U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in Ecological Applications, 20(1), 2010, pp. 205–221.


In response to the increasing global demand for energy, oil exploration and development are expanding into frontier areas of the Arctic, where slow-growing tundra vegetation and the underlying permafrost soils are very sensitive to disturbance. The creation of vehicle trails on the tundra from seismic exploration for oil has accelerated in the past decade, and the cumulative impact represents a geographic footprint that covers a greater extent of Alaska’s North Slope tundra than all other direct human impacts combined. Seismic exploration for oil and gas was conducted on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, USA, in the winters of 1984 and 1985. This study documents recovery of vegetation and permafrost soils over a two-decade period after vehicle traffic on snow-covered tundra. Paired permanent vegetation plots (disturbed vs. reference) were monitored six times from 1984 to 2002. Data were collected on percent vegetative cover by plant species and on soil and ground ice characteristics. We developed Bayesian hierarchical models, with temporally and spatially autocorrelated errors, to analyze the effects of vegetation type and initial disturbance levels on recovery patterns of the different plant growth forms as well as soil thaw depth. Plant community composition was altered on the trails by species-specific responses to initial disturbance and subsequent changes in substrate. Long-term changes included increased cover of graminoids and decreased cover of evergreen shrubs and mosses. Trails with low levels of initial disturbance usually improved well over time, whereas those with medium to high levels of initial disturbance recovered slowly. Trails on ice-poor, gravel substrates of riparian areas recovered better than those on ice-rich loamy soils of the uplands, even after severe initial damage. Recovery to pre-disturbance communities was not possible where trail subsidence occurred due to thawing of ground ice. Previous studies of disturbance from winter seismic vehicles in the Arctic predicted short-term and mostly aesthetic impacts, but we found that severe impacts to tundra vegetation persisted for two decades after disturbance under some conditions. We recommend management approaches that should be used to prevent persistent tundra damage.