Each spring for at least the past 23,000 years, members of the Porcupine caribou herd as they move in concert near the end of their approximately 1,500-mile trek, dispersed across the wide expanses of their wintering grounds in Canada’s Yukon, have gathered together like water flowing along branched tributaries toward a single confluence. That confluence is a 1.5 million-acre area of boggy coastal tundra plain, nestled between the north slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska and the Beaufort Sea. The caribou know this place as their summer calving and feeding ground. We know it as Area 1002 within the larger 19.2 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Estimates indicate that 10 to 20 pounds of carbon per square foot resides within the uppermost 10 feet of the permafrost.
In the renewed debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one troubling impact of oil development has been overlooked: Disrupting the annual caribou migration will have a profound effect on the soil and release even more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Currently, the exact social cost of carbon taking into account the potency and lifespan of methane released to the atmosphere remains uncertain. That is because environmental risk assessments have not evaluated how widespread the thawing of permafrost in Area 1002 will be as a consequence of shifting caribou movement, nor have they determined the rate at which the thawing top 10-foot-layer of permafrost will be decomposed. Still, decades-old preliminary exploration activity in Area 1002 would suggest, at the very least, that the spectacular wilderness vista will be altered for generations to come.
Beyond the analyses, the ultimate question remains: Will this economically questionable 30-year venture be worth the lasting environmental consequences to a wilderness that took tens to hundreds of thousands of years to develop, for the sake of extracting what amounts to meeting one year’s worth of the nation’s oil demand?