Environmental Impacts From Arctic Oil Spills and Arctic Oil Spill Response Technologies

At a Glance

In the event of an oil spill, there are always major concerns about the severity of environmental effects. In the Arctic, this concern is even higher because of the assumption that Arctic areas are more sensitive. Whether these areas are indeed fragile depends on many factors: how the oil behaves in varying ice concentrations, how species react to and interact with oil, their environments, and stressors as individual organisms, populations, and communities. The limited data available indicates that both Arctic and temperate organisms are nearly equally sensitive to exposure to oil and oil constituents. However, the habitats of Arctic organisms might be more vulnerable to the effects of petroleum hydrocarbon pollution than temperate habitats because low temperatures lead to slower losses of hydrocarbons from volatilization and biodegradation, and because oil trapped under sea ice can result in prolonged exposure.

However, the reduced weathering process (evaporation, dispersion and emulsification) and behavior of oil in ice can actually mitigate the environmental impact. The wind and sea conditions in many Arctic areas are considerably less severe than most open ocean environments, facilitating marine operations. Furthermore, when ice concentrations prevent the effective use of traditional containment booms, the ice itself often serves as a natural barrier, preventing oil spilled offshore from entering and contaminating ecologically sensitive coastal areas.

Assessing the environmental effects of an Arctic oil spill and deciding on the proper response technique is not straightforward and should be done on a case- by-case basis. The Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) method provides a framework to carefully consider and select from several response options based on their effectiveness and associated environmental effects. Sound scientific knowledge about the population-level effects of an oil spill to valuable ecosystem components is also vital. Project 3, “Environmental Impacts from Arctic Oil Spills and Arctic Oil Spill Response Technologies”, reviews the information needed to perform NEBA.

Environmental Impacts at a Glance

Individual Arctic organisms are about equal in sensitivity to temperate ones to exposure to oil and oil constituents.

Ice can serve as a natural barrier to the spread of oil preventing oil spilled offshore from entering and contaminating ecologically sensitive coastal areas.

The Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) method provides a framework to carefully consider and select available response options based on their effectiveness and associated environmental effects.