Alaskans are likely familiar with the volcano observatory and earthquake center, but they may not know both those facilities are part of the state’s largest research institution, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The institute was established in 1946 (it celebrated 75 years in 2021) and has more than 300 faculty, staff, and students who research earth and near space subjects including permafrost, seismic activity, sea ice, aurora, and drone technology. Bob McCoy has been at the helm of the institute for a decade. He says it’s fascinating to oversee research in a state with 54 active volcanoes, at least 30,000 glaciers, more than half a million square miles of permafrost, and as many as 50,000 earthquakes annually. “It’s fun to be a scientist here,” he says. ~ as told to and edited by Alexander Deedy
The Geophysical Institute is such a large institution that covers a lot of different research. When you’re talking with people, what’s something that you find they commonly don’t know about?
There’s actually a whole lot about us that people don’t know, especially the farther away you get from Fairbanks or Alaska. I sort of have two common answers. One, you said we’re big, and that’s true. We’re the biggest institute in Alaska. The economic impact, to Fairbanks and to the state, that’s something that people don’t always appreciate. As an example, a few years ago in Fairbanks the F-16 squadron at Eielson was going to go away. Fairbanksians got all upset because of the economic impact of an F-16 squadron. So when I talk to people in Alaska, I like to compare us to an F-16 squadron. Which seems kind of strange, but last year we spent about $64 million. Mainly it’s federal dollars from the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA, Department of Defense. That’s half of the answer. The other half is that we’re studying things that are important to Alaska, like earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, and permafrost. When there’s an earthquake it’s our guys who are characterizing it and sharing that information. Volcanoes, same thing. So, we do a lot of operational stuff that really has an important impact on Alaskans.
You recently celebrated 10 years of leading the GI. Congratulations. During your tenure what are you most proud of the institute accomplishing?
That’s a little hard to answer because there’s so much good stuff going on. We’ve been growing ever since I got here, and in the last few years we’ve grown a lot. I guess my biggest headache and one which I think I recently got some aspirin to solve is HAARP, the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program. It’s an incredible facility. The Department of Defense spent $290 million to build it. It’s very powerful and you can do amazing things with it. In 2015, the Air Force gave it to us. It took us a year and a half to get it open and operational, and then we’ve been trying to figure out a way to sustain it. There’s only three of these facilities in the world—ours, one in Norway, and one in Russia.
Last year, the National Science Foundation gave us a five-year grant to operate it. So, I started sleeping better at night. I’m really proud that we have at least five years of funding and that the facility didn’t get bulldozed.
Can you give me an example of what kind of research happens at HAARP?
HAARP is a big radio. It’s a HAM radio. That’s all it is. It’s the most powerful in the world and it’s got 360 transmitters, 180 antennas, and it can beam energy into the ionosphere. We can heat small regions; we can create artificial aurora; we can create bubbles in the ionosphere. It takes the ionosphere overhead and turns it into a laboratory. We can do things in a few seconds and then we turn it off and it all goes away.
That’s pretty cool, creating artificial aurora.
It’s not dramatic. It’s not green. And it’s a little fuzzy. You’ve got to use a camera to see it, but that is pretty cool to create artificial aurora. There’s no other way to do that. It’s a little spot, but that’s okay. We can study it.
Are there any natural processes that occur in Alaska that you understand that you think would fascinate the average person?
Let me just mention one. It’s not me, it’s really the faculty here. Maybe you’ve heard of this, but there have been holes popping up in Siberian permafrost. They can be 50 meters across, and big chunks of rock can be thrown out. They’re very, very confusing. Well, one of our researchers, Vladimir Romanovsky, thinks he knows what’s causing those holes. It’s some kind of methane buildup and an explosion. He’s now collaborating with a Russian scientist to study those in Siberia. He also thinks they have been happening or will be happening as permafrost thaws in Alaska and Canada.
Let’s talk about the future of the GI. What do you hope to accomplish going forward?
I’m pretty excited about growth. We’re close to being able to fly unmanned aircraft off of, for instance, Fairbanks International Airport. That hasn’t been done. You can imagine the potential for cargo delivery around Alaska. We don’t do that as a university, but we show how that can be done. We work out the details and hand it off to industry. All the things we’re doing have some relevance to industry. So we’re really excited about all the interest in Alaska and about how we can take everything we’re doing and help stimulate new industry around Alaska.