Five out of the eight countries bordering the polar region are currently pursuing exploration and/or development of oil and gas resources in the Arctic. Changing environmental conditions may provide increased opportunity for development of these natural resources and many international, national and local agencies are in the process of developing ecosystem and biodiversity assessments in order to better understand the Arctic marine ecosystem.

To further build on existing research and improve the technologies and methodologies for arctic oil spill response, nine oil and gas companies established the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Programme (JIP). The goal of the JIP is to advance arctic oil spill response strategies and equipment as well as to increase understanding of potential impacts of oil on the Arctic marine environment.

What is the report on Environmental Effects of Oil and Oil Spill Response Technologies in the Arctic?

The report is a comprehensive review of investigations into spilled oil and oil spill response technologies in the Arctic marine environment, encompassing both short and long-term effects of spilled oil on key arctic ecosystem components. Based on over 960 literature citations, the report was compiled by a multi-disciplinary team with expertise in arctic food webs; the behaviour of oil in surface waters, at depth, and in ice; the effectiveness of oil spill response methods in cold-water surface and subsurface environments; toxicity; and models used to predict individual and population effects in arctic ecosystems.

Nine technical working groups were each tasked with providing an assessment and identifying areas of priority research under the following key categories: The Physical Environment; Arctic Ecosystems and Valuable Resources; Transport and Fate of Oil in the Arctic; Oil Spill Response and Related Effects; Biodegradation; Ecotoxicology of Oil and Treated Oil in the Arctic; Population Effects Modelling; Ecosystem Recovery; Net Environmental Benefit Analyses for Oil Spill Response Options in the Arctic.

As part of the review process, a gap analysis was realised to define the necessary research programme needed to fill knowledge gaps on specific species sensitivity to oil and oil spill response techniques in particular arctic habitats. The review is the first phase of an ongoing project involving field research and the development of an analytical tool for oil spill decision-making.


Key findings

  1. There is already an extensive existing science base for arctic oil spill response decision-making through the NEBA (Net Environmental Benefits Analysis) process, but accessibility of this data should be improved and this review aims to increase access to that information.
  2. There is evidence that arctic species are not more sensitive to dispersed oil than non-arctic species and that they react to dispersed oil exposure in the same way as temperate species do.
  3. In order to fully understand the impact of oil and oil spill response techniques on species and the recovery of populations, the review recommended follow-up research into the resilience of populations.
  4. Certified dispersants and oils treated with these dispersants are not more toxic than the oil itself.
  5. Biodegradation of oil in the Arctic does occur and certified dispersants do not reduce the ability of microbes to degrade oil.
  6. The water/ice interface is one of the unique features of the Arctic ecosystem where species aggregate. Undispersed oil might collect at this interface.
  7. The presence of ice changes the behaviour of oil and can actually mitigate the environmental impact. Ice may form a barrier so that other vulnerable resources like coastlines cannot be reached.


Next steps

The review made suggestions for follow-up work to improve scientific knowledge of the fate and biodegradation of oil and oil spill response residues in ice, as well as the environmental effects to ice associated ecology. As part of the second phase of the project, first of their kind long-term ice mesocosm studies were designed to measure this and are currently underway in Svea, Norway.

The first set of eight in-situ mesocosms were successfully installed in January 2015. Oil has been introduced into the mesocosms and treated with several response options (two control, two natural attenuation, two dispersants and two in situ burn) in order to examine the impact of untreated and treated oil on sea ice communities. Twelve smaller mesocosms for open water will be installed later in the year to assess the sensitivity and resiliency of the sea surface micro layer. Additional analyses will also determine the fate and biodegradation of oil and oil spill response residues in ice and sediments. See further information on the experiments here.

Together with the data from the review the studies will inform the development of Arctic Response Consequence Analysis Tables (ARCAT) and an accompanying semi-quantative analytical tool to optimise proactive oil spill response decision-making. The method will summarise data on the impacts of oil spill response techniques on selected valuable ecosystem components within key environmental compartments, enabling the choice of mitigating measures with the least environmental impact.

In the final phase of the project, two Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) workshops will be organised in key arctic regions. These workshops will show how the information base resulting from the project has optimised the NEBA process for determining appropriate oil spill response techniques.


The Databases

Environmental Effects (of Spilled Oil and Response Technologies in the Arctic) – Literature reference database

This database contains the literature references used as a basis for the review report. The database was first established by New Fields as part of another Joint Industry Programme which looked into the biodegradation and toxicity of dispersed oil in the cold water environments of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas (please see Phase I and Phase 2 Final Report). This database was then extended as part of the Arctic Response Technology Joint Industry Programme in the development of this review report.

SYMBIOSES database

The SYMBIOSES database contains data on environmental effects for a selection of cold-water marine species of fish and plankton associated with the Barents Sea ecosystem, and was developed by Akvaplan-Niva in Norway during the SYMBIOSES Joint Industry Programme.

SECAB, oil spill consequence database

The SECAB oil spill consequence database was developed within ExxonMobil, and contains references that describe historical spills and information on the environmental consequences of these.


How to use the search function

The search uses Boolean operators to access material from the reports and reference databases, enabling a complex search containing multiple search terms. The three basic boolean operators are: AND, OR, and NOT. Note the search recognises AND as the primary operator, and will connect search terms with AND together first. Therefore, when using a combination of AND and OR operators in a search, use parentheses to separate the operators. Multiple words should also be enclosed in quotation marks in order to be recognised as one search term. An example of the search format is: (“polar bear” OR seal) AND sensitivity

For more detailed explanation of Boolean search, consult: Google Advanced Search