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Geophysical research and operations define Alaska science

UAF Geophysical Institute Director, Bob McCoy talks with business leaders about the impacts of Alaska research, Tuesday, April 25 at the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
UAF Geophysical Institute Director, Bob McCoy talks with business leaders about the impacts of Alaska research, Tuesday, April 25 at the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Millions of dollars of research and operations come through the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Director Bob McCoy talked to local business leaders this week about how that impacts the community.

Newcomers to Alaska know the Geophysical Institute for its aurora forecast. But they soon learn the GI is the hub for studying the things that don’t happen anywhere else – the science that makes Alaska unique.

“This is how I like to describe how we see Alaska: it's a vast laboratory, with really interesting stuff that no other university has in their backyard.”

Director Bob McCoy came to work for the university as a space scientist. He says at the GI there are nearly 400 scientists and graduate students who work in the research and operational programs: from Aurora research and the Poker Flat Research Range, to Coast Guard rescues and mineral evaluation.

The Institute recently received a Defense Department designation to research topics important to national security.

“A big deal for us is what happened in 2018. We became the UARC - a University-Affiliated Research Center. That means we have special connection to the Department of Defense and that's opened up a bunch of doors for us. Increasingly we're supporting Eielson AFB, Fort Waiwright, and JBER.”

It is one of only 17 UARCs in the country. Part of that charter is to listen for nuclear detonations around the world through the Wilson Alaska Technical Center, to make sure nations are keeping within the terms of nuclear treaties.

McCoy made his presentation to the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

 ”The Arctic is warming three to four times the rest of the planet. This kind of frames our research.”

He featured the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the Geographic Information Network of Alaska, the Alaska Climate Research Center, theHigh-frequency Active Auroral Research Program near Glenallen, and the Alaska Satellite Facility, with 11 satellite dishes owned or operated by the GI. And oh yes, the oldest and largest academic drone program.

McCoy detailed the seven research groups working in Alaska and around the world: atmospheric science, remote sensing, seismology, a snow, ice and permafrost group, space physics and aeronomy, tectonics and sedimentation, and vulcanology. Each group has about a dozen scientists. They study: the aurora, wildfires, climate change and pollution, the 50,000 earthquakes that happen in Alaska every year, and the 54 volcanoes in Alaska – three or four of which are erupting in the Pacific.

“ 80% of the air traffic for Asia comes right through this. It's a big deal. There's 70,000 passengers in the air at any one time. So monitoring those volcanoes and providing alerts and warnings for the ashes is an important job we do, as well as doing research on how to understand, uh, volcanoes and their potential for erupting.”

In recent years the Geophysical Institute has turned its face more toward the public, with science exhibits, regular news articles, a podcast, the Science for Alaska lecture series, and the very popular aurora forecast.

 Everything we do is, is open for visits. If you wanna come up to the GI, you're welcome anytime. There's static displays outside, inside, especially in summer, when we'll be organizing tours.”

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.