The second nicest view was from one of the northern facing Captain Cook conference rooms in downtown Anchorage in spring 2015.

Tanana Flats with smoke

 

View over the Tanana Flats with a snoke cloud in the sky
Smoke over the Tanana Flats on May 18, 2017 as seen from the West Ridge view point under the satellite dish field

 

The reason I stopped was a huge black cloud of smoke rising high up into the blue sky over the Tanana Flats. When you see these smoke clouds, you know there is a fire. When you see them in spring, all you think is “… oh no, now the fires start again.”

I stood at the cliff of the ridge and watched the smoke for a while. The wind made it look like the smoke was pumping, somehow like smoke signs. But of course it was the interaction of the wind and the buoyancy caused by the heat of the fire.

Wildfires are a natural part of the boreal landscape evolution

Ok, I know, there isn’t a summer in Interior Alaska without wildfires. Actually, a friend of mine once said

Alaska summers smell like wildfires.

And actually, as I type it smells like I am sitting next to a camp fire. Of course, I wasn’t surprised to see fire smoke at this time a year. The typical Alaska wildfire starts in late May, early June. Then the dead grass and litter from last year are dry and the water from snowmelt is gone. Often the rivers are also low at that time and some creeks are dry as in May and June there is typically not much rain. The wildfire season ends in August, the rainiest month in the Interior. However, often fires smolder in the peat under the snow over winter and flare up again in spring. But I was surprised by the kind of smoke.

June is the windiest month, but it was pretty windy despite it was just towards the end of May. Thus, I was worried about the fire and the wind. Wind can push fires and can keep them alive by providing fresh oxygen. Thus, conditions were good for that fire to spread. I parked the car at the view point to take a peak at that unusual, mysterious looking smoke cloud. I pulled my iPad out of my work bag, powered it up and wanted to quickly take a photo by just opening the door. However, it was so windy that I had to close the car door to take a photo.

Smoke from a Human Made Fire

That smoke out there looked more like some kind of human-made material was burning. However, in the area of the smoke, the only living beings are vegetation, animals, bacteria, microbia and alike. Nobody lives there and even nobody usually goes there unless they have an order to go there. I wondered what was burning out there in the middle of nowhere.

 

wildfires in Interior Alaska
2010 fire in the Goldstream Valley. View from the creek that was still partly snow and ice covered

 

The smoke was black like the night. From the color of the smoke it didn’t look like wildfire smoke, i.e. when grass, peat, spruce, shrubs or other kind wood are burning. These wildfires typically have more a brownish color. There is also typically a huge water vapor release involved from the evaporation of water and sublimations of the ice in the active layer and/or permafrost underneath the burning vegetation or the peat. See the photo of the Goldstream Valley wildfire, I wrote about awhile ago, for comparison.

wildfires in Interior Alaska
Fire in the Goldstream Valley in the suburbs of Fairbanks in 2010

 

While I was thinking what the burning material could be, the smoke calmed down and stopped. Despite the sound of the hauling wind – you rarely hear the wind in the Interior – I heard a man cursing in a loud voice from above “What the heck burned there.” Since in my mind there could be no man be “above”, I turned my head towards the direction of the voice. I saw a man standing in xtra-Tuffs – the Alaska It rubber boots with iron cap – on the top of the roof of a brand new 2017 Ford 350. He hold hunting binoculars in his hands in front of his eyes and was watching into the direction of where the smoke had come from.

Hayes Range as seen from West Ridge
View on the eastern part of the Alaska Range, the Hayes Range as seem from the view point on West Ridge below the satellite dish field and ski trail entrance. The three prominent peaks are from in the West (on the right) with the rounded back and sharp east head wall Mt. Deborah, left of Mt. Deborah is Mt. Hess. Further east is Mt. Hayes

A viewpoint on the Eastern Alaska Range

I took some other photos from the view point as there was a great view of the Hayes Range, the eastern part of the Alaska Range (photo above). I shut my iPad down, put it back into my bag, and pulled out. The man was still standing on the top of the truck. He looked like Emily on a Rolls Royce with the long hair and wide open jacket blowing in the wind in the mirror.

Did you know that the Alaska Range is the highest range in the World outside of Asia and the Andes?

You may be interested to read about other air pollution issues in Alaska like those caused by winter inversions or the decrease in sea-ice and hence increased Arctic shipping.

Focus Alaska is a series here on High Latitude Style about things unique to life in Alaska.

Photos: N. Mölders

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