The environmental, oceanographic and climatic conditions in the Arctic Ocean represent a challenge to existing oil spill cleanup technologies. Most oil spill response systems and equipment were developed for use in open (up to 10 percent ice-covered) waters and have been adapted over time to try to accommodate Arctic conditions. Those conditions can include varying concentrations and formations of sea ice, as well as dense fog, sub-zero temperatures, high winds, months of darkness and other elements that make any on-water operations challenging.
"Launch At Own Risk" Storm in Barrow, Alaska
© Earth System Research Labratory, NOAA
The federal government’s Minerals Management Service acknowledges this fact, and the U.S. Coast Guard goes a step further and states that oil boom and skimmers are unproven where sea ice is present. The oil industry and Alaska Clean Seas, the North Slope’s oil spill cleanup organization, acknowledge these limits exist. But as of yet, no one has quantified these limits by doing what is called a “response gap analysis."
”A “response gap” exists whenever environmental conditions exceed the operating limits of oil spill cleanup equipment. That means if a spill occurs during these conditions, it could not be contained or cleaned up. The term “response gap” is relatively new to the published literature and there has been confusion about the term’s meaning and how it relates to other oil spill planning and response concepts.
- Quantify the operating limits of offshore oil spill response systems available in the Arctic. This process starts by looking at one or more offshore spill response systems (equipment, vessels and personnel) and then considering the upper operating limits of that system. That is determined by the component or components that are most likely to fail once a given condition (sea state, ice coverage, visibility, temperature, wind) is exceeded, rendering the response system inoperable.
- Calculate the frequency that one or more of the operating limits is reached in the area of operations. Historical weather data and observations are analyzed to determine how frequently each of the limiting factors occurs during the operating season. If historical data is not available, it may be modeled. Assuming that multiple factors would limit Arctic offshore spill response, the analysis would also have to consider the interplay among factors to account for cumulative impacts. For example, the combination of 10 percent ice coverage and less than one nanometer visibility may present an operating limit even though individually neither factor would.
- Estimate the response gap by applying the operating limits to the environmental dataset. The result of this analysis will characterize the frequency of occurrence of one or more environmental factors that would render oil spill cleanup possible, impaired or impossible. Such an analysis completed in Prince William Sound Alaska in 2007 showed that during the winter season at one offshore location, a response gap(impossible to clean up the spill using existing technologies) existed 65 percent of the time.
How to Address U.S. Arctic Science Needs
The Pew Charitable Trusts and Ocean Conservancy recently released a white paper in which 14 independent Arctic marine scientists reviewed and reinforced the recommendations of a USGS Arctic science gap analysis. The white paper also recommends concrete steps the Obama administration should take to address science gaps and inform conservation and development decisions in America’s Arctic Ocean.
VIDEO: Don't Put America's Arctic Ocean at Risk
The oil industry recently submitted exploration plans to drill up to 10 wells over the next two summers in the U.S. Arctic Ocean for review by the Department of the Interior. As the video below shows, to allow drilling now would put this extraordinary ecosystem—and vibrant communities that have practiced a traditional way of life for thousands of years—at risk.
Arctic Oil Spill Report
Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences is the most comprehensive analysis yet on challenges to preventing and containing spills along the nation’s northernmost coast. Find details, downloads, and video >