Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script
Boulder Patch inhabitants
Surrounded by a vast muddy bottom, a 20-square-mile jumble of rocks called the Boulder Patch is an oasis of living sea life off Alaska's Arctic coast. (Courtesy Brenda Konar, University of Alaska Fairbanks.) Click on photo to see larger image.

Boulder Patch

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.

new boulder patch map
First discovered in 1978, the Boulder Patch sits in about 20 feet of water in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. (Courtesy Ken Dunton, University of Texas at Austin) Click map to see larger image.

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 life."

Global positioning systems hadn't yet been invented, so Dunton had to dive every half a mile or so to look for the rumored formations.

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."

The oasis is as rare as it is beautiful. The rocks themselves are unlike anything north of the Brooks Range. Minerals in the rocks more closely resemble those found in Canada's McKenzie River area several hundred miles to the east. Dunton says the Boulder Patch rocks most likely hitched a ride on an advancing ice sheet some 10,000 years ago.

Today, these boulders lie in about 20 feet of water and are covered by sea ice nine months of the year. And yet, life thrives here. Plants and animals have evolved unique ways of surviving the dark, frigid water. Among the most fascinating: Dunton says one kelp species actually grows during the winter, without the help of the sun and photosynthesis.


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."

kelp in Boulder Patch
  Click photo to see larger image.

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.

Not surprisingly, oil companies want to understand how the Boulder Patch ecosystem works, and how it might repair itself if it were ever damaged, either by natural forces like storms and icebergs, or a human mishap like a barge running aground. To get answers, Brenda Konar and a team of research scuba divers recently began a three-year study of the Boulder Patch. Konar is a kelp forest ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

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?"

chipping organisms off Boulder Patch rocks
  Researcher Katrin Iken and technician Chris Wyatt chip corals and other marine organisms off rocks taken from the Boulder Patch. The rocks will be returned to the patch in a study to to learn how long it would take for life in the Boulder Patch to recover if the area were damaged. (Courtesy Brenda Konar, University of Alaska Fairbanks.)

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.

  Researcher and diver Katrin Iken of the University of Alaska Fairbanks returns a caged rock to the Boulder Patch. The cage keeps predators and plant-eaters away from the rocks so researchers can see if their absence spurs a quicker recovery. (Courtesy Brenda Konar, University of Alaska Fairbanks.) Click photo to see larger image.

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?"

Given the cold water surrounding the boulder patch, animals and plants here grow slowly but live a long time. Konar plans to return each summer to check on the boulder's progress, but she says it might take all three years of the study to see new growth. Still, it will be well worth the wait. After all, it may not be Hawaii, but diving in the Arctic is just as exotic.

  rock-hound researchers
  Rock hounds (from left ): Research diver Chris Wyatt, associate professor Brenda Konar, research diver/graduate student Casey Debenham, and associate professor Katrin Iken.

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
University of Alaska Fairbanks
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
Global Undersea Research Unit
Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7220
Phone: 907-474-5028

Kenneth Dunton, Research Professor
University of Texas at Austin
Marine Science Institute
Mail Code: T2500
Austin, TX 78712
Phone: 361-749-6728
Faculty profile:

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

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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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