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