Gravel or green: what will happen to the coastal plains of Alaska?
Author: Jonathan C. Slaght, who worked on the Arctic Bering Strait Project WCS (Wildlife Conservation Association). He is the author of “Owls on Ice in the East”, which won the 2021 PEN/EO Wilson Literature and Science Writing Award, was named a New York Times Famous Book in 2020, and was shortlisted for the National Nonfiction Book Award. Originally published on Undark.
RiseLiving on the coastal plain The scale of Alaska’s existence is difficult to capture. This is a wild place, herds of reindeer move in broad arcs around wolves and bears, musk oxen graze among the short willows, and sea falcons look for waterbirds on this land. The tundra ground cover-a thick layer of moist, underdeveloped vegetation-sits on top of the permafrost that has existed since at least the last ice age.
The eye-catching clusters of bright metal buildings also dot the landscape: oil wells, storage tanks and generators-all of which are connected by a huge system of roads and pipelines. Prudhoe Bay is located in the center of the northern coastal plain of Alaska and is one of the largest oil fields in North America. More than 800 wells span more than 300 square miles and extract oil from deep underground.
The reindeer migrated here, traversing the majestic mountains of the Brooks Range, unhindered by man-made obstacles, and only bowed their heads under the pipes when they reached the plains. Brown bears meander through the tundra under the watchfulness of oil workers, just like teenagers under the umbrella of security guards at a mall. Wolves will smell the air to distinguish the smell of mixed prey and diesel.
In some respects, this arrangement is effective. Oil companies may be reluctant to attract more public scrutiny and have imposed rules on how to live and work in the oilfields. Workers are not allowed to travel directly on the tundra, and any interaction with animals is prohibited. For a place with so many roads and so many wildlife, vehicle collisions are surprisingly rare. The center of this industrial landscape is unexpectedly clean.
However, despite these safeguards, the ecosystem has lost its balance. Petroleum infrastructure provides artificial nesting sites for previously uncommon predators such as crows.The red fox is likely to be attracted by man-made food and warm sources, already moved Enter Prudhoe Bay to kill and replace the arctic fox. Dust blown from gravel roads may accumulate on adjacent ground and accelerate snow melting. These outages—perhaps better than the petroleum industry executives and those who supervise them initially understand—have a long half-life.
The pursuit of oil is short-lived in nature. Individual wells eventually dry up or cease to make profits; the entire field is shrinking. The company pulls shares and transfers their drilling rigs, steel, and actors’ carnival to other parts of the coastal plain. Buildings may disappear, but the ghosts of infrastructure often exist. Without proper restoration plans, the disturbed environment will continue to affect local species in the coming decades. Unlike tropical regions, where human disturbance can be quickly repaired by new green growth, the Arctic remains fragile and exposed.
For decades, oil companies have been committed to repairing these oil fields and have achieved varying degrees of success. They stripped gravel from old roads and outdated drill floors to promote recovery, often reseeding in stripped areas to restore the land to a more natural state. At first glance, these locations may be difficult to distinguish from the surrounding vegetation, but upon closer inspection, most of them show clear signs of past disturbances, and some do not seem to have recovered at all.
Restoration ecologists have found that the tundra is difficult to restore. Although fairly rare, the salt from the gravel from the Arctic coastal plain may seep into the soil and inhibit new growth, even after the rock is taken away. Road demolition projects sometimes strip off excessive gravel, expose permafrost, accelerate melting, and turn what was once solid ground into a lake. Even if the grass is successfully planted in one place, the geese can swoop in, enjoy the fresh shoots, and put these places back into the bare soil.
In order to restore the disturbed moss original opportunities to a more natural state, oil companies and land management officials will need to consider new treatments. Tundra Turf, An underutilized method that is consistent with the indigenous Iñupiaq method, seems to be the most promising intervention: when a new petroleum infrastructure is built on an existing tundra, the turf can be carefully removed from the site and installed in need of repair Above the old drilling site, it’s like clogging the turf on a golf green. In current practice, oil companies usually just build new rigs directly on existing turf, killing the ancient tundra mulch in the process.
The successful care of the Alaska Coastal Plain depends on many factors and may require decades of monitoring and adjustment, as well as long-term commitments from industry and regulatory agencies. The key to this success is the tangible results of oil companies and environmental stakeholders predetermining the real repair costs—financial and other—and different treatment methods. This clarity can facilitate rehabilitation in Alaska and elsewhere. This is not just a retrospective work, but a forward-looking work.
In fact, Alaska continues to pay attention District 1002The 2,300 square mile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite the temporary suspension of exploration and drilling in the reserve. As the exploration plan accelerates into the pristine landscape of the eastern boundary of existing oil fields and other parts of the coastal plain, we still do not have a viable and scalable tundra restoration plan to address past actions, let alone what developers will focus on next.
Oil companies and regulators must strengthen their initial efforts to repair the damage that has already been done and ensure that clean-up actions are incorporated into the planning and implementation process when expanding into new areas. After we turn our attention elsewhere, we now need to decide what we want the coastal plain to look like in a hundred or a thousand years.