INTRO: While environmentalists work to keep Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to oil development, scientists are studying another nearby natural wonder: This one an undersea oasis in the heart of Prudhoe Bay's oil discoveries. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: Of all the exotic places to go scuba diving, places like the Caribbean, Tahiti or Hawaii perhaps come first to mind. Odds are, Alaska's Arctic Ocean coast won't even be on your list. That's not surprising, since much of the state's northern coast consists of, well, featureless, almost lifeless, mud. Not exactly the sort of place you're likely to find a Club Med. On a good day, the ocean here might be a bone-chilling 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
But let's not discount the place altogether. Twenty-five years ago, geologists looking for oil in Stefansson Sound came across a jumble of rocks and boulders and cobbles. Ken Dunton, a marine scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, was among the first people to lay eyes on what is now called the Boulder Patch.
DUNTON: "The boulder patch I think is most appreciated if you've spent
day after day diving, like we did in 1978, on mud, being promised that
there was a big area of cobbles and boulders covered with luxuriant sea
DUNTON: "And on the eleventh dive we came upon these rocks and cobbles covered with a rich community of organisms. There are big boulders, large kelp, soft corals and sea anemones, and sponges and fish and colorful red and brown algae. You get pretty excited. It really is a beautiful location to dive in."
DUNTON: "They transport carbon that's been stored from the previous summer down to where cell division occurs at the base of the plant, and they use that to make new cell tissue. And so they are able to double in size. This allocation strategy is unique."
The Boulder Patch may be a place of hearty corals, kelp and sea anemones, but it isn't invulnerable. Surrounding it are America's largest oil and gas deposits. Nearby, Endicott Island, a man-made gravel pad, pumps thousands of barrels of oil each day from beneath the patch. And just ten miles away sits the main oil complex of Prudhoe Bay.
KONAR: "If something were to happen to this community and all of the
organisms were to die, or most of the organisms were to die that are living
on the rocks, how long will it take for all these different algae and
invertebrates, corals and sponges to grow back?"
This summer, Konar and her team collected some 70 rocks, each roughly the size of a football. They took them to a warehouse on Endicott Island and began the painstaking task of scraping, chipping and pounding off the corals and other sea life. When the rocks are put back into the patch, Konar will be able to monitor nature's progress as life returns to the bare rocks. She also wants to learn if life returns significantly faster to rocks protected from predators and grazers. To learn that, she put several rocks into wire cages to keep them at bay.
KONAR: "And then we want to take it one step further and see what effect
the grazers have. If we were take the grazers out, would things come in
differently? Would they come in faster?"
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.
Audio version and related Web sites (sidebar at top right)
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Brenda Konar, Assistant Research Professor
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
URL for this page is http://seagrant.uaf.edu/news/
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Research on the Arctic Ocean's Boulder Patch is made possible by a grant from the Coastal Marine Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Additional support comes from the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute, and British Petroleum Alaska Environmental Studies.
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