As Arctic ice thins and retreats, growing commercial access–from cruise ships to oil and gas drilling–will increase the risk of an oil spill. A recent National Research Council report found that resources, technology, research, manpower, funding and logistics are inadequate to respond to an Arctic oil spill.
The study also defined the types of baseline data that are needed as a guide to developing response technologies.
The motivation for this study is that Arctic operations including spill remediation are more challenging because of the extreme weather, lack of infrastructure, vast geographic distances, and vulnerability of Arctic species and cultures.
The study found that we know little about the physical and biologic conditions of the Arctic. Baseline data are needed regarding the spacial distribution and abundances of fish, birds and marine mammals; high resolution topography and bathymetry; and ice cover thickness and distribution. Also need are meteorological and ice forecasting models. Studies are also needed to determine which dispersants are appropriate for Arctic conditions and organisms, and research is needed to determine the viability and conditions for spill response techniques such as: oil in situ burning, mechanical containment and recovery. The study also recommended that technologies need to be developed for remote oil detection, monitoring and modeling of trajectories.
The study also recommends that the US Coast Guard (USCG) significantly increase its workforce and capabilities, including developing local infrastructure and training local response teams. The study encouraged the expansion of existing cooperation with Russia, Canada and tribal organizations to take advantage of traditional knowledge and best practices.
The study’s extensive list of technology and infrastructure needs reflects the scale of the region and its population: the North Slope borough covers 95,000 sq miles (larger than the state of Utah) and has 8,000 people, no deep water ports and no regional highways. No government (USCG) spill response equipment is prestaged in the Arctic regions of Alaska. Some local, state and industry equipment is staged along the coast but is designed only for local spills.
The National Research Council study “Responding to Oil Spills in U.S. Arctic Waters” is available here.