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The Trans-Alaska Pipeline:
Man-Made Wonder of the Last Frontier

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

Oil & Gas in Alaska

    A silken thread, half hidden across the palace carpet. Those are the words that writer and former president of the University of Alaska William R. Wood penned about the great man made wonder, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Traversing 800 miles of palace carpet that consists of frozen tundra, boreal forest, raging rivers and majestic mountains, the pipeline is a silken thread like no other.

    The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. constructed the pipeline in 1977 as a means of transporting petroleum from the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay to the marine terminal in Valdez, where it is loaded aboard tankers for the journey to U.S refineries. The two-year construction of the pipeline provided a much needed economic boost to Alaska, and Fairbanks in particular, where the pipeline passes through five miles out of city limits. During the peak of construction in August 1975, approximately 21,600 people were employed by Alyeska to help build the pipeline.

    Considering the terrain the pipeline crosses, it is understandable why so many people were needed for its construction. In most cases, oil lines are buried. In the case of the Alaska pipeline, a lot of the ground where it runs is underlain by permanently frozen soil, or permafrost. Pipeline planners realized that the heat from the oil, which comes out of the ground at 150-180 F, would thaw the frozen soil if the pipeline was buried, causing the pipe to buckle and break, leading to ecological damage.

    For this reason, more than half of the pipeline is built above ground. The 48-inch diameter pipe is insulated and elevated on special pipe supports, each consisting of two vertical supports and a connecting crossbeam. The crossbeam allows the pipeline to move in case of expansion or contraction due to temperature variations. In sensitive soil areas, the vertical supports contain thermal devices that carry heat up through pipes within the supports to finned radiators on top. This helps prevent ground thawing around the supports. Construction techniques such as these helped make the pipeline the engineering marvel that it is today.

    About 380 miles of the pipeline are buried in stretches of varying length. The pipe is bedded in a deep ditch, insulated with gravel padding, and covered with dirt. In a few areas, where potentially unstable soils were present but burial was necessary to accommodate road or wildlife crossings, the buried line is refrigerated to prevent thawing.

    With the pipeline visible at different sites in Alaska's Interior, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline has become an attraction for visitors from around the world. More than 90,000 people visit the Alyeska Visitor Center each year. The center is located approximately 10 miles from downtown Fairbanks and is staffed from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 8 am - 5 pm Visitors to the center can view the pipeline and learn about its history and how it operates.

    The pipeline has also lured visitors up the Dalton Highway. Formerly known as the North Slope Haul Road, the 414-mile road begins at the junction at Mile 73.1 of the Elliott Highway, north of Fairbanks, and ends at the community of Deadhorse, just a few miles away from the shores of the Arctic Ocean and the Prudhoe Bay oil complex. The pipeline is visible along most of the road. While private vehicles are not allowed to drive past Deadhorse to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields or the Arctic Ocean, access can be gained through a tour company or through the oil company at the end of the road.

    Portions of the pipeline can also be seen along the 368-mile Richardson Highway between Fairbanks and Valdez. Once in Valdez, bus tours of the marine terminal of the pipeline are available daily from April to October. For more information on viewing the pipeline in Valdez, contact the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau at (907) 835-2984.

    For more information, visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Copyright Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission.