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Ice roads and tundra travel: Rural Arctic access complicated by warmer winters

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: February 3, 2018
  • Published February 3, 2018

The winter ice road season is underway on the North Slope. Sufficiently low temperatures and deep snowpack have allowed for the start of off-road tundra travel across many state lands around the oil patch.

Late December and early January starts to the off-road season have become normal as higher temperatures continue to mark the winter months across most of the Arctic.

While industry has had to adapt to changes, many locals are still struggling to find a new normal amid the shifting seasons.

Just before Christmas, conditions still weren't favorable for travel for the large and heavy industry vehicles that, without a buffer provided by snow and solidly frozen ground, can do serious damage to the underlying tundra.

High ambient temperatures and deep snow kept the ground, measured at a depth of one foot, from reaching the requisite minus-5 degrees Celsius in some of the coastal and foothill areas tracked by the Division of Mining, Land and Water. Additionally, while certain monitoring areas had the 9 inches of snow required for the foothills and 6 inches of snow for the coastal areas, others did not.

"Southwest winds are currently bringing warm air to the Arctic. This trend will shift to a more typical easterly flow by next week. This should decrease air temperatures but seasonably cold temperatures do not appear to be in the forecast anytime soon. This will continue to slow ice road construction activities and slow the release of soil heat," the division wrote in its travel status report Dec. 20.

By mid-January, the eastern coastal area had met the criteria to open, while the other parts of the coast and foothills remained closed. By Jan. 19, both coastal areas were open.

Despite the later start date, it's still within the department's prediction for this year. The Division of Natural Resources has been monitoring tundra travel opening dates and ice road construction dates since the late 1960s, though some criteria has changed over time.

"We can't really draw too many conclusions. The data set is kind of long-term, but we haven't really tried to analyze it for any statistically significant trends," said Melissa Head, a natural resource manager with the division.

Glancing back over the start dates for the last four decades, a noticeable shift in start times does seem to have happened: As the years have gone by, the off-road season has started later and later. However, it's important to note there may have been other factors at play contributing to the changing opening dates.

In the early 1970s, the tundra opened consistently in October or November. By the mid-1980s, the opening dates were predominantly in November, with a few December dates peppered throughout and a single January opening in the winter of 1984-85. By the late 1990s, January openings were common and November dates had all but disappeared. Throughout the 2000s, December and January were the only months with openings.

The upper foothill area did not open at all in the winter of 2014-15 and the lower foothills remained closed through two winters, from 2015 to last year. According to numbers provided by the department specific to the opening areas, these were the first complete closures for entire seasons.

"For a number of years, it did look like the season was getting shorter and shorter, just from a winter off-road travel standpoint. That's when new winter construction techniques were starting to be employed, this idea of pre-packing routes," Head said. "So, you're packing the snow down before you're building an ice road, therefore you're decreasing the insulated value of the snow and getting the ground to release more of that stored up heat, so we get ground temperatures reaching our criteria sooner when you do that. Then, by packing the snow, you're also capturing it, and then when wind moves through or there's any additional snowfall, you can pack on top of that, and then you're increasing the snow depth too. That really did a lot to lengthen the season."

She pointed to one particular data set that shows when the pre-packing began in the winter of 2003-04.

"You can see by that one graph, when that started being a technique that was used, the season did kind of stabilize," she said. "Now, it really depends on when companies want to get started."

She said there can be a misconception of industry always wanting to start work as early as possible. Some seasons and prospects don't necessarily call for a particularly early start date. Additionally, when the temperatures and conditions preclude early openings, industry often has other options.

"There are so many other ways that industry can actually get out and do what they need to do. If there's a pipeline project that they need to work on and they were originally going to use vehicles to drive out there, but now they realize they can't use that because there's not enough snow, they can change their techniques and use an ice road or they could build a snow road to get out there. They have all these different vehicles they have access to," she said. "Industry is buffered from any shortened seasons, to a certain extent. Yeah, things might cost more or they have to go back and plan things differently, which takes money and time, but they can do that. It's local communities that don't have that ability because the guy from Utqiaġvik is still using his snowmachine or a truck to try to get across the sea ice."

Head said she couldn't really comment on how differences in the seasons affect the local communities, as she primarily works with industry travel.

However, shorter and warmer winters have had significant effects on locals who depend on cold-weather conditions for safe travel to hunting grounds and between communities or camps.

Local hunters across the North Slope have frequently complained of unpredictable and hazardous sea ice conditions. Pockets of open water and shifting flows have made it harder for whalers to predict how their environments will shift and when, making the practice more dangerous.

"I started whaling (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and the whaling was done on multi-year ice. This ice was thick. It was safe to be on. It was predictable. Over time and all the way up to today, there's a drastic change," Gordon Brower, of Utqiaġvik, told the Sounder in an interview last year. "It's like we're learning how (again) — we're developing new traditional knowledge dealing with first-year ice. Most of our whaling is now being conducted on first-year ice — ice that has just developed over the course of the winter versus ice that was thick and multi-year that never really went away. It couldn't be melted in a single season. We don't see that type of ice these days and learning the difference between multi-year ice and first-year ice, it's unpredictable. We're in a learning curve up here in the Arctic with our whaling."

Out on the tundra, hunters are often finding it harder to travel extended distances by snowmachine with more land remaining open and snow-free throughout the season. In some areas, rivers haven't frozen solid, meaning hunters can't travel reliably by either boat or snowmachine.

Without dependable winter routes, subsistence hunters and their communities can be cut off from the resources on which they depend. If they can reach them, they often find themselves spending more money on gas and transportation to travel further afield than they used to for the same nutritional return.

So, while certain sectors are able to compensate for changes, others cannot so easily shift their practices year-to-year, making adaptation to rural access complications harder and more consequential.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.