Cumulative geoecological effects of 62 years of infrastructure and climate change in ice-rich permafrost landscapes, Prudhoe Bay Oilfield, Alaska



Many areas of the Arctic are simultaneously affected by rapid climate change and rapid industrial development. These areas are likely to increase in number and size as sea ice melts and abundant Arctic natural resources become more accessible. Documenting the changes that have already occurred is essential to inform management approaches to minimize the impacts of future activities. Here, we determine the cumulative geoecological effects of 62 years (1949–2011) of infrastructure- and climate-related changes in the Prudhoe Bay Oilfield, the oldest and most extensive industrial complex in the Arctic, and an area with extensive ice-rich permafrost that is extraordinarily sensitive to climate change. We demonstrate that thermokarst has recently affected broad areas of the entire region, and that a sudden increase in the area affected began shortly after 1990 corresponding to a rapid rise in regional summer air temperatures and related permafrost temperatures. We also present a conceptual model that describes how infrastructure-related factors, including road dust and roadside flooding are contributing to more extensive thermokarst in areas adjacent to roads and gravel pads. We mapped the historical infrastructure changes for the Alaska North Slope oilfields for 10 dates from the initial oil discovery in 1968–2011. By 2010, over 34% of the intensively mapped area was affected by oil development. In addition, between 1990 and 2001, coincident with strong atmospheric warming during the 1990s, 19% of the remaining natural landscapes (excluding areas covered by infrastructure, lakes and river floodplains) exhibited expansion of thermokarst features resulting in more abundant small ponds, greater microrelief, more active lakeshore erosion and increased landscape and habitat heterogeneity. This transition to a new geoecological regime will have impacts to wildlife habitat, local residents and industry.