Arctic Desert: Kobuk Valley National Park

When: 2 May 2014

Where: Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska

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On view May 2 through Sept. 7.

Undulating Golden Sand Dunes as far as the eye can see. One hundred-degree days and 25-degree nights. And caribou. Welcome to Kobuk Valley National Park, where Alaska meets Lawrence of Arabia.

Nearly half a million caribou migrate yearly across the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, their tracks crisscrossing dunes rising up to 100 feet high. But few people make the trek. No roads lead to the park: It’s consistently one of the 10 least-visited national parks.

Arctic Desert, featuring images taken by the National Park Service, is a photographic exploration of this rarely seen phenomenon, located above the Arctic Circle in northwestern Alaska.

Deserts are defined by precipitation, not temperature. Technically speaking, Antarctica is a desert. Alaska’s Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are arid, experiencing about 10 inches of precipitation annually.

The dunes were created when retreating glaciers left pulverized rock in their wake and no vegetation to hold it down. Strong easterly winds blew this loose sand and rock into crescent-shaped dunes.

At first blush, the dunes may appear almost lifeless. But just as the Sahara Desert supports everything from camels to cobras, the Kobuk is home to wildlife including grizzly bears, loons and wood frogs. For at least 8,000 years people have hunted caribou during their annual migration along the Kobuk River.

Today the park is becoming known for hunting of a different sort: Scientists are hunting Kobuk for evidence of life on other planets. Even though Alaska is 34 million miles away from Mars, their sand dunes are similar. Scientific research being conducted in Kobuk Valley National Park suggests although there is no visible water on Mars, there may be water below Mars’ surface.

By telling this park’s story, this exhibition demonstrates the many ways Alaska’s desert is truly fertile ground.

This exhibition is part of the Anchorage Museum’s Northern Initiative.