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Arctic Engineering

Evolving High-Tech Geomatics


The fields of science and technology are growing exponentially in Alaska as resource development becomes even more inextricably linked to the state’s budget and economy. Engineering, and specifically geomatics engineering, is now an essential player in the modernization of efficient, environmentally safe oil and gas transportation.

Perusing University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) engineering course offerings online finds the Arctic Engineering programs state-of-the-art in curriculum and applicability to Alaska development projects on the North Slope. The University’s Arctic Engineering Graduate Programs cover facets of the industry like multi-modal transportation improvements in cold regions, design and operation of constructed works where ice and frozen ground effect conventional methods, and the evaluation of climate change impacts on Arctic infrastructure. The field is on the map and enticing to engineering students seeking a niche. While UAA has a master’s program, UAF has both a master’s and a doctoral program.

It appears 2015 is the year for the best and brightest Alaska engineering professionals being retained to enhance Arctic pipeline performance and functionality.


New Player in Alaska

In 2013 there was an effort by survey engineering firms to be awarded a contract by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Alyeska, the company that formed in 1970 to design, build, maintain, and operate the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), awarded the surveying services contract to Merrick & Company in March 2014. Merrick is an employee-owned civil engineering and surveying company formed in 1955 in Colorado and covers everything from geospatial and planning solutions to architecture and engineering around the globe, with offices in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.

Charlie Barnwell, recently hired by Merrick, came to Alaska with his family in 1963 when he was eight years old. His father was a geologist and worked for Sinclair, an oil and gas company that later became part of ARCO. Sinclair was one of the original resource development explorers in the state. Barnwell, at the time a third grader, moved from Libya, Africa, to the very opposite state of Alaska and was bright eyed and anxious to see firsthand the beauty of the Arctic.

Barnwell held tight to his passion for Alaska’s wilderness and geography. After graduating from Dimond High School in Anchorage and successfully pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Geology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he completed a master’s degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Planning. Following tenure with engineering firms and GIS (geographic information systems) companies, Barnwell joined the Merrick team in August 2014 as regional geomatics manager. His Alaska geology and GIS expertise will undoubtedly benefit Merrick as the company performs its five year, multi-million dollar engineering survey operations for Alyeska Pipeline and other clients.


Geomatics Wide Range

The definition of geomatics engineering is evolving. The field includes a wide range of activities that include acquiring and analyzing remote sensing and site-specific spatial data at different resolutions. Considering the diversity of Alaska geography and weather, remote sensing technology for environmental management is critical. Add to the science’s necessity one of the largest pipeline systems in the world, stretching from Alaska’s North Slope eight hundred miles to Valdez, and there is a coveted engineering service that is not only essential, but imperative in Alaska Arctic resource development.

In Merrick’s case, the geomatics scope involves a team of nearly eighty professionals that support engineers and technicians under the overall direction of Merrick’s Alyeska Pipeline project manager, Vern Lee. From surveying and mapping to GIS, the layers of the field are across the board.

Barnwell admits that Arctic engineering has its obstacles: literally. An eight hundred-mile, forty-eight-inch pipeline in northern Alaska is exposed to all elements and temperatures imaginable. TAPS crosses mountain ranges, earthquake fault zones, numerous lakes and rivers, and throughout is often exposed to harsh weather or is buried beneath brutal soils. The entire line requires constant monitoring and oversight.

Merrick specifically sought the Arctic contract because of the company’s state-of-the-art technology, which includes specialized high-tech mapping called HDS, or high definition surveying. Barnwell noted that Merrick also has expertise and full capability in operating LIDAR technology and products. LIDAR is a remote sensing technology. The system uses laser scanning to map earth surfaces from the air or from the ground to map pipeline and other facilities. If a segment of the pipeline rests near a river, for example, surveyors are tasked with locating and monitoring the geographic site, specifically measuring and recording features of interest involved with pipeline integrity. Absent erosion, most people don’t think about the necessary survey precautions, but once degradation occurs, and should a leak or problem ensue, it’s too late for survey data to prevent, and, by that point, everyone is concerned.


An Arctic Survey Engineer’s Day

Arctic engineering isn’t an easy task. The men and women within the field recognize that exigent circumstances can arise, as can the necessity to access remote and uninhabitable locations along the North Slope that most people would rather avoid. In terms of Merrick’s business mentality as a new company in Alaska, it welcomes the challenge and actually wants to expand in the state and bring more engineering talent, particularly as part of any new gas line construction.

Barnwell alluded to the fact most people don’t have a tangible understanding as to how remote and large TAPS is in comparison to most infrastructure that engineers monitor. Crossing over challenging terrain like the Brooks Range is no small feat.

Arctic engineers, whether in the field of geomatics or nearly any other specialty, face shifting environment. The geomatics specialists have an additional expectation as they are required by federal and state law to assiduously survey and record data such as time, location, status, and condition and include survey grade measurements of pipeline function. Consider the cost of process and the dependency on oil flowing in TAPS and suddenly Arctic surveying isn’t just rote and inconsequential but rather a profoundly important component to the oil transportation equation Alaska’s and international markets rely on.

Surveyors are tasked with driving up and down the pipeline corridor, many parts of which are not always accessible by road. Helicopters, small planes, and even all-terrain-vehicles are often utilized to get the job done. That translates to an Anchorage survey engineer getting an early morning call to report to the airport to fly to Prudhoe Bay or Coldfoot Camp or another hub from which the next leg is via myriad Arctic transport means to reach the pipeline location that requires oversight and data collection.

“In the raw field our engineers can suffer twenty below Fahrenheit temperatures and inclement weather to record a construction dig or assess a potential spill or check on a suspicious valve,” adds Barnwell. “It’s a rewarding and important field and a growing industry in the Arctic. The access challenges and Arctic environment make me respect our engineers that much more considering the multitude of warmer climates they could choose to work in alternatively.”

Merrick survey engineers use the LIDAR technology to scan pipeline condition, dimensions, and relationship to other assets. The surveyor with the right equipment scans and images facilities, producing a model of the plant either outside or inside.

“It’s revolutionary,” says Barnwell. “You have a 3D model. Every location on the model is exact in measurement so, in the case of the pipeline assessment, we can determine and record detailed information like the length, connection, and depth. No companies in Alaska really performed this service prior to Merrick’s arrival in 2014,” adds Barnwell. “We have the capability to generate panoramic and internal scanning using the instruments along the entire pipeline structure, which aids in ensuring pipeline integrity in the surrounding areas.”

Beyond LIDAR ground implementation, Merrick also performs airborne surveys that can map and monitor the entire pipeline, from ground terrain to vegetation condition. “It’s encouraging to see Merrick enter the Alaska engineering and surveying market with the latest technology, like LIDAR, because it makes for a safer and more efficiently managed pipeline,” notes Barnwell.


An Engineering Necessity with Benefits

Ultimately, natural resource development will continue to expand in Alaska’s Arctic as minerals, oil, and gas continue to be explored for and extracted.

Engineering companies like Merrick, and geomatics experts like Charlie Barnwell, plan to broaden the benefits of geomatics engineering in the state through education, technological advancement, and inclusion in survey paradigms.

As the prospective gas line comes into sight and reality with a supportive state administration and Legislature, the cycle of oil production and monitoring will be closely scrutinized. The success of future resource projects like new pipelines will be dependent on current operational and safety protocols that indicate efficient, safe practices.

Credit goes to Alaska’s geomatics survey engineers and companies like Merrick whose technical knowledge and efforts are ensuring TAPS flows smoothly and investment potential remains a worthy consideration to business and governments alike.

Tom Anderson writes from across Alaska.

This first appeared in the February 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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