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Ernest Leffingwell: Scientist with a fan club


February 05, 2009
Thursday PM

One hundred years ago, a group of men sailed to the northern coast of Alaska on an expedition to find a land mass rumored to exist in the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice disabled the ship, they didn't find the land, and after wintering in the North everyone hurried back to warmer places. Except for Ernest Leffingwell.

Leffingwell, a geologist, teacher, and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, stayed behind on Flaxman Island, a sandy wedge of land north of Alaska's coast and 58 miles west of Kaktovik. He lived for nine summers and six winters in a cabin made from the ship that brought him there in 1906.

jpg Scientist and explorer Ernest Leffingwell

Scientist and explorer Ernest Leffingwell spent nine winters in Flaxman Island, off Alaska's northern coast. Photo from the book, Conquering the Arctic Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen.

From that lonely home base, Leffingwell made 31 trips around the area by sled and small boat, covered about 4,500 miles, and camped in a tent "about 380 times." This detail he included in a 250-page report for the U.S. Geological Survey that reads like a manual on how to live and perform science in the Far North. He gained some fans from the works.

"He wasn't a traditional scientist," said University of Alaska Fairbanks permafrost scientist and world traveler Kenji Yoshikawa, a Leffingwell admirer. "He was more like an early explorer from the 18th century."

"Unlike his counterparts of the time who were mostly looking for glory and doing only enough science to support that, Leffingwell quietly wandered on his own, dedicating himself to a better understanding of this interesting place," Matt Nolan, from UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center, wrote on his Web site.

Nolan found rock cairns at spots where Leffingwell photographed Okpilak Glacier in the Brooks Range in 1907. Nolan repeated Leffingwell's photos in 2004 and shows the impressive loss of ice since Leffingwell hiked there from the coast.

In addition to taking photos of things that interested him, Leffingwell wrote down observations of everyday life, including dogs' reactions to wearing packs made of sealskin ("A good dog will pack half his weight all day, but he does not enjoy it."), and the prevailing opinion about polar bears ("Locally they are regarded much as wolves are in cattle country.")

Leffingwell must have loved northern Alaska, because he stayed there long after expedition money ran dry. His father gave him some funds to help with his dream, and he also earned a few thousand dollars by selling furs. He even tried whaling with Native crews in the spring of 1910.

"A full-grown whale was worth nearly $10,000 at the prevailing price of $5 a pound for whalebone," Leffingwell wrote in his USGS paper, The Canning River Region, Northern Alaska. "About six weeks were spent on the ice near Point Barrow, but no whale was killed."

Local Natives on and near Flaxman Island and some white prospectors in the country taught Leffingwell how to survive in the area. He learned well, judging from his writing.

jpg main building at Leffingwell's living site on Flaxman Island

The main building at Leffingwell's living site on Flaxman Island in a 1970 photo. Stacey Fritz of Fairbanks, visited Flaxman Island on a boating trip along the Arctic coast in the summer of 2008, described the present cabin as "a large pile of sod and lumber."
Photo by Gil Mull.

"At Flaxman Island, during the summer of 1907, about 400 eider ducks and brant were stored in the icehouse for winter consumption," he wrote in his customary passive voice.

His favorite meat was caribou, but in lean times anything would do.

"Seal and polar bear are not appetizing when one has recently eaten caribou," he wrote, "but after a period without meat of any other kind for comparison they form a welcome addition to the table."

Leffingwell shared the local Natives' preference for fur clothes over wool, even though famed Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen claimed that fur was stifling, even at low temperatures.

"At first the (fur) clothes are uncomfortably warm, so that one perspires freely, but after a few months the skin becomes accustomed to the heat, so that a man in good physical training will perspire much less than when dressed in woolen clothes," Leffingwell wrote.

As for hard science, Leffingwell named the Sadlerochit formation, which is the reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, and wrote about oil seeps that inspired government officials to create what is now the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. He also took photos of rocks on Flaxman Island he thought glaciers had dropped, though geologists thought there had never been glaciers in the area. Scientists recently found ancient glacial ice not far from Leffingwell's camp.

"He made the first (detailed) map of the coast, and he was the first guy to explain ice wedges; you can still use his definitions today," said Torre Jorgenson of ABR Inc. in Fairbanks. "One hundred years later we're still rediscovering things he discovered."



This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.

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