Recent Arctic Strategies across the Department of Defense (DoD) identify infrastructure risks from thawing permafrost and uncertain weather prediction as major threats to infrastructure, operations, and training land management activities in high latitudes. Ongoing and future planned DoD investments in infrastructure across Alaska are supporting multidomain and multi-service training needs. The remote nature of most of these facilities and lands and the extreme seasonality of the Alaskan climate provide both opportunities and risks in accessing and managing lands to support the mission. The unique physiography, climate, seasonality, and remote nature of Alaskan DoD lands limits the simple application of infrastructure that is suitable for warmer, more predictable, and easily accessible locations. Through numerous discussions with U.S. Army Alaska soldiers and training land managers and other federal and state agencies the project team has identified seven unique linear infrastructure projects managed by the DoD in Alaska that are the focus of this effort. These infrastructure types provide access to training lands and support their management but they are at high risk of environmental degradation to fragile ecosystems, have uncertain applicability with current and projected future climate warming, and pose risks to soldier safety. Specifically, there are no standard operating procedures for the siting, design, and safe operation of fire breaks, summer roads, drop zones, fens, low water stream crossings, winter snow roads, and ice bridge crossings.
The objective of this three-year effort is to generate scientifically and engineering-based ecologic and hydrologic risk maps and work with soldiers to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to support the design, siting, and safe operation of seven common linear infrastructure types on permafrost and seasonally frozen terrains on Army and Air Force lands in Interior Alaska. For some infrastructure, like low water stream crossings and ice roads, outdated or ad hoc information is available from lower latitude locations or other countries, like Canada, with similar needs. For other projects like the operation of fire breaks, summer roads, and drop zones on permafrost terrains there is currently no information available for managers and operators. Project success constitutes: 1) soldiers and training land managers using the risk maps to maintain current infrastructure and design new projects and 2) soldiers and civilian managers helping to develop and ultimately using the SOPs to reduce operating costs and environmental risks and to increase personnel safety.
There are numerous financial savings, risk reductions, operational safety, and environmental stewardship aspects in supporting design, siting, and maintenance of linear infrastructure on permafrost and seasonally frozen terrains. Risks of failing to adequately account for high-risk terrain sensitivity include National Environmental Policy Act violations and avoidance and mitigation requirements. Cost reductions associated with reducing risks of environmental damage to fragile permafrost ecosystems will be the focus of the development of terrain sensitivity index maps. These risks are mainly for fire breaks, summer roads, drop zones, and fen crossings. Current practices, largely developed at lower latitude non-permafrost locations, are not widely suitable in areas with high ice content permafrost like much of Interior Alaska. Increasing the safe access of personnel across low water streams and by engineered snow roads and river ice bridge crossings promotes soldier and civilian health and safety. To ensure the highest potential, the technologies are useful to both the Army and Air Force. Soldier training needs and the DoD mission will be incorporated by working with U.S. Army Training Support Activity Alaska (G3/5/7) and the Fort Wainwright Directorate of Public Works Environmental Branch throughout the effort. A collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and with ongoing University of Alaska and National Aeronautics and Space Administration efforts will further expand the impact of this project's efforts.