Data Data Data

Bethel, Alaska has been called “a bootleggers paradise.” Surrounded by 56 small villages with varying degrees of prohibition, my home base of 6,000 people has no limits on importing alcohol. People can and do buy cases of liquor have it delivered to the airport. Once in the regional hub, it travels by snowmobile, boat, and plance across millions of acres of low tundra, rivers, and mountains to customers in places that have banned it.
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I recently completed a fellowship with the Alaska Press Club for KYUK which asked Alaskan journalists to tell the story of alcohol by digging into the data beneath the state’s alcohol reality and the stories it reveals. I chose to focus on bootlegging: the illegal movement of liquor to the dozens of villages in remote Alaska that have voted to ban the importation, sale, or possession of alcohol.

The villages are traditional Alaska Native communities in which a cash-subsistence economy dominates. There are few jobs and people work together to catch fish, hunt moose, and live life in one of the most challenging environments in the world.

The economics of illegal alcohol are staggering. People in Bethel can buy alcohol from Anchorage via air carrier, or by bringing it back in their luggage. There are no local stores now (although that may change over the next several months.)

While the 56 villages surrounding Bethel are indeed isolated, they’re simultaneously very connected to the Bethel. With the Kuskokwim river freezes in the winter, the river turns into a literal ice highway.
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Trucks, snowmobiles, and ATV’s make the trip hundreds of miles from village to Bethel and back. During the summer, a fleet of 16′ Lund skiffs run people to medical appointments, groceries to villages, and inevitably, thousands of bottles of booze. Several airlines fly multiple trips from Bethel daily. With no limits on importing alcohol to the hub Bethel, a highly sophisticated illicit market has taken hold. What was a $10 plastic jug of R&R blended whiskey in Anchorage becomes a $300 item in remote coastal villages.The further from Bethel, the more expensive the bottle.

Life is tough in the YK Delta. Be it from alcohol, economics, historical trauma, or otherwise, the standard of life suffers in southwest Alaska. One in two women have experienced sexual or partner violence. Crime is inextricably linked with alcohol. Suicide rates are astronomical. The king salmon that define a large part of the identity of Yup’ik people have been in decline for years. My challenge was to tell that story. With data.
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Chasing the Kuskokwim River Breakup

Dozens of villages on the 700-mile Kuskokwim river eagerly wait for the mighty Kuskokwim to break up after a long winter. I had a chance to fly with RiverWatch, a joint state-federal effort to watch for ice jams, flooding, and otherwise problematic breakup conditions on the river.  The team provides real time broadcasts over VHF radio to the homes and government offices in villages with literally up to the second information about where the breakup front it, what it’s doing, and what the community needs to know to stay safe. This video chronicled one evening flight with the team.

Experimental Alaska Wildfire Visualization

A proof of concept experiment to visualize cumulative Alaskan wildfires perimeters over the past several decades.


Data are from Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, Alaska Fire Service, BLM, US Forest Service, and ESRI. The shapefile data is from AIFC’s GIS service for historical fire perimeters.

**Data is not complete. Compilation methods have changed over the years and use a variety of techniques.

AICC has a powerful public facing GIS that synthesizes a broad selection of meteorological, satellite, remote sensing, lightening, public-submitted data, and more. Many datasets are available for download.

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After a warm winter with little snow, spring could bring a busy fire season to southwest Alaska. The 2015 March outlook documents the weather patterns that are setting up for the season.

Winter 2014-2015

After approximately four years of neglecting this website, I’m bringing it back to life. At this point, that means fixing dozens of broken links and deleting a few of the more embarrassing posts from eight years ago.  I left several of the ridiculous projects up.

I do, however, have several projects in the works that will appear here. Don’t hold your breath; they involve spreadsheets and poor time-lapse photography.

Since late 2013, I’ve been reporting for KYUK, a great radio station in western Alaska.  You can find more stories here.

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Skiing Alta, Utah

I am working this winter (2012-2013) at a ski lodge in Alta, Utah.  Alta is known as the birthplace of powder skiing and receives 550 inches per year.  Here are a few shots of the mountain, taken by an ancient cell phone camera.

The view from my room:

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On top of the Collins lift, looking at Mt. Superior:

 

Devil’s Castle area:

 

The Deep Powderhouse ski shop

A dinner production:

 

The 75 year old Alta Lodge:

 

Dump day:

Sugarloaf area:

 

Looking down Little Cottonwood Canyon towards Salt Lake City.

 

 

Superior: