Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
A hundred and seventy million years ago, sea-monster-like plesiosaurs swam between volcanoes. Lava flows poured into the warm sea, buried by mud and the carcasses of algae. As these volcanoes became part of Alaska, new mountains rose, flanked by a plain of winding rivers and lush swamps. The forces that thrust up the mountains also pulled the land down, burying the algae and plants, forming oil and coal.
Long after the plesiosaurs had disappeared, salmon evolved, swimming up those winding rivers. Ice rolled across the land, filling the lows between volcanoes and jagged peaks, pushing the living world far out beyond the current edge of the ocean. Ice pulsed in cycles; retreating, advancing, retreating… Caribou followed the tundra that replaced the ice. Moose followed the willow that replaced the tundra. Rising oceans filled Cook Inlet, mingling with waters still murky from the flow of glacial rivers.
As they had countless times before, the salmon returned to the new-again rivers. This time people followed them, the only true newcomers to this land. Thousands of years later, new faces and new technologies followed those first people, seeking trade routes, then otter pelts, gold, and oil.
People transformed this land. There were motors. Roads, drill rigs, ships, airplanes, telephones, and computers. Beetle-killed forests, disappearing halibut and king salmon, abandoned industries and settlements, tourist towns rising, glaciers melting. Otters returning.
Still, there are rocks, mud, ice, fish, bears, and people.
This is Cook Inlet’s past and present. What of the future?
What is the future of Alaska? Not the one or five or ten years that we often tend to think in — driven by current power structures, politics, and leaders. But the future of 50 or 100 years from now, and beyond.
We’re walking around Cook Inlet (beginning in less than a week), to see both the wild areas and the human ones, and to hear the stories and dreams of people who live along the way.
And this is what we want to ask: What do you think the future holds? For our economy, communities, lifestyles, wildlife, landscape, and ocean?
Talk to us: We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments, and for anyone who lives on Cook Inlet – in person as well.
Walk with us: We’re also hoping to have people join us when we’re on beaches near towns for a walking conversation, or just to say hi (a 4-year-old’s pace is quite relaxed so we’ll be easy to catch/keep up with).
Read More: on our Tracing the Heart of Alaska page
Get in touch: by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), FB, or call 399-5530 (we’ll answer/check messages when we happen to be in a community). For info when we’re between towns and out of touch, contact Hig’s sister (email@example.com or 541-520-7331). See our rough schedule below for an expected itinerary.
(This is a rough guide, not an exhaustive list. We’re also excited to visit folks in the places in between these, and we’ll try to update the time frame as things get firmed up)
Port Graham: 3/30
Tuxedni Bay: 6/20
Chinitna Bay: 6/29
McNeil Bay: 7/15
Sukoi Bay: 7/24
2012 was a busy year for scientists working on issues related to Pebble Mine. I’m one of those scientists. I received my PhD studying tsunamis and learned a bit about earthquakes along the way. Given that PLP hopes to build giant dams that need to stand forever, earthquakes are a fairly important question. Between completing my own geologic fieldwork and critiquing the work of PLP and the EPA, there’s been plenty to keep me busy – so much so that I neglected to post anything on our blog about it all year, despite a number of interesting developments.
If developed, Pebble Mine would tap the largest gold deposit on the planet, and the copper in that deposit would likely be worth even more than all that gold. Its footprint would sit on the headwaters of some of the world’s greatest salmon rivers. It would leave behind towering tailings dams that would pose catastrophic risk for millennia, long after the boom of the mine has been forgotten.
The mine company’s perspective is simple and hasn’t changed since at least 2006: The threat of earthquakes is low because there are no active faults nearby.
This optimistic view of seismic hazard is based on ignorance. Existing scientific studies tell us almost nothing about faults in the area.
I wrote a letter of concern in early 2008 to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about the uncertainty regarding seismic hazard near Pebble.
More importantly, I’ve tried to do something about that uncertainty – trying to locate and characterize earthquake faults in the area myself. In the years since, I have gone into the field to gather data as often as our meager funding would allow, frequently with my colleague Andrew Mattox. As 2012 dawned, we had a few promising leads.
In February 2012, PLP released a whopping 30,800-page “Environmental Baseline Document” (EBD) that included data and analyses from $120 million in scientific studies in the mine area. This document was meant to describe current conditions in the region around the mine – conditions that would both affect and be affected by mine development.
The seismic hazard analysis was only 7 pages long.
I had had high expectations for this document. In earlier statements, PLP hinted at carefully collected geophysical data that might reveal the location of the Lake Clark Fault, a fault that is of particular interest since it’s large and goes somewhere in the vicinity of the mine. It turned out that not one bit of new data was presented in the chapter’s four pages of text plus three figures.
The analysis also used scientific reasoning that was often bizarre or ridiculous. The rocks near the mine site are too strong for faults to break them? Faults follow glaciers? Both of these assertions can be easily disproven by example.
“The seismic hazard assessment presented in Pebble Limited Partnership’s Environmental Baseline Document is flawed. It draws strong, optimistic conclusions from weak evidence, and relies on geologic arguments inconsistent with observed evidence. It misrepresents existing research and fails to use key data sets that PLP has in-hand to inform the analysis. A major fault, the Lake Clark Fault, passes near the Pebble prospect. No published studies establish this fault’s location or seismic activity near the prospect, and the hazard assessment presents no effort to positively determine its location. The hazard assessment fails to consider minor faults or induced seismicity. Without further study, the hazard posed by earthquakes is impossible to determine. “
Hig presenting his critique of the EBD at a scientific conference.
It was satisfying to holler, “Your Science is WEAK!” but it left me wondering why it was so weak.
PLP must either be strategically holding back information, or else it lacks the expertise to do a real seismic hazard assessment. Put crudely: Either PLP is lying, or it’s incompetent.
In February 2011, Northern Dynasty, half-owner of PLP, released a report announcing, “The location of [the Lake Clark] fault has been identified as part of a geophysical survey of the region.”
Between this report (which lacked both data and analysis) and an email conversation I had with Ken Taylor, PLP’s former “VP for the Environment,” it appears that this identification was based on studies that PLP had conducted. Yet, the EBD omits this work, which can hardly be an accident. Why rely on old assumptions about the location of the Lake Clark Fault when your own scientists have located it using geophysical data?
Maybe PLP didn’t like the results of its earlier work, so instead it published a false analysis that told a rosier story.
Perhaps the poor quality of PLP’s seismic hazard assessment is unintentional. The bizarre assertions, lack of new scientific studies, and misinterpretation of existing literature are mistakes. Graham Greenaway, the main author of the seismic hazard assessment, isn’t even a geologist, so it’s understandable that he might not see the weaknesses. It’s frustrating to me that PLP has stood by its analysis despite my work to clearly lay out the problems (I’ve shared this with PLP on a number of occasions), but what more can you do?
Isolated chunks of sediment floated in a soup of sand, silt, and water presumably liquefied by shaking.
I suppose one thing I could do is try to figure out what’s going on myself. Andrew and I flew out to Lake Iliamna last June in search of evidence of earthquakes. We aimed to check out a couple of leads: A possible telltale sag in ancient shorelines above the lake suggesting a buried fault, and swirled sediment resulting from liquefaction, a common effect of strong shaking from earthquakes.
We hit a geologist’s jackpot: We found where an ancient peat bog suddenly burst open, a great fountain of liquefied sand pouring out to cover the ground. This sort of dramatic liquefaction is rare, and nearly always occurs during strong earthquakes. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen in eyewitness videos during earthquakes in Japan and Christchurch, NZ.
In combination with evidence that we found of tectonic deformation in the old shorelines, this liquefaction is decent evidence for past earthquakes. For more details, you can read our preliminary report.
Having publicized our work, I’d like to think that our job here is done. I have contacted scientists working for PLP and regulatory agencies, and ideally they will follow up on our findings, possibly confirming that the Lake Clark Fault is indeed active. Such a conclusion might warrant expensive changes to tailings dam engineering or abandonment of mine plans and prompt these organizations to inform local communities about risks such as strong shaking and lake tsunamis.
Honestly I don’t really understand how scientific results inform regulatory decisions, but what I’ve seen so far does not make me confident. It’s very easy to fail to find evidence. The mine company has financial incentives to overlook evidence of earthquake risk, just as I have financial motivation beyond merely curiosity to find that evidence – my funding comes from groups opposed to mine development. And regulators, ideally the impartial party here, have tight budgets and a broad mandate, thus little time to focus deeply on a difficult scientific problem like this. Tackling this problem would put government scientists into a political minefield that they may not wish to enter.
This year we’ve seen “the system” attempting to face the scientific challenges presented by the massive scale of Pebble Mine. The EPA, on the invitation of villages in the region, conducted a detailed “Watershed Assessment,” which is still under peer review. PLP criticized the EPA’s effort as premature and misguided, and pushed its own process, the PLP-funded Keystone Center dialogue. This in turn has been criticized for its biased exclusion of non-PLP science, among other things. Though I submitted my own work on seismic hazards, it was not considered even during the panel specifically on this topic. These efforts represent attempts to assemble expert assessments and critique PLP‘s science, but we’re a long way off from seeing concrete results from either. Though I’ve repeatedly pointed out unequivocal flaws in PLP‘s seismic hazard assessment, there was no acknowledgment of these issues as of the Keystone meeting in early October. If you want to see my testimony, you can go here, and skip to 17 minutes, 40 seconds.
So I’m going to stick to it. I have more data analysis, and a paper to write and submit for peer review. And hopefully I’ll have funding to get back into the field this summer.
Often it seems like marketers and politicians control the big issues. But I do believe that objective truth has a small edge in the game. It may not guarantee success, but it’s a nice ally to have. I think science is our best tool to uncover this objective truth.
Alaska becoming a major cement exporter? Millions of tons of coal being shipped from Healy to Cook Inlet? I thought these purported benefits from the Port MacKenzie railroad extension seemed more than a little optimistic so I dug deeper.
It turns out that the misleading economic analysis in support of the project relies on vast amounts of theoretical and unlikely future development in the rail corridor. It proposes that Port Mac will create billions of dollars worth of new industries (which would not otherwise be created). Most egregiously, it proposes that several major mines (one on the scale of the Pebble Prospect, and dwarfing all current mineral production in Alaska) will spring into existence with little regard to the underlying geology — in an area where mining companies are not even exploring for significant minerals. Not even discussed is the possible negative impact of winter ice on Port Mac which is not a problem for the major competing ports.
Proponents of this project say that building the extension would spur economic development throughout the Railbelt. Opponents worry that this development will never materialize and the project will be a boondoggle, or simply turn out to be a very expensive way to subsidize the export of Usibelli coal.
Put another way, do the benefits exceed the costs or vice versa? This quote, from a report attempting to answer this question provides a good starting place for a conversation:
“The primary analysis indicates that the net present value of rail freight savings
from the proposed rail link relative to the Ports of Whittier and Seward greatly exceeds
the capital cost of the proposed project. The net present value of the rail freight savings
for Port MacKenzie relative to the Port of Anchorage over a 30 year period equals 92%
of the capital cost of the project.“
Basically, the argument is that building the rail spur is worth it, because transporting things to Port MacKenzie will cost much less than transporting them to Whittier and Seward. But how realistic are those savings? To answer this question I spent some time reading a number of reports that attempt to quantify the benefits of building the extension. And I was quite struck by how fanciful some of these benefits appeared. Discussed here are two reports by Paul Metz (here and here).
What exports are currently transported to Seward and Whittier that would be cheaper to send to Port Mac instead? Currently, Usibelli coal is the only example I’m aware of. Shipping this coal probably would be cheaper from Port Mackenzie, though not creating nearly enough value to justify the port’s construction on its own. The rest of the savings come from postulated future industries.
To begin, Metz describes a 120-mile corridor around the existing railroad and then estimates all of the development that could materialize in this corridor if the Port Mac extension were built. He rightly points out that the cost of sending things from Port Mac would be lower than Anchorage, Seward, or particularly Whittier. However, it’s very hard to justify the claim that these developments he describes would not have occurred without the Port Mac spur. But to be part of the cost-benefit analysis, that needs to be the case. Here are the assumptions made by Metz along with my thoughts.
Annual production from natural resources along the existing railroad (attributable to the building of the extension). Savings are calculated relative to other AK ports.
2 million tons of mineral ore (20% of savings). This appears to be totally unrealistic, more detail below.
3.5 million tons of Portland cement for export (35% of savings). Right here I should state that I have no experience with this particular industry. However, everyone I have discussed this with feels that this seems wildly optimistic. It’s hard to imagine that with Alaskan logistics, labor costs, and transportation that making cement in Alaska could really be competitive with established global markets. Metz mentions exporting to the West Coast but presumably the Jones Act would make this an even more expensive option. The materials would come from a deposit north of Fairbanks (Globe Creek).
1 million tons of export coal (10% of savings): It seems totally reasonable to me that building the Port Mac spur would save Usibelli money. Though they would have to build an export terminal of some kind at Port Mac.
3.3 million additional tons of coal for gasification at Agrium (33% of savings): This is outdated, not only does Usibelli not have the capacity to produce this much coal without major capital improvements but Agrium is long-gone, and the gasification infrastructure was never built. Clearly these savings are not happening.
20,000 tons of timber (negligible savings): I have no idea if this is realistic or not, it’s too small to have much impact on the analysis either way.
200,000 tons of benzene (<2% of savings): This would come from Flint Hills, but assumes a petrochemical processing plant would be built at the port site. Since there’s no such plant, or plans for one that I’m aware of, this seems shaky.
While the minerals are only responsible for 20% of the cost savings relative to existing ports, they provide the lion’s share of the jobs discussed in a subsequent ISER analysis by Steve Colt. For this reason I looked in more detail at these assumptions.
From ISER 2010:
“Major new mines shipping concentrate via the rail extension would generate thousands of new jobs, and a significant fraction of these jobs would be held by Anchorage residents. Our detailed analysis of the potential employment from five specific mining projects indicates that more than 2,000 average annual jobs would be created in Anchorage or held by Anchorage residents once the mines are fully developed. Most of these jobs would be in mining and in professional sectors that pay good wages. Also, during initial mine development, many of the jobs would be in construction and fabrication.”
“Dr. Paul Metz, Professor of Geological Engineering and director of the Mining Industry
Research Lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, predicts that the rail extension will lower the cost of exporting mineral concentrate to the point that it will directly stimulate the development of three new mineral deposits within a 120-mile-wide corridor surrounding the existing railroad in Interior Alaska. Mat-Su Borough officials also assume that a cement and lime mining and production operation would be developed as a result of the railroad extension. We have used these five mining projects as a case study to calculate the resulting expected benefits to Anchorage from the rail extension.”
This is where the assumptions appear to most diverge from reality. Check out this chart from ISER 2010 (based on the Metz analyses):
The first three lines seem reasonable. The fourth line is where it starts to get funky. “Mine B” would produce 1.7 million tons of concentrate annually (all needing to be shipped by rail of course). Red Dog mine, currently the largest in Alaska and the largest zinc mine in the world, only ships ~1.4 million tons. Then the questions blossom with the metal values. “Mine B” would produce metal with a value of $5.1 billion per year. For reference the entire state of Alaska produced metals (all metals, placer and hardrock) worth $3 billion in 2010 (same year as the ISER report where I obtained this table) – less than half the amount that would supposedly be produced by these new mines Port Mac would create.
So basically for this to all pan out they need a mine bigger than Red Dog, as well as a couple of other mines, to commence operations as a direct result of the Port Mac spur… and be located near the railroad. There are two additional points worth noting here:
1) Mineral exploration in the state is occurring at an all-time high. It’s all over the state… wherever the geology is good, there are people drilling. Access to infrastructure is clearly important for the development of a mining prospect, but one could argue that since no one is even *looking* for a massive deposit near the railroad (see below) that the geology may not be as favorable as assumed.
2) Most of the currently active mineral exploration projects in the Fairbanks area and near the railroad are pursuing gold deposits. Gold mines do not typically ship significant quantities of ore, they ship out dore bars which would have a negligible impact on the railroad and are just as easily transported by truck or even air.
Therefore I took at look at mineral prospects being explored that are within the 120-mile corridor described by Metz. I ignored all the gold-only prospects, of which there are several including the large Livengood Prospect. There are only three possibilities (Golden Zone, Stone Boy, and Shorty Creek) and there certainly doesn’t appear to be anything like a “mine B” which is described as a “a Porphyry Cu- Mo-Au-Ag deposit of large size (ninetieth percentile [in the world] of tonnage and grade) located in the north flank of the Alaska Range.” The only mine prospect in the entire state that has enough ore to qualify as a “mine B” is probably Pebble (Porphyry Cu- Mo-Au-Ag), far from any connection to Port Mac.
Just as an aside, there is some amusing circular logic in the ISER report as well. First, they argue that the rail extension would cause these five mines to spring into existence. Since they assure us that those operations would not otherwise have existed, they count all their benefits in the cost-benefit analysis for the extension. However, one of those benefits is the traffic avoidance if these facilities had to ship all that ore/cement by truck on existing roads.
I have no doubt that building the Port Mac extension would benefit some industries. However, it’s hard to imagine Alaska becoming a giant cement exporter (35% of savings), it seems unlikely that a massive mineral deposit worth more than all current production will be developed near the railroad (~20% of savings), and clearly there will not be millions of tons of coal going to a never-built gasification plant to service a now-defunct facility (33% of savings). Remove these putative benefits and the cost-benefit analysis for the spur suddenly looks a lot less rosy.
Globally, temperature has been rising as the CO2 from burning of fossil fuels insulates the earth. The most pronounced warming has occurred in the last several decades, especially in the arctic.
But that’s a global average. I also really want to know what’s happening right here. So, I had some fun staring at the more-local temperature graphs. Looking at Alaska specifically, temperature records only go back to 1949, and basically consist of a cold half (1949-1976) and a warm half (1977-today). So even Hig, who grew up here, never experienced that cold. During the cold half, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (a natural cycle of ocean temperatures with a time frame of 20-30 years) brought cold waters to the eastern North Pacific, and warm waters to the western North Pacific – making Alaska cooler. In the late 1970s, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation switched, and Alaska got warm.
What next? Well, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation appears to be dropping back into a persistently cold phase, and if that was the only big factor here, I’d expect to see Alaska dipping back down into those 1949-1976 temperatures along with it. Actually, I’d expect that to have happened already, given the PDO in the last few years has been as low as it was in the early 70s. But human-caused climate change introduces a consistent and increasing warming trend, which coexists with natural variation.
So, cool periods get less cool, and warm periods get even warmer. Average temperatures will continue to climb, more rapidly during natural warm cycles, and more rapidly as the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to increase. We might never see temperatures as cold as the 1949-1979 average again – certainly not over any extended time frame. And next time the Pacific Decadal Oscillation shifts into a warm phase, we’ll probably see temperatures shoot well above the exceptionally warm years seen in the early 2000s. The latest report by the USGS shows predicted temperature increases across the state for the 21st century, against a reference frame of 1971 to 2000 temperatures (a period already dominated by warm). The degree of future change is predicted to be greatest in the northwestern regions of the state, and greatest during winter months, as has been true of the warming Alaska has already experienced.
From this USGS report: left shows a higher emissions (A2) and right a lower emissions (B2) scenario for the years 2070-2099.
The narrow time frame of recorded temperatures and the high natural variability of Alaska climate makes local temperature trends difficult to pick out from measurements alone. Global data is much more robust, and shows warming trends more clearly. But temperature measurements aren’t our only signal. Alaska’s overall warming trend is clearly visible in its natural systems, including melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, advancing trees and shrubs, disappearing sea ice, dramatic coastal erosion, and changing species distributions.
This is the final update from Josh and Brian’s Greenland journey: Unpeeling the Banana Coast
Until tonight we had always slept under the tarp. The drum of mosquitoes and midges beating against the fabric would lull us to sleep. But tonight was a night for unusual circumstances. It was paying-for-ferry eve, a night of shame, regret, and sudden pangs of financial angst. The fjord between us and Narsarsuaq (aka the airport) was filled with ice blown in from the recent Foehn wind, making a paddle dubious. Local advice regarding our potential crossing ranged from overly reassuring to heavily skeptical; “Of course, a very doable paddle!” and “Do you value your life?!”
We lay on opposite ends of a porch belonging to a derelict cabin looking out on the fjord. The red and yellow paint had been scoured away by winter winds. Icebergs flipped along the cobble beach a couple hundred meters away, their sound no longer startling. July was coming to an end, and the perpetual sun of June had been replaced by something like a normal day. The horizon to the west blazed orange as the mountains turned to silhouettes. We had come a long way. Across the water, we could see some of the sheep farms we had walked through in our first couple days, including our friend Kalista’s. The tussocks and willow looked docile, pastoral, predictable. The road we walked on the first day of the trip trickled down from the hills and meandered along the coast. The sun inched down further, its broad strokes of light painting wildflowers, bushes, and sandstone.
It’s weird, to be able to reflect in this way, to be able to look at whole days of your life instantaneously. Most of our route to Narsaq was visible from the comfort of our rotting porch. Beyond the physical, looking back becomes much more complicated. We have met sailors, hunters, fishermen, farmers, geologists, writers, musicians, teachers, artists, priests, politicians, kids. Greenlanders, Danes, Icelanders, Faroese, Germans, Spaniards, even Americans. Kvanefjeld Mine, our whole reason for going here, has changed from a yes or no, to something more elusive and harder to define.
We have been welcomed into more homes than we have Greenlandic words in our vocabulary. Invited inside on dirt roads, in the middle of towns, and in our tent. We have been offered endless cups of coffee: “Kaffe?” Given dinners, cookies, pastries, histories, stories, tours, and a sense of what true kindness is. I think because we were walking everywhere, we lost a bit of tourist scent, and were able to meet people on more honest terms- an experience that was as powerful as the wilderness we went looking for. It’s funny, the mythology of the American west has this notion of hospitality in rugged landscapes. The pioneer family feeds the weary traveler. “Papa, there’s a man at the door with a beard, a gun, and three beaver pelts, he said he’s walked all the way from Grand Junction,’ ‘Let him in son, and give him some whiskey, he’ll tell us his story.” To actually experience a shred of that, thousands of miles away, has been a priceless gift, a fulfillment of both a tradition and a basic social contract.
Sunset over Tunulliarfik Fjord and our very first days in Greenland.
Independence is the pervasive concern. For a sheep farmer independence is a 10,000 liter tank of diesel. For some Greenlanders it’s the jobs and revenue that could be brought by foreign mineral companies. For others it’s the right to a traditional way of life, and the preservation of the resources to make that possible. And for some more urban professionals it’s a pipe dream held up by native politicians as political fodder. The issues are relative and people are slow to have an opinion when they speak a language whose most famous word is ‘immaga’- maybe. There are dark places in Greenlandic society: alcoholism, corruption, ignorance, apathy, suicide. They add a somber weight to conversations about the future, a sense of doubt that confuses the optimism and beauty of the people and the place.
The sun finally sets behind the mountains and the fog bank making its way up the fjord glows eerily as it gains momentum. The temperature drops, darkness falls, and for the first time since we left the US, we can see the stars.
This is a guest post from Andrew, one of our GTT collaborators, who walked from Lake Iliamna to the Revelation Mountains this summer.
Somewhere between the north shore of Lake Clark, Alaska, and the last human outpost before the bitter emptiness outside the Alaska Range, it dawns on me: 25 days and 200+ miles in the wilderness, dragging my entire life on my back…
I am a walking advertisement for the petroleum industry.
My entire expedition is built on fossil fuels. I am walking oil.
My pack is made of Dyneema, a.k.a. Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. The strongest fiber in the world – made from oil. My clothing is made of nylon, capilene, polar fleece. Synthetic rubber shoes soles. Wool socks blended with acrylic. Oil.
The steel and titanium and aluminum I carry: mined, refined, and forged using coal, natural gas, and oil. Cigarette lighters… oil. Plastic-barreled mechanical pencil. Oil. Bicycle inner tube, duct tape, paraffin-coated sail thread, floss, glass bottle with a plastic lid. Sil-nylon stuff sacks. Half a down sleeping bag, sewn of nylon. A Megamid shelter: a thin film of woven polymer strands and plastic hardware, made of oil.
My knife, quenched in oil: double oil.
It’s all oil. The food I carry was grown by an industrial food chain, powered by the green revolution, powered by fossil fuels – mostly oil. The nitrogen in the ammonia that fertilized the soil was extracted from the atmosphere via natural gas. The salt was mined, using oil.
Do I count the electricity in the camera batteries, charged in Alaska? Alaska’s power generation is 58% natural gas, 9% coal, and 12% oil.
I carry a satphone. I don’t much like it. It’s for sending texts, which GTT transforms into tweets. Plastic casing. Metal components. Battery. It talks to a satellite, built of tinfoil and lofted into space at tremendous energetic cost in space on top of a giant pillar of rocket fuel. It’s an ultimate triumph of the Age of Oil.
I search my gear for anything, somehow, not made of oil.
I have only one thing that isn’t functional, on this trek: tiny, pink paper heart. It was given to me by a spooky, raccoon-like girl. It can be reimbursed for chocolate pudding.
The paper came from a tree that was cut by a gas-powered chainsaw. The wood was pulped in a mill. It was turned inoto paper in an electrified factory. It was dried in ovens and shipped on container ships and 18-wheelers, burning petrol. Chocolate pudding is made from cocoa, harvested and shipped overseas, and from milk. The milk comes from cows fed on grain, which is grown in the Midwest. Both derive their calories from photosynthesis, but are suffused and augmented with oil.
The fact that she gave me a tiny pink paper heart: not oil.
To preserve the heart, I laminated it in clear plastic packing tape. Oil.
The wool hat, my sister knitted for me, in college, almost 20 years ago. Not oil.
I’ve worn this hat on virtually every serious trip I’ve done for two decades. I have a critical need for this hat-not-of-oil, besides as a headwarmer. It’s made of sheep wool: keratin, a protein. Unlike every single scrap of hydrocarbon fabric I carry, it is heat-resistant. It is not fuel. I use it as a pot holder, for my titanium mug… precisely because it is not oil.
It’s not just my stuff that’s made of oil.
The satphone reminds me of this. It talks to a satellite. That satellite and I have a lot in common. As a modern urban American, I am the coalescence of a massive spike of liberated fossil energy: a seething, scintillating star of ancient sunlight, transformed by alchemy from hydrocarbons that were stored for millions of years beneath the ground.
I am, in the big scheme of things, one of the most energy-intensive humans in the history of planet Earth. I have been lofted, here – to the wilds of Alaska – on wings of petrol. As I march across the tundra, diving through rain squalls and smelling of urethane and curry, I am an ambassador from another world. I am a glowing scion of the hydrocarbon empire, carrying my torch through the barbarian lands. The bears, and sheep, the caribou: they all know I’m not one of their own. Because I smell of oil.
I am not self-reliant, any more than the satellite, executing its first orbit around the Earth, can claim to have got there on its own.
Fifty miles downstream of me, where the Stony River plunges deep into the Interior, is Lime Village, the closest human settlement. Lime Village is a tiny Athabascan village of less than thirty people. They live by largly traditional ways. They snare beaver, shoot ptarmigan, fish, hunt moose. They have snow machines, shotguns, and outboard motors. They are made, only partly, of oil.
As modern humans, we are intimately connected into the fossil biome. The health and extent of ancient peat bogs is, strangely enough, one of our vital environmental concerns. Those bogs transformed sunlight into organic matter, which was then metamorphosed inside the earth. Their chemical energy became our hydrocarbon fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, and in particular the transportable, storable energy of liquid petroleum fuel, is inextricably woven into our entire civilization’s infrastructure. Geysers of fossil fuel provide the energy budget to lift the skyscrapers of the modern age. It’s a gigantic subsidy, passed forward through geological time.
The way this trip is going, I’d find myself very naked, a long ways out in the wilderness, if I suddenly ran out of oil.
So where do we go from here? Deep in the jungles of the Amazon, there are small tribes who have no contact with the outside world. They build fires by friction and hunt with hand-made arrows dipped in curare. They’re an energetic anomaly in the modern world: people who draw their energy and materials almost entirely from the living biome. They have no books. No monuments. No antibiotics. No hot showers. No car wrecks. They have few of the amenities that most of us are happy to receive. Most of us don’t turn down energy.
Are they the future? Is this our vision of sustainability, when the pump runs dry? These are people who are not yet made of oil.
This is a guest post from Andrew, one of our GTT collaborators, who walked from Lake Iliamna to the Revelation Mountains this summer.
This is the first of a series of posts from our adventure within 1/4 mile of home.
This is the first of a series of posts from our adventure within 1/4 mile of home.
The transformation was nearly instant. From whining over the exact proper amount of jam and milk in his oatmeal, to slipping bare feet into rubber boots (one bumblebee striped, one black, both on the wrong feet), racing out the door at dad’s promise to measure something with the measuring tape. Hig followed, while I pulled a squawking and barefoot Lituya from where she balanced on the doorframe, stuffing her in the duct-taped yellow rain suit that had borne all the abuse of Malaspina Glacier and a pair of black neoprene booties that had suffered the same. I was still in my nightgown. Soon we were all outside, and Katmai squeaking in high-pitched excitement each time he found a currant bush, Hig noting down leaf sizes on a clipboard, Lituya struggling to catch up as they flitted from bush to bush. It was just what we envisioned. For about 15 minutes.
The currants are one of the first plants to leaf out in the spring, and of course the largest leaves are right where we know the snow always melts out first. But before we could notice anything more profound, the kids were onto another idea.
How to stay near home but not AT home? Learn something new about a place we see all the time, rather than falling into regular patterns of work and chores? And do it at a level that can interest people from age 1 to 35? Backyard adventures allow us to slide into a relaxation impossible to achieve with the logistics, gear weight, and distances of an expedition. But juggling the desires of four, and hanging onto visions of learning and adventure while surrounded by all of your toys (adults and kids) requires a complicated balance.
Hig dumps a bucket of muddy water from a quickly-filling hole in the marsh, as he digs down to learn more about its geologic history.
A stone’s throw away and ten thousand years ago, a small patch of sloping ground stood clean and barren in the wake of retreating glaciers. Water streamed over the relatively impermeable surface of silty mud ground fine by the ice of the Kachemak Glacier. A few straggling plants popped up, adding their meager nutrients to the barren ground. When these plants died, they lay on ground so wet that no oxygen could seep in to speed their decay. More plants grew, and died, and grew and died again, layering the barren ground in first inches, then foot after foot of rich chocolate-colored peat. Once in a millenia, an ominous boom from the volcanoes across the bay turned the sky to black, smothering the plants in a layer of abrasive ash so thick it laid a bold stripe in the layers of mud and peat, still visible thousands of years later. All the smaller ashfalls have been spread out into nothingness, mere smears in the dirt.
Sweaty, with mud in his hair, shoulder deep in a giant hole, Hig told us this story, talking animatedly about all he was discovering in the layers of ash and mud, while Katmai perched curiously on the pile of overturned peat. I stood with my visiting parents, our rubber boots squelching on the surface of this cranberry-lined meadow, watching birds and chatting as Hig’s shovel uncovered the history (the hole was carefully filled in afterwards, and plants replaced). He’d been itching to do this for years – to dig down into the geologic history of this unusual meadow. Hig has loved digging holes since childhood, and is about as close as you can get to a PhD ditch digger.
He’s a sedimentary geologist. While we are both science geeks at a level I cannot deny, Hig is far more of a scientist than I ever was, yearning for graphs and measurements and careful data analysis while I am mostly content to learn more loosely, embracing numberless observations and telling stories. Sometimes, his science folds perfectly into our adventures, with Katmai peering into the hole in great excitement, as if every rock Hig unearthed was made of chocolate. Other times, it tumbles into conflict between careful measurement, detailed thought, and the chaos of children scribbling on notebooks and running off with crucial pieces of data. Toddlers and preschoolers make fickle field assistants.
This small dead pine was carefully sliced and measured, to figure out its rate of growth, and how much carbon it stored in its brief life.
Six or so years ago, a young pine seedling was planted in the clearcut below our house. Two winters ago, the upper five feet of its trunk was busted off by heavy snow. (It’s been sitting in our yard ever since). In the four years of growth recorded by this broken top, the tree stretched over a foot higher each year – nearly fifteen and a half inches on its best year. As it added rings of wood, it sucked carbon dioxide from the air, turning the intangible gas into lengthening branches and long fingery needles. Hig laid out the tree on a stretch of white cloth in a careful dissection, each segment cut and measured, each section of trunk polished to count the few wide rings. I shooed the kids (and their muddy boots) away from the edge, as he marked down columns of numbers. Each year the trunk captured more CO2 than the last… just a third of an ounce in 2007, then nearly an ounce, then three ounces, then nearly eight ounces.
Hig measures rings cut from a tiny pine tree, estimating its rate of growth and carbon sequestration
Climate change is shifting all the ecosystems around us. But what are the ecosystems doing to climate change? We watch the clearcut all the time, watching the non-native larch and pine seedlings shoot up beyond the native spruce, the alder cover old road beds, the berries and brambles spilling in profusion over the remain of old stumps, wondering what it will become. Hig’s measurements began to ask the less visible questions. How much carbon is going into the clearcut? Is it more, or less, than what went into the older forests around? How do the non-native pines compare to native spruce and alder for carbon uptake? If the forests were managed for carbon storage (rather than habitat or timber) what would the optimal management strategy be? When we burn firewood, what impact do we have on the carbon cycle? How many trees does it take to capture the carbon burned in our weekly van trips to town for lunch?
Inspired, Hig began a similar dissection of an alder, as Katmai borrowed the nippers to “help”, and Lituya began to investigate all the interesting little pieces of wood. Real science may have to come later.
Why is there an ice road on the Skwenta River, miles from the nearest town? Why are there bulldozers in the woods near our village?
These are both real questions that we’ve received in the last year… both with the same answer. Mining exploration.
Alaska is currently experiencing a “second gold rush” as high metals prices drive an unprecedented amount of mineral exploration in the state. It seems like almost everyone has heard of the Pebble Prospect. But not many people know that Pebble is only the largest and most famous of dozens of such prospects. In fact, within Alaska, 34 projects spent more than $1 million on exploration each in 2010, with 81 projects having spend more than $100,000. That’s a lot of helicopters, drill rigs, bulldozers, etc. And since most of this exploration takes place far from roads or population centers most people are unaware of it.
Hence the questions above.
So we set out to create a “super map” of Alaskan mineral exploration. We wanted this map to be comprehensive, interactive, dynamic, and up to date. It turned out to be more work than we thought, both to research/locate the 84 projects now in our database as well as to modify/develop the appropriate software.
But it’s finally done and ready for public consumption. Check out the map here. The map is free and open source. We’re hoping to disseminate this map to everyone who might have an interest in viewing either the scale of mineral exploration in the state, or people who just want to know what’s going on in their region. So tell your friends, tell your enemies. Help us spread the word.
It’s also worth noting that this map is “value-neutral”. It’s just a map, we’re not saying whether any of these prospects are a good idea or a bad idea.
The map has a number of features that we hope will make it useful:
You can sign up to receive e-mail (or RSS) updates for any area that you select on the map. That means when we update the projects in that area, you’ll receive a notice about the changes.
Each prospect contains information on metals sought, size, companies involved, notes on recent exploration, etc. Where appropriate, prospects are linked to longer GTT articles and/or photos of the prospect.
Because this map is generated from a database that we maintain, changes are instantaneous and are propagated through all versions of the map. We’ve received funding to maintain this map for at least the next three years and so expect it to always be up-to-date.
The map can be embedded into any other website, simply by pasting in the HTML found at the bottom of the map. See the result above.
Do all adventurers love maps? This blog post is an experiment in focusing on the map itself (rather than the perhaps-overly-long writing I usually do). The anecdote is set at the location marked by the star on the map. Other points contain our photos or info about the area. Click around! Have fun!
It rained all night, or at least all the night that I was listening. For the last two days we’d been circling around a low mountain of shattered grey rock, our hopes perking up with each lull in the pattering, looking for enough of a break in the weather to climb for a view. I wasn’t very hopeful anymore. But when we finally dragged ourselves outside of the tent, the sky looked high, dry, and grey.
Our grey and yellow tent nearly disappeared below us, blending into the fall-colored willow bushes and slopes of rock below. I imagined camoflauged soldiers, dressed in pink and yellow in this gaudy world. As we climbed, the Noatak River appeared as a shining distant stripe. From the top, we could see what we’d been looking for: Red Dog Mine.
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The mine pit itself was hidden behind a piece of the ridge, but through the shifting grey base of the cloud we sat in, we could see the brightly-painted tailings buildings and the long stripe of the airport.
I pointed it out to Katmai who was watching from over my shoulder. “Look. There’s Red Dog Mine again.”
“Red Dog Mine nice?” he piped back at me.
“I don’t know,” I told him. “That’s not an easy question.”
“Whatever you do, don’t put wood ash on the garden. Then it’ll definitely snow.”
I should have listened to my friend’s warning. On the morning of April 6, a light dusting of snowflakes drifted down to the ground, landing on top of the 56.5 inches of snow already sitting on the ground, and covering the wood ash I had put on top of the garden the day before in the hopes it would melt faster.
A few days later, Anchorage busted its all time snowfall record with 134.5 inches for the winter.
The news from the lower 48 this winter was all about the lack of winter. Friends in Minnesota saw summer in March. The entire eastern half of the U.S. pretty much skipped winter altogether. This winter was the 4th warmest on record in the U.S. (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), and the warmest March ever recorded.
Here in Seldovia, people chuckled at that news, while walking up to the top of their roofs, snow shovels in hand. Or cursed the news while running their plow trucks in a losing battle against drifted-in parking lots. Or they didn’t hear the news at all, busy skiing through an endless supply of powder up in the mountains, or zooming their snowmachines along the trail through our yard.
Seldovia doesn’t keep snowfall records. But we’ve been recording snow depth through the winter on a measuring pole in our yard, which usually shows numbers around twice the depth in Anchorage. And we’re nowhere near the snowiest. Other places in the state, such as Valdez, Cordova, Yakutat, and Haines, always have snowfall stats that make Seldovia and Anchorage seem positively desert-like by comparison.
Graph of snow depth in our yard. Click for details.
With snow, it seems that every winter is an entirely different beast. In my childhood in Seattle, I don’t remember that being true. All winters were grey, rainy, and if we were lucky, had maybe one or two small snowstorms that might cancel a day of school.
I’ve only been in Seldovia for 4 winters. There was the winter of the eruption – where the little snow that fell was covered by an ash fall in April, and melted away seemingly instantly. There was so little snow that the berry bushes froze, and took several years to recover the blueberry harvest. Then there was the winter of the March blizzards, burying my mother-in-law’s van to the roof where it sat at the bottom of the driveway. Twice. Then there was the winter of the broken trees, where an enormous November dump of wet snow weighted down the tree tops so much that dozens snapped in half, and the alders were bent down so far that some of them hadn’t popped up fully the next June.
2011-2012 was the winter of the infinite and endless snow. Cold, and relentless, with fluffy snowfall after fluffy snowfall, piling on top of eachother with not much of a melt in between. This year had the coldest January ever recorded in Alaska, with temperatures here hovering in the single digits for pretty much the entire month. No one’s firewood lasted the season. The alders never laid down, and were simply buried standing up.
The lower 48 was warm mostly because the jet stream was farther north than usual this year, leaving much of the country in the warmer air south of the jet stream (particularly the eastern half of the country). Apparently, much of the blame lies with a pair of weather phenomena known as the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. The Arctic Oscillation spent most of the winter in the “positive” phase, which drives winter storms to the north. The North Atlantic Oscillation does a similar thing, and was positive throughout the winter.
So we got everyone’s snow this year, as well as an unusually cold midwinter (particularly in January). Supposedly spring here will be cool and dry. I’m hoping they’re wrong (at least on the cool part), since I would like to see the garden before July. Given how ridiculously off some of the winter predictions were, I’m not too worried.
Weather is complicated. Next year, the pattern may switch entirely, and bury the lower 48 in all of Alaska’s snow. But climate trends are clear. Increasing global temperatures increases the chances of extreme events in any location, particularly on the warm end of the scale. Looking beyond regional weather patterns, February 2012 (the latest month with available data), was the 324th consecutive month where global temperatures beat the 20th century average. That means there hasn’t been a colder-than-average month on a worldwide scale since I was 5 years old (February 1985).
For now, anyone with a shovel is more than welcome to all the snow in my yard. Over 4 feet still available!