About the Western Arctic Reserve
The Western Arctic Reserve (also known as the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska) is located on Alaska’s north slope, north of the Brooks Range and directly west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Reserve is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and spans just over 21 million acres – an area roughly the size of Indiana – and is the largest contiguous block of public land in the U.S.
Here's what The Climate Atlas tells us about the Western Arctic Reserve:
Conservation Opportunities: Unprotected BLM Lands
The Western Arctic Reserve (“National Petroleum Reserve”), covering an area of just over 21 million acres (red outline), is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (beige) and is unprotected from oil and gas development.
Protected lands are shown in purple. Currently few federal lands in Alaska’s Western Arctic region are protected.
Indicator: Total Carbon
The Total Carbon indicator shows us the total amount of carbon stored in the biomass and soils of the Western Arctic Reserve (above and below ground). This total is 970 megatons.
The region’s high total carbon ranking indicates that it stores more carbon than the average terrestrial ecosystem.
Indicator: Species Richness
Species Richness is calculated using range maps for 330 terrestrial vertebrate species in Alaska, including birds, mammals, and amphibians.
Coastal regions of the Western Arctic are high in species richness.
Indicator: Ecological Intactness
Ecological Intactness estimates the degree to which a given location remains in a natural state. The majority of the Western Arctic Reserve remains intact; however, just east is Prudhoe Bay and the Trans-Alaska pipeline, among other oil and gas development (orange shading plus red dots).
The Western Arctic is currently ecologically intact, which supports natural evolutionary and ecological processes.
Model: Composite Model
The Composite Model incorporates all of the six indicator layers. With the region’s high levels of carbon storage, species richness, and ecological intactness, we would expect the composite model for the Western Arctic Reserve to be high. However, it’s not.
This is because of the region’s low rankings on two of the key climate indicators, Climate Resilience and Climate Stability, which point to its extreme vulnerability to rising temperatures.
Indicator: Climate Stability
Climate Stability describes the similarity between the present climate and the future climate (in 2055) at a given location.
The data show that the Western Arctic Reserve has very low climate stability compared to other terrestrial ecosystems. Thus, the overall Composite Model is low.
This shows that while the Composite Model is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story. You can use the various data layers to learn more about a given landscape and its value.
- Large amounts of carbon are being stored in the arctic tundra.
- It has high levels of species richness and ecological intactness.
- It has very low climate stability, meaning that the future climate will be very different from today’s.
- More oil and gas development is a direct threat to this unique and fragile landscape.
Why It Matters
These lands are stewarded by Indigenous Arctic Nations
Some of the longest-inhabited communities in North America are found on Alaska’s northwestern coast, where today these villages honor a traditional subsistence way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation.
The area is culturally irreplaceable for the many Alaska Native communities who have long subsisted, thrived, and today depend on the wildlife in the Western Arctic region. Alaska’s Western Arctic is not “untouched”; rather, the Iñupiat people were the first great conservationists, living in harmony with the lands and animals.
Globally Unique Ecosystems
The lands and waters of the Western Arctic Reserve are globally unique ecosystems, rich in wildlife. The Reserve’s Teshekpuk Lake region is significant for its high density of bird species and as the birthing grounds for the Teshekpuk caribou herd.
The Colville River cliffs and delta are home to large populations of raptors, including golden eagles and peregrine falcons; shorebirds and waterfowl; and mammals, including Arctic foxes, wolves, caribou, and polar bears.
The higher-elevation Utukok River uplands are home to unusually large populations of wolves, wolverines, and grizzly bears and are the primary calving ground for the Western Arctic caribou herd – Alaska’s largest with around 490,000 animals.
Two million acres of the Western Arctic Reserve are currently open to oil and gas activity, and the Bureau of Land Management’s current plan would allow such development on 82 percent of the land area – 18.6 million acres.
More than 90 Alaska Native tribes have expressed a desire for areas of ecological and cultural importance in the Reserve to be permanently protected.
More oil and gas development, as well as the ongoing melting of the arctic tundra due to climate change, are a direct threat to this unique and fragile landscape and the Indigenous people who rely on it for survival.
- If the U.S. is going to help meet the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it needs to leave a large share of its total oil reserves in the ground and reduce its gas production by 8 percent annually.
- Most of the Alaskan landscape far exceeds the ecological intactness of even the most protected places in the lower 48 U.S. states.
- A recent study concluded that “managing Alaska’s public lands for climate and biodiversity conservation purposes over the next 30-50 years would provide meaningful and irreplaceable climate benefits for the United States and globe.”