Dozens of once crystal-clear streams and rivers in Arctic Alaska are now running bright orange and cloudy, and, in some cases, they may be becoming more acidic. This otherwise undeveloped landscape now looks as if an industrial mine has been in operation for decades, and scientists want to know why.
Roman Dial, a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University, first noticed the starkest water-quality changes while doing field work in the Brooks Range in 2020. He spent a month with a team of six graduate students, and they could not find adequate drinking water. “There’s so many streams that are not just stained, they’re so acidic that they curdle your powdered milk,” he said. In others, the water was clear, “but you couldn’t drink it (because) it had a really weird mineral taste and tang.”
Dial, who has spent the last 40 years exploring the Arctic, was gathering data on climate-change-driven changes in Alaska’s tree line for a project that also includes work from ecologists Patrick Sullivan, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Institute at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Becky Hewitt, an environmental studies professor at Amherst College. Now, the team is digging into the water-quality mystery. “I feel like I’m a grad student all over again in a lab that I don’t know anything about, and I’m fascinated by it,” Dial said.
Most of the rusting waterways are located within some of Alaska’s most remote protected lands: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Gates of the Arctic National Park and …