Risks to the Arctic Environment

(from Lloyd’s Report 2012: Arctic Opening – Opportunity and Risk in the High North)


The Arctic environment is, in general, highly sensitive to damage. Relatively simple ecosystem structures and short growing seasons limit the resilience of the natural environment, and make environmental recovery harder to achieve. Damage to the Arctic environment, if it occurs, is likely to have long-term impacts. However, the Arctic is not one ecosystem, but comprises a variety of ecosystems and environmental conditions. The vulnerability of each ecosystem depends on a range of factors, including its complexity and structure. In all cases, baseline knowledge about the natural environment and consistent environmental monitoring is a prerequisite for measuring and understanding environmental impacts.

Pollution from Outside the Arctic

The Arctic has long been exposed to the effects of pollution from outside the region. Black carbon – essentially small dark particles of soot from the burning of fossil fuels – has been associated with processes of rapid Arctic warming through its additional absorption of solar radiation1 . Industrial pollutants are transferred to the Arctic by both air and sea. Approximately 100 tonnes of airborne mercury derived from industrial pollution are deposited in the Arctic Ocean annually. A process of bio-accumulation in Arctic fauna – essentially the aggregation of pollutants at higher levels of the food chain – has led to concentrations of some heavy metals and POPs that are far higher than outside the Arctic2 . Ultimately this has an impact on human health, often the last link in the Arctic food chain (xxxix).

While the path pollution takes and the processes that cause it to accumulate in fauna cannot easily be stopped, cutting global emissions would have a direct impact on concentrations of pollutants in the Arctic. However, under a ‘status quo’ scenario mercury emissions worldwide would increase by 25% in 2020 over 2005 levels. As emission sources for some pollutants move closer to the Arctic, they will inevitably have an impact on the local and wider natural environment.

Climate change, by melting ice in which pollutants may currently be locked, may directly worsen concentrations of pollutants in Arctic ecosystems3 .

Ecosystem Disturbance

As in the past, it is highly likely that future economic activity in the Arctic will further disturb ecosystems already stressed by the consequences of climate change. Migration patterns of caribou and whales in offshore areas may be affected. Other than the direct release of pollutants into the Arctic environment, there are multiple ways in which ecosystems could be disturbed:

• Through the construction of pipelines and roads (xl).

• Through noise pollution from offshore drilling, seismic survey activity or additional maritime traffic.

• Through physical disturbance of the sea and seabed during drilling.

• Through the break-up of sea ice.

Under national legislation in most Arctic countries a number of these factors must be included when making an environmental impact assessment of any development (xli), though the combined impact of developments will be far greater than those of any single project. But knowledge gaps are significant4 . In combination with climate change, increased shipping in the Arctic is likely to increase the prevalence of invasive species, with major impacts on some Arctic ecosystems.

Pollution Within the Arctic

There is a range of potential pollution sources within the Arctic, including mines, oil and gas installations, current industrial sites and, in the Russian Arctic, nuclear waste from both civilian and military nuclear installations, and from nuclear weapons testing on Novaya Zemlya. However, the risk of an oil spill, with multiple implications for the way in which oil and gas companies drill and operate in the Arctic, is probably the most relevant. It represents the greatest risk in terms of environmental damage, potential cost and insurance.

As discussed, many of the techniques for managing Arctic conditions, including ice, are neither new nor specific to the area north of 60°. Dynamic positioning drill ships or ice-resistant rigs and man-made islands have been used for some time, including in offshore Alaska in the 1980s and off Sakhalin. Location in the Arctic is only one risk factor for oil and gas development. The technical challenges of production in onshore or shallow-water offshore areas – and the associated risks of an oil spill – are no greater, and possibly far smaller, than in deep offshore areas anywhere else in the world. (In more remote and deeper parts of the Arctic the challenges are multiplied.)

However, cleaning up any oil spill in the Arctic, particularly in ice-covered areas, would present multiple obstacles which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk (see Figure 16). There are significant knowledge gaps in this area. Rates of natural biodegradation of oil in the Arctic could be expected to be lower than in more temperate environments such as the Gulf of Mexico, although there is currently insufficient understanding of how oil will degrade over the long term in the Arctic. The presence of sea ice could assist in some oil-spill response techniques such as in situ burning and chemical dispersant application. However, the techniques for keeping oil in one place have their own environmental impacts, notably air pollution and the release of chemicals into the marine environment without knowing where moving ice will eventually carry them5 .

Figure 16: Different oil spill response techniques under a range of Arctic conditions Image  


(xxxix) Alaskan Community Action on Toxics, Persistent Organic Pollutants in the Arctic


(xl) The construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, in particular, prompted a large number of environmental studies on the impact of the pipeline on migration routes. The design was altered to enable migration and the impact of the pipeline on migration has been substantially reduced as a result.

(xli) For an examples see the Arctic Environmental Impact Assessment http://arcticcentre.ulapland.fi /aria/


  •  1. An Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Options for Black Carbon for the Arctic Council 2011 Arctic Council
  •  2. Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic Marla Cone 2006
  •  3. Arctic Pollution 2011, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme 2011
  •  4. An Evaluation of the Science Needs to Inform Decisions on Outer Continental Shelf Energy Development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas Alaska United States Leslie Holland-Bartels Brenda Pierce 2011 Geological Survey
  •  5. Drilling in Extreme Environments: Challenges and Implications for the Energy Insurance Industry 2011 pp. 20–25 Lloyd’s 2011


Search Guide [toggle]