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Living World - Alaska and Northern Canada

Alaska and Northern Canada - A case study the Opportunities and challenges of a cold environment

Key words

  • Infrastructure - The basic equipment and structures (such as roads, utilities, water supply and sewage) that are needed for a country or region to function properly.
  • Mineral extraction - The removal of solid mineral resources from the earth. These resources include ores, which contain commercially valuable amounts of metals, such as iron and aluminium; precious stones, such as diamonds; building stones, such as granite; and solid fuels, such as coal and oil shale.

Cold environments are often wilderness areas that are extremely fragile, small disturbances within the system can have catastrophic effects.  However, there is enormous mineral wealth in the tundra, and the potential for tourism, energy exploitation and fishing.  It is for this reason that many of these areas are decidedly under threat from EXPLOITATION and DEVELOPMENT.  The Russian tundra has been exploited for mineral deposits such as phosphates, gold, tin, natural gas; and most recently the Russian government has announced a plan to use nuclear powered oil rigs to exploit oil reserves in the Arctic Ocean. 
The opportunities offered in Tundra areas create employment and increases local taxes and local government spending.  This allows for the improvement of infrastructure and public services, improving the socio economic conditions of the area and allowing for even more development.  This is known as the positive multiplier effect.

Development opportunities in Alaska and North West Canada

NW America map
Figure 39 Map of North American Tundra areas

Alaska is a huge state (nearly 2 million km2) located to the very North West of the USA.  It borders the Canadian state of Yukon to the East. To the North, lies the Arctic Ocean, whilst to the West is the Bearing Straight and Russia, and to the South the Pacific Ocean.  It is isolated from the other mainland USA states by Canada, and the USA bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2million! Alaska has many industries and natural resources that can offer both opportunities and challenges.

Mineral extraction
Alaska’s rocks are abundant in mineral resources including Copper, Coal, Iron Ore, Silver, Gold and Zinc. Gold first focused world attention on Alaska.  Prospectors found gold near Sitka in 1872 and at the present site of Juneau in 1880. In 1896 a major find of Gold was discovered over the Canadian border at Klondike. The gold mined out of Alaska is estimated to have been worth $12.5 billion.
Platinum was also discovered in 1926, the platinum at Goodnews Bay is today the largest domestic source of this metal, used in electronics, dentistry, and in corrosion-resisting alloys.
Surprisingly, Alaska’s second most valuable non-energy commodity is and gravel. More than a billion tons have been mined, worth $2.1 billion at today's prices.
Employment in the industry is a significant contributor to rural employment and economic prosperity. The value of the industry is well over $1B annually and growing rapidly. Mine production, development, and exploration projects are located throughout the state.  However, Mining can be damaging to the environment, particularly in this fragile wilderness.  Toxic materials such as Arsenic can be used and open cast mining leaves huge scars on the landscape.

Fort Know Gold mine
Fort Knox Gold Mine  - Source

Alaska has an abundance of energy resources, both renewable and non renewable.  Geothermal power is being used in the state as the State is tectonically active on the Eastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire.  There is a power plant at Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks which produces power for local people. The plant has a 400kw capacity, enough for roughly 400 homes.
Alaska also has loads of potential for Hydroelectric power, thanks to its steep relief and plentiful rivers.  These hydroelectric projects that provide clean, reliable energy across the state. Hydroelectric power is Alaska’s largest source of renewable energy, supplying about 21 percent of the state’s electrical energy in an average water year. Dozens of hydro projects provide power to Alaskans, including the 120-megawatt Alaska Energy Authority-owned Bradley Lake project near Homer. This project cost more than $300million.

Oil and Gas

The largest energy source in Alaska is Oil and Gas however.  The North Slope area of Alaska has huge resources of petroleum which are found in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, discovered in 1968.  The industry is hugely important to Alaska, it employs 110,000 people and brings in $14billion to the state’s economy.

Sea Birds Exxen Valdez

Sea birds killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill

To transfer this petroleum companies use the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which pumps the oil 1287km south to Valdez and through some rough terrain and mountains. From Valdez the petroleum is moved by tanker to the mainland USA.   The construction of the pipeline was controversial, as it crossed indigenous ancestral lands, earthquakes zones and permafrost that could melt if the pipe was buried into it or sat on top of it.  The solutions were to build the pipeline on stilts and it also goes over bridges across many of Alaska’s rivers.  The pipeline was completed in 1977 and has posed problems.  There have been leaks from the pipeline such as at Fort Greely in 2010, and there has been damage during earthquakes.  However, it does bring in a huge amount of money and transports 212 million barrels of oil every year.  There are technical problems, too, as the pipeline and its pumping stations are all liable to ice during very cold periods and build-up of wax.  The movement of oil by tanker has posed problems, a tanker named Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989.  It released  almost 11million gallons of crude oil into a region that is a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds.

Trans Alaska Pipeline
The pipeline is on stilts over permafrost and even on sliders where it passes over Earthquake faults - Source

The Future
The productivity of the Prudhoe Bay oil field is in decline, and some of the reserves left are in places where it is dangerous and expensive to extract the oil, such as in the sea.  Oil companies have identified areas where it is easier and cheaper to access the oil.  One such place is in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) shown on figure 39.  It is thought that this area holds 10billion barrels of crude oil.

However, ANWR is home to 250 species of animal, including grizzly bears, caribou, wolves and millions of migratory birds.  It covers 8 million hectares and was established in 1960 to preserve the area.  The northernmost part of the refuge is an area known as the 1002 lands - a coastal plain between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea that is not covered by wilderness designated protection.  It is also a key calving ground for the Caribou.  In January 2008 a proposal was put forward to open the lands up for petroleum exploration and development.  This would badly affect the Vuntut Gwitchin, an indigenous group who live close to ANWR on the Canadian side of the border. The Vuntut Gwitchin have adapted to this harsh environment, they number 300 people in the settlement of Old Crow and some 7500 in total across the whole community.  They are a traditional community, and originally they survived by hunting and gathering.  They trap Muskrat for their furs in the off-season but their main activity is to hunt in sustainable numbers the porcupine Caribou herd, so called because they cross the Porcupine River at Old Crow.  If oil development at ANWR goes ahead the Vuntut Gwitchin are very concerned that it will damage the Porcupine Caribou herd, and therefore ruin their way of life.  To date, drilling has been prevented by the USA government.

Caribou in Northern Alaska

Caribou next to oil industry - Source

Commercial fishing is a major industry in Alaska, and has been for hundreds of years. The States 3000plus rivers cover 365,000 miles and the state also has The USA’s longest coastline at 10,690 km. Alaska Natives have been harvesting salmon and many other types of fish since the early 17th century. This type of fishing exists today as SUBSISTENCE fishing, and the fish provide food, oils and the bones are even used in tools and clothing.  Alaska's commercial fishermen work in one of the world's harshest environments. They endure isolated fishing grounds, high winds, seasonal darkness, very cold water, icing, freezing cold temperatures, days upon days away from family, and short fishing seasons, where very long workdays are the norm.  Pollock fisheries in the Bering Sea are very important.  The seafood industry provided over 60,000 jobs in 2015, generate almost $6 billion for the economy and put $250million into the Alaskan government coffers via tax.

Crab Fishing
By National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alaska is a unique wilderness and offers incredible opportunities for tourists and for locals to profit from those tourists.  It has mountains, glaciers, rivers and wildlife to attract tourists. Almost half of all visitors coming to Alaska arrive by cruise ship.  However some tourists do arrive by plane and even highway/ferry traffic to Alaska. Tourism helps thousands of businesses as tourists take their tours, dine in their restaurants, and stay in their guest rooms. People go to ski, go to dog sled festivals, sight see, fish and hunt, and try other adventurous activities. In 2013 1.96 million people visited Alaska. Direct visitor spending is more than $1.8 billion annually and tourism accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs.

Alaska Scenery
The scenery of Alaska, such as the Brooks Range shown here, attracts tourists (USFWS)

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