Tag Archives: Alaska

The Snowiest Winter

17 Apr

Way back in September, I decided that this was the winter I would go through sans-snow tires.
Every Alaskan, at one point or another, is tempted to do this, for various reasons. And I certainly had a list of reasons. I’d been driving through Alaskan winters for over 7 years with relatively little damage. The past few winters hadn’t been too snow heavy and I was good at regaining control of a car on ice. I  leave plenty of space between me and the person in front of me, especially at stoplights. I don’t have much in the way of road rage. It’s typically neighborhood roads that are the iciest and worse to navigate. The main roads are usually just fine, and my home was directly adjacent to a main road, eliminating my need to navigate those  pesky neighborhood roads. Besides, I lived close enough to the university that I usually walked.
Yes, I decided smugly, this winter I would be just fine without my snow tires.

Unfortunately, Nature had other ideas.
Nature decided it would be just dandy if this winter was the snowiest winter in recorded history, bringing in over 133 inches. The picture above was taken during a snow storm. During the second week of April.  April!
Of course, this was the one winter I decided “Nah, I can totally survive without snow tires this winter.”
Murphy is laughing in his grave right now.
On the plus side, it gave me the opportunity to explore cross country skiing again.

It was my first time on skis since high school. I still can’t downhill ski to save my life, but cross country skiing adventures are some of my favorite high school memories. (Right after dissecting cats, shooting rifles, and doing interpretive dances for French class. My high school was pretty awesome.)

It was a beautiful opportunity to enjoy the last remnants of winter and welcome a very sloshy spring breakup!

I finally purchased XtraTufs, which are an actual fashion statement in Alaska, especially Southeast Alaska. It’s not uncommon to see women wear them with skirts. I bought them because they’re one of those things that you never appreciate until you need them, and also because my parking lot is completely flooded, as shown above. I literally can’t get to my front door without going through 6″ of water. I really, really want to release a horde of rubber duckies in my parking lot.

Super Awkward Roller Derby Fun Time

16 Apr
This weekend involved one of the most surreal experiences in the history of weird moments.
It started with a roller derby.
In an odd little Alaskan town named Wasilla.
(Yeah, that Wasilla)

Wasilla is a very peculiar town, prone to strangeness and idiot policians.
The game itself started out normally, with a pledge and singing of the national anthem. Followed by a insanely awkward public pre-game prayer.
After that, they did a roll call of the junior derby girls, presumably to bring attention that even though this is an adult game, there is a junior league which you should totally enroll your girls into. The only problem is several derby nicknames of the junior girls (ages 10-17) are quite innuendo-laden, including one named “Pound-Her-Puff Girl” and another called “Jack-In-Her-Box.”
After that though, the real derby started and was actually great fun. One of my friends who is involved with the roller derby informed me that my new home has no less than three leagues. I may look into participating. I think my derby name would be Plague Babe, or Ebola Girl, or some other painfully delightful science pun.
At one point I decided to seek coffee, which resulted in me wander about the sports center looking for the sole coffee stand. At one point I found myself under the bleachers and discovered a wedding reception.
A true, honest-to-god wedding reception.
In a sports center.
Under the bleachers.
During a roller derby.
And, at one point, belly dancers joined the derby players. Because it’s Wasilla, which has a perpetual motto of “Screw logic, we do what we want.”
To add to the entertainment, I was in the company of several good friends, who are just as strange as the town we were visiting.

New Species of Alaskan Water Flea Discovered And It’s ADORABLE!!!

26 Mar

New species discovered by scientists in Northwest Alaska

by Doug O’Harra

Scientists have discovered a new variety of water flea in a roadside pond on the Seward Peninsula outside of Nome, suggesting that life in the Alaskan Arctic may be far ecologically mysterious than previously thought.

This tiny crustacean — now named Eurycercus beringi — was identified during a multi-year, trans-continental investigation of water fleas that squiggle through small lakes across Alaska, Siberia and other Northern Hemisphere locales. The creatures fill a niche near the bottom of the freshwater food chain, providing summer food for birds while munching on even smaller life that erupts during the intense, brief Arctic summer.

Among other things, the scientists documented 10 different species of water fleas in these northern ecosystems instead of the two previously thought to live there. That represents a remarkable five-fold increase in water flea diversity in the Far North.

Don’t dismiss these findings, reported Feb. 24 in the journal Zootaxa, as just some arcane taxonomic trivia about weird-looking pond monsters — especially in the face of widespread permafrost melt and climate change.

With summers growing warmer and vegetation shifting, aquatic life unknown to modern science might be squirming incognito off the toes of our XtraTufs in potholes and tundra lakes that have begun to vanish and shrink. As these water bodies drain into the Earth or dry up, their biological treasures could vanish with them.

“It is well known that parts of Alaska and Siberia have suffered a huge reduction in freshwater surface area, with many lakes and ponds disappearing permanently in the past few decades,” explained co-author Derek J. Taylor, a biologist at the University at Buffalo, in this story about the research. “What we’re now finding is that these regions with vanishing waters, while not the most diverse in the world, do contain some unique aquatic animals.”

“Some of these subarctic ponds that water fleas inhabit are held up by permafrost, so when this lining of ice melts or cracks, it’s like pulling the plug out of a sink,” Taylor added. “When you see the crop circle-like skeletons of drained ponds on the tundra you can’t help but wonder what animal life has been lost here.”

Along with Eugeniya I. Bekker and Alexey A. Kotov of the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, Taylor concentrated on the quarter-inch-long water fleas from the genus Eurycercus in ponds across the globe. One surprising finding? These particular water fleas appear to be more diverse in northern regions than in the tropics.

“This is a counterintuitive concept, as scientists have long supposed that the advance and re-advance of ice sheets reduced much of the species diversity in colder climates,” Taylor explained in this story. “However, there is growing evidence that some northern areas remained ice-free and acted as hideouts during the harsh glacial advances.”

Contact Doug O’Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com

Iditarod and Diphtheria

3 Mar

Today is the ceremonial start of the Iditarod! Which, if you live in Alaska, is kind of a big deal. And if you live elsewhere, it’s just another Friday.
Either way, today is a good day.

The Iditarod is a 1,000ish mile race (though this year it’s only 975 miles) commemorating the infamous diptheria epidemic and celebrated every year with a grand ceremonial start and Alaskans bickering which dog, Balto or Togo, deserves more credit for the original race.

The original run was actually a huge deal. Alaska is huge state with very few roads. Hell, even our capitol city cannot be reached by road. There weren’t, and still aren’t, any roads to Nome. So when the diphtheria epidemic hit Nome in 1925, people panicked. The nearest antitoxin supply was in Anchorage, about 1000 miles away. It was the middle of winter, and winter storms produced strong gales of -85 degrees F. Nearly every Alaskan can recite this story in their sleep.

So today, while most of Anchorage is crammed downtown to celebrate the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, I am curled up with  warm cup of coffee and celebrating the Iditarod in my own way: With good ol’ fashioned science.
(Plus it’s really, really snowy out today, and my poor little car still doesn’t have snow tires.)

Today’s topic: Corynebacterium diphtheriae!


 C. diphtheriae is the adorable little bugger responsible for diphtheria, and has some odd little quirks that are fun to explore.
First, the basics: It’s a Gram-positive, highly pleomorphic bacilli, belonging to a peculiar group of bacterium called Actinobacteria. It is non-motile and aerobic. It often arranges itself in peculiar ways that microbiologists refer to as “Chinese letters.” (Unless you’re a Chinese microbiologist, in which case you would probably refer to them as Korean letters or something.) The less racist/more politically correct microbiologists refer to the morphology as a “picket fence” or “palisades” referring to how they lay next to one another. Its very distinct, instantly recognizable, and always makes me want to build kick-ass purple picket fence around my home.

(Because white picket fences are sooooo 6 decades ago.)

As for agars, C. diphtheriae is typically grown on Loeffler medium or tellurite agar. CTBA agar, which contains postassium tellurite, cystine, bovine serum, and sheep’s blood, is a common one found in labs due to the fact C. diphtheriae will form black colonies with characteristic brown halos, which differentiate it from most other Corynebacterium species.

(Be warned though, that C. ulcerans and C. pseudotuberculosis will also cause brown halos).

C. diphtheriae is also metachromatic, which means that a single stain will result in two or more different colors. This is due to the granules found at the polar ends of the bacterium, known as Babes Ernst Granules, which will stain a different color and are responsible for the notable club-shape of the bacterium. Ponder’s and Alberts’s stains can be used to demonstrate this phenomenon.

 Which looks pretty freaking groovy.

C. diptheriae produces a particularly nasty toxin which is responsible for Diptheria. Medical microbiologists must demonstrate the presence of the toxin, and they do so with the Elek’s Test. Developed in 1949, the Elek’s Test uses immunodiffusion to demonstrate the toxin. The patient’s isolate is placed on the agar in a straight line, alongside a known toxic and non toxic strains (which serve as positive and negative controls). Then a strip of paper containing antitoxin is laid across them in a perpendicular fashion. The antitoxin reacts with the toxin, forcing it to visibly precipitate out into the agar.

If the patient’s isolate contains the diptheria toxin, then peripitin lines will be formed. Iron will inhibit toxin production, so the Elek’s Test must be performed on a media with low iron content and an alkaline pH.

The toxin itself is pretty interesting. A bacteriophage with the Tox gene will infect a C.diptheriae bacterium, which will incorperate the Tox gene into its own genome and thus become a toxin producer. The toxin is secreted and actually nontoxic until it encounters trypsin, which will result and two fragments: A and B. Fragment B binds to receptors on eukaryotic cells and mediates the entry of Fragment A into the cell. Once in the cytoplasm, Fragment A disrupts protein synthesis. This disruption of protein synthesis is what contributes to the toxigenicity of the toxin.

Diptheria itself is characterized by a grey-white pseudomembrane formation on the throat, which honestly looks pretty nasty. And while I am usually all for disgusting photos of medical conditions, today I feel more like posting a photo of sled dogs, who hold the award for the most ridiculous tongues ever.

(All the better to lick your face with, my dear.)

So thank you, C. diphtheria, for giving Alaskans kickass piece of history that displays the extremes we will endure to help fellow Alaskans, a wonderful mid-winter celebration, and hilarious photos of sled dogs.

If you are interested in learning more, especially about the history of Diptheria epidemiology, Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology is a wonderful resource.