Alaska's Cold Desert

Arctic Wolf

By Jeff Brune, Robert King, Mike Kunz, Richard Brook and Mary Tisdale
Artwork by Shelly Fischman

At first glance, arctic Alaska may appear to be a barren wasteland. Yet, in reality, this cold desert teems with life. Myriad plants and animals are native to this treeless plain above the Arctic Circle. In summer, the upper part of the ground (about 10 centimeters) thaws for just a short period, triggering frantic activity for the region's denizens.
This area is resource "rich" in many ways. One of the world's largest oil fields, for example, is located at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Oil from that site travels southward more than 1,200 kilometers to Valdez, Alaska, through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Oil from Prudhoe Bay accounts for about a quarter of total U.S. oil production.

In this article and on the accompanying foldout, we explore the unique features of Alaska's arctic ecosystem, with a focus on the special adaptations of plants and animals that enable them to survive in a stressful climate. We also review the challenges facing public and private land managers who seek to conserve this ecosystem while accommodating growing demands for development. With the classroom activities we've included, you can help students understand why fragile arctic soils are slow to recover once disturbed; why arctic animals look so different from their desert counterparts; and how to evaluate the pros and cons of oil development along the arctic coast, an issue that will likely be debated into the 21st century.