Pebbles or greens: What will the Alaskan coastal plain look like?

OFFERI live on the coastal plain Alaska exists on a difficult to fish scale. It is a wild place, where herds of reindeer move around wolves and bears in wide arcs, musk oxen graze among dwarf willows, and gyrfalcons search for waterfowl across the terrain. The tundra’s ground cover – a dense layer of stunted, wet vegetation – has rested on top of permafrost that has existed since at least the last ice age.

Conspicuous clusters of brightly colored metal structures also dot the landscape: oil wells, storage tanks and generators – all linked by a sprawling network of roads and pipelines. Prudhoe Bay, in the heart of the northern Alaskan coastal plain, is one of the largest oil fields in North America. More than 800 wells stretch over an area of ​​more than 300 square miles, drawing oil from deep underground.

The Caribou migrated here across the mighty mountains of the Brooks Range unhindered by man-made obstructions, only bowing under the pipes as they reached the plains. Brown bears hang out over the tundra under the watchful eye of oil workers, like teenagers obscured by shopping mall security. And wolves sniff the air to break up the mixed scents of prey and diesel.

In some ways this arrangement works. Oil companies, perhaps reluctant to attract further public scrutiny, have imposed their own rules on how to live and work in the oil fields. Most direct travel on the tundra is prohibited for workers, and any contact with animals is prohibited. For a place with so many roads and so much wildlife, vehicle strikes are rare. The heart of this industrial landscape is surprisingly clean.

However, despite these safeguards, the ecosystem remains unbalanced. Petroleum infrastructure provides artificial nesting sites for previously uncommon predators such as crows. Red foxes, likely attracted to human-induced heat and food sources, have move into Prudhoe Bay to kill and replace arctic foxes. Dust blown from a gravel road can accumulate on adjacent land and melt snow faster. These discontinuities – perhaps more than oil industry executives and those who regulate them initially understand – have long half-lives.

The pursuit of oil is inherently ephemeral. Individual wells eventually run out or cease to be profitable; the whole field shrunk. Companies attract shares to move their carnival of drills, steel and their actors elsewhere throughout the coastal plain. Buildings may disappear, but the specter of infrastructure often remains. In the absence of adequate restoration plans, environmental disturbances will continue to impact local species for decades to come. Unlike the tropics, where human disturbances can quickly be corrected by green new growth, the Arctic remains fragile and exposed.

Oil companies have worked for decades to rehabilitate these fields with varying degrees of success. They strip gravel from old roads and outdated drills to facilitate restoration, often redoing areas that have been stripped to return the soil to a more natural state. At first glance, such sites may be difficult to distinguish from the surrounding vegetation, but upon closer inspection, most show clear signs of past disturbance, and some appear to have not yet. recover.

Restoration ecologists have found tundra very difficult to restore. Although fairly common, salt on gravel originating from the Arctic coastal plain can leach into the soil and inhibit new growth even after the rock is removed. Road reclamation projects sometimes create too much gravel, exposing permafrost, accelerating melting and turning what was once solid ground into a lake. Even if an area is successfully seeded with grass, geese can swoop in to eat the young shoots, grazing these areas back into bare patches of mud.

For disturbed tundra regions to have any chance of recovering to a more natural state, oil companies and land management officials will need to consider new treatments. Tundra Sodding, an underutilized approach consistent with Indigenous Iñupiaq methods, appears to be the most promising intervention: As new oil infrastructure is created on existing tundra, petroleum from that site can be carefully removed and mounted on top of an old drill site that needs to be restored, much like plugging in divots on a golf course. In current practice, oil and gas companies often just build new drilling platforms directly on top of existing sod, killing the ancient tundra crust in the process.

Successful care of the Alaskan coastal plain will depend on a multitude of factors and will likely require decades of monitoring and regulation, and a long-term commitment from industry and regulatory agencies. The key to this success will be the pre-determined oil companies and environmental stakeholders, the true costs of recovery – financial and otherwise – and the tangible outcomes of the means. different treatments. Such clarity could spur recovery efforts in Alaska and elsewhere. This is not only a retrospective exercise but also a forward-looking exercise.

In fact, the state of Alaska continues to keep an eye on Area 1002, a 2,300 square mile area of ​​the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite a temporary ban on exploration and drilling in the Reserve. As exploration plans accelerate into this pristine landscape on the eastern border of existing oil fields and elsewhere across the coastal plain, we do not yet have a viable tundra restoration plan and extensible to address past actions, regardless of what developers have their eyes on next.

Oil companies and regulators must step up efforts to repair the damage already done and to ensure cleanup actions are built into the planning and implementation process when expand into new areas. Now we need to decide what we want the coastal plain to look like in a hundred or a thousand years, after we’ve already paid attention elsewhere.

Jonathan C. Slaght works for the Arctic Beringia Program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He is the author of “Owls of the Eastern Ice,” which won the 2021 PEN/EO Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, was named a 2020 New York Times Notable Book, and has been listed long ago for the National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read original article. Pebbles or greens: What will the Alaskan coastal plain look like?

Caroline Bleakley

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