It all started innocently enough as a challenge from loyal reader "Matthias" who pondered various geo-oddities surrounding the northernmost reach of Google Street View. I was up for a mental adventure after having been trapped in my home for several days due to snow.(1) Unbeknownst to Matthias however, Google Street View updated their imagery overnight in the very few hours between his issuance of the challenge and my acceptance. Thus, I will present this article in two parts: the first (today) with the current northernmost view and later (in a few days) the previous contender. Both have a number of fascinating aspects.
The Northernmost Street View as of February 12, 2010
I think I’ll play it safe and provide this qualifier with the date because it will change eventually. Currently the northernmost Street View image extends to 70.242777 degrees north latitude in the North Slope Borough of Alaska.
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This spot is located as far north as vehicles can travel on the Dalton Highway before reaching a restricted checkpoint at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The amount of industrial activity strikes me. Take a moment to swing the image around in a 360 degree arc and notice the amount of equipment spread about the terrain. Ponder for a moment that we’re located on the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean, 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle and only 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from the North Pole.
All this activity exists solely because of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield which underlies the land, the largest such deposit in North America. Nothing short of a precious resource in great quantities could account for such a massive human presence on this scale in an inhospitable and unforgiving environment. Conditions are so harsh and relentless that oil companies construct many of their rigs with self-contained enclosures to protect equipment and workers from the elements. Prefabricated sections form habitable Camp Rigs that can be disassembled and transported to new drill sites as required. Construction takes place during the winter months when soil layers harden sufficiently above the permafrost.
Deadhorse (website) is the unusually-named town that provisions the Prudhoe Bay oil field. It’s only four miles away from the northernmost view. I thought for a moment that Deadhorse was a rather unfortunate moniker but it seems to fit within the rugged terrain and the demanding tasks of the oilfield workers. Deadhorse is testosterone city and it may be the most male-slanted population on the planet. Maybe 99 percent of the people here are men. A place like this almost demands a tough name like Deadhorse if only to scare away the weak-hearted.
It’s not much of a "town" in the traditional sense as far as I could tell as I traveled its streets vicariously through the internet. You won’t find single-family homes adorning residential streets lined with shade trees here. Few people reside in Deadhorse permanently so that’s not a necessity. Rather, it seemed to be all warehouses and 18-wheelers and arctic tundra. This is a transients’ town with a couple of thousand burly roughnecks rotating in-and-out for shifts lasting two or three weeks at a time. Even the strongest men can take only so much of the relentless cycle of working, sleeping and eating at a stretch before they need to return home.
It’s also a "dry" town, which is probably intended to keep the workers from drinking themselves to death in the tedium. That right there would be enough to keep me away except for a short visit . So why would anyone subject himself to these extreme working conditions? Simply put, the compensation is phenomenal in this remote Arctic boomtown. Like $1,000 a day.
It’s an oilfield town but tourists can visit. There are actually a couple of different lodging options. The Prudhoe Bay Hotel offers amenities such as a restaurant, car rentals and internet access, which are all features one would expect of hotels in much larger towns. Here it’s downright remarkable given the remote location. However, in addition to rooms for tourists, the hotel also offers an odd geographic twist: dormitory-style space available for oilfield workers (or adventurous tourists I suppose). There’s another hotel in town, the Arctic Caribou Inn which seems to have positioned itself similarly. I’d love it if one of the guests of either hotel ever found this website and posted a comment from the hotel (leaving a nice Deadhorse, Alaska marker on my Google Analytics map!). Hint. Hint.
I suppose the Prudhoe Bay Hotel is technically an airport hotel since it’s directly across the road from the Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse Airport. Bear in mind that Alaska Airlines offers regularly-scheduled nonstop flights from Anchorage before you scoff at the notion. This is a real airport with actual commercial airline flights. You could fly here if you wanted to see an actual oilfield, or maybe observe some local wildlife or dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean.
Here’s a 2006 article on Deadhorse from the Daily Mail if you want a more colorful description of the town.
Civilization all but disappears further south. The Dalton Highway extends down to Fairbanks along more than 400 miles of unpaved roadway through unspoiled scenery. Drivers will pass only two towns between the endpoints, Coldfoot and Wiseman, with only a handful of residents each.
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This is such an arduous trek that it may be the only time I’ve seen the Google Street View cars traveling in tandem. Notice in this image that the other car is also equipped for Street View filming. I suppose they considered it either too unsafe to travel alone or too remote to make a return trip due to equipment failure. Either way they travel together and I’ve observed the tandem in some of the Deadhorse images so it’s not a fluke.
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Everything here comes back to oil. Deadhorse exists because of the oilfield. Similarly, the Dalton Highway exists because of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which transports oil from Prudhoe Bay all the way down to Valdez on Alaska’s southern coastline, "the northernmost ice-free port in North America." It’s one of the longest pipeline systems in the world — 800 miles — and it has transported more than 15 billion barrels since its startup in 1977.
From there they pump oil into tanker ships. That’s 19,000 tanker loads so far, and counting.
(1) We’re Number 1. Washington, DC set a snowfall record for any winter since recordkeeping began more than a hundred and twenty five years ago with 55.9 inches as of February 10, 2010. The old record had stood since the winter of 1898/1899. I told my family that I’d be really, really angry if we didn’t hit some kind of record given the horrible winter we’ve experienced so far. I’ve been feeling a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Fortunately that crisis has been averted now that we’re in the record books.