Seismic explorations for oil have lasting impact on Alaskan wildlife refuge, study finds

The study found that 3-D seismic imaging would require the creation of 40,000 miles of trail...
The study found that 3-D seismic imaging would require the creation of 40,000 miles of trail in the coastal region of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Alex Bengel/KTVF) (KTVF)
Published: Jun. 16, 2020 at 2:48 PM AKDT
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A study by researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has found that seismic exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would have long-term impact on the land.

Seismic exploration is used to determine whether oil or natural gas is present underground in a specific area.

The study's results were published in an article for the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Applications. The study concerns seismic exploration in the coastal region of ANWR which took place during the winters of 1983-85.

According to co-author Martha Raynolds, the study was a collaborative effort between experts in vegetation, permafrost, snow and hydrology.

Researchers accompanied the seismic explorers during those winters and plotted the land at the time, making before and after comparisons possible. Since then, UAF researchers have returned to the site and seen the impact over time.

Using data primarily from the 1980s cataloguing the effects of travel on tundra during the winter, the researchers found a lasting impact from vehicles traveling to exploration sites on the refuge.

“The impact isn’t actually from the seismic work itself, it’s from the vehicles that go out there across the tundra to collect this data,” Raynolds said. She defined long-term impact as being visible for 10 years or longer.

SAExploration has proposed a new round of seismic exploration in the coastal region of ANWR, section 1002, though that project has not yet been approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This time, however, the geological maps created would be three-dimensional. Raynolds said that to complete the proposed imaging would require the creation of 40,000 miles of trails.

Furthermore, Raynolds said the area under consideration is now five degrees warmer than it was during the initial exploration. This means that some permafrost is either thawing or close to thawing, which would affect the impact being made by vehicles on the tundra.

“It’s really important to know where the snow is, how deep it is, and how dense it is, because it it’s just fluff. It’s very different from if it’s a really dense layer of snow that would actually protect the tundra,” Raynolds said, adding that the weather in the region is changing, which affects the ability of the snow on the ground to protect underlying vegetation and permafrost.

“The vehicle technology has not changed. The weight of the vehicles, the number of vehicles is all very similar as was in the eighties,” she said.

In an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from 2018, the BLM concluded that seismic exploration does not cause significant long-term impact on tundra. “BLM said there are no significant impacts to seismic exploration, and therefore permitting would be under an environmental assessment, which is a much lower bar of environmental review than an EIS,” Raynolds said.

The BLM declined to comment on the study.

While the delay in official approval for seismic exploration has given UAF’s researchers time to prepare their article, Raynolds says that more study is necessary before exploration begins.

“We really need more information about the current conditions on the arctic refuge, and if we had some better information about snow and about permafrost there, it would be much easier to monitor and to permit effectively to minimize impacts. Right now we’re sort of flying blind there without a lot of information -- and if one’s goal is to do this exploration with minimal impacts, we really do need more information,” she said.

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