Cape Romanzof, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

Cape Romanzof, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

by | Mar 2, 2022

Cape Romanzof is a massive headland at the western end of the Askinuk Mountains on the Bering Sea coast of Southwest Alaska in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge between Kokechik and Scammon Bays, about 161 miles (259 km) northwest of Bethel and 20 miles (32 km) north of Hooper Bay, Alaska. The cape was named by Gleb S. Shishmarev in 1821 after Count Rumyantsov who built and outfitted a vessel of 180 tons, named Rurik, for the purpose of exploring the supposed northwest passage by way of the Davis Strait or Hudson Bay. The present spelling of the name on maps and charts was established by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Askinuk Mountains is a Yup’ik name obtained in 1878-1879 by Edward W. Nelson of the U.S. Army Signal Corps who explored much of the river delta. The mountains rise from the Yukon Delta to an elevation of 2,342 feet (714 m) at the summit of Towak Mountain. The mountains represent a pluton of granitic rocks that include quartz monzonite and dominantly granodiorite of the Late Cretaceous age on the geologic time scale, generally intruding between 85 and 70 million years ago. The delta plain borders the Askinuk Mountains to the north, south, and east and represents thousands of years of sediment deposition from the Yukon River. The delta sediments include alluvial, colluvial, and shallow marine or floodplain deposits from the Late Tertiary, Pleistocene, and Quaternary times. During the Pleistocene, about 20,000 years ago, the Bering Sea coastline was far to the west, and the ancestral Yukon River flowed south of Nunivak Island, reaching the Bering Sea near the Pribilof Islands. Over time sea level rose and the Yukon migrated north toward Norton Sound. The lowland delta between the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers is as much water as land. There are thousands of thaw lakes interconnected by sloughs and streams. The Bering Sea is shallow and the land is flat, and fall storms can push the tide inland as much as 30 miles (48 km).

The Yup’ik people inhabit western and southwestern Alaska ranging from southern Norton Sound southward along the coast of the Bering Sea along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the northern coast of Bristol Bay as far east as Nushagak Bay and south to Egegik Bay. The common ancestors of the Yup’ik are thought by archaeologists to have originated in eastern Siberia. These people migrated east and reached the Bering Sea area about 10,000 years ago. Research on blood types and linguistics suggests that the ancestors of American Indians reached North America in waves of migration before the ancestors of the Yup’ik. There were three major waves of migration from Siberia to the Americas by way of the Bering land bridge that was exposed between 20,000 and 8,000 years ago during periods of glaciation. By about 3,000 years ago the ancestors of the Yup’ik had settled along the coastal areas of what would become western Alaska. The Yup’ik spent most of their time hunting animals such as seals, walruses, and sea lions. They used mainly wood, stone, or bone weapons and had limited experience fishing. Families lived together in large groups during the winter and split up into smaller huts during the summer. In 1728, Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator in Russian service, was the first European to systematically explore the Bering Sea while sailing from the Pacific Ocean northward to the Arctic Ocean. In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed into the Bering Sea in search of the northwest passage and reached Icy Cape in the Chukchi Sea before turning west and south, convinced that no such passage existed. In 1855–1818,  Gleb S. Shishmarev, circumnavigated as the senior officer of the brig Rurik under the command of Lieutenant Otto von Кotzebue. Shishmarev took part in the discovery and description of the Chukchi Sea, Kotzebue Bay, Shishmaref Bay, Sarychev Island, and Cape Romanzof.

Towak Mountain on Cape Romanzof was initially the site of a continental defense radar station constructed by the U.S. Air Force in 1950 as part of the Defense Early Warning Line to provide surveillance of an attack by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The only means of delivering construction materials to the site was by barge or Navy landing craft, however, this was restricted to when the sea was not frozen. The material had to be unloaded at a beach landing 15 miles (24 km) from the construction site. Initially, there were no roads, and each item had to be hauled along the beach and then an additional 5 miles (8 km) inland. The radars were located at an elevation of 2,342 feet (700 m). The station had a tramway to facilitate access to the radars but the tramway cables were constantly breaking because of high winds and ice. The control buildings at the base of the mountain were interconnected by enclosed portals, so no one needed to go outside in winter unless absolutely necessary. Tours at the station were limited to one year because of the psychological strain and physical hardships. The Cape Romanzof radars provided information to the air defense center at King Salmon where it was analyzed to determine the range, direction, altitude, speed, and whether aircraft were friendly or hostile. Communications were initially provided by a high-frequency radio system which proved unreliable because of atmospheric disturbances. The Alaskan Air Command, after investigating various options, built the White Alice Communications System, a network of tropospheric scatter and microwave radio relay sites. The Cape Romanzof White Alice communication system was activated in 1957 and deactivated in 1979 when it was replaced by a satellite earth terminal. The radars were deactivated in 1983 and the station was re-designated as a Long Range Radar Site. In 1998, Pacific Air Forces initiated ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ to remediate abandoned Cold War stations in Alaska and restore the land. Today, the station remains active as part of the Alaska NORAD Region under the jurisdiction of the 611th Air Support Group, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, but very little of the former Cape Romanzof Air Force Station remains. Read more here and here. Explore more of Cape Romanzof here:

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About the background graphic

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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