Cape Newenham, Togiak Bay

Cape Newenham, Togiak Bay

by | Feb 5, 2022

Cape Newenham is a massive headland on the eastern shore of the Bering Sea between Kuskokwim Bay to the north and Togiak Bay to the south, about 149 miles (240 km) south of Bethel and 69 miles (111 km) southwest of Togiak, Alaska. The cape was named on July 16, 1778, by Lieutenant John Williamson who was sent ashore to reconnoiter by Captain James Cook. The south side of the promontory rises nearly vertically from the sea to a summit elevation of 2,300 feet (701 m). The promontory consists of igneous rock that was intruded into a rock formation called the Goodnews terrane. The bulk of Alaska consists of rocks that were added to the North American continent in fairly recent geologic time. The motion between the Pacific and North American Plates, coupled with the shape of the western border of the continent, explains how Alaska tends to be the collecting area for wayward terranes. Remarkably, just about all of Alaska has been assembled through terrane accretion over the past 200 million yearsGeologists interpret the Goodnews terrane as a forearc accretionary complex that was progressively thrust under and against the northwestern flank of the Togiak terrane between the Early Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods. The rocks of Cape Newenham are mostly volcanic intrusive ultramafic rock with the summit peaks consisting of rocks called gabbro. The climate at Cape Newenham can be quite severe at times, particularly at the summit. The mountain is covered with snow from late October to May. Although the Bering Sea at the cape is rarely ice-covered, some sea ice may drift into the area from the north during the winter months. Storms with high winds are common in the winter, and fog is common during the summer.

Cape Newenham is the traditional territory of the Yup’ik people. The archaeological record indicates that the Cape Newenham area has been continuously occupied for at least 2,000 years. One historical site at Security Cove on the north side of the cape shows evidence of possible human occupancy dating 4,000-5,000 years ago. Abundant fish and marine mammals of the area, supplemented by waterfowl and other birds supported the village inhabitants. The first known European contact with Alaska Natives on the Bering Sea coast occurred in 1778, with the expedition of Captain James Cook. According to Cook’s journal, he sent Lieutenant Williamson to the promontory to take possession of the country in the name of King George III. Cook told Williamson that the cape should be named after any friend of his, and it was therefore named in honor of Sir Edward Newenham of Ireland. Williamson landed on the point, climbed the highest summit, and left a sealed bottle with a piece of paper listing the names of the ships and the date of discovery. In 1818, the Russian-American Company built a fort and trading post at Nushagak on the north coast of Bristol Bay about 131 miles (211 km) east of Cape Newenham that handled over 4,000 furs annually. The Alaska Purchase in 1867 transferred the territory from Russia to the United States, and in the 1880s, salmon canneries were established in Bristol Bay and the commercial salmon fishery quickly became the primary industry in the area. In 1900, gold was discovered in the vicinity of Goodnews Bay, about 37 miles (60 km) north-northeast of Cape Newnham, and a flood of hopeful miners followed. Some mining claims in the area are still active. In 1950, a continental defense radar station, part of the Distance Early Warning Line, was constructed at Cape Newenham to provide early warning of a Cold War attack by the Soviet Union. The station had an aerial tramway connecting the base camp with the radar antennas located on the summit peak at 2,300 feet (701 m). This was used to move equipment and supplies up the mountain. However, the tramway cables were constantly breaking because of high winds and ice and the extreme cold made repairs hazardous. The station was resupplied annually by sealift. The bulk cargo was delivered to a beach on the north side of the cape by landing craft, and fuel was pumped ashore to a storage tank farm. A runway was built in 1952 to facilitate the transportation of personnel and critical cargo. Communications were initially provided by a high-frequency radio, but this was unreliable because of atmospheric disturbances and replaced with a White Alice Communications System. Today, very little of the former Cape Newenham Air Force Station remains, however, the station remains active as part of the Alaska NORAD Region under the control of the Pacific Air Forces based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. In 1969, an area of 265,000 acres (107,242 ha) was set aside as the Cape Newenham National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1980, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the Cape Newenham Refuge was expanded to 4.7 million acres (1,902,022 ha) and renamed the  Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has management authority for three species of marine mammals in Alaska: Pacific walruses, polar bears, and sea otters. This management authority came from the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Marine Mammals Management Office currently manages Pacific walruses in Alaska. The rocky coast and sand beaches of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge support a diverse and abundant marine mammal population. Cape Newenham is particularly rich in marine mammals, providing haulout areas for Pacific walruses, harbor seals, spotted seals, and Steller sea lions. The area includes beaches and rock outcroppings that have been documented as Pacific walrus haulouts since the late 1970s. Other walrus haulouts in northern Bristol Bay include Cape Peirce, Cape Seniavin, Round Island, and Hagemeister Island. Walruses are an important animal in the cultures of many indigenous Arctic peoples, who have hunted them for meat, fat, skin, tusks, and bone. During the 19th century and the early 20th century, walruses were widely hunted by commercial interests for their blubber, walrus ivory, and meat. The population of walruses dropped rapidly all around the Arctic region and particularly in the Bering and Chukchi Seas of Alaska where the population was reduced to only 50,000-100,000 in the 1950-1960s. Limits on commercial hunting allowed the population to increase to a peak in the 1970-1980s, but subsequently, walrus numbers have again declined. The reason for the recent decline is linked to climate change and the diminishing sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. The Pacific walrus feeds on benthic invertebrates on the continental shelf of the Chukchi and Bering Seas and rests on floating sea ice between foraging trips. With climate warming, the prolonged ice-free periods in the Chukchi Sea have affected walrus behavior. The earlier and more extensive sea ice retreat, and delayed freeze-up of sea ice in November, have created conditions that forced walruses to abandon offshore waters with high benthic biomass and forage closer to shore in nearshore areas with lower benthic biomass. The lower availability of food is the most likely reason for the recent decline in population. With increasing sea ice loss, it is likely that walruses will increase their use of coastal haul-outs and nearshore foraging areas, probably with detrimental effects to the population abundance. Read more here and here. Explore more of Cape Newenham here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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