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

Scope of Work

The phase one comprehensive review conducted by New Fields culminated in the online publication of a report “Environmental Effects of Spilled Oil and Response Technologies in the Arctic” (Word 2014) that is based on over 960 literature references from investigations into spilled oil and oil spill response technologies in the Arctic marine environment. The report is the first time the significant body of research on this area has been compiled and reviewed in one place, confirming that there is a large amount of literature already available on oil spill response decision-making in the Arctic. Nine chapters cover technical topic areas in detail ranging from biodiversity assessments, to laboratory experiments and large-scale field studies focusing on oil spill response in Arctic environments. The report was compiled by a consortium of international expert investigators in the field of Arctic biology, the physical environment, oil fate and biodegradation, oil spill response, toxicology, population modelling and recovery, and NEBA. For each category, the report provides priority research recommendations for enhancing Arctic NEBAs, as well as other research considerations not directly related to NEBA.

Key findings are:

  • That there is an extensive, existing science base for Arctic NEBAs.  Many baseline ecosystem and biodiversity assessments have been performed to better understand and protect the marine Arctic environment. In addition, field and laboratory studies on the fate of oil, oil spill response techniques and potential environmental effects under the different seasonal conditions in the Arctic have produced extensive data sets on oil fate and effects.
  • There is also evidence that Arctic species are not more sensitive to dispersed oil than non-Arctic species and that they react to dispersed oil exposure in the same way as temperate species do. To fully understand how species populations are impacted and recover, the review has recommended follow-up work to study population resilience.
  • Furthermore, data has been reviewed that shows that approved dispersants and oils treated with dispersants are no more toxic than the oil itself. Another important finding is that biodegradation of oil in the Arctic does occur and that dispersants tested do not reduce the ability of microbes to degrade oil.
  • Biological organisms tend to aggregate at interfaces like the water/ice interface, which is one of the unique features of the Arctic ecosystem. Undispersed oil might collect at this interface potentially interfering with unique Arctic resources. The review recommended that information on the potential effects of oil on these Arctic communities be developed in order to better address these in NEBA.
  • The behaviour of oil in ice can actually mitigate the environmental impact, as the presence of ice results in reduced evaporation, dispersion and emulsification and can form a barrier so that vulnerable resources like coastlines cannot be reached. Any oil encapsulated in ice is not likely to impact marine life in the water column.

The report and reference databases are housed within a ‘NEBA information and support tool’ hosted on a dedicated microsite, accessible from the programmes website and openly available to all visitors http://neba.arcticresponsetechnology.org. This education and resource tool for NEBA practitioners, stakeholders and the public links technical chapters with the literature database and the supporting references. The NEBA tool can be used as a one stop shop for NEBA practitioners and decision makers, to identify information and available literature relevant to Arctic oil spill response, including information on Arctic ecosystems, fate and effects of oil and the NEBA process itself. The report is fully searchable and can be downloaded as a whole as well as by chapter.

Recommendations from the phase one review led to four additional research projects being launched in phase 2 to improve and advance Arctic NEBA’s. These projects aimed to enhance the accessibility of the vast amount of existing data to NEBA practitioners, as well as to reduce remaining uncertainties on sensitivity and resiliency of sea ice communities and biodegradation of oil under Arctic conditions.

RAMBØLL/Environ was selected to develop and populate a NEBA support tool that identifies and summarizes crucial data for evaluating the ecological consequences of oil spill response options.  The work focused on developing a transparent and accessible platform for stakeholders to access the available science base for Arctic NEBA. The summary tables can be used to easily identify key-literature on processes relevant for Arctic NEBA, like biodegradation in ice, Arctic species’ sensitivity, etc., but, when fully developed, also have the potential to compare the relative consequences of different OSR activities on different near shore and offshore compartments and ecological attributes of the Arctic aquatic environment.   Additional work includes demonstration of the use of the NEBA support tool through existing NEBA frameworks;

Akvaplan-niva was the selected contractor for conducting permitted field experiments using in situ mesocosms to understand the oil weathering process and natural biodegradation of the oil under Arctic conditions and to measure the sensitivity and resiliency of sea ice communities. The studies were designed to monitor the long-term fate, behaviour, persistence and biodegradation of the oil in ice together with the impact on the micro¬bial and plankton communities in and under ice, following different response sce¬narios.  This unique study brought together a multidisciplinary team of world class experts in the field of oil chem¬istry, toxicity, microbiology, ecology and Arctic field research.

For this study, eight mesocosms were fabricated and installed in the sea ice of Van Mijen Fjord, Svea, Sval¬bard in January 2015 and remained in place until July 2015. The use of these semi-open systems to study effects of contaminants in marine systems is well established, but this technique had never been used in Arctic ice environments. Oil was introduced into two mesocosms to follow natural attenuation. In two other mesocosms, oil mixed with dispersant was intro¬duced and another set contained burned residues mimicking an in situ burn response. The two remain¬ing mesocoms served as controls (no oil).  The field experiments were conducted over a single winter and spring season including the period of peak bio¬logical activity. Over a five month period, the fol¬lowing parameters were studied within the water column, through the ice layer and within the water-ice interface:

  • Chemical composition of the oil
  • Bacterial populations and oil degrading microorganisms
  • Microbial activity and biodegradation activity
  • Zooplankton – survival, feeding and reproduction (under ice)
  • Ice algae primary production

Rock tiles with and without exposure to oil were deployed on the shoreline in February 2015 and were periodically sampled until July 2016. Tiles were treated for oil extraction in order to determine PAHs and alkanes concentrations. There were three control, three natural attenuation, three dispersants and three ISB experiments to examine:

  • The weathering processes
  • The biodegradation rate from the residual oil composition
  • The oil behavior and migration into the ice from the freezing period to the melting one
  • The effect of oil on the natural microbial community

Data and results from the field experiments described above are still being analyzed and undergoing QA/QC verification. Preliminary findings suggest:

  • Arctic bacterial populations are dominated by a few species
  • Oil degrading organisms are more abundant in the oil contaminated ice samples than in the controls, particularly with the addition of dispersant to the oil.
  • Hydrocarbon levels in the water under the ice appear to be close to background when oil, oil and dispersants or remains of burned oil get encapsulated in ice,
  • These hydrocarbon levels under the ice have a limited effect on zooplankton reproduction

Akvaplan-niva is also the contractor for dedicated modelling activities focusing on population effects of Polar cod and Arctic zooplankton. These modelling activities, which are actively in progress, are designed to provide guidance on the type of toxicity data most relevant for NEBA decision making. The results should provide insights in the (additional) value of chronic toxicity data compared to more readily available acute data.

The research activities described above aim to improve our understanding of what happens to oil once frozen into ice, how microbiology is reacting to oil in ice and what the exposure potential is of the ecology associated with the ice. This information helps the response com¬munity in selecting the combination of response strategies that minimizes the adverse effects on people and the environment. Results from the research activities described above will be published in several manuscripts for submission to peer reviewed journals in the final phase of the project. In addition results will be incorporated into the NEBA support tool and as such made available for Arctic spill response decision making.