Category Archives: Sustainable Village

On the Frontline with the Aurora

As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season. 

During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.

The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.

As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.

I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!

A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:

Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.

A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter

The First Taste of Spring

Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free. 

The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.

Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again. 

The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.

A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!

New Life in the Village

I must say the newest young life in our household is much anticipated. I’ve watched patiently for several days waiting their arrival, and finally, they’re here! I’m not talking about any mammals, rather, some brand new shoot of Cilantro :).

Time to start thinking spring and summer with this timelapse of plant growth! It’s not too soon to start drooling over warm weather. Is it??!

Bringing Ideas to Reality : Life at University of Alaska Fairbank’s Sustainable Village

Ahoy Readers!

As some of you know, I have been living and working in the Sustainable Village here on campus and it’s been a really significant part of my life here; I wanted to spend a little time talking about my experiences here so far.

Once I knew that I was coming to grad-school I immediately started looking for positions at Residence Life. I worked for two years as an RA at my undergrad at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin ( and one year as hall director; I was in charge of a staff of five and accountable for all of the residents in my building. I learned a lot during those three years, and had great experiences and relationships with my residents which made it worthwhile. During my graduate study I looked to continue what I had learned  and wanted to use Residence Life at UAF as a way to integrate myself into the campus system and meet new friends and people. I felt my experience as a graduate student would be beneficial to my residents, who I assumed would be largely undergrads. I went through the interview process and ended up landing a position at the UAF Sustainable Village which is a perfect place for me;  I feel my previous background and ideas fit into this position in a fate-like fashion . The Village was established in 2012 and was UAF’s first sustainable housing development. It integrates a community style living approach and sustainable-living guidelines in an approach that matched much of what I learned from Northland’s environmental mission. I was genuinely excited for the position as it offered a strong leadership role with almost endless amounts of innovation and self-motivation. When I came in, in fall of 2013, it was the second cohort of students and we are still setting precedence for what a cohort of students will look like in the future.

As part of my involvement in the Village I have had great interactions with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC; which were responsible for the design and construction of these buildings; however, it should be noted that the original design concepts of these houses were generated by a student based competition, which is very cool! CCHRC is interested in understanding sustainable development in the arctic; they are an outstanding research group and built the Sustainable Village with several systems that have not necessarily been attempted or tried before in hopes of improving housing for the future. Although I’m sure my list is not exhaustive, here are just some of the concepts demonstrated within the four houses:

  • Above-ground contained septic treatment
  • Heat Recovery Ventillator (HRV)
  • Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV)
  • Superior Envelop design
  • Solar-thermal, radiant floor heating
  • Insulated floors (r-60)
  • Polyurethane floor Raft (to protect the permafrost)

These concepts are all designed to make the houses energy efficient and sustainable in a northern climate where we have already surpassed -40 degrees this winter (as of 11/21/2013) and will continue to do so through March. So, how effective are these houses? CCHRC published their first year results here : An important graph from that publications shows the usage of energy from the Village houses compared to the average house in Fairbanks.

The average house in Fairbanks uses 76,400 BTU/ square foot for heating and hot water (or about 920 galloons of fuel oil for a 1,600 square foot house) according to the Alaska Finance Corporation’s Alaska Retrofit Information System database (ARIS). The average new *BEES energy efficient home of the same size uses 660 gallons of fuel oil a year. In summary, the Sustainable Village homes use less than half the energy of the average new home in Fairbanks, and significantly less than new energy efficient homes in Fairbanks.

The graph demonstrates pretty well the effectiveness of the design of these houses! Of course sustainability is more than technology driven and should contain lifestyle changes as well. The residents at the Village are required to compost and recycle. The compost is used for community vegetable gardens, which are tended in the summer. The residents are asked to think consciously about their energy and water consumption and use alternative forms of transportation such as walking, biking, public transportation, or carpooling when a personal car is necessary. Community is a critical part of mission of the village and is something I play a critical role in; it my interest and job description to create programming that residents can have fun with and learn from. As part of the demonstration of this, I had a great opportunity to put together this video of life in the Sustainable Village. If you watch it all the way to the end I will say you get to see some very special footage from above the Sustainable Village which demonstrates its relation to the UAF campus, as well as some of the beauty of winter here!

Thanks for checking in everyone! Have a great Thanksgiving which is next week, and Christmas will be here before we know it which is a much anticipated break for this college student!!