UAF Web app guides tundra ice road construction

The Arctic tundra is a fragile ecosystem not always conducive to travel. But recently, the state's natural resource managers started using a Web application developed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to let oil field companies know when it's safe to build ice roads over sensitive areas on the North Slope.

The responsibility of notifying oil companies and contractors when it's safe to drive to remote sites without damaging the tundra falls on the staff at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' Division of Mining, Land and Water. Last fall, DNR contacted UAF's Geographic Information Network of Alaska to ask for help in developing a tool to let them know for certain when the tundra is frozen and ready for traffic.

Staff at GINA built a Web app that uses soil temperatures, snow depth and snow density data from multiple monitoring stations on the North Slope, according to UAF. Information from the new app can be posted from anywhere on the North Slope road system, and the results display immediately in an online map.

The app also generates an email group of interested parties, said Melissa Head, a DNR natural resources manager, in a release.

"It's useful to have our information getting out in multiple formats," Head said. "The North Slope contractors can quickly and easily grasp what's open and what's closed; they can see the areas in relation to the North Slope and in relation to their facilities."

Before the app, both DNR and the North Slope workers relied solely on email announcements.

"Email is still a part of the system but the current status website turned out to be preferred enough by both DNR and North Slope workers that we were able to pick the system back up and make it available again this last fall," said GINA's Dayne Broderson last week.

An earlier application GINA developed several years ago suffered from a lack of funding and disappeared. When it did, DNR heard from workers up north asking where the app had gone and if they could bring it back.

Head and her colleagues at DNR contacted Broderson and his crew at GINA to ask they bring it back online, but this time in a more user-friendly format. The new interface is a single app that is optimized for mobile use.

"I think there is a huge opportunity to expand what information is integrated/fused to help assist in decision making for both DNR managers and for the tundra travelers/ice road builders," said Broderson. "I look forward to seeing what direction things evolve (in)."

Balancing development and conservation has been a complex and contentious issue since oil production began on the Slope more than 40 years ago, and this new app helps assure that both sides are getting what they need to survive.

"The tundra is a state resource," Head said in a release. "We do our best to keep damage to a minimum and try to come up with different techniques that allow companies to explore for oil and gas without leaving a negative imprint on the land."

DNR guidelines state the tundra can be opened to off-road travel and ice road construction in the coastal areas when the soil temperature at a depth of about a foot reaches 23 degrees, and when there is 6 inches of snow on the ground.

Deeper snow coverage is required in the foothills because it has more tussocks, shrubs and hummocks, Head said.

"It takes more snow to encapsulate those micro-topographic features," she said. "The snow and the cold soil are the only things that are going to protect the tundra" from the effects of heavy traffic.

Monitoring stations are situated in each of the four areas and are accessible by road so DNR managers can get to them once a week to download the data and transfer the results of their analysis to the online map.

This project was a relatively modest one for GINA, Broderson said, but still worthwhile.

"Making our services available for practical applications like this is taking advantage of (the university's) ability to serve the state," Broderson said in a release. "Anything we can do to improve the efficiency of our agency partners is improving the whole industry."

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