The Specter Haunting Alaska

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska: Coastal Plain Resource Assessment

Department of the Interior
April 1987

Economics of Undiscovered Oil in the Federal Lands of the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska

by Emil D. Attanasi
United States Geological Survey, Open-File Report 03-044, 2003


By most definitions, the word “Arctic” refers to the region near the North Pole. Only one section of it lies within the United States: the part of Alaska north of the Brooks mountain range known as the North Slope (see the map above). The North Slope is huge—89,000 square miles, slightly larger than the state of Minnesota—but in many ways it’s a world apart, even from the rest of Alaska. The Brooks Range effectively forms Alaska’s tree line—the latitude beyond which trees do not grow—and its rivers drain northward down onto a vast tundra plain dominated by a cotton grass that is the favorite food of the millions of caribou that migrate to the region during the summer months.

Underneath the tundra is the “active layer,” a coat of peaty, semi-decomposed organic matter that passes for soil. Less than a foot below lies a thick layer of permanently frozen earth—permafrost—that in places is half a mile deep. This permafrost is a relic of the last ice age when the sea level was three hundred feet lower than it is now. The North Slope was then a part of Beringia, the wide land bridge that connected North America and Siberia. Even today, the raging spring rivers of the North Slope expose ice-age mammoth tusks long buried in gravel banks. During the last ice age, the region was more part of Asia than it was part of North America.

One of the curiosities of the North Slope is that even though it receives only between five and eight inches of rain a year (similar to some deserts in the Southwest), the underlying permafrost can’t be penetrated by water and the surface remains constantly saturated. When I visited the North Slope in June with William Weber, director of the North American Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Steve Zack, an ornithologist and director of the conservation society’s Northwest office, the ice had just broken up, and Zack continually (and only half jokingly) referred to the pervasive marshes, bogs, and thaw ponds as “Pleistocene water.” We were at the headwaters of the Nigu River, in a valley on the north-facing slopes of the Brooks Range that an outfitter later told us was the most remote part of all Alaska. In the twenty-four-hour sunlight, the snow pack around us was melting off the mountainsides, and water was pouring from the tundra. The caribou herds were returning from their forest wintering grounds closely trailed by predatory wolves and grizzlies. The earth around us was aflame with stands of fireweed, wild lupines, and miniature rhododendrons.

The Nigu flows eventually into the Colville, the North Slope’s largest river and one that flows in turn through what is known as the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska. At twenty-three and a half million acres, the NPR-A (as it’s known) is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States and, despite its unprepossessing name, it was the NPR-A we had come to visit.

The National Petroleum Reserve was…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.