Of all the things that set Alaska apart from the lower 49, none is as noticeable as the fact that, well, it’s the only upper state. It’s more than 1,200 miles from the harbor of Valdez in southern Alaska to the northernmost city in Washington state. The state is enormous—more than twice the size of Texas! Alaska was the 49th state to be added to the union on January 3, 1959—the year after the giant landmass was purchased from Russia for two cents per acre. Here are a few other interesting things about “America’s Last Frontier” that make it so different from other states.
Alaska boasts 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States.
You probably aren’t surprised to hear about so many mountains in Alaska. After all, our minds tend to associate mountains with cold places, and since a lot of Alaska is cold, we get it. But what’s even more spectacular about these mountains is that 17 of the peaks in Alaska rank in the highest 20 peaks in the country. And those 17 peaks are spread out over three different ranges—the Alaska Range, the St. Elias Mountains, and the Wrangell Mountains.
The highest peak in the United States is found in Alaska—Mt. Denali (formerly called Mt. McKinley). It stands 20,310 feet high. Mt. Foraker stands 17,400 feet, and Mt. Bona is 16,550 feet high. Mt. Blackburn, Kennedy Peak and Mt. Sanford each rise just over 16,000 feet above sea level, and Mt. Churchill is 15,638 feet high.
Water, water everywhere!
Not only does Alaska have the majority of the highest mountain peaks in the country, but it’s also home to water—lots and lots of water—and in multiple forms. More than 3,000 rivers rush through the state of Alaska, and if you toured every square mile, you’d see more than 3 million lakes and ponds. Yes, 3 million. The largest Alaskan lake is Lake Iliamna, which is the size of the state of Connecticut. There are also more than a thousand glaciers in Alaska, and they account for more than half of all the world’s glaciers. Water everywhere, indeed!
A nightmare with a supertanker in the Sound
If you were old enough to read, write or catch even a glimpse of the nightly news, you probably remember an event with a big ocean liner, Exxon and millions of gallons of oil. You might more readily remember pictures of seabirds and seals covered in the thick black crude. Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the 987-foot-long supertanker Exxon Valdez was en route from the Port of Valdez in Alaska to Long Beach, California, when it ran aground in Prince William Sound, tearing a huge hole in the hull of the tanker and spilling more than 11 million gallons of oil into the water. The result was an oil slick that covered a devastating 1,300 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of sea otters, seals, seabirds and whales. The spill also covered an area of 11,000 square miles of water.
The disaster was the largest spill in U.S. history, until the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010. The cleanup cost the Exxon Corporation $2 billion, and the company paid $1.8 billion for habitat restoration. Today, nearly 30 years after the incident, several pockets of crude oil still remain in some of the areas that were affected by the spill.
A really long pipe that runs across the state
Not only is it long—to the tune of 800 miles long—it’s also four feet wide. In 1968, the largest oil strike in the United States was found underneath Prudhoe Bay in far north Alaska. In order to transport the oil to the harbor at Valdez in south Alaska, it was decided that a huge pipeline would be built. The line was built in a zigzag pattern so it can be flexible in the event of an earthquake. The finished pipeline cost more than $8 billion and sadly, during the course of its construction, 32 workers lost their lives. Oil began flowing through the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline System or TAPS on June 20, 1977.
The pipeline moves oil southward with the help of pumping stations along the way. The pumping ensures a steady and constant flow of oil at about four miles per hour. At that rate, oil can travel 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to the harbor at Valdez in about nine days. A portion of the pipeline is buried, but where there is permafrost, the pipeline runs above the ground on large supporting structures.
The billionth barrel of oil moved through the pipeline in early 1980. As of 2008, approximately 700,000 barrels move through the pipeline each day.
A million seals. Give or take a few.
The Pribilof Islands are a group of four volcanic islands off the coast of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea. They are small—comprising only 77 square miles—and home to only a handful of Americans. Because of this, it’s not the human population on the islands that’s impressive, but the wildlife population. Over one million seals live along the coastlines—the largest seal colony on earth. These northern fur seals are protected by the government under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are so many seals that the Pribilofs were once called the Northern Fur Seal Islands.
The islands are also teeming with other wildlife. More than 2.5 million seabirds, such as the tufted puffin—live on the Pribilof Islands. Over 230 species of seabirds make up the bird population. Wildlife viewing tours are available on the islands, as the Pribilof Islands make for the perfect place to go birdwatching and to observe wildlife in their natural habitats.
An amazing light show caused by projectiles from the sun. Well, sort of.
If you and yours head out for dinner in Fairbanks, Alaska, you’ve got greater than a 60% chance of seeing the most dazzling light show on earth—the Aurora Borealis. That’s because from the city of Fairbanks, stargazers and skywatchers are privy to the aurora’s show 243 days out of the year. Also called the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis—which literally means “northern dawn”—is formed by the constant collisions between electrically-charged particles from the sun and the earth’s atmosphere. The result is a brilliant showcase of colorful ribbons of light (or auroras) in the sky—greenish-yellow auroras from collisions with oxygen molecules found lower in the atmosphere, blue/purplish-red auroras from collisions with nitrogen molecules and the rarest of all—red auroras—from collisions with oxygen molecules found higher up in the atmosphere.
Because the Aurora Borealis occurs near the magnetic north pole, along the world’s northernmost circle of latitude, the lights have been seen as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana. But if you’d like to see them in all their grandeur, you can book an Arctic Circle tour, which includes a spectacular viewing of the incomparable Northern Lights.