Alaska is a U.S. state, located on the northwest tier of North America. It is by far the largest state in area, but one of the least populated. It is the 49th state, having been admitted to the Union on January 3, 1959. The name "Alaska" is most likely derived from the Aleut Alyeska, meaning "great country", "mainland" or "great land".
The first European contact with Alaska occurred in the year 1741, when Vitus Bering, a European explorer, led an expedition for the Russian Navy aboard the St. Peter. After his crew returned to Russia bearing sea otter pelts judged to be the finest fur in the world, other fur traders began to sail from the shores of Siberia towards the Aleutian islands. The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1784. New Archangel on Kodiak Island was Alaska's first capital, but for a century under both Russia and the U.S., Sitka was the capital. The Russians never fully colonized Alaska, and the colony was never very profitable. William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State, negotiated the Alaskan purchase in 1867 for $7.2 million. Alaska was loosely governed by the military for years, and was unofficially a territory of the United States from 1884 on.
In the 1890s, gold rushes in Alaska and the nearby Yukon Territory brought thousands of miners and settlers to Alaska. Alaska was granted official territorial status in 1912. At this time the capital was moved to Juneau.
Alaska is one of the two U.S. states not bordered by another state, Hawaii being the other. It is the only non-contiguous state in North America; about 500 miles (800 km) of Canadian territory separate Alaska from Washington. It is also the only mainland state whose capital city is accessible only by ship or air. No roads connect Juneau to the rest of the state.
It is bordered by Yukon Territory and British Columbia, Canada to the east, the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to the south, the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and Chukchi Sea to the west, and the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Alaska is the largest state by area in the United States. It is larger in area than all but 18 of the world's nations.
Alaska is the largest state in the United States in terms of land area at 570,374 square miles (1,477,261 km²), over twice as large as Texas, the next largest state. If a map of Alaska settled upon a map of the Continental United States, Alaska would overlap Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado, and if the state's westernmost point were superimposed on San Francisco, California, its easternmost point would be in Jacksonville, Florida. Alaska also has more coastline than all of the contiguous U.S. combined.
One scheme for describing the state's geography is by labeling the regions:
- South Central Alaska is the southern coastal region and contains most of the state's population. Anchorage and many growing towns, such as Palmer, and Wasilla, lie within this area. Petroleum industrial plants, transportation, tourism, and two military bases form the core of the economy here.
- The Alaska Panhandle, also known as Southeast Alaska, is home to many of Alaska's larger towns including Juneau, tidewater glaciers and extensive forests. Tourism, fishing, forestry and state government anchor the economy.
- The Alaska Interior is home to Fairbanks. The geography is marked by large braided rivers, such as the Yukon River and the Kuskokwim River, as well as Arctic tundra lands and shorelines.
- The Alaskan Bush is the remote, less crowded part of the state, encompassing 380 native villages and small towns such as Nome, Bethel, Kotzebue and, most famously, Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States.
The northeast corner of Alaska is covered by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which covers 19,049,236 acres (79,318 km²).
With its numerous islands, Alaska has nearly 34,000 miles (54,700 km) of tidal shoreline. The island chain extending west from the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula is called the Aleutian Islands. Many active volcanoes are found in the Aleutians. For example, Unimak Island is home to Mount Shishaldin, a moderately active volcano that rises to 9,980 ft (3,042 m) above sea level. The chain of volcanoes extends to Mount Spurr, west of Anchorage on the mainland.
North America's second largest tides occur in Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage, which often sees tidal differences of more than 35 feet (10.7 m).
Alaska is home to 3.5 million lakes of 20 acres (8 ha) or larger. Marshlands and wetland permafrost cover 188,320 square miles (487,747 km², mostly in northern, western and southwest flatlands. Frozen water, in the form of glacier ice, covers some 16,000 square miles (41,440 km²) of land and 1,200 square miles (3,108 km²) of tidal zone. The Bering Glacier complex near the southeastern border with Yukon, Canada, covers 2,250 square miles (5,827 km²) alone.
The Aleutian Islands cross longitude 180°, so Alaska can be considered the easternmost state as well as the westernmost. Alaska and, especially, the Aleutians are one of the extreme points of the United States. The International Date Line jogs west of 180° to keep the whole state, and thus the entire continental United States, within the same legal day.
According to an October 1998 report by the United States Bureau of Land Management, approximately 65% of Alaska is owned and managed by the U.S. federal government as national forests, national parks, and national wildlife refuges. Of these, the Bureau of Land Management manages 87 million acres (350,000 km²), or 23.8% of the state. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Of the remaining land area, the State of Alaska owns 24.5%; another 10% is managed by thirteen regional and dozens of local Native corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Various private interests own the remaining land, totaling less than 1%.
Alaska is divided into "boroughs," instead of "counties." The function is the same, but whereas most states use a three-tiered system of decentralisation - state/county/township - Alaska only uses two tiers - state/borough. Owing to the state's low population density, most of the land is located in the Unorganized Borough which, as the name implies, has no intermediate borough government of its own, but is administered directly by the state government.
For purposes of the federal census, the state is also divided into a number of artificial divisions defined geographically by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes only.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 70% of single-race Alaska residents were Caucasian and 16% were Native American or Alaska Native. Multiracial/Mixed-Race people are the third largest group of people in the state, totaling 7% of the population.
- The State Bird is the Willow Ptarmigan.
- The State Fossil is the Woolly Mammoth.
- The State Tree is the Sitka Spruce.
- The State Mineral is Gold.