WHAT ARE THE ANTICIPATED IMPACTS OF AN OIL SPILL IN THE ARCTIC?
A spill in the Arctic Ocean will be something quite different from the spills industry and government agencies are accustomed to responding to. A number of factors make the Arctic environment both potentially beneficial for oil spill cleanup and also much more difficult to respond to.
BSEE (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement) marks sea ice as the most difficult obstacle to offshore Arctic drilling. Ice could create a spill by putting pressure on offshore oil platforms and pipelines that run along the seafloor. Then, in the event of a spill, ice can restrict the use of certain tools like booms and require more equipment, for example, equipment to find and remove oil from under the ice. One benefit of sea ice is that it can act as a natural retainer and slow the spread of oil, even without the use of booms.
Oil can affect animals living anywhere from the seafloor to the seashore. The Arctic Ocean and its coastlines are not a barren wasteland; they provide habitat to many species. In the summer, the Arctic experiences nearly 24 hours of daylight, allowing for great plant growth and huge algae blooms. Migratory birds and marine mammals take advantage of this feast every year. Besides a spill, the construction and operation of drills, boats and transportation gear could affect wildlife through increased human interaction and noise disturbances.
Likewise, the communities in the Arctic would be affected by a spill and the increased shipping, tourism, and exploratory drilling available in a changing Arctic. An increase of industry, including increased transportation, infrastructure, and potential accidents could yield a degradation of water quality and overall environmental health. There are several subsistence communities in the Arctic which depend on marine mammals and other natural resources. Shifts in the health of the marine ecosystem could affect cultural traditions and food sources. However, on the flip-side, increased commercial activity in the Arctic will lead to more infrastructure growth and construction, production, and service-related job opportunities for the peoples who call the Arctic region home.
PHOTO CREDIT: NOAA, 2011, Illustration by Kate Sweeney. Look in the resources for a larger file.
Preparing models for oil spill impacts on the Arctic requires economic, environmental, and cultural lenses.
“BOEM joins National Science Foundation and international partners to study impacts of development in the Arctic” (2013)
Read this press release from 4/11/2013 and learn about some recently funded research looking at the sustainability of the Arctic. See how current research projects are looking toward future impacts of oil.
“Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic: A Report to the President” (2013)
This 50 page, interagency report examines the Arctic in terms of environmental, cultural, economic and infrastructure trends. Get an idea of what is changing across these realms and what are some proposed management strategies for the US Arctic.
NOAA: "Conceptual Model of Arctic Oil Spill Exposure and Injuries" Graphic
Here is NOAA's graphic showing different environmental impacts of a potential Arctic oil spill. This is the expanded file of the image leading off Lesson 2.2 in the Oil and the Changing Arctic module. You can also find the image online here.