Effects of Oil Spills in Arctic Waters

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


Oil in the Arctic marine ecosystem originates mainly from two sources: drilling activity and oil spills during transportation. Drilling activity causes long-term exposure and thus chronic effects on Arctic marine ecosystems, such as changes in species composition, dominance and biomass, while oil spill effects are acute and can cause severe damage locally1 . However, the oil products, whether it originates from shipping activities or drilling activity, destroy all aspects of the environmental integrity of the marine ecosystems including fisheries, marine mammals, corals, ocean and shore birds, and the coastal wildlife and thus lead to changes in e.g. behaviour (feeding, activity and motility, avoidance reactions etc.), growth, and reproduction2 .

Oil spills in ice are more complicated to address than oil spills in open waters. Should this occur at the wrong place at the wrong time, for example in the marginal ice zone, in polynyas, during the high production period, the impacts could be serious. Shallow waters are the most sensitive to such pollution, and these areas are important to organisms of all levels of the Arctic food chain. Apart from the normally long distances from existing infrastructure, the oil is less accessible in ice-covered waters.

The slow rate of biological degradation of oil at near-zero temperatures has led biologists to suggest that oil spills in the Arctic Ocean might remain there for periods of 50 years or more. The dynamics of the ice pack combined with the long life of the oil could allow an oil spill to have a major effect on the albedo in certain regions of the Arctic. It is estimated that the transit time of an oil spill on the fringes of the Beaufort Sea around the circumference of the Beaufort gyre would be about 7–10 years. Several mechanisms act both to diffuse the oil and to put the oil on the surface of the ice. Therefore, as the source continued, the area affected by the spill would grow. By the time the original spill site returned to its original approximate geographic coordinates, a considerable area of the Beaufort Sea could have its albedo changed. The significance of the resultant albedo change for the Arctic heat balance is moot, but most scientists agree that the Arctic environment will require special precautions to minimize the risks of accidental oil spills3 .

According to the ARCOP-study1 , it seems that long-term effects of oil spills on open water ecosystem may be less important than generally assumed, and restricted to a relatively small area. However, there is still uncertainty about the effect of oil in ice covered environments. Oil associated with sea ice may have a notable effect on the ice biota, particularly as oil tends to become trapped between ice floes, and within brine channels in ice, and thus lengthens the contamination time. Even after several years of an oil accident, the recovery process of a littoral or benthic ecosystem may still be incomplete and, in the worst case, may not ever reach the original state.

Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

Timely and effective response to oil spills requires containment, recovery and restoration. Oil spills in polar seas are especially damaging because the natural conditions severely constrain an effective response. As a part of normal operations, ships produce a range of substances that must eventually be eliminated from the ship through discharge into the ocean, incineration or transfer to port based reception facilities. The MARPOL convention has effectively reduced pollution in the marine environment by regulating the release of regular discharges. The amount of legally discharged oil under MARPOL indicates that oil should not pose a significant threat to the local ecosystem as long as the laws are strictly followed. Currently, there are limited port reception facilities to dispose oily sludge along the main shipping routes in Arctic Waters, i.e. the NEP/NSR and the NWP. As a consequence of this limited port side infrastructure as well as the cost of disposing of waste using port reception facilities provide incentive for illegal dumping of wastes produced on board ships4 .

The risk of accidental release of oil and other contaminants increases with any increase in shipping activity that involves the use of oil or other chemicals. The fact that most recovery equipment and personnel are normally remotely located hinders a timely incident response, and freezing conditions at the incident site further inhibit recovery operations. However, according to the Arctic Council Assessment of Oil and Gas, oil pollution in the Arctic is currently on a low level. This conclusion can hardly have included statistics on oil accidents among cruise ships in recent years. For the time period 1993-2007 cruise ships on polar voyages committed 21 fuel spill incidents. Many of those incidents were the result of serious accidents including sinking, groundings and collisions4 .

There are currently inadequate techniques for recovering spilled oil in ice-covered environments. The solutions that today are available for oil spill recovery in the Arctic include mechanical methods, bio-remediation, in-situ burning and dispersants4 . The severity of contamination is not only dependent on the type of organisms exposed to oil, but also on the type and volumes of spilled oil, the speed of oil, weathering processes, oil combating measures taken, and the location of the spill. Whether large oil spills require more time than smaller spills, the use of oil dispersants has usually more severe consequences on organisms than the mechanical and/or biological oil combating. On the basis of the extreme conditions of the environment in the Arctic, responding to oil spills is a key challenge along the various sailing routes, especially where ice is present. The AMSA study suggests that strong prevention must be of primary concern, while response measures, being both unreliable and untested, should be secondary. One of the main suggestions proposed was:

“Prevention of oil spills needs to be the highest priority in the Arctic for environmental protection. Therefore, Arctic states, in collaboration with the industry, must support enhanced funding, research, and technology transfer to prevent release of oil into Arctic waters.”5

Oil spill Response Systems on the Northeast Passage and Connecting Routes

Transportation of oil and gas along parts of the NEP is expected to increase in the years ahead, particularly in the Barents Sea. There will always be a risk connected oil and gas activities and shipping in the Barents Sea. However, shipping contributes considerably more to the overall risk of acute oil pollution than the oil and gas industry. Nevertheless, in spite of an expected increase in the volume of shipping, the implementation of measures such as traffic separation schemes and vessel traffic service centres will reduce the risk of oil spills associated with shipping6 .

When it comes to responsibility for oil spill contingency operations on the NEP, Russia has agreements with Norway for the Barents Sea and with the United States for the Bering Sea2 . The Russian oil spill contingency response consists of two subsystems: state and private. The federal system has divided its activities between the Federal State Unitary Enterprises (FSUE) of Murmansk and Sakhalin, the Russian Transport Ministry and their branches in Arkhangelsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski. Operative zones and responsibility management are shared between Murmansk - and Sakhalin - “Basin emergency and rescue managements”, and includes seaways from the boundary of Norway to the La Pérouse Strait, which includes both the NSR, part of NPC and NMC (see chapter 1). However, the federal plan also requires support by special marine divisions and equipment from other regions, in the western part: from the Baltic and Black seas, and in the eastern part: from Nakhodka and Sakhalin. In addition, the plan envisages request for rendering assistance in accordance with the Intergovernmental Agreement, in the western part of the Arctic: from Norway and Finland, and in the eastern part: from the U.S.

Private systems include response from oil companies and operators of oil terminals on the NEP (i.e. Varandey, Murmansk, Kandalaksha and Arkhangelsk). The establishment of basin emergency and rescue managements and the available equipment used for the elimination of oil spills were mainly carried out in the 1980s and were based on risks existing at that time, when oil in the Arctic was transported episodically and in small volumes2 . Currently, response systems of a majority of oil companies and operators of oil terminals in the Arctic are developed, but according to domestic legislation the owners and operators are only responsible for oil spill response within the zone of operation. Despite improvements of the equipment, the operative response systems are not sufficient in order to minimize the risk in such a huge region. In addition, the federal Emergency and Rescue Managements need additional facilities, in order to increase the emergency response if any accident should occur. At present, such emergency measures lack the necessary state financials.

The AMSA-study’s suggestions are clear5 : Elimination of oil spills of the federal level should be provided by joint efforts of several basin emergency and rescue managements, as well as by forces and means of oil companies. Assistance from polar countries may be requested and obtained first of all from Norway and Finland in the west and from USA and Canada in the east. For the delivery of needed equipment, “Federal plan of the prevention and liquidation of oil spills” enforced in 2003 envisages the use of transport aviation and airports capable of accepting planes in areas close to places of probable accidents. Equipment to the places of spills is delivered from large airports (Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Norilsk, Tiksi, Yakutsk and Pevek) by helicopters and sea ships. To ensure the readiness for the oil spill elimination on seaways of the NSR it is necessary to5 :

·       Establish bases of the equipment for the elimination of oil spills in Amderma, Tiksi and Pevek. These bases should include multi-purpose ships capable of ensuring readiness to emergency and rescue operations on the NSR.

·       To conclude agreements with private companies operating on the NSR about rendering assistance in the event of oil spillage, these agreements clearly specifying terms and financial issues of such assistance.

·       To develop federal law on the prevention of the pollution of sea providing for the creation of the trust fund to ensure readiness to the elimination of oil spills.

Oil spill Response Systems on the Northwest Passage and Connecting Routes 

Currently, a satisfactory implementation of oil spill response on the NWP is absent. This also reflects the lack of adequate infrastructure in the region (see chapter 5). However, the northern part of Canada is estimated to hold about 30% of the remaining potential of oil and gas in the Arctic. Two-thirds of this total is offshore (see chapter 36 . Plans for development of oil and gas in the Mackenzie delta is one example. An increase in future oil production, will potentially lead to increased drilling activity, in addition to an increased volume of shipping of the resources. Both activities will likely increase the risk of oil pollution, but also the need for emergency response.

Legislation such as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act have introduced standards that impact performance requirements for all aspects of oil and gas exploration and development, including risk for oil spills. Strategies for enhancing Canada’s capacity for oil spill response are currently under development. However, in 1977 Canada and the U.S. agreed to establish a joint marine contingency plan for the Beaufort Sea. The plan sets out regional contacts and procedures in case of oil spills and other noxious substances and has periodically been revised, most recently in 2003.  However, if any ship accident, which includes oil spill, should occur at this stage, there is no emergency unit with the necessary facilities to perform quick and timely response. One of Canada's foremost experts on the northern areas, Franklyn Griffiths, addresses oil spill response cooperation between U.S. and Canada as one of the main challenges of the Arctic policy. Currently, the support-system of potential oil spill incidents is missing. He argues that the issue is covered by the political discussion about which parts of the Arctic to be controlled by whom. Recently Griffith suggested:

“Canada should forget about trying to convince the U.S. to concede Canadian control of the passage and instead pursue a policy of conflict-avoidance and partnership-building with the U.S. on an array of Arctic matters…such as an adequate oil-spill response system.”7

However, the history shows multiple oil spill accidents in the western part of the Arctic. One example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, is the largest marine spill in the vicinity of the Arctic thus far. It exemplifies consequences to the ecosystem after oil spill. The vulnerability of sea otters was documented clearly during the Exxon Valdez, where estimated 2000-3000 animals perished8 . Twenty years after discharge, there is still some seabird species in the area that is not back to its natural state.

Regardless, there came many lessons out of the accident, including some cleaning methods that were used to remove the oil led to greater environmental damages, than the oil itself. Although the likelihood of oil spills in the Canadian and U.S. Arctic are expected to increase during the next years, there are no accidents in recent years which show significant damage to the ecosystems. One example from July 2003 was a 20 tonne container filled with a hazardous chemical used in cement washed off the western coast of Bering Island. Approximately 15 tonnes of the chemical leaked, creating a 400 square meter oily spill. A later survey counted 46 dead birds and one dead seal9 . This can hardly be claimed to be a significant degradation of the ecosystem.


  •  1. ARCOP (2005), Arctic Operational Platform, Working Paper D3.7.2.Report on Existing Courses and Facilities. By Anniek Platzer, Wagenborg Shipping Sergey Rodionov, Central Marine Research and Design Institute, Leif Baarman, Meriturva, Finland 2005
  •  2. INSROP (1997), International Sea Route Programme, Working Paper 76, Coastal Pollution Emergency Plan. Part I. By G. Semanov, V. Volkov, V. Somkin & D. Iljushenko-Krylov. February 1997
  •  3. The National Academic Press: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12024&page=119
  •  4. AMSA (2009), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report, PAME, Arctic Council, Terragraphica, Anchorage, April 2009
  •  5. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  6. Norsk Polarinstitutt (2009), Best Practices in Ecosystem-based Ocean Management in the Arctic. Rapportserie no.129. Tromsø April 2009
  •  7. Canwest News Service: http://www2.canada.com/topics/news/features/arcticambitions/story.html?id=de0a569c-1ec6-478c-9fd0-a45622e2fe9a
  •  8. Waldichuk (1990), Histopathology in winter flounder (Pleuronectes americanus) living adjacent to a pulp and paper mill. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Volume 26, Number 1 / January, 1994, Springer New York
  •  9. Aleut International (2008): www.aleut-international.org/files/Download/2008_1st_2nd_Quarter%20Newsletter.pdf -
  •  10. Ocean Futures (2009), Vurdering av andre uåpnete områder i nord. By Fløistad, B. Jørgensen-Dahl, A. and Østreng, W. for Oljeindustriens Landsforening (OLF), Oslo, februar 2009

Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Effects of Oil Spills in Arctic Waters, CHNL.©



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