The Eastern Arctic Seas Encyclopedia

2016 Edition
| Editors: Igor S. Zonn, Andrey G. Kostianoy, Aleksandr V. Semenov

Alaska, State

Reference work entry
Alaska, State (derived from the Indian word meaning “Great Land,” formerly known as Aleutia, American Siberia, Morzhovia, Polaria, and other names, but eventually the name Alaska was acknowledged). The former Russian America, since 1959 the 49th state of the USA in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, separated from the rest of the USA by the territory of Canada (Yukon and British Columbia territories). It was formed on the territory of the Russian America. From the day of its purchase from the Russian Empire in 1867 to the year of 1959 it had a status of “a territory.” The area is 1.5 million km2, the largest state of the USA. It consists of a mainland part and a large number of islands (the Alexander Archipelago, the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, Kodiak Island, etc.). Alaska is washed by the Arctic Ocean (the Chukchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea) and the Pacific Ocean (the Bering Sea). The Pacific coast is skirted with high mountain ranges (McKinley peak being the highest – 6,193 m high) and covered with coniferous forests of great value. The inner part presents highlands 1,200 m high in the east and not more than 400 m high in the west. Closer to the west the highlands turn into coastal lowlands and in the north are fringed with the Brooks Range. This is the so-called Alaska North Slope.

Alaska lies within the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire which accounts for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions (the year 1964 here saw the second most powerful earthquake in the world). Most landscapes are molded by numerous glaciers.

The most important rivers are the Yukon, which is navigable and rich in waterpower, and the Kuskokwim. The rivers are abundant in fish – Chinook salmon, red salmon, Arctic grayling, halibut, rainbow trout, Arctic char, etc. Alaska has more than three million lakes.

Indigenous population is the Indians (the Tsimshian, Athapascan, Eyak, Tlingit, and Haida tribes) and the Inuits or Eskimos (the Inupiat, Alutiiq, Aleut, and Yupik tribes). Around 16 % of the population consider themselves the descendants of the indigenous peoples. The administrative center is Juneau (since 1990). The population is 650,000 people with the biggest concentration in the southern and southeastern part of Alaska. The main cities are Anchorage (where half of the state’s population lives), Fairbanks, Sitka, and Ketchikan.

The climate in the northern and central areas is cold, winter lasts for 6–8 months, and the vegetation presents tundra and woodlands. South, southwestern, and southeastern parts are coastal; there are many islands and convenient non-freezing bays.

The fauna is abundant: elk, jackass deer, caribou, musk ox, tundra wolf, polar fox, polar bear on the Arctic ocean coast, lemmings, blue hare, various birds, American black bear, grizzly bear and Kodiak bear, sable, lynx, mink, marten, hoary marmot, Dall sheep, etc. American eagle, the symbol of the USA, is well appreciated among them. Alaska Bay, the Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean are home to various mammals: sea lions, seals, sea otters, killer whales, humpback whales, sea bears, walruses, etc.

According to many specialists, remote ancestors of the modern natives came to Alaska from North-Eastern Asia between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago crossing the isthmus which lay in place of the Bering Strait. Today around 70 % of the inhabitants are comers from other places who have chosen this state on their own free will. About 16 % of them are representatives of indigenous peoples; the majority of the others are European descendants.

Alaska was discovered in the first half of the eighteenth century by Russian explorers. In 1784 the first permanent Russian settlement was founded on Kodiak Island. Russian colonists who inhibited the settlements mostly along the Pacific coast were involved in fur trapping, shipbuilding, and various crafts. Global expeditions organized by the Russian-American Company (there were 13 expeditions in the period from 1804 to 1840) ensured regular connection between Alaska and Russia. In 1854 the Russians started coal deposits exploitation here.

During the Crimean War (1853–1856) the Russian Empire did not have the necessary forces in the Pacific to defend and maintain its settlements in North America. For this reason it was decided to sell Alaska under the contract of March 18 (30), 1867 at the price of 7.2 million dollars. The US Senate ratified the contract with the majority of a single voice. At the moment Alaska was called “Uncle Sam’s Attic,” “Walrussia,” and “Seward’s Icebox” (after the name of the US State Secretary who supported the idea of the purchase of Alaska.)

At the end of 1890s the discovery of gold in the neighboring area of Canada (Klondike), the central part of Alaska and the Seward Peninsula caused “the gold rush” which stimulated the growth of settlements in the inner part of Alaska. The period between 1911 and 1938 witnessed the copper deposits development in Alaska in the Copper River basin. In 1915–1923 a new railway connected the coast with the central part of Alaska. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the economic specialization of Alaska had been established: fish and fur as well as precious metals extraction.

Today Alaska is closely associated with oil, fish, and tourism. Most of the hydrocarbon reserves (circa 48 billion barrels of oil) are situated in the Alaska North Slope. A unique oil and gas field Prudhoe Bay which was discovered on the shore of the Beaufort Sea in 1968 with the reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil and 27 trillion cubic feet of gas became a symbol of the state’s prosperity and success. Alaska accounts for a fourth of all the oil production in the USA; 9/10 of the state’s yield comes from the “black gold.” In 1977 within the period of 3 years Alaska acquired a Trans-Alaska Pipeline system about 1,280 km long connecting Prudhoe Bay and the port of Valdez, the Gulf of Alaska. The cost of its construction comprised 7.7 billion dollars, which is 1,000 times as much as the cost of Alaska when it was purchased from Russia.

The traditional enterprises in Alaska, commercial fishing (biggest in the world) and seafood processing, account for about a half of Alaska’s gross output (salmon fishes, herring, codfish, flounder, crabs, etc). Fishing is a favorite sport in Alaska whose inhabitants call fish “their past, their present, and their future.” The main export item is salmon fishes. Alaska possesses one of the last schools of wild salmon in the world, which is valued more than that artificially bred in Chile, Norway, Scotland, etc.

The mining industry is represented by zinc (in Kotzebue area) and gold (in Fairbanks area) production. Tourism is extremely well developed (Alaska welcomes around one million tourists annually due to its hunting and fishing attractions) giving occupation to a significant part of the population. Another sphere which is developed is reindeer breeding. The climate is quite severe, that is why only potatoes, cabbages, and carrots are grown on the field; all the rest is grown in greenhouses. There is dairy cattle husbandry in Alaska. The widest spread means of transport are hydroplanes, snow scooters, and cross-country vehicles.

Alaska is connected with Seattle and other US Pacific ports by water. Seward used to be the main port, but during the World War II, the port of Whittier was built, and now it guarantees convenient connection with the inner parts of Alaska. Seward and Fairbanks are linked by the State Alaska Railroad. There are a number of convenient highways, the main being called “Alaska.” It is 2,224 km long and connects Fairbanks with the city of Dawson Creek (Canada). It was built within the period of 8 months and 12 days. The Yukon River plays some role in navigation. Important airlines connecting the USA with the Eastern countries intersect Alaska.

Alaska has a large number of the US airfields, air force, and naval bases. In 1997 Gakona saw the launch of an aurora research project HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program). Specialists call it a geophysical or climatic weapon of the USA. Another station called HIPAS is situated not far from Fairbanks.

Alaska annually holds sled dog races along a 1,700 km route from Anchorage to Nome, which was approved by the US Senate. Sled dog races are a national sport in the USA.

Alaska is home to 15 natural reserves and parks with the total area of 218,000 km2. Alaska itself is called a natural reserve of the USA. The largest conservation area is Denali Park (formerly called McKinley), established in 1917 and lying in the very center of the state. Another national park is Katmai (“The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes”). It is a territory of active volcanism. The historic national park in Sitka keeps the biggest collection of the northern totem poles.

The Russian period deeply influenced the culture of Alaska. A significant part of its native population still practices orthodoxy. Sitka (former Novoarkhangelsk) has quite a large population of Russian origin. St Michael’s Cathedral is also situated here. To commemorate the times of the Russian America, Alaska annually celebrates Alaska Day in October 18. This state holiday yearly reconstructs the Russian atmosphere in Alaska. Anchorage museum boasts of many artifacts from the Russian everyday life of the nineteenth century.

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