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Oil and Other Hazardous Spills Response in the Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


As marine activity continues to expand in the Arctic, statistical trends indicate that the potential risk of vessel mishaps and marine pollution incidents also increases. The inherent navigational and environmental hazards and limited number of experienced personnel, combined with Arctic ecosystem sensitivity, heightens the need for greater incident response capacity and preparedness. It is important to learn, as soon as possible, what has been spilled, where and when in order to address it in an appropriate manner.

Marine incident prevention is based upon addressing four conditions that may result in pollution incidents:

• Human error or failure caused by fatigue, malfeasance, unfamiliarity or other conditions either exclusively or in conjunction with each other;

• Lack of operational readiness and preparedness caused by marginal or unprepared ship or crews;

• Older vessel or vessel operating outside of operation parameters; and

• Arctic climate and situational unknowns caused by less predictable or rapidly changing weather, ice conditions, iceberg awareness or failure of mechanical systems unprepared for the rigors of Arctic operations.

Alone, or in combination, these conditions contribute to a myriad of scenarios for pollution and are the focus of the vast majority of preventive measures.

In addition, the variety of pollutant types and sub types threaten the environment in different ways depending upon their chemical nature and how they behave when released. This may include circumstances such as waterway type, time of year, weather (wind, temperature) and local geography. Further adding to these circumstances are the variables associated with the potential impacts or sensitivities related to shoreline ecosystems, marine ecosystems, socio-economic systems or, in general terms, the overall exposed environments that would be lost or degraded.

Given the recognition that prevention may greatly diminish but not necessarily eliminate pollution threats, all maritime nations support preparedness and response activities. The challenge lies in the creation and sustainability of a preparedness and response regime that deals with the innumerable combinations and permutations possible.

Internationally, the Arctic countries are all signatories to MARPOL 73/78 (Annex I and II), COLREG Convention 72, STCW Convention 78 and Load Lines Convention 1966 and Protocol 1988, all of which fundamentally support the domestic legal frameworks for limiting vessel casualty situations. While these conventions apply internationally, the unique Arctic conditions relating to ice cover, weather fluctuation, limited basic infrastructure due to remoteness and particular biological susceptibilities increase the reliance on clear and robust prevention and preparedness regimes.

The Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group of the Arctic Council has created several products for dealing with oil spills in the Arctic. These products are available to the general public through http://eppr.arctic-council.org(external link) and include:

• An Arctic Guide referencing emergency systems and governmental contacts for all circumpolar nations that is updated annually;

• A Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Manual (2004) for use in determining the most appropriate techniques for enhancing shoreline recovery;

• A series of Circumpolar Maps of Resources at Risk from Oil Spills in the Arctic (2002);

• A Field Guide (1998) for oil spills response referencing all manner of protection and recovery techniques; and

• An Environmental Risk Analysis (1998) of Arctic activities that indicates current potential spill sources.

Of particular note, the series of circumpolar maps, http://eppr.akvaplan.com(external link), provides a first order overview of information for stakeholders to easily identify potential sources of spills and internationally important biological resources that could be at risk. The map catalogue includes thematic, regional and seasonal views including fish, bird, mammal, human population and protected areas.

A review of each Arctic state’s response profile reveals a relatively consistent allocation of marine pollution interests from federal to local levels. In addition, there exists a number of longstanding bilateral agreements between adjacent countries that encourage cooperative efforts and transfer of best practices. For example, Norway and the Russian Federation have a bilateral oil spill response agreement for the Barents Sea that is exercised annually. There is no multilateral oil spill response agreement for the Arctic, but it may warrant an umbrella or multilateral agreement and/or a contingency planning process. Because of the diverse nature of the areas and interest, there is no particular advantage or disadvantage to any one model provided that entities share their objectives and communicate effectively.

In terms of current and future marine traffic, the Arctic is an immense, seasonally variable waterway with very little development along its shores. Despite the current disposition of resources and regimes, a more consistent country by country approach is required to address the pollution risk more effectively. Issues related to identifying risk areas, establishing timelines for response and ultimately designing a consistent response capacity remains a challenge.

Logistics - the procurement, maintenance and transportation of materials, facilities and personnel - are dependent upon existing Arctic infrastructure. This is a critical component of all Arctic operations. Sea-state and environmental exposure will place larger burdens on logistics supply lines. In the absence of shore-based infrastructure, longer range planning for refueling and replenishment are required. Distances between ports, coupled with the unpredictability of weather, may complicate access and supply, as well as removal of recovered product and waste. With public expectation of four season response capability for large or environmentally disastrous spills, the logistics infrastructure may need to be modified.

The issue of logistics is not surprisingly a significant and mostly limiting factor in facilitating an effective response. In remote areas, two distinct situations exist in relation to the provision of logistics: incidents within reasonable distances from established communities and those in more remote settings. Pre-existing infrastructure or preplacement of response assets typically support this first scenario, while remote incident sites require the creation of infrastructure from the ground up. A mobile and relatively self-sustaining infrastructure is called for currently and likely into the foreseeable future. Selecting a site for this type of infrastructure becomes the key logistical issue facing a response and obtaining local knowledge of the areas is considered vital.

Oil spills in ice are more complicated to address than oil spills in open waters and there are several challenges connected with oil spill response in ice and snow and cold water. Apart from the normally long distances from existing infrastructure, the oil is less accessible in ice-covered waters. The oil can be spilled on ice or snow, in open pools between ice floes, in open channels behind vessels or even under the ice from pipelines or other sources.

There are some advantages in addressing oil spills in ice compared to open water. The weathering rate is normally much slower for an oil spill in ice as the emulsification rate is slower, resulting in an increased window of opportunity for use of most response techniques. The spreading of oil will be normally slower also, resulting in a large oil film thickness that may be favorable for oil spill response. The reduced weathering of oil in these conditions does, however, maintain the levels of its more toxic components for greater periods of time, thereby increasing the availability or risk of uptake by organisms.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©