Alaska is privileged to have a low population density. It is therefore one of the last virgin territories where nature is still seen in its wild state. But it is a fragile paradise floating amidst a great oil reserve, making its future dependent on man taking the correct actions
Alaska, at the northernmost tip of America. 1,530,700 square kilometres encompassing more than one half of the protected lands of the United States, make this country’s 49th state a natural paradise.
Alaska is divided into three large regions: the mountains of the Pacific along the meridional coast, the central plains and plateaus bathed by the Yukon River and the northern slope or septentrional arctic zone, a land of ice, cold and tundra.
The climatic conditions of the extreme north are very harsh. The summers have no night-time; they are cool and short, while the winters are long, dark and very cold. For eight months of the year the average temperatures are below 0ºC. These regions are the domain of the tundra, a word taken from the Finnish “tunturi” which means “treeless plain”. Under the surface layer, the subsoil remains frozen all year long. This permafrost precludes the development of trees and the only vegetation supported are small creeping plants, low-growing shrubs, herbaceous plants, mosses and lichens.
Further inland, the change in vegetation marks the border between the tundra and the conifers of the taiga forest. This is a transitional strip of land where many of the tree species are shrub sized due to the tense conditions under which they develop, while the shrubs, lichens and mosses of the tundra persist.
The tundra’s harsh winter climate has also forced the animals inhabiting the region to develop survival strategies and the species must choose from three alternatives: they either migrate to avoid the winter, hide themselves away until the warm weather arrives or confront the climate openly with special physiological adaptations.
Musk deer fall within the last group. They have short legs, sturdy bodies and a layer of thick, long hair which minimises the loss of body heat. They also have a subcutaneous fat layer which builds up during the summer months and is used as an energy reserve during the long winter season.
The arrival of the thaw is the commencement of a period of abundance.
The animals come out of their winter lethargy, there are new pastures for herbivores to graze on and the entire community finds food easily.
Spring is also the time when many animals bring their young into the world. Some, such as the caribou, migrate from the taiga to the northern tundra, while others such as the wapiti remain under the shelter of the conifer forest taking advantage of the explosion of vegetable matter to replenish the fat lost during the winter.
In early June, Alaskan rivers are the scene of the arrival of different species of salmon, thousands of which return from their stay in the ocean to spawn and die in the waters where they were born.
Alaska is a land of bears. There are between 4,000 and 6,000 polar bears, more than 50,000 black bears and between 35,000 and 45,000 brown bears which, although they belong to the same species as the European brown bear, are larger in America. Here in Alaska the subspecies known as the Kodiak bear is the largest of them all; an animal which can grow as tall as 4 metres and weight up to 1,200 kilos.
The mountains play an important role in the water cycle and therefore in the gradual transformation of the landscape.
The fishing and forest industry are the two pillars of the state’s economy which are directly dependent on nature. Several fishing villages in the fjords live on the salmon they fish and therefore on the ecological health of the water and marine beds. It was only thanks to government assistance that they were able to survive the years following the Exxon Valdez tragedy and even today they note that the ecosystem has not fully recovered.
When the base of the ecological chain is damaged, the entire system suffers the consequences. The most visible animals such as fish or fowl return gradually, but without the basis of the food pyramid their populations decrease and the animals are weaker and less developed.
Alaska is one of the last virgin territories where nature is still seen in its wild state. But it is a fragile paradise floating amidst a great oil reserve, making its future dependent on man taking the correct actions. It will be necessary for an understanding and appreciation of the incalculable ecological value of this land to take precedence over quick economic profits in order for Alaska to continue as the final frontier for future generations.