Prudhoe Bay, or Sagavanirktok in Inupiaq, sits far up Alaska’s North Slope, at the northernmost terminus of the continent-spanning Pan-American Highway. The Bay was named in 1826 by Sir John Franklin, in honor of a classmate of his, Captain Algernon Percy, Baron Prudhoe. Possibly Sir John Franklin would hardly know Prudhoe today. The body of water that in his time would have been teeming with fish, its land boundary rich with a diverse array of wildlife, now stands testament to the industrialization of our most wild places. Even in a place as seemingly remote as the Western Arctic, the hands of humankind make their presence known. The Prudhoe Bay industrial complex is America’s largest oil field, covering over 600 square miles. Dropping this oil goliath in one of our most pristine wild spaces has had some deleterious effects.
The sprawling oil field, which grows every year, usually in winter when it’s easier to build in the challenging terrain, creates problems for the environment at all levels. Various forms of infrastructure cover thousands of acres of the North Slope with walls, gravel roads, gravel pads, air strips to fly in workers, corporate executives, and visitors, and multiple equipment storage sites. During the period of 1996 – 2004, the industry averaged 500 oil and toxic chemical spills every year. The worst of those occurred in 2006 when a corroded British Petroleum pipeline ruptured, leaking 267,000 gallons into the fragile ecosystem. Recovery of such spills in the Arctic is challenging and takes longer for several reasons: crude oil is extremely difficult to clean up, the average temperature is much colder than other oil development sites around the world, and Arctic plants grow at a slower rate, making them more vulnerable to accidents. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation notes over 100 sites of contamination caused by the multiple companies that work the area. Pollution emissions from the oil field have been detected as far as Barrow, Alaska, more than 200 miles away. A major spill or accident in this area that got into coastal waters could have devastating effects on waterfowl, ringed seals, bowhead whales, and polar bears, as well as local fisheries. As shown by the history of most fossil fuel development, the question of a major spill stands much less an if than a when.
As always, wildlife take the brunt of the impact. Habitat loss stands as the primary concern for the North Slope’s wild denizens. As the industrialization of the western Arctic grows, critical habitat for a wide variety of species dwindles. The North Slope is home and vital breeding and hunting grounds for some of Alaska’s iconic animals: Arctic fox, grizzly bears, caribou, ravens, geese, and less frequent but important animals like polar bears, red foxes, musk oxen, and Arctic hares. Not just wild animals of the land have been affected—those of the sea and rivers have been, as well. At least 39 species of North Slope fish call the area home, including multiple species of whitefish, char, and Pacific salmon. Warming seas change the range and seasonal cycles of these fish, forcing some of them to swim for deep, cool waters, while others simply move northward. This warming affects whales, seals, walrus, polar bears, and seabirds who feed on the bounty of fish in the Bay.
The sprawling industrial complex also affects subsistence hunters in the area. Whereas the development used to be roughly 60 miles from the village of Nuiqsut, now it comes as close as four miles. If this pace continues the oil fields will eventually engulf the village or at the very least surround it. Falling caribou numbers whose traditional migration routes have been eliminated or interrupted by oil field development affects human hunters, as well. In the village of Nuiqsut, 81% of the residents participate in the subsistence lifestyle. Caribou are essential to their survival, as are bowhead whales. As the water warms and fish move looking for cooler waters in which to thrive, the same may one day occur with the bowhead whale. Subsistence cultures have built their existence around these animals since time out of mind, at least as long as 8,000 years in some parts of Alaska. In indigenous cultures, the land, people, and animals form one symbiotic whole entity—none can survive without the other. As what is left of the western Arctic and North Slope’s wilderness is slowly whittled away by our world’s fossil fuel addiction, we may well witness the end of cultures that have existed in balance with their environments for longer than humankind has known how to write.
Protecting what remains of the North Slope and National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska as wilderness would serve multiple purposes. It would protect the wild creatures that still live in this area and allow conservation efforts to move forward to let them remain wild and free. It would allow restoration work to go forward in areas that need revitalization. The traditional way of life of indigenous people would be protected and continue to be an example of how to live in balance on the land for the long term, rather than just a successful business quarter. More people might hear of this special place, the largest open wilderness in the United States, and wish to visit, to seek and explore what it holds for them. We might also consider the true costs of our dependence upon fossil fuels, and consider making the necessary societal changes to bring forth the energy alternatives we need so we do not have to sacrifice pristine parts of our natural world in order to power our society. Wilderness would also allow natural systems to take over, restore balance, and protect everything that calls the North Slope home from our human frailties. The cautionary example of Prudhoe Bay’s development should serve as a vivid example of why we should protect these places now, while we still have time.