Alaska’s Fall Collection

Fall Equinox Color Palettes from the Far North

Alaska is famously called Land of the Midnight Sun in summer for its nearly endless daylight— and in the winter, there is the aptly-named Polar Night of lengthy darkness. But for a few days each year, these wild swings of light find momentary balance, hanging equally between night and day. This temporary truce happens during the fall and spring equinox, when we experience the same amount of sunlight no matter where we live. Fall equinox might officially mark the start of the season, but in Alaska, our fall colors are already well on their way:

Landscape of lake, mountains, and trees at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge with color blocks of blues, yellows, oranges
When fall comes to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a palette of rich rusts, burnt oranges and glowing yellows join the landscape’s evergreen and glacial blues for a vibrant (if brief) moment of time. A closer look shows this autumnal trend comes with stunning accessories: cranberry reds, deep mushroom browns and light moss greens 📷 Wild North Photography
Photo of fall tundra with mountains in the background. At bottom are five color blocks in maroon, orange, and olive shades.
Warm and vivid colors are what come to mind this fall season in the far north. Here Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sporting a beautiful medley of red, orange, and yellow tundra, accented with some green spruce trees. This fashion forward fall palette tells the story of the change of seasons which will eventually evolve into a wintery landscape 📷 USFWS/Sara Wolman

Colors of the Far North

Plant life above the Arctic Circle may be small in stature, but there is nothing shy about the brilliant reds and flashy yellows of blueberry, bearberry, dwarf birch, alder, and willow in fall foliage.

The tundra itself is a tiny and incredibly biodiverse micro forest. For many people, leaf-peeping during fall means looking skyward to see the beautiful colors of the canopy. In the Arctic, you can walk above and alongside the colors. A crisp, whirling wind flutters the golden sea of leaves that flows around your legs. In a few short weeks, this colorful land will be covered in ice, snow, and darkness - a natural reset to bring back the life and color of this landscape year after year.

Grey mountains and a valley of yellow leaves on the tundra.
You might be familiar with the brightly colored forests of the Northeast autumn scene, but the colors shine just as vivid and rich above the Arctic Circle. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in late August is a crimson blanket of land with bright yellows running alongside blue rivers. 📷 USFWS/Sara Wolman
A muskox rests in the changing colors of Arctic Refuge’s tundra 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Mountains in the distance in shades of blue, with a river in the foreground, lined with yellow shrubs.
Gold contrasts with blue where the Canning River flows out of the Brooks Range in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Pigments run the show and bring the drama of change in this landscape. In plants, pigments do the work of photosynthesis, making the most of available energy from the sun. Chlorophyll usually takes the spotlight as the pigment that absorbs yellow and blue wavelengths and reflects green. But waiting in the wings are the carotenoid pigments, ready to shine their reds, oranges, and yellows into the world and create a masterpiece.

As sunlight decreases and temperatures cool, the amount of chlorophyll lowers and then degrades until it is colorless. The yellow xanthophylls and orange beta-carotene pigments have been there all along, and now they take center stage. Red anthocyanin pigments synthesize along the way, after about half of the chlorophyll is gone.

Look closely at the fall tundra of Selawik National Wildlife Refuge: bright colors also bring berries, an important food to people in Alaska for thousands of years. Inupiaq indigenous names for these plants include the red Aŋutvak (bearberry), asriavik (alpine blueberry), and aqpik (salmonberry or cloudberry). Mingled with the berries are accent colors from the yellow dwarf birch, white lichen, and green tundra tea 📷 USFWS/Brittany Sweeney
Red salmonberry leaves against green tundra plants
These salmonberry leaves have gone ombré in Selawik National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Brittany Sweeney

Colors of Migration

“When the fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking ‘Here we are.’” — Robin Wall Kimmerer

White fronted geese fly against the tundra colors of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
For a crimson and olive combo, try out these migrating sockeye salmon, returning to their lake to spawn 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Where fish migrate, bears follow! A September Kodiak brown bear fishes in the fall colors on Uganik River, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp
An orange rubber skiff with 4 people in orange safety suits pulls up to a larger boat in the ocean.
People are packing up, too. By early fall, all of the remote seabird monitoring field camps in the Aleutian Islands have been picked up to return to town. The bright orange of their skiff and mustang safety suits light up against the blue of the North Pacific Ocean 📷 USFWS/Sarah Youngren

Colors of the Sky

During the summer, the sun rises in Alaska at verrrry early hours. Like 4 am. By the autumnal equinox, sunrises (and sunsets) occur at a more… reasonable time.

The showy flair of these photos comes courtesy of clean, crisp autumn air and a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering. When the sun is low on the horizon, the shorter wavelengths (blue, violet and green) get scattered away as the light passes through the atmosphere. The longer wavelength light (red, orange and yellow) makes it to our wondering eyes.

Bright red clouds over black silhouetted trees.
A September sunrise at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Leah Eskelin
Pink and red clouds across the sky reflect in a lake, with black silhouette of mountains and trees in the background.
Morning breaks over a lake at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp
A rubber skiff is anchored in a calm lagoon with yellow and orange colors reflecting in the sky and water.
September sunrise in the lagoon at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge before a waterfowl hunt. 📷USFWS/Rebecca Fabbri
Red skies are reflected in calm water, with black silhouettes of trees in the middle.
Sun sets on the Selawik River in Selawik National Wildlife Refuge 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Fall is also a good time for light shows: September storms bring rainbows against dark clouds. The autumnal equinox is one of the best times to see the result of solar storms in the curtains of light we call the aurora borealis (as the sun hurtles winds of plasma particles into space, the earth is tilted at the optimal angle to receive them during the equinoxes).

A rainbow arches over glistening, rolling tundra at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge 📷USFWS/Rebecca Fabbri
Green and purple lights streak the sky in a pattern with stars in the background.
Aurora borealis over Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge 📷USFWS/Keith Ramos

Magic is all around us when autumn falls. Remember to take a moment and enjoy what this season has to offer.

For more fall photos across Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges, check out our Flickr album.

Contributors: Lisa Hupp, Sara Wolman, Rebecca Fabbri, Leah Eskelin, Brittany Sweeney, and Katrina Liebich

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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