Category: Science

Letter O: OLLI

OThe Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, “A Health Club for Your Mind,” has been in Fairbanks almost since the turn of the century. Originally Adventures in Lifelong Learning and then Alaska Lifelong Learning, the name was changed to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in 2006, after the Osher foundation provided funding. The program is currently part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions, open to students 50 years and older.

Members celebrated OLLI’s 10th Anniversary in 2010. There are now 800 members in OLLI.

All instructors are volunteers, and many are current or former UAF faculty members. Most are delighted by the eagerness and willingness to ask questions that characterize OLLI students. I know I was, when I taught a class in basic genetics! As a general rule there are four sets of 4-week classes a year, in March, April, October and November. This spring I’m taking seven: iMovie and iDVD, Beringia, and Ancient Sumer in March; Alaska’s 1964 Earthquake, Climate Variability and Change, iPhone and iPad, and Alaska Weather in April.

As you can see I tend to go for the science and computer classes, but those are far from the only ones taught. There are classes in art and handiwork, computer applications, exercise and recreation, films and photography, healthy living, history and politics, literature languages and philosophy, science and mathematics, and social studies. In addition there are field trips and special interest groups.

There are OLLI programs across the country. All are university affiliated and received funding from the Osher Foundation, but they are run independently. Is there one where you live?


LThe sun will rise this morning at 6:19, and set 15 hours 6 minutes later at 9:25 this evening. At is highest it will be 34.8° above the southern horizon, and civil twilight does not start until 10:23 in the evening.

At least it’s beginning to warm up. Last week was really cold — well below zero at night, and often near freezing in the daytime. Yesterday things took a sudden turn for the better — or at least warmer — it actually reached above 50°F according to the thermometers along the road. And it looks like it may stay that way.

Lightning storms aren’t quite here yet, but the thunderstorm season is definitely approaching.

Lightning is caused by particles of different sizes and compositions striking each other in strong updrafts. These collisions often transfer charge between the particles, and if they are falling through the updraft  at different rates (as would be the case for light ice crystals and heavy, often wet hailstones) the result will be the buildup of charge of one sign (usually negative) near the bottom of the cloud, and the other near the top. The charge near the bottom of the cloud will induce a charge of the opposite sign in the ground, and a transfer of charge occurs during a cloud-to-ground lightning strike.

Strong updrafts require heating near the ground, which can occur in volcanic eruptions (common in the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands) or by strong solar heating of the ground. This is common during early summer in Interior Alaska, and in fact most of the wildfires here are caused by lightning strikes. The worst of the lightning (and the forest fires) are generally in June, but there is nothing unusual in thunderstorms from May through July. August thunder and lightning are rarer, and the ground is generally still too wet and snow-covered in April for the sun to heat it adequately. It certainly is this year!



Letter GA glacier is ice, formed by layer upon layer of snow that begins to flow under its own weight. It may end on land, in which case it can form the headwaters of a river or (as in the dry valleys of Antarctica) simply sublime into very dry air. It begins, however, in an area that is glaciated, or covered with compacting snow. That area may be a small as a glacial cirque or as large as Antarctica.

This is Antarctica, but at one time much of North America looked like this. Photo Source

This is Antarctica, but at one time much of North America looked like this. Photo Source

Continental-scale glaciations today are limited to Antarctica and Greenland. But 18,000 years ago, much of North America to south of the Great Lakes and Eurasia into the Alps and Carpathians was covered by a solid sheet of ice. The Himalayan glaciation was also much more extensive than is the case today, and the Rockies were also covered with ice. In fact,  all mountain glaciations were more extensive then, including the Brooks and Alaska Ranges in Alaska.

Interestingly, while New York State, the Great Lakes, and northern Europe were covered with mile-thick ice, interior Alaska and large parts of northern Asia remained ice free, a cold steppe that supported mammoths, long-horned bison, and horses. The Bering Sea was mostly land, due to lower sea level, and many scientists believe that the first inhabitants of North America moved from Siberia to Alaska with no idea that they were entering a new continent. But there is no evidence that there has ever been glaciation where I live, in Interior Alaska. It was and is too dry. Only the frozen bones of long-extinct animals preserved in permafrost are left to tell the tale.



FI know, I usually title this segment North Pole weather, since I live in North Pole, Alaska. But North Pole is a suburb of Fairbanks, less than half an hour’s drive away, and to be honest (being lazy) the sunrise and sunset times I give are from a website, and are for Fairbanks. To be precise, they are for the intersection of Airport Road and Cushman Street, about halfway between my home and the airport where the official weather forecast is valid. I could calculate the times of sunrise and sunset myself. In fact, I once devised an Excel spreadsheet that made that calculation for any latitude and longitude. But it was on a ZIP disk, and the disk failed. Anyway, the times from the website are accurate to within a few seconds — more accurate than the assumption that the refraction of the sun’s rays is always the same.

Moose tracks in my front yard

Moose tracks in my front yard

With that confession out of the way, sunrise this morning will be at 6:45, and the sun will set 14 hours 19 minutes later at 9:03 this evening. This is actually the last night we will have astronomical night; it will not get darker than astronomical twilight (sun between 12° and 18° below the horizon) again until late summer. We’re still gaining 6 minutes 47 seconds a day, and the sun at noon is now over 32° above the horizon. Weather? Still around freezing in the daytime and near zero at night. Not much snow has melted, except where the snow was cleared artificially and dark surfaces are warming in the sun. The back yard still has 22″ and light snow began Sunday. The moose are out; I’ve seen tracks in my yard. Needless to say there are no flowers outdoors yet!

P.S. 8 am: It snowed 2″ overnight and it’s still snowing — a fine, light snow that piles up very slowly, but the snow stake in my yard is back up to 2′. According to the radio, the first geese arrived last Friday, but Creamers’ Field is a waterfowl refuge and they generally plow part of the field so the birds have a place to land and feed. I’ll look later today.


Intersection 3-30-14It’s the last day of March, and the sun will rise at 7:10 this morning, stay above the horizon for 13 hours and 31 minutes, and set at 8:41 this evening. Yesterday I had no problem driving home from the symphony, aside from the glare of the sun on snow.

Temperatures have been about normal, and are expected to stay that way. It gets a little above freezing in the daytime and the heavily traveled roads are generally dry, but the white ice roads (including mine) are just glazed. At least they’re not collapsing yet. They’re several inches deep in packed snow, though, which makes quite a step when the plows push back the berms along the main road.

We have a possibility of snow showers a week from now, but so far there hasn’t been much melting of the undisturbed snow. It’s still 22” deep in my yard.

Me 3-19-14I’m feeling fine and the pathology looks good after the latest surgery (10 days ago) and should find out today what’s ahead in the way of radiation and chemo. Very annoying, just as I’m getting my hair back, even if it does look more like a poodle’s coat than like me.

Note that Horse Power, my Amazon short, will be free through April 4th. The weather video isn’t up as of 10 pm Sunday; I’ll add it Monday morning if it’s up by then.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake.

I still remember it, though I was over 300 miles from the epicenter, on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks where I was a graduate student. I had a basement apartment that year, and shortly before dinner the hangers started rattling in the closet. I’d never been in an earthquake before, but when the shaking continued it occurred to me that a basement might not be the safest place. It took me a while to grab a coat and climb the stairs, but when I got outdoors, the flagpole and trees were still swaying and the ground was still shaking.

Were earthquakes supposed to last that long? I wondered as I headed for the university dining commons. The sidewalks were icy, and I slipped and fell, dislocating my knee (a common occurrence at that time) and doing something to my elbow. As usual, I asked a passing student to help me straighten the leg while I put pressure to get the kneecap back in place. (At this time the joint was so used to dislocating I was able to get up and walk as soon as the dislocation was reduced, though I trouble getting everything in place without help.)

In the cafeteria all of the discussion was about the earthquake, and some pretty wild rumors were circulating. (Anchorage had fallen into the ocean; other cities in south central Alaska were wiped out.) As I recall, the phone lines were out and it took a while to find out what had really happened—which was bad enough, even if not as bad as the worst rumors.

Television would have been no help even if I had owned a set. This was before satellite communications, and television news was flown to Alaska (and within Alaska) on tapes to be shown the next day if we were lucky. Even the radio news was pretty confused at first, as most of the news from Anchorage arrived (I think) via shortwave radio hams. (That was definitely true a few years later during the Fairbanks flood.)

As it turned out, Anchorage suffered most from the direct effects of the shaking, but the greatest losses of life were in coastal communities – Valdez, Seward, Kodiak – which were struck by tidal waves triggered by the earthquake.

I’ll be taking an adult learning class next month about the earthquake, and while I understand the basic geophysics of what happened, I hope to learn more. Maybe I’ll do a blog on it. But for now, I wanted to remember the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake.

The ice chapel still shows the transparency of the ice.

The ice chapel still shows the transparency of the ice.

This will be a short post, because my modem is acting up. I will try to get the information I need and upload it (on Sunday) from Safeway, the closest place I am reasonably sure I can get Wi-Fi, if the modem goes out again. Apologies to those I was unable to visit on Weekend Writing Warriors; even my e-mail is affected, and the store where I can get the needed parts won’t be open until today.

The sun will rise this morning at 7:36, and set 12 hours 44 minutes later at  8:20 this evening. It’s getting a little sloppy in the daytime, though night-time temperatures are still below zero. Not to complain – we can have 40 below as late as the end of March.

The train station show how the ice turns milky due to partial internal melting.

The train station shows how the ice turns milky due to partial internal melting in the sun.

When I visited Ice Alaska Friday, the sculptures ranged from slightly drippy to total collapse. Generally the south faces of exposed blocks had changed from transparent to flat white due to internal melting. For those who may have worried about my surgery last Wednesday, it went well enough I was walking around the ice park Friday, though some of the pictures were taken from the train.

The sun will rise this morning at 8:02, and set 11 hours 57 minutes later at 7:52 this evening. Since we’re now gaining 6 min 43 seconds a day, by tomorrow we’ll have more day than night.

But the equinox won’t be until 8:57 am Thursday the 20th! Why do we have equal day and night lengths before the equinox?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll explain again. The equinox is defined by true sunrise and sunset, when the center of the sun would line up exactly with the horizon if light rays traveled in straight lines and your eyes were right on the ground. None of these assumptions are true.

In the first place, sunrise and sunset are defined by the first (and last) appearance of the top edge of the sun. At the equator, this differs by about a minute from the time as defined by the center of the sun. Where I live it is closer to 2 minutes.

The position of your eye doesn’t matter much normally, but I’ve seen the midnight sun (not normally visible at Fairbanks) from a small plane.

Finally, the atmosphere bends light, especially near sunrise and sunset. Exactly how much depends on the density structure of the atmosphere, which up here tends to produce a lot of bending. The numbers above are based on a standard atmosphere, so it is possible that the day length today is even longer than calculated.

At any rate, it is beginning to feel like spring. We had several thawing days last week, and I am sorry to say that some of the ice sculptures are beginning to melt, especially those with delicate parts. I went out again Friday to get some photos with the sun in a better position, and found a group of school buses unloading children! Luckily most were far more interested in the slides than the sculptures, so I was able to get some good shots. Some still looked pristine; some were slightly melted; some were partly collapsed. Here’s a pair of photos showing some of the damage wrought by the warm weather. Both photos are of “Guardian of the Deep” sculpted by Chris Foltz, Dean Murray, Jillian Howell and Amela Rombach, all of the USA. If you compare the two, you can see that Neptune has lost his trident, and the seahorse has lost a hoof and part of his mane.

Guardian of the Deep coldGuardian of the Deep 3:14:14Final comment: the warm weather seems to have ended. The coming week is forecast to be about normal: partly cloudy, no precipitation, highs in the 20′s and lows zero or a little below.

Snostk 3-8-14Daylight savings, and we’re back to sunrise at 8:27 am. We’re actually on double daylight savings based on longitude, as Alaska Standard Time is already an hour farther east than our true longitude, and 2 hours east for Nome, also in the same time zone. This far north, true time zones are close together.

At any rate the sun will set tonight at 7:37, after a day almost 11 hours 10 minutes long. The Equinox is coming*; only about a week and a half to go, now!

Temperatures this month have been slightly above normal until the weekend, with highs mostly in the 20’s and lows sub-zero – ideal for the ice park, where it’s warm enough that water can be used as glue to weld ice blocks together without being so warm that the ice melts. We did have a couple of inches of snow midweek, and the backyard snow stake now reads very close to two feet. We’re also getting into a cold spell over the weekend (highs not always above zero) but it’s forecast to be pretty short.

*At 8:57 on March 20 ADT, to be precise.

The sun will rise at 7:52 this morning, and set 10 hours 16 minutes later at 6:11 this afternoon. (Sunrise is in the future tense only because I switched my posting time to midnight.) The sun is getting higher in the sky, too, 18.6° at solar noon, now. With our snow cover and clear skies the past week, sunglasses have definitely been needed! The days are now lengthening by 6 ¾ minutes a day. The roads are still icy; we’ve had some brief thaws, but on all but the busiest freeways it’s merely polished the ice.

The ice park is open and the judging of the single block competition is complete. The weather has been close to ideal: sunny, with daytime temperatures just below freezing. First Place abstract and Artist’s Choice went to Carnival, sculpted by Ivan Zuev and Nikkolay Stepanov from Russia.

Carnival: first Place Abstract

Carnival: first Place Abstract

First Place Realistic went to Love in Motion, by Victo Jagatan and Joel McRae from the United States.

Love in Motion: First Place Realistic

Love in Motion: First Place Realistic

I looked at the multi-block area Saturday, a few hours after the sculpting started, but there was too much heavy equipment running around to get much in the way of pictures. I’ll try again this afternoon, after my first iMovie class.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 488 other followers