North Slope Decision Support for Water Resources Planning and Management


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Ice roads are used on the North Slope of Alaska to support the oil exploration process. They can be used to transport heavy loads across long distances with minimal impact to the underlying tundra. Their use presents a challenge to resource managers due to the sensitive habitats through which they are built, and because of the large quantities of water required to construct and maintain them. On average, an ice road requires one million gallons of water per lane per mile to construct, water that is typically extracted from the tundra lakes that dot the landscape (see figure 1). Ensuring adequate water supply is compounded by the fact that multiple firms use a common set of lakes to build their own private roads each year. Understanding the potential risk of insufficient water supply is critical. The use of ice roads also presents challenges from a regulatory perspective. The permitting process for ice roads is part of the larger oil and gas exploration process, which can include up to two dozen regulatory agency departments. With multiple firms seeking permits to use a common set of tundra lakes, there is a clear need for transparency in the planning and permitting process.

Map of Alaska showing location mark on North Slope and tundra landscape image dotted with lakes

Fig. 1. The North Slope Tundra landscape is dotted with thousands of lakes, some of which provide water for ice road construction.

Project Description

Under a grant from the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, the North Slope Decision Support System (NSDSS) was developed for use in the ice road planning and permitting process. Development of the NSDSS was a collaborative effort undertaken by academic and industry personnel with significant stakeholder involvement from multiple agencies of local, state, and federal government, private energy companies, and nongovernmental organizations.

The NSDSS is a web based application for ice road planning and related water resource management (see figure 2). It is designed to allow various parties to reach consensus on ice road routes and water use plans. Using the NSDSS web portal, an industry planner can create ice road plans by specifying the start-, end-, and way-points of their ice road and possible lakes to be used as water sources. Using the NSDSS optimal road alignment algorithm, the planner can then search for road alignments that minimize road length, construction costs, construction time, and water used while avoiding endangered species habitat, sensitive tundra, and culturally significant regions. Through lake water budget analysis, the planner can estimate the risk of insufficient water supply. Through a lake dissolved oxygen model, the planner can understand the impact that water use will have on lake water quality.

Through a permitting assessment tool, the NSDSS presents the planner with the list of regulatory agencies that may be required to review the permit and provides the requirements they may have in order to allocate the permit or authorization (see figure 3).

Screenshot of NSDSS planning tool: map specifing the start and end point of the ice road (green and red dots) and the lakes that may possibly be used (darker blue)

Fig. 2. The NSDSS ice road planning tool allows users to specify the start and end point of the ice road (green and red dots on the map respectively), the lakes that may possibly be used (indicated in darker blue), and exclusion zones where the ice road should not go. Exclusions are found in two ways; first through user specification (orange circles), and second through a web service developed through the NSDSS project that provides an assessment of the intended area is suitable habitat for species such as polar bears. The optimal route alignment algorithm then finds the ice routes that minimize cost of construction and operation, while minimizing environment impact such as crossing sensitive vegetation and disturbing polar bear denning habitat.

When the planner is ready, he or she can publish the ice road plan and all its related analyses to the NSDSS system and invite other stakeholders to review it. Through this process the stakeholders reach consensus on the plan before the winter exploration seasons starts.

Screenshot of NSDSS ice road planning tool presenting the planner with a list of regulatory agencies

Fig. 3. The NSDSS ice road planning tool presents the planner with a list of regulatory agencies that may be required to review the ice road plan and the list of requirements those agencies may have for granting the permit or authorization.

Information Technology Advances

The NSDSS incorporates many new technological advances. The front end of the system is a Microsoft Silverlight web application (NSDSS.net) that makes it easily accessible for a wide audience and provides a powerful workbench for ice road planning. Separate behind the scene databases exist for 1) field data, 2) re-analysis data used in water budget analysis, 3) GIS data including a North Slope-wide lakes database, a digital elevation model, and hydrographic features, and 4) the models that are created by NSDSS users including lake water budget and water quality models and ice road plans. The technology incorporates emerging standards for scientific data organization and storage; new technological advances developed as part of this project are currently being documented and shared in the greater science community.

NSDSS Web Tool

The NSDSS online web tool is available free of charge. In order to utilize the NSDSS tool, the user must first download the Microsoft Silverlight, which is available at no cost.

Download Microsoft Silverlight

Link to NSDSS Web Tool