Oil spills have posed a persistent threat to the Arctic. Some solutions are on the horizon

Better logistics and shipboard recovery systems could help alleviate the worst of the problem of an oil spill in ice.

By Kevin McGwin - October 5, 2018
Extending a mechanical arm where nature can’t lend a hand. (Lamor)

Even with the growth of maritime activity in the Arctic, the chances of a major oil spill remain small compared with more heavily travelled shipping lanes. Offshore activity in the Arctic, a favorite target of conservation groups, still lags behind other areas as well.

Even so, the consequences of a spill in the Arctic would be comparably larger than other regions. In part, this is due to the environment of the Arctic. In the best of conditions, less than 25 percent of oil is actually removed from the water. Some gets disbursed by wind and waves and eventually evaporates. Most is broken down by oil-eating microbes.

Cold temperatures and ice coverage renders both these processes less effective. Twenty-four hour sunlight in the summertime may be one advantage the Arctic has, but even that is uncertain: Scientists fret that excessive sunlight could make spilt oil more toxic to marine organisms and reduce the effectiveness of chemicals spread to disperse slicks.

Several technologies to clean up spills exist, and, between 2012 and 2017, nine oil firms with interests in the region pooled their efforts to find out which of them worked best under Arctic conditions, as well as to develop the routines to make it possible to respond in a timely fashion.

[Oil-spill response: Brushing up on their MOSPA]

A lack of equipment and infrastructure is also hindrance. At the national level, the Arctic states have all pledged to maintain a system for responding “promptly and effectively” to oil spills, and to come to each other’s assistance if requested. Even so, the vast distances in the region mean days can pass before authorities can even be certain whether there is something to clean up.

In 2015, for example, it took a Danish naval vessel stationed in western Greenland five days to reach the site of a possible oil spill off the eastern coast. Once it arrived, rough seas made it impossible to find the location of the slick. In the final analysis, it was reckoned that it had broken up in the meantime.

Likewise, U.S. Coast Guard officials have said that it would be easier to send response equipment to the moon than to the site of a spill in the Arctic. The comment, though said in jest, underscores the challenge of the situation.

One solution is to stage equipment in coastal communities. Where a standing response force is not feasible, volunteer and semi-volunteer forces can provide the initial response, containing a spill as best as possible until clean-up equipment can be in place.

[Researchers hope new techniques will unlock secrets of oil spills in sea ice]

Another option, and one that would be effective further at sea, would be to ensure that at least some of the ships that are increasingly active in the region carry their own clean-up infrastructure with them. Arctia, a Finnish firm that provides ice-breaking and related services, recently announced a successful trial of an oil-recovery system installed on the Polaris, its latest ice-management vessel, a name that suggests a range of tasks beyond ice-breaking.

Ship-mounted systems are not unheard of. Arctia previously had an oil-recovery system installed on an older icebreaker, and, in March, ships from Sweden and Finland took part in a training event held in connection with an Arctic Council response exercise. Other ships, including a Swedish Coast Guard vessel, have such systems built in.

A built-in system uses booms to corral oil and then lead it to an on-board skimmer, making them more efficient than the external system, which uses rotating brushes to sweep oil into an external container (pictured above), a method that does not always function well in ice, or if temperatures are low enough to cause the oil to coagulate.

Polaris is the first ice-breaking vessel to have a built-in system. Having both ice-breaking and oil-recovery capacity makes a vessel a bigger asset, reckons Arctia’s management. If that is the case, other vessels are likely to follow in its wake.