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Alaska's hardest-rocking library: Curating the past on behalf of the future

Sean Doogan
A core sample from the first oil well drilled in Prudhoe Bay. June 7, 2013
Sean Doogan photo
The Geologic Materials Center in Eagle River stores geologic samples from across the state, making them available for analysis with modern techniques. June 7, 2013
Sean Doogan photo
A sample from Cook Inlet, bored out from new analysis. June 7, 2013
Sean Doogan photo
The Geologic Materials Center in Eagle River stores geologic samples from across the state, making them available for analysis with modern techniques. June 7, 2013
Sean Doogan photo
Core samples from Mt. Spurr at the Geologic Materials Center in Eagle River. June 7, 2013
Sean Doogan photo
Fort Knox gold mine core samples at the Geologic Materials Center in Eagle River. June 7, 2013
Sean Doogan photo

Tucked away inside a little-known state repository are tens of thousands of boxes filled with rocks that chart the history of natural resource development in Alaska over the past 100 years.

From samples of the Swanson River oil field, one of the state’s earliest, to rocks taken at the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks, to others from Amchitka Island, the site of underground nuclear tests in the late 1960s, the Alaska Geologic Materials Center in Eagle River is like a museum of development successes and failures in Alaska.

But in reality, the facility is more of a library. Since it first opened in 1984, its samples have been studied and reviewed for clues to undiscovered resources locked inside the rock, awaiting new technologies and new eyes to spot them.

And because natural resource development has long fueled Alaska's economy, it's no surprise the center is running out of space. Many of the samples are stacked in 66 weathered Conex containers that dot the nondescript property, tucked in the woods of Eagle River between Upper and Lower Fire Lake.

But that will soon change. The Alaska Legislature has committed $19 million to upgrade or build a new facility.

One of the more interesting samples stored at the center is a core taken from the mother of all Alaska oil well sites -- Prudhoe Bay No.1 -- which was drilled in 1968 and proved to be the first successful oil and gas exploration well on the North Slope. The center also holds samples from oil wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, as well as offshore sites in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Cores from natural gas wells drilled in Cook Inlet are also on hand.

It is a living history. Many of the old samples are being re-examined with new equipment, leading to renewed interest in old well sites and undrilled areas.

“There are a lot of surprises yet to be discovered inside the boxes we keep here, but until someone actually visits the center and experiences its value, it’s just a bunch of rocks,” says Bob Swenson, a state geologist and program manager for the center.

Cornucopia of data

The total inventory represents 13 million feet of oil and gas exploration -- enough linear information to get you from Anchorage to Portland, Ore., along the Alaska Highway. Mining companies have donated another 250,000 feet of mineral core to the center.

The samples are stacked in old shelving units, waiting for new methods of analysis or renewed interest from geologists. When they are opened and examined, the results can be surprising.

Such was the case for a small mining company that re-examined core samples from one of its gold prospects.

“The samples were taken 15 years ago,” says Kenneth Papp, the center’s curator, who declined to name the company or the area involved. “When they looked at them recently, geologists found visible gold in the rocks -- something they had not seen before. Needless to say, they were very excited when they left the building.”

Not all the samples stored at the GMC are valuable for oil and gas, or even gold. Many of the rocks are being re-examined to find traces of rare earth elements used in ballistic missile targeting systems as well as mobile phones. But currently, most of the rare earth elements are mined in China.

One particular place of interest in Alaska is Bokan Mountain. The proposed mine sits on Prince of Wales Island, inside the Tongass National Forest. It was once mined for uranium, but that ended in 1971. Now, a Canadian company called UCore is interested in the site for rare earth elements. The old rock samples from the uranium mine are stored at the Geologic Materials Center (time has dropped their radiation emissions to safe levels), and they still hold value as possible indicators of rare earth elements at Bokan.

Waiting for a new home

Most of the data from the samples, including all previous work done on them, was made available online in 2010. Geologists from across the globe can look at all the research done on cores and chips from the comfort of a computer. But that is only helpful if the answers being looked for exist in previous research. To get new information from the old rocks, geologists need to go to the center themselves.

“Even getting to the samples can be a challenge at the current facility,” Papp says. “(Samples) are stacked as high as 15 feet and weigh more than 40 pounds. Luckily, we have a staffer who is 6 feet 8 inches tall, so that helps, but it is certainly not the best solution.”

The Legislature has committed $4 million in the capital budget next year and $15 million the year after that to locate a new facility. The new building will allow for all of the samples to be stored in a temperature controlled and easy-to-access environment. It is hoped the new building, which could be finished within two years, will assist geologists in making future historic finds, continuing the living legacy contained in those boxes of rocks.

“The potential discoveries yet-to-be-made from these samples are too numerous to count,” Papp says.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com