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3.3 Future Research Considerations

The review of the transport and fate of oil in the Arctic described by the authors in this section led to suggestions of further research which can reduce remaining uncertainties.  The more generic suggestions compiled from this review are summarized below while recommendations that are important for improving Arctic NEBA are listed separately.

Behavior of Oil in the Arctic. Develop a better understanding of the key environmental variables that alter the dissolution, mineralization and biodegradation of oil.  As an example, it has been well demonstrated that small droplets of oil are able to more rapidly undergo degradation than larger oil droplets and that this is based on the surface area exposed to microbes.  Using this basic understanding it is reasonable to conclude that concentrated oil masses (at the air/water or ice/water interfaces, convergence zones, shorelines, and within shoreline beaches) will be less bioavailable and decrease the ability of microbes to effectively degrade the oil.  Habitats that accumulate oil are more likely to experience longer term impacts on resident biota at the concentration zone or in adjacent areas as a result of oil remobilization.   The ability for these environments to recover is therefore based not only on the resilience of the organisms at these locations but on the duration of contact with concentrated oil.

  1. Impact of seasons:  Develop a better understanding of the seasonal physical and chemical weathering processes on oil that occur in brine channels under ice and in polynyas to provide better exposure estimates and increase the accuracy of impact assessments of these specialized ECs. 
  2. Shoreline stranding:  The seasonal difference in stranding processes for oil on shorelines is beginning to be well understood.  Ice can act as a protective barrier, minimizing contact and stranding of oil in the presence of ice.  During open water periods the stranding process is different and the effects on shorelines need to be characterized to provide an assessment of the potential for stranded oil to reside for extended periods of time with little to no additional weathering.
    1. As part of an input to tactical OSR plans mapping of shorelines with a propensity to recover rapidly and those that are projected to retain unweathered oil should take place preferably using GIS.  GIS is recommended because the seasonal use of the various types of environments by valuable ecosystem component (VEC) species could be added as an information layer.  One example of a shoreline is a sandy beach that may be able to recover rapidly from stranded oil but it may also be located in areas of marine mammal (e.g. walrus) haul-outs.  Knowing the location of this type of EC combined with seasonal patterns of haul out use would provide needed information to protect VECs from this type of exposure.  Similarly, a cobble shoreline may have an extended time for recovery with a release of oil on a regular basis that could influence the spawning habitat for VEC species that use the area.  The regional identification of shoreline ECs and the spatial and temporal use of local intertidal environments will provide a specialized component for regionally adapted NEBA assessments. 
    2. Experimental studies examining OMA suggest that OMA may play a useful role in longer-term shoreline processes. The use of OMA on stranded oil to remobilize the oil is an intriguing response option that needs to be characterized more completely at mesocosm and field scales. 
  3. Oil-particle interactions:  Interactions between dispersed oil and other types of particles, e.g. marine snow, microorganisms, phytoplankton, and zooplankton have not been well characterized. These interactions need to be investigated in order to produce new data to improve fate modeling tools.
    1. Similarly, whether OMA are predominantly consumed as food and/or transferred as contaminants into the Arctic food webs is unknown.  Establishing the rate of biodegradation and fate of oil contained in OMA are fundamental steps for evaluating the potential positive and negative effects of OMA to pelagic, demersal and intertidal communities.

3.3.1 Priority Recommendations for Enhanced NEBA Applications in the Arctic

The recommendations presented below indicate where increased knowledge of oil transport and fate processes would result in reducing existing uncertainties in NEBA assessments.  No prioritization has been made to the list; for some of the recommendations, surrogate data may be already available.

  1. Attributes of ECs that impact fate of oil.  Develop a better understanding of environmental compartment attributes that affect the dissolution, mineralization and biodegradation of oil.  Two primary compartments for study include the sea surface and ice/water interfaces.
  2. Attributes of ECs that affect resiliency and recovery.  Habitats that accumulate oil are more likely to experience longer term impacts on resident biota including additional effects of oil remobilization.   The ability for these environments to recover is therefore based on the resilience of the compartment and removal of oil.  Define environmental compartment attributes the decrease or increase resiliency and ultimately recover.
  3. Remobilization of oil.  Information on the chromatographic separation of oil components as they become sequestered into ice and brine channels and the extent of biodegradation and physical/chemical changes that occur during ice encapsulation would provide information needed to assess remobilization of oil during ice break-up and provide justification for extending response action periods.
  4. Fate of oil associated with ice communities.  The fate and effects of oil under ice where ice algae and species living in that compartment become exposed need further characterization.
  5. Fate of OSR residues.  Each OSR action produces residual materials that behave differently.   Modeled transport processes should include settling of particles derived from OMA, residues from in-situ burning (e.g. increased volatilization and ash formation), natural or enhance dispersion of oil, transport of surface oils, retention of stranded oil on or in shorelines, and convergence of water masses to adequately predict the fate of all oil components.
  6. Role of biological processes on degradation of OSR residues.  The physical and microbial processes that control the fate of OSR residues also need to be incorporated in transport and fate models.