U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
As long as the permafrost is insulated from heat by the surface vegetation, it can remain stable for many thousands of years. On the other hand, even small disturbances to the vegetation rootmat can start a process of destabilization that can reach impressive proportions.
Experience has taught us about the fragile nature of this land. In the post World War II period, exploration for oil and gas involved the use of mechanized vehicles that damaged the insulating vegetation. When the vegetation was damaged, the permafrost was no longer insulated from the summer sun, causing the frozen soil to melt. Eventually, this resulted in massive artificial bogs and swampy areas. In some places, these scars, though decades old, are still evident.
Crossing the tundra without damaging the permafrost is an ongoing challenge. Much of today's permafrost degradation is triggered by road-building and other construction activities that strip away or disturb the vegetation. Over the years engineers have learned to work in winter and to avoid disturbing the vegetation. For example, in building the Dalton Highway, an all-weather road that extends north 650 kilometers from interior Alaska to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, engineers placed the roadbed on top of the vegetation rather than cutting into the surface as is the common practice in road-building. In some areas, sheets of plastic-foam insulation were placed on the vegetation to provide additional thermal protection before the roadbed material was laid down. Moreover, mechanized vehicles may use the road only in periods of adequate snow cover (15 or more centimeters) in order to blunt the impact on the tundra. In other cases, temporary ice roads are built. Even air-cushioned vehicles have been tried as a way to avoid damaging the tundra.
Ozone Depletion. The effect of ozone depletion is of particular importance to life in the Arctic and Antarctic, as the phenomenon is most severe over polar regions. In the winters, "ozone holes" develop over the poles. Research points to certain human-made chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, being major contributors to this situation. Researchers in the Arctic are investigating how plants that support the food chain may be impacted by ozone depletion.
Solid Waste Disposal. Disposing of solid waste is another major problem in the Arctic because permafrost limits the construction of sanitary landfills, and low temperatures inhibit bacterial decomposition of organic wastes. Scientists have detected the effects of human wastes from Inupiat (native Alaskan) settlements centuries after the inhabitants have gone. Today, organic waste is collected and hauled to sewage dumping areas or burned in oil barrels.
Pollution of the Arctic Ocean. Recent reports of nuclear waste contamination and massive oil spillages from broken pipelines in Siberia have once again raised concerns about pollution of the Arctic Ocean. The oil spillages have been near river systems that drain into the Arctic Ocean. Because the Arctic Ocean is a major source of fish, whales, seals, and walrus (of cultural and economic importance to local Inupiat), the consequences of polluting it would severely affect the human population as well as the environment in general.
Some scientists predict that the results of global warming over the next century will be very similar to the effect of past warming events on the permafrost and on the arctic ecosystem. Of special concern is the peat that lies beneath the tussock-tundra covering most of arctic Alaska, Canada, and Russia. These arctic peat deposits contain huge amounts of CO2; if the climate warms enough that the peat thaws and begins to decompose, all of that CO2 would be released into the atmosphere. The increase in atmospheric CO2 could cause an increase in surface temperatures, which in turn could cause the rate of peat decomposition to accelerate, generating more CO2. The onset of an ever-increasing CO2 production cycle in the Arctic could have a significant effect on ecosystems worldwide.
Ironically, a climatic alteration that brought the first humans to North America thousands of years ago may provide insight into a contemporary climatic change that could affect modern humans and alter the course of civilization once again.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
In recent years, Congressional debates about allowing oil and gas development in ANWR have brought attention to this issue. The question is, What are the impacts of oil and gas development, including pipeline construction, on wildlife and on the Inupiat and other northern peoples who subsist, in part, on this wildlife? Opinions vary on the answer, with some people predicting little effect, while others foresee drastic impacts brought about by substantial changes to the migration and calving patterns of caribou.
At stake for consumers is the nation's most promising onshore petroleum prospect. Geologists have determined that there is a 19 percent chance of finding recoverable oil deposits within ANWR's coastal plain. No one knows how large the potential oil reservoir is, but federal land managers estimate there may be enough oil in that field to supply at least 10 percent of the nation's fuel for the next 20 years.
Research may help answer some of the issues surrounding ANWR, but politics and the worldwide price of oil will no doubt strongly influence the progress of development in this part of the world.
Primarily as a result of the ongoing debate about the future of ANWR, an increasing number of wilderness adventurers have been visiting the refuge to see for themselves what the debate is about. The number of outfitters offering backpacking and river trips increased from one in 1975 to 15 in 1995. One result has been that the amount of river usage during the short summer has increased dramatically. A "visitor-use day" indicates one person using an area for all or part of a day; in 1984 ANWR had 702 visitor-use days, and in 1995 it had 3,182 visitor-use days. As a result, congestion on the rivers and air traffic in and out of the refuge have grown. As recreation use intensifies, so will impacts on the ecosystem, and decisions will have to be made on whether to limit access to ANWR.
Looking to the Future
Alaska's tundra seems immense, remote, and largely untouched by humans. Yet, as the human population in this region increases and as resource development grows, human actions will have a long-lasting and cumulative impact in the ecosystem. Meeting the needs of people today while protecting our resources for the future will be a big challenge.
As tomorrow's decision-makers, today's students will play a big role in determining how well we meet that challenge. Complex legal, political, ecological, economic, and social ramifications will have to be considered. Few issues will have simple solutions, and resolving them will undoubtedly involve compromise. By introducing children to these ideas now, educators can help prepare them for the future.
How a Sliver of Technology Tamed the Arctic
Archaeological evidence suggests that it wasn't until 14,000 to 13,000 years ago that humans migrated into North America by crossing from Siberia to Alaska via the Bering land bridge.
Most researchers agree that to survive in arctic and subarctic environments, ancient humans had to be able to make clothing that was generally form-fitting and relatively weather-tight. Such clothing was probably made by fastening pieces of animal hide together with sinew. The invention of the awl, a pointed implement used for stitching together animal skins for garments and other uses, was the technological breakthrough that most likely enabled ancient peoples to begin to colonize cold regions. The eyed needle, which evolved from the awl and is found on 30,000-year-old Russian campsites, would have allowed strong, weather-tight, and, in some cases, water-tight clothing seams to be made.
The importance of this small aspect of prehistoric technology--a simple needle--and its effect in terms of human occupation of the Western Hemisphere is almost unbelievable. Humans who settled in North and South America got there by migrating through the Arctic. Without the needle, they could not have done it.
Although it took roughly 15,000 years from the time that needles first appeared until humans were living in the Arctic, it can easily be said that this simple tool and those skilled in its use were responsible, in part, for the human occupation of the New World.