The remnants of a powerful typhoon battered parts of Alaska’s low-lying western coast last month, damaging homes, knocking out power and destroying infrastructure. But amid all the devastation, a fascinating discovery has emerged: While out hiking after the storm, a married couple stumbled upon a gigantic mammoth femur that’s thousands of years old.
Joseph and Andrea Nassuk live in Elim, a coastal Alaskan town about 100 miles east of Nome. After a big storm hits, they usually walk the beach near their home to see if the flooding and high winds have washed up or uncovered anything along the shore.
Following the mid-September typhoon, they did just that—and stumbled upon a larger-than-life find.
“We were walking maybe about 75 yards apart and she tells me she found a bone,” Joseph Nassuk tells KTUU’s Dave Allgood. “I asked her if it was whole, and she said, ‘Yeah,’ so I look over it and it was over half her height, and I got all excited.”
Indeed, propped on one end, the bone came up to Andrea Nassuk’s waist. She struggled to even lift it up out of the mud, but eventually succeeded. Joseph Nassuk carried the femur back to their home with a backpack.
As it turned out, Andrea Nassuk wasn’t exaggerating about the femur’s weight. A scale revealed it clocks in at 62 pounds, though Joseph Nassuk expects it to become lighter as it dries out, he tells the Daily Mail’s Alyssa Guzman. It’s 46 inches long and, at its widest point, measures 34.5 inches in circumference, he tells the publication.
When it comes to finding gigantic fossils, the pair has plenty of experience. They've also unearthed toe bones, vertebrae and parts of skulls. Their biggest—and likely most valuable—find is a 105-pound, 7-foot-long blue mammoth tusk that could be worth between $20,000 and $70,000, by Joseph Nassuk's estimation.
Its blue hue comes from the presence of vivianite, a mineral that can form inside a mammoth’s ivory tusks over time. These colorful fossils are exceedingly rare, which can make them lucrative to collectors.
The couple plans to eventually sell the tusk and some of their other fossil scores, and they hope to use the infusion of cash to build a house for their large family, which includes four children and a dog. They’re currently living in an apartment and could use the extra space, per KTUU.
The couple’s fossil find resulted from Typhoon Merbok, a Category 1 storm that ballooned over the Pacific Ocean before becoming an extratropical cyclone that surged north into the Bering Sea. When it made landfall in western Alaska, it unleashed massive waves and hurricane-force winds on coastal communities there.
It was the region’s strongest storm in years, and meteorologists now believe it was the most intense to enter to Bering Sea in September in seven decades.
#AlaskaStorm is ongoing: Governor Dunleavy has declared a disaster and the State of Alaska has formed an emergency operations center to respond. We're participating in those operations and will begin damage assessment once storm waters recede. https://t.co/1050ft0lgU pic.twitter.com/Jl3g5rVxLU— Alaska DOT&PF (@AlaskaDOTPF) September 17, 2022
The storm gained energy from unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean, heated as a result of human-caused climate change.
“With warm ocean water, there’s more evaporation going in the atmosphere,” Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, writes for the Conversation. “Because all the atmospheric ingredients came together, Merbok was able to bring that very warm moist air along with it. Had the ocean been a temperature more typical of 1960, there wouldn’t have been as much moisture in the storm.”
Mammoth fossils are relatively common in Alaska, where the large extinct animals once roamed freely. Ancestors of modern elephants, mammoths—including woolly mammoths—likely crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America around 100,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Scientists believe they may have persisted on the continent until 10,500 to 7,600 years ago, when they died out because of human hunting and a warming climate.
Fittingly, the woolly mammoth is Alaska’s state fossil. As Riley Black wrote for Smithsonian magazine last year, the secrets of their ancient lives “are wrapped up in tooth and bone, waiting to have their stories told.”