05/27/2010 03:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Oil Specter That Haunted Alaska Is Now Haunting The Gulf: A Look Back At Exxon Valdez

Peter Canby
The New York Review of Books

The Specter Haunting Alaska
November, 2005

"The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World"
by Paul Roberts
Mariner, 399 pp., $14.00 (paper)

"Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge"
by Jonathan Waterman
Norton, 280 pp., $24.95

"Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope"
by the National Research Council
National Academies Press, 304 pp., $69.00

"Impacts of a Warming Arctic"
by the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Cambridge University Press, 139 pp., $29.99 (paper)

"Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska: Coastal Plain Resource Assessment"
Department of the Interior, April 1987

"Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1002 Area, Petroleum Assessment, 1998, Including Economic Analysis"
United States Geological Survey, USGS Fact Sheet FS-028-01, April 2001

"National Energy Policy: Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group, May 2001"
Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office

"Economics of Undiscovered Oil in the Federal Lands of the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska"
by Emil D. Attanasi
United States Geological Survey, Open-File Report 03-044, 2003

By most definitions, the word "Arctic" refers to the region near the North Pole. Only one section of it lies within the United States: the part of Alaska north of the Brooks mountain range known as the North Slope (see the map above). The North Slope is huge--89,000 square miles, slightly larger than the state of Minnesota--but in many ways it's a world apart, even from the rest of Alaska. The Brooks Range effectively forms Alaska's tree line--the latitude beyond which trees do not grow--and its rivers drain northward down onto a vast tundra plain dominated by a cotton grass that is the favorite food of the millions of caribou that migrate to the region during the summer months.

Underneath the tundra is the "active layer," a coat of peaty, semi-decomposed organic matter that passes for soil. Less than a foot below lies a thick layer of permanently frozen earth--permafrost--that in places is half a mile deep. This permafrost is a relic of the last ice age when the sea level was three hundred feet lower than it is now. The North Slope was then a part of Beringia, the wide land bridge that connected North America and Siberia. Even today, the raging spring rivers of the North Slope expose ice-age mammoth tusks long buried in gravel banks. During the last ice age, the region was more part of Asia than it was part of North America.

One of the curiosities of the North Slope is that even though it receives only between five and eight inches of rain a year (similar to some deserts in the Southwest), the underlying permafrost can't be penetrated by water and the surface remains constantly saturated. When I visited the North Slope in June with William Weber, director of the North American Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Steve Zack, an ornithologist and director of the conservation society's Northwest office, the ice had just broken up, and Zack continually (and only half jokingly) referred to the pervasive marshes, bogs, and thaw ponds as "Pleistocene water." We were at the headwaters of the Nigu River, in a valley on the north-facing slopes of the Brooks Range that an outfitter later told us was the most remote part of all Alaska. In the twenty-four-hour sunlight, the snow pack around us was melting off the mountainsides, and water was pouring from the tundra. The caribou herds were returning from their forest wintering grounds closely trailed by predatory wolves and grizzlies. The earth around us was aflame with stands of fireweed, wild lupines, and miniature rhododendrons.

Read the rest of this article at the New York Review of Books website.