Engineering geology studies were conducted in direct support of the exploration program in the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska. The studies included laboratory and field tests and observations to address design and construction problems of airfields, roads, drill pads and foundations, and to evaluate their actual performance. Permafrost containing large amounts of near surface ground ice as wedges, masses, and intergranular ice, required that all construction activity not disturb the thermal regime of the ground surface, which could lead to thaw of permafrost and ground subsidence. Summer activity, therefore was not allowable, yet the winter climate was so harsh that winter work was slow and inefficient. To allow summer operations at well sites planned for all year activity, it was necessary to adapt existing techniques for arctic construction and to devise new ones.
The design and construction of facilities at the deep exploration wells at Inigok, Tunalik, and Lisburne posed the greatest challenge. These sites, requiring a year or more to drill, could only be attempted if continuous access to drilling and logistic supplies could be assured throughout the year, including the possibility of bringing in another drill rig, in the event of a blowout. Thus all-seasons airstrips were required at these wells. Sufficient quantities of local gravel were not readily available at the Inigok and Tunalik sites to construct the airstrips with the required 6 feet or more of gravel to prevent the underlying permafrost from thawing. Therefore, insulation was used to maintain the subbase of local sands in a continuously frozen state, which in turn was overlain by 15 inches of gravel or sandy gravel. Tests at the U.S. Army Waterways Experimental Station defined the minimum thickness of gravel required above the insulation to provide the desired bearing capacity for the C-130 type aircraft without crushing the insulation.
Field testing also included the evaluation of another design option, using military landing mat underlain by insulation. Temperature recording devices were installed beneath the landing mat test sections, insulated runways, roads, drill pads, and reserve pits, to monitor the actual conditions and confirm the design assumptions. Investigations of thaw-settlement, erosion, and revegetation of all areas affected by construction were also conducted in anticipation of abandoning the sites, or, upgrading the facilities in the event the design life was extended.