Frequently Asked Questions

Has technology advanced in the area of mechanical recovery?

Yes, advances include improved oil and ice processing; the ability to recover larger volumes of cold viscous oils and oil/ice mixtures with low water uptake; and, heating of critical components to prevent freezing. Just as with car designs, some skimmers resemble their earlier versions on the surface, while incorporating significant engineering and design improvements, drawing on real-life experience from actual responses in the field and test tank experiments under arctic conditions. Additionally, oil booming technology capable of working in light ice, or very open drift ice conditions has evolved with developments such as:  outrigger booms, skimmers built-in to the vessel, BoomVane and Ocean Buster technologies. Two new systems, MOS Sweeper and the Oil Shaver, were recently tested in Norway. Advances in remote sensing and aerial surveillance platforms, including Unmanned Air Systems, have also enhanced mechanical recovery operations by identifying thick areas of the slick where skimmers will encounter more oil.

Is the technology good enough for arctic conditions?

Yes, manufacturers including Crucial, Slickbar, Desmi, Elastec, Lamor, Desmi and Framo have been producing ice-capable, stand-alone skimmers and skimmers integrated with ice-capable recovery vessels for years. 

Has the technology been tested in ice conditions?

The 2010 SINTEF Oil-in-Ice JIP and several prior studies sponsored the design and testing of a new series of arctic skimmers capable of working off the side of a vessel in high ice concentrations.  Dedicated field trials took place in the Norwegian Barents Sea in 2008 and 2009 following extensive tank testing. Results showed that these specialized skimmers can recover oil from isolated oil pools naturally contained by ice. As well as field trials, Arctic Oil spill response equipment is currently being used in Alaska, the Baltic Sea, Sakhalin, Caspian and many other regions experiencing snow and ice in winter months.

Can these skimmers deal with a large oil spill?

While specialized skimmers may be effective in oil recovery, the low rate at which skimmers encounter oil within pack ice conditions limits their effective use to relatively small operational spills. In the unlikely event of a large oil release, mechanical recovery should be complimented with additional response techniques – in situ burning as well as surface and subsea dispersants use. Access to the full range of response options ensures the most effective spill response and affords the ability to encounter and remove surface oil, thus offering a greater degree of environmental protection.

What about the effectiveness of mechanical recovery in ice conditions?

Several types of skimmers  and vessels have been developed specifically for recovering oil in ice-covered regions. The skimmers are often brush belts, drums, or ropes rotating through the slick and have proven to be effective in recovering oil while processing small ice pieces. Some skimming units are equipped with heating systems, ice deflection frames, and advanced systems for pumping viscous oil/water/ice mixtures. Specialized arctic designed equipment presently available, such as viscous oil pumping and annular water injection technology, were developed to increase the effectiveness of pumping and transferring very viscous oils and cold emulsions and are very capable of recovering and transferring such oils under arctic conditions.

Will mechanical systems just freeze up?

While freezing is an important factor that needs to be considered in the design of skimmers and their ancillary systems for arctic use, with proper engineering design, constraints associated with freezing temperatures can largely be overcome. Additionally, protective and preventative maintenance, as with any response resource, ensures response readiness even in harsh environmental conditions.


  • Lampela, K. 2007. Baltic approach to oil spill recovery in ice: case studies and recent development in Baltic Sea states. In: Proceedings International Oil & Ice Workshop 2007. Minerals Management Service. Herndon, VA, USA.
  • Potter, S., I. Buist, K. Trudel, D. Dickins and E. Owens. February 2012.  Spill Response in the Arctic Offshore. Prepared for the American Petroleum Institute and the Joint Industry Programme on Oil Spill Recovery in Ice, Washington.
  • Potter, S. and I. Buist.  2010.  In-situ Burning in Arctic and Ice-covered Waters:  Tests of fire-resistant booms in low concentrations of drift ice.  Proceedings 33rd Arctic and Marine Oilspill Program Technical Seminar, Halifax NS, pp 743-754. 
  • Sørstrøm, S.E., P.J. Brandvik, I. Buist, P. Daling, D. Dickins, L-G. Faksness, S. Potter, J. Fritt Rasmussen and I. Singsaas. 2010. Joint industry program on oil spill contingency for Arctic and ice-covered waters: summary report. SINTEF report A14181. SINTEF. Trondheim, Norway.
  • Schmidt, W., P. Meyer, and S. Potter. 2013.  Testing of Oil Recovery Skimmers in Ice at Ohmsett.  Project sponsored by BSEE.  Paper presented at AMOP 2014, Environment Canada.
  • United States Coast Guard.  2013.  Arctic Shield, Oil Spill Response Joint Technology Demonstration Exercise. 07-20 September 2013.  After Action Report, sponsored by USCG, BSEE, NOAA, DHS Science and Technology Office of University Programs.