New Oil-Spill Research In Arctic Reveals Surprising Results

New Oil-Spill Research In Arctic Reveals Surprising Results
Unprecedented studies reveal the effects of untreated and treated oil in the Arctic environment.

While preventing an oil spill is no doubt preferable to launching an oil spill response, having the right response tools available at the tips of one’s fingers can be invaluable – most especially in the carefully protected Arctic environment.

How is marine life in the Arctic affected by crude oil? How is it affected by oil treated with dispersants and in situ burning techniques? Is Arctic marine life more sensitive to oil than marine life in warmer environments?

Although more than 2,000 papers and journals have been published on these topics, remaining uncertainties are being filled by the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Programme (JIP) in unprecedented ways.

The Arctic JIP was formed in 2012 by nine international oil and gas companies for the purpose of advancing oil spill response technologies and methodologies in the Arctic and other ice-covered environments.

The JIP received a permit from the governor of Svalbard, Norway to use crude oil, dispersants, and in situ burn (ISB) residue in experiments conducted in Norway between February and July of 2015. 

“They are the first of their kind,” said Mathijs Smit, an environmental scientist with Shell and chairman of the Environmental Effects Technical Working Group for the Arctic JIP, to Rigzone.

Unlike indoor laboratory experiments that can only simulate real-world conditions, eight mesocosms – semi-enclosed containers that were exposed to sea ice and the seawater below – were installed at Van MijenFjorden, Svea, Norway for scientists to observe how treated and untreated oil affects Arctic marine life spanning from winter to summer, and how treated oil behaves in ice.

Preliminary results are now rolling in, delivering both expected and surprising discoveries.

A Sea of Data

Prior to conducting the experiments, the Arctic JIP collected and reviewed more than 960 literature references on the environmental effects of oil and oil spill response techniques in the Arctic and quickly realized that, “contrary to popular belief, substantial volumes of information existed on the topic,” said Joe Mullin, a retired oceanographer and program manager of the JIP who has conducted research on oil spill recovery for 37 years, to Rigzone.

The information was compiled in a 300-page report – bringing all the data under one roof, so to speak – and making it easy for an operator to develop a response plan in a timely manner, Mullin said. The JIP then linked the fully searchable report to the literature database to create an online resource to support Net Environmental Benefits Analysis (NEBA) to enable rapid access to aid Arctic oil spill decision-making.

To further enhance the accessibility of existing data, the JIP is currently developing Arctic Response and Consequence Analysis Tables (ARCAT). These will provide a visual and intuitive way to quickly assess the information and to select appropriate methods to respond to an Arctic oil spill.

After compiling information for the ARCAT tables, however, Smit said “it became evident that further experiments were needed to further reduce existing uncertainties.”

Arctic Research

Beginning last February, eight cylindrical-shaped mesocosms measuring 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide were placed in Van MijenFjorden. Open on both ends, they interfaced with marine life that colonizes where sea ice and seawater meet, and with marine life below the ice.

Two mesocosms served as controls while the additional pairs were subjected to untreated oil and oil treated with dispersants and in situ burn (ISB) residue. The ultimate goal was to determine the sensitivity and resiliency of various types of marine life – such as ice algae, juvenile fish and zooplankton – in frozen and melting ice. Scientists also wanted to gain additional information on the biodegradation of oil in the Arctic environment, Mullin said.

New Oil-Spill Research In Arctic Reveals Surprising Results
Ice coring
Photo by International Research Institute of Stavanger Source: Akvaplan-niva

“We not only wanted to help develop better ways of responding to oil spills but identify the potential consequences that could come from a spill and the effects of using different response technologies,” Mullin said. “What is the best way to clean up a spill with the least amount of damage? The NEBA process provides the framework that helps us select the best tool or combination of tools.”

Much like a spreadsheet, the ARCAT tables will ultimately feature a color-coded grid system indicating the immediate and long-term impacts of untreated oil, as well as oil treated with dispersants and in situ burning techniques, and the resilience of biological resources in the Arctic.

“It is a way to get the wealth of information out and make it available to practitioners,” Mullin said. “When they perform a NEBA, all of this information is at their fingertips.”

To perform the needed experiments, a team of scientists, including chemists, toxicologists, ecologists and microbiologists, took up residence in Svalbard to regularly assess activity in the mesocosms, Smit said.

While mesocosms have been used in various marine experiments, this was the first time they have been used in ice, Smit noted. Not only did the mesocosms have to be specially designed to handle ice pressure and a harsh environment, the scientists had to be on guard when threats from polar bears and inclement weather loomed.

Preliminary Results

While many of the experiments are still under analysis, preliminary results are helping scientists to develop a complete Arctic oil spill response dataset.

“The experiments have helped to dispel the belief that Arctic species are more sensitive to oil and oil spill response techniques than non-Arctic species,” Mullin said. “In fact, they are not extra-sensitive to dispersants or ISB residues.”

Furthermore, the biodegradation of both untreated and treated oil occurs in the Arctic environment – albeit at a somewhat slower pace, Smit said.

The microorganisms that feed on oil that is frozen into ice seem to multiply in the presence of oil, yet not explosively as one might expect them to in water, he said. This may be linked to the availability of nutrients and oxygen.

“Microorganisms in the Arctic feeding on hydrocarbons is a positive thing. They get rid of the contaminants,” Smit said. “There were doubts about whether or not biodegradation would occur in cold water and ice, and first findings are now supporting that it does occur. Arctic microorganisms are adapted to the cold environment. If you offer a food source, they will respond.”

The JIP plans to present the preliminary results of its experiments to the Arctic Frontiers 2016 conference in Tromso, Norway at the end of January.

“It’s hard to pick a favorite child, but this experiment is really showing good results and is dispelling several myths out there about the Arctic,” Mullin said.

In 2016, results from the Svea experiments will be published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at scientific conferences and workshops. The functionality of the NEBA information and support tool will be improved, and the ARCAT tables will be released.  

“It’s an exciting time to come,” Smit said.

New Oil-Spill Research In Arctic Reveals Surprising Results
Mesocosm dosed with crude oil
Photo by International Research Institute of Stavanger


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