Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jumbo Squid Strikes Again

The news that "jumbo squids move north, voracious predators may pose threat to Pacific salmon stocks" is wonderful for those of us who are fans of everything calamari. Jumbos are still smaller than the Giants, but I'd love to have a lightly battered lemony ring the size of my fist. BRING IT ON SQUIDY!

Alpine: A Woman Behind Every Tree

Whomever named this place certainly had a sense of humor. There can't be a tree for several hundred miles. We're on the North Slope, just to the East of the Colville River delta, near the Arctic Ocean. Our camp is the Conoco-Phillips western base up here on the Slope. The native village of Nuiqsut is several miles up the Colville. Aside from that community of a couple hundred there's nothing but flat plains, drilling pads and wells as far as the eye can see.

The CP drilling and exploration base is a modest compound of pre-fab quarters and physical plant facilities. Water is pumped from nearby lakes to hydrate the base and power is generated on site. We drove here over an ice road from the Kuparuk oil fields near Prudhoe Bay. The only sign of life was a flock of ptarmigans, barely visible over the snow and a few isolated caribou. The sky and ground were nearly indistinguishable, making it difficult to chart our progress along the drive. Only the appearance and disappearance of glowing skyscraper-sized drilling pads along the tundra delineated the 40 or so frozen miles.

The CP compound here is bustling with shift workers. Some live as far away as Arizona and Arkansas. 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. And dozens of hours of flying in between. Inside are hallways of small double-capacity dorm rooms with signs posted "Quiet, day-sleepers." There's a dining room with a fake fireplace and no other even ironically charming features. There are "reading corners" in some hallways with pulp fiction and a full spectrum light. Three times a day hot meat and remarkably fresh salad are served up to glazed-eye workers on 12-hour shifts.

Our first day in the field was pretty miserable: 30 mph winds make -5 F feel like -35 F and with blowing snow visibility was down to a few meters. I was sampling snow depth and density and several of my density cores simply blew away.

Our second day was spent over the the National Petroleum Reserve and the weather was far more pleasant. Colder, but less wind. Ice roads had been built to both the lakes we sampled in the Western Operations Area (WOA). This meant we didn't need to bump along the tundra in a painfully slow track vehicle.

Each morning that we were based out of the Alpine oilfield, we were required to attend a 6:00 am "Toolbox" meeting, a.k.a. safety briefing. Since normally we rely on the survey contractors to give us a ride to our field site in the track vehicles, we attend the surveyor's safely meeting. After a discussion of safety hazards specific to the day's tasks or weather and a round-the-room sharing session of personal concerns, we go through a required series of stretches. Imagine eight people in a cramped field office dressed in Arctic weather gear doing toe touches. Though it seems absurd, the emphasis on safety is important. The work here is dangerous (~6 trucks a day were sliding off the ice roads) and medical evacuation could take most of a day.

We left the WOA late Thursday night. It's good that it's already light most of the night here because we got stuck behind a 10-story tall drilling rig. Being back at British Petroleum's Prudhoe Bay Operations Center on the Eastern side felt like being in a classy European hotel after a few days at Alpine. I guess in some sense it is.

Today was my day to leave so our team dropped me off at the Deadhorse airport. I checked in and walked through a cloud of diesel ice smog over to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. There I could hold court in the galley for the six hours before my flight. In the end, listening to CNN at top volume for six hours was a pretty high price for internet access. The highlights at the hotel included a coed bathroom and intermittent harassment from the workers. There was a funny old geologist who came over to talk to me a couple times. "Excuse me, is the plural for musk ox musk oxen?" And later, "I'm writing a poem about seeing the musk oxen and I want to describe the tundra vegetation. Can you tell me the scientific names for all the tundra plants? I can only remember Betula."

The time passed eventually and I boarded the 737 combi (cargo/passenger) plane back to Anchorage en route to Fairbanks. I'm one of only two women on the entire plane, aside from the flight attendants and by 20 minutes after take off, most of the passengers are drunk. I'm happy the Slope is dry; I don't see how women could work here otherwise. A couple of months ago Alaska Business Monthly's cover story was "Women of the Kuparuk Oil Fields." I think I discovered one of the incentive packages: free feminine products in EVERY bathroom. Who needs stock options when the boss buys your maxis!