The geography and geology of Alaska; a summary of existing knowledge, with a section on climate, and a topographic map and description thereof

Professional Paper 45

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Alaska, the largest outlying possession of the United States, is that great land mass forming the northwestern extremity of the North American continent, whose western point is within 60 miles of the Asiatic coast (PI. II). About one-quarter of this area lies within the Arctic Circle, and from the standpoint of geographic position must be regarded as an arctic province; but the southern seaboard, exposed to the warm winds and waters of the Pacific, gives to the entire southern portion of the territory" a comparatively warm climate. It is not generally realized that the range of climate in Alaska is greater than that between Florida and Maine. At the southernmost point of the Pacific coast the mean annual temperature is not far from that of the city of Washington, the winters being warmer and characterized by less snowfall; the Yukon Valley on the other hand has a winter climate similar to that of northern Montana and Dakota; while in the extreme northern part of the territory the meteorologic conditions are invariably arctic.

Though as yet only sparsely settled, Alaska's vast area and great resources make it one of the most important possessions of the United States and promise its rapid development. During the years 1890 to 1900 the population increased from 32,052* to 63,592. The mineral output, which in 1890 was valued at less than $800,000, exceeded $9,000,000 in 1904, and the fisheries show a corresponding growth. This rapid development has attracted public attention and led to urgent demand for explorations, surveys, and other investigations. So actively has this work been pushed, both by public and private enterprise, that exact knowledge of the geography, geology, and mineral resources of the interior has made greater strides within the last eight years than during the preceding thirty-one years since the acquisition of Alaska. The facts regarding the geography and geology, scattered as they are through the many books and reports of this period, are not always readily accessible, and the time seems ripe to present them in a summarized form.

The topography of Alaska is varied and complex (see PI. I), and it is not easy to present briefly even the salient features. The limited number of pages here devoted to the subject precludes the possibility of detailed treatment, even if the facts were available. Much of the description has been taken from the results attained by other investigators, the writer being personally familiar with only a part of this large province. A list of the publications consulted is appended.

The larger geographic features of Alaska are now fairly well known, though the detailed surveys which are demanded by the development of many localities have hardly been begun. Preliminary surveys have been completed of all but three 8 of the larger rivers. The most important mountain ranges have been at least outlined (fig. 3). Only three large areas remain almost entirely unmapped: One in southwestern Alaska, between Cook Inlet and the lower Kuskokwim, and the others in northern Alaska, embracing the Arctic watershed east and west of the Colville River. Nearly all the surveys of the interior, however, have been of a preliminary and exploratory character, and to meet the requirements of exact geography must be followed by more detailed mensuration.

Though the coast line has been fairly well known for more than half a century, knowledge of the interior has been gained chiefly within the last two decades. This has not yet found its way into text-books and has too often been entirely ignored by cartographers. If facts are presented which may seem elementary, it is because even well-informed people have been known to harbor misconceptions in regard to the orographic features, climate, and general character of Alaska. Those who read of the perils and privations of winter travel and explorations are apt to picture a region of ice and snow; others, again, who have personal knowledge of the tourist route of southeastern Alaska, regard the whole district as one of rugged mountains and glaciers. In point of fact, glaciers are now nearly limited to the ranges bordering the Pacific and to the two slopes of the Alaska range; and even during the greatest development of glaciers but a small portion of Alaska was under ice (see map, PI. XXII).

As a treatise on geography would hardly be complete without some discussion of the climate, meteorologic data have been compiled by Mr. Cleveland Abbe, jr., but the discussion of this does not pretend to be more than a cursory treatment of the subject.

The scope of the paper seems to require also a brief summary of the development of geographic knowledge of Alaska. This subject, with its many ramifications, is of fascinating interest and offers a magnificent field for the trained historian. If the accompanying sketch of discovery and exploration awakens any measure of popular interest the writer will feel amply rewarded for having attacked a theme which hardly falls within the scope of his investigations.

When this compilation was begun it was intended to be chiefly a description of the topography of Alaska, as illustrated by the accompanying map (PI. XXXIV, in pocket), which was compiled under the direction of the late R. U. Goode. In the course of the work there accumulated much geologic as well as geographic material which seemed worthy of inclusion in the report. As no comprehensive statement of the geology of Alaska has been made since the modern epoch of investigation was begun, an attempt will be made to give a summary of all results achieved. Since the writer has obtained much of his knowledge of the facts from the work of others, he disclaims any pretense of making an entirely original contribution to geologic science. He feels, however, that a personal familiarity with a considerable part of the province, gained during seven consecutive seasons of field work, will justify Mm in presenting conclusions which may in some cases be at variance with those in the reports on which he must draw for his facts.

Throughout this report attempt will be made to credit borrowed material to the source from which it is drawn. Where such matter has been obtained entirely from published reports there is no difficulty in so doing; but as regards investigators of the Geological Survey, with whom the writer has collaborated both in field and in office, the case is somewhat different, for it is not always possible to know whether this or that theory originated with the writer or with one of his colleagues. It will, then, perhaps suffice to state that this report could not have been prepared without the explorations and researches of the geologists, F. C. Schrader, Walter C. Mendenhall, Arthur J. Collier, J. E. Spurr, and Arthur C. Spencer; and the surveys of the topographers, T. G. Gerdine, D. C. Witherspoon, D. L. Reaburn, W. J. Peters, and E. C. Barnard. Each of these men, in the course of from two to six years of field work, has made important contributions to the knowledge of the geography and geology of Alaska, and not all of these results have yet been put in print. In the last season (1903) L. M. Prindle, C. W. Wright, Arthur Hollick, G. C. Martin, F. L. Hess, and Fred H. Moffit have carried on geologic work in Alaska, and the writer has made use of their work now in course of publication. He has also been fortunate in having access to the manuscript reports of Walter C. Mendenhall and F. C. Schrader on the Copper River basin, to which references will be made. The matter here presented should be credited in a measure to all of these investigators, but for many of the theories advanced the writer alone is responsible.

As this manuscript goes to press there has been opportunity to incorporate some of the results of the field work of 1904. As far as possible these have been embodied in the text, but in some instances it has been found advisable to add them only as footnotes. During the past summer F. E. and C. W. Wright extended the geologic reconnaissance in southeastern Alaska. In southwestern Alaska G. C. Martin and T. W. Stanton have determined the general Mesozoic section, while F. H. Moffit has made a reconnaissance of the northern part of the Kenai Peninsula. A. J. Collier has mapped the geology of the Cape Lisburne region, and L. M. Prindle and F. L. Hess have made contributions to the knowledge of the metamorphic terranes of the Yukon-Tanana district.

It is the writer's purpose to describe in nontechnical language the larger geographic features and discuss their relation as far as the data available will permit. In the treatment of the geology, however, less effort will be made to make the matter acceptable to the lay reader. It is hoped, however, that a brief summary of the salient features of the geologic history' may be not without interest to the general public. If this paper serves in some measure to dispel the popular fallacies regarding Alaska and to disseminate more accurate knowledge of its geographic and geologic features, the purpose of its publication will be accomplished.

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The geography and geology of Alaska; a summary of existing knowledge, with a section on climate, and a topographic map and description thereof
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Professional Paper
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U.S. Government Printing Office
327 p.
United States
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