If you live in the United States, you probably don’t live in Alaska. Out of a total national population of over 311 million, just over 700,000 Americans call the state of Alaska home. However, those few who do have the good fortune to live in a land that could fill the galleries and corridors of an American Hall of Fame.
Even the state’s name suggests greatness. The word Alaska is derived from Alyeska, an ancient Aleut word that means “great land.”
Size and Location
Look at any map, and you know that Alaska is big. But how big? Here’s some perspective.
• The shoreline of Alaska is longer than the shoreline of the entire U.S. Atlantic Coast.
• Alaska is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined.
• Alaska’s land area is more than one-fifth the size of all 48 contiguous states.
You may also notice that Alaska is north of the 48 contiguous states—way north. Here are some effects of its unusual location.
• Alaska is known as the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” In Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost community, the sun doesn’t set between May 10 and August 2.
• The opposite is true in winter. Between November 18 and January 23, the sun doesn’t rise.
If mountains are what you’re looking for, Alaska is the place to find them. With 39 mountains ranges, Alaska offers a view of a summit from almost everywhere.
The state’s mountain peaks are also the sites of the coldest temperatures in the United States. The Endicott Mountains in northern Alaska hold the record, with an observed temperature of -80ºF on January 23, 1971. Now that’s cold!
The tropics is not the only place with rainforests. Alaska’s two national forests, which are the largest in the United States, are also temperate rainforests.
When it comes to animals, Alaska is second to none. From black bears to polar bears, moose, musk ox, and whales, Alaska has them all.
Each year, more snow falls in Alaska than melts. No wonder the state has almost 100,000 glaciers. A glacier is a frozen river of snow, ice, and rock. Pulled by gravity, it may “flow” from its origins high in the mountains to the ocean or to lower ground that is level. The Hubbard Glacier follows a 76-mile path to the Pacific–that’s almost twice the distance between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
According to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Alaska has 130 volcanoes, of which 50 are active. Of these, 9 have erupted a total of 19 times since 2000. Why so many active volcanoes?
Alaska is on the northern edge of the “Ring of Fire,” one of the areas where Earth’s tectonic plates meet and “mix-it-up.” About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes take place along this rim, which is also the site of about 75 percent of Earth’s active and dormant volcanoes.
If you look at a population map of Alaska, you’ll discover it is the most sparsely populated state. Here are the facts:
• Almost half of Alaska’s citizens live in Anchorage.
• If Alaskans were spread out evenly throughout the state, each citizen would have about 530 acres, just under one square mile.
• If Manhattan had the same population density as Alaska, about 28 people would inhabit the whole island instead of the more than 1.6 million who actually live there.
• Today, Alaska Natives comprise about 15 percent of the state’s population.
Looking Back in Time
Alaska’s history and its people date back 15,000 years to when the first humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge. The descendants of these first arrivals eventually formed five groups of Alaska Natives – Athabascan; Unangax (Aleut) and Alutiiq; Yup’ik and Cup’ik; Inupiaq; and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Each group inhabits a different region of this vast land.
Here are a few highlights from the state’s modern history, which, for a long time, was deeply intertwined with its neighbor Russia, only 55 miles away across the Bering Strait.
1804: After having been routed by Alaska Natives, Russians successfully battle to establish a settlement at the site of modern Sitka in the Alaskan south.
1867: In a transaction referred to by opponents as Seward’s Folly, the United States buys Alaska from the Russians for $7 million. William H. Seward was the United States Secretary of State who initiated the purchase.
1897: The Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon triggers a stampede of hopeful prospectors marching through Alaska to reach the gold fields.
1959: Alaska becomes the 49th U.S. state.
1968: Oil is discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast. The state of Alaska owned the land and made over $900 million by leasing the rights to drill for the oil. Six years later construction began on a pipeline to bring the oil to market.
1989: Tanker Exxon Valdez runs aground and spills 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Clean up from the oil spill takes decades.
2008: Presidential candidate John McCain picks Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential running mate. The two run an unsuccessful campaign, and several months afterwards, Palin resigns her position as Alaska governor.
As remote as it is, Alaska is full of surprises. If you’re curious about what Earth looked like eons ago, there are places in Alaska to satisfy your curiosity. If you’re intrigued by the idea of land untouched by human development, you’ll find that in Alaska. If you’re interested in cultures thousands of years old, you’ll find them in Alaska as well. The state’s nickname is “the Last Frontier,” and it couldn’t be more fitting.Written by Marjorie Frank.