The Hazards of an Incomplete Understanding


Back in 1982, the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys published a nice little pamphlet titled Geologic Hazards of the Fairbanks Area. Over the course of a little over 100 pages, the pamphlet assesses geologic risks associated with things like permafrost, erosion, landslides and earthquakes. As a 55-year resident of Fairbanks, WC has seen examples of each. Even the obscure ones like permafrost-driven artesian water flow.

But as thorough as the 1982 pamphlet tried to be, it turns out they missed some serious risks, and one of the omitted or unknown risks is starting to be a very serious, very expensive problem. The problem is so newly discovered that it wasn’t given an official name until 2012. The name, hopelessly prosaic, is Frozen Debris Lobes, and they are threatening the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

690FrozenLobe

Frozen Debris Lobe, Dalton Highway August 2014

A kind of slow motion landslide, they are “poorly understood.” That’s a scientist’s way of saying they’re not sure what the hell is going on. But they’re trying to puzzle it out. Here’s a cool video from Frontier Scientists:

The speed at which FDLs are moving seems to be increasing. More alarmingly, the speed in the upper portions of the debris lobes seems to be faster than the lower portions. When that happens with mountain glaciers, you get a glacial surge, a very sudden, very rapid advance. It’s unclear whether the FDLs, or the increased speed at which the FDLs are moving, is an artifact of global warming.

The FDL immediately above the Dalton Highway may move across the road as soon as next year. The pipeline is only a few hundred further feet away. The threat to the pipeline is real, and quite serious.

Note this is a threat we only learned about in the last few years. And there are now 23 known Frozen Debris Lobes within one mile uphill from the Haul Road and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. How many other threats are out there in the wilds of Alaska that we don’t yet know about? What other possible consequences of global warming are there that science can’t predict?

If you want to get Alaska’s attention, threaten the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The frozen debris lobes are an existential threat to the pipeline. We don’t have a clue how to stop the FDLs. At this point, the only solution is to move the Dalton Highway and the pipeline, and hope the new location doesn’t itself generate new FDLs. But what if the vibration of truck traffic along the haul road contributes to formation of FDLs? When you get down to it, much of Alaska’s infrastructure is built on frozen mud. What happens when you disturb the mud? Or the temperature?

WC doesn’t expect the Alaska Congressional delegation to be much help. Senator Dan “the Carpetbagger” Sullivan is a climate change denier. Besides, if it did exist, it doesn’t impact Ohio, the state he represents. Senator Lisa Murkowski is a climate change waffler; she’s no help. Representative Don “the Village Idiot” Young is incapable of understanding the problem.

But WC keeps coming back to this: what else don’t we know that is going to bite us as we tinker with fragile situations that we don’t understand?

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2 thoughts on “The Hazards of an Incomplete Understanding

  1. CW offers the following comment. Unhappily, WordPress won’t allow photos in comments:

    I think the debris lobes were identified during surveying of the pipeline but at that time they were stable and not deemed a source of concern (due to lack of knowledge). They also split trees! The tree on the right looks like it’s try to run the hell outta there. CW

  2. The vibration thesis is titillating. Any wave energy, from geological forces to traffic could be exacerbating a liquefaction effect causing permafrost to percolate to the surface where it congeals like a resin. Frozen debris lobes have something of a built in resistance to human interference. Removing a portion, especially a leading edge, such as with heavy equipment, causes the lobe to advance faster, as would digging a trench to trap it. Imagine how precarious the shear stress forces are along the exposed earth of mile deep open pit mines.
    Jenga anyone?

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