Diversity of scientific disciplines kept the Geophysical Institute at UAF growing for decades

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from Ned Rozell

Updated: 19 minutes ago Published: 19 minutes ago

I wrote about it last week some of the breaks enjoyed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute during its 75th anniversary.

Another key to this place, where a few dozen researchers study things “from the center of the earth to the center of the sun,” is that its directors followed your financial advisor’s advice: diversify your portfolio.

The Geophysical Institute was founded in the late 1940s because the aurora sometimes interfered with the high-frequency radio communications used by ship captains and airplane pilots during World War II.

The young institute and its PhD students who became experts in space physics were then well positioned during the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958. There was a lot of funded work to be done during this huge campaign, with new tools to be optimized for use in the far north. And someone – these institute students – also had to understand the thousands of black and white aurora images these all-sky cameras provided.

Keith Mather, an Australian physicist who became director of the institute in 1963, was happy to lead the team of distinguished and successful aurora experts here in Fairbanks. But he also knew that the place had to be something more in order to exist in the long term.

During “the post-war euphoria for science and relatively abundant resources,” Mather opened the doors to those who studied things other than the thin air 60 miles above our heads. One of the first to walk in was former Minnesotan Carl Benson, who will tell you he was one of the first here for whom the floor was “not just for screwing in instruments”.

Benson, still a cheerful presence in these halls at 94, was a Mathers favorite because of his Midwestern charm, and because Benson immersed himself in the studies of many northern phenomena such as freezing fog that forms in Fairbanks when the air is colder than about minus 30 degrees Celsius and water vapor floats in the air like cotton candy. Benson also worked on glaciers in the Brooks Range and the Wrangell Mountains, which included building a “volcanically heated cabin” on top of Mount Wrangell.

A year after Mather became director, the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964 shook the world. Mather recognized this geophysical event as an opportunity. The institute had recently opened a seismological department that was rapidly expanding due to the interest that a 9.2 magnitude earthquake stimulates.

Other scientists drawn here would soon be writing their own funding proposals for the study of volcanoes, dozens of which were active in Alaska in historic times, and atmospheric research, such as studying a pollution speck called the Arctic Haze, the Alaska every spring Visited from Northern Russia and Asia.

The opportunities kept coming, like building a rocket range at Muskeg 30 miles north of Fairbanks, and the construction of ground-based receiving stations for information gathered from polar orbiting satellites orbiting directly over Fairbanks. The institute is now also a base station far north for unmanned aerial vehicles and their pilots.

People still study the northern lights and other aspects of space physics here, but you’re just as likely to encounter a graduate student staring at satellite imagery of the Seward Peninsula and counting beaver dams.

One of those starting PhD students was Syun-Ichi Akasofu, who turned 90 last December and still lives in Fairbanks. Not long after arriving in the far north from Japan, Akasofu – later director of the institute himself – saw Mather’s efforts to diversify give the place wings.

“Keith’s leadership turned the Caterpillar Institute into a butterfly institute,” he said.

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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