More shipping, more spills?

Oil spill response barge and support ship in the port of Valdez, Alaska, United States. © Scott Dickerson / WWF-US

The ability to combat Arctic oil spills is limited. Nancy Kinner says even in open waters, oil recovery will likely be much lower than in other regions because equipment such as skimmers and booms isn’t quickly available to prevent extensive spreading.

Nancy Kinner is director of the University of New Hampshire coastal Response Research Center & the Center for Spills & Environmental Hazards. This article originally appeared in The Circle 03.16. See all issues here.

Once on site, oil recovery equipment is further hampered by limited power availability and often spotty internet connectivity. Natural weathering processes such as ultraviolet light from the sun, evaporation and dispersion by wind and waves may lead to persistent slicks comprised of heavier and less degradable oil compounds. Use of chemical dispersants is considered one of the few viable response tools in open waters because they can be more rapidly deployed by aircraft. The key is having the correct dispersant formulation for colder and less saline water. Dispersants are also viewed negatively by some sectors of the public.

Oil spilled in ice-infested waters is even more problematic. While oil can be trapped in the leads in the ice, facilitating its collection, it is also likely oil released from a ship may be trapped under the ice. If the ice is forming, oil may be trapped within it. When the ice melts months later, relatively fresh oil can be re-released onto the surface of the ice or into the water column. Oil can also be transported by brine channels within the ice to the critical ice-seawater interface where many organisms collect and feed during the winter. Finding and removing oil frozen into the ice has not been adequately addressed, though research is on-going.

Informed decision-making is key to effective spill response. That means responders must have access to the most current and accurate conditions to minimize the uncertainties associated with their actions. Furthermore, decision-makers must have good estimates of where and when the oil will be transported and what its fate will be. Some of the most important data necessary to make the best decisions concern the potential impacts of the oil on biota and humans (e.g., natural and human resources). Decision-makers know oil spills are “bad” and their job is to select from the available response strategies that make the impacts the “least bad”. The reality is that environmental trade offs must often be made, especially when there are not many response or equipment options available. Additionally, our knowledge of Arctic ecosystems is limited because they are rapidly shifting due to climate change. Data available on the ecosystems has increased in the past several years as part of the inventories required for oil drilling. The Arctic nations have also decided to use Arctic ERMA® (the Environmental Response Management Application) as a common operating picture for data during response. Still, vast areas exist where “baseline” data are not available to inform spill response decisionmaking.

Greater vessel traffic in Arctic waters will increase the probability of oil spills. While these spills will be limited to the maximum capacity of oil/petroleum products on the ship, they pose a very significant threat to the sensitive ecosystems of the Arctic, especially when these natural and human resources are already threatened by the rapidly changing conditions brought on by climate change. Only with a coordinated effort by the Arctic nations can the issues of effective oil spill response be addressed. It is particularly important that Russia be actively engaged in these endeavors because that nation has the longest Arctic coastline and the most active sea route, and the U.S./Russian boundary is in the constricted Bering Sea region. The best approach to the problem of Arctic oil spills from ships is improved prevention, planning and preparedness. When an accident happens, there must be: response equipment readily available, effective communication, and rapid access to data, especially along the planned vessel routes. In addition, U.S. law requires that a damage assessment of natural and human resources be conducted, so that restoration can be performed to return the environment to pre-spill conditions.

Whether the spill is from a cruise liner, merchant ship, or barge; the cause is bad weather, poor charting or human error; the release is a crude Bunker C or soybean oil; the impacts on Arctic ecosystems will likely be devastating and very difficult to mitigate/ restore. The reality is not if there will be an Arctic oil spill due to shipping, but when and how frequently such accidents will happen. The question we must answer is how effective the responses will be in minimizing the impacts. Only time will tell if national and international cooperation will be sufficient to meet the challenge.