Seismic Studies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

May Hlaing
December 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the Brooks Range in the background. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 11, 2017, an internal memo from the Interior Department of the White House was submitted proposing an end to the restrictions that previously limited any exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These aforementioned restrictions protected the refuge from drilling from 1986 onwards since they limited the exploratory period from October 1984 to May 1986. In particular, the internal memo asked that the Alaska Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service update the regulations to allow for new exploratory proposals in any given year. [1] If the rule is finalized after a public comment period, companies would have to bid on conducting the seismic studies and an estimated 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum under the ground could become open to exploration. [2]

Energy in the Arctic

The Arctic refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed off to commercial drilling since the 1980s due to concerns about the impact on the wildlife and ecosystem in general. In particular, conservationists have expressed concerns over the polar bears, caribou, endangered whales, and other animals in the region, whose protection has been a longstanding priority. [3] Opening it up again for seismic exploration, however, has been a priority for Republicans and Trump, who pledged to aggressively roll back environmental regulations and expand fossil fuel development in the name of energy independence and job creation. [3] This re-opening, even to determine the amount of oil in the region, would set the stage for bitter fights between the administration and various environmental groups.

A Bitter Debate

One side that supports re-opening the Arctic to oil explorations, of course, are the companies interested in drilling there. This region, virtually untouched, would open up new sources of oil for them but with oil prices hovering near $50 per barrel, it is not clear if companies even want to drill in the refuge in the near future. This re-opening could take anywhere from several months to two years to occur, but would ultimately be a win for Republicans who have long accused Obama of ceding Arctic energy production to Russia and other rival nations. [3]

On the flip side, environmental activists assert that even advanced three-dimensional seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to thawing of the permafrost, which further endangers the animals in that region. Furthermore, environmentalists have consistently opposed such activity, which sends shock waves underground. They say it would disturb denning polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, as well as musk oxen, caribou and other Arctic animals shown in Fig. 1. [2] Moreover they argue that climate change has already led to significant changes in the area such as the receding sea ice and that further changes should be prevented. [3]

1985 Seismic Exploration

Part of the reason why environmentalists oppose seismic testing, as mentioned above, is because of the lasting effects that these shock waves can have on the region, which were documented in a report following a seismic exploration that took place in 1985 in the National Wildlife Refuge. From 1984 to 1985, approximately 2000 km of seismic lines were completed in a 5 × 20 km grid. [4] These shocks resulted in the destruction of shrubs and sedge tussocks, scraping of ground cover to bare soil, and standing water on trails. The greatest amount of damage occured to the vegetation. Long-term monitoring following 1985 in this report showed that most of the disturbance disappeared gradually, but that impacts to tundra vegetation could persist up to 23 years after disturbance. [4]


The possibility of reversing these decades old regulations presents a polemic for conservationists and newfound danger for an fragile ecosystem in the Arctic. Ultimately, the final say belongs to Congress, but there are a number of factors to consider ranging from the environmental impacts/recovery to the economic value of the oil.

© May Hlaing. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. W. Kurth, "Update to Regulations 50 CFR 37," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 11 Aug 17.

[2] B. C. Howards and S. Gibbens, "See the Alaska Wildlife Refuge Targeted for Drilling by Tax Plan," National Geographic, 2 Dec 17.

[3] W. Yardley, "Obama Administration Bans Arctic Offshore Oil Drilling Through 2022. But Will Trump Reverse It?," Los Angeles Times, 18 Nov 16.

[4] M. Emers and J. C. Jorgenson, "Effects of Winter Weismic Exploration on the Vegetation and Soil Thermal Regime of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," in Disturbance and Recovery of Arctic Lands, ed. by R. M. M. Crawford (Kluwer, 1997), p. 443.