Unlike in warmer climates, oil in the Arctic can get encapsulated within or trapped underneath ice, or absorbed into snow. Work is underway to develop oil-cleanup methods that are suitable for the Arctic, but options are still limited: Sea ice can make it impossible to use existing equipment meant to clean oil from the water’s surface, or to deploy floating containment booms, which act as barriers to stop spills from spreading.
In-situ burning, which is exactly what it sounds like—setting the oil on the surface alight—leaves sooty residue and produces carbon emissions. And chemical dispersants, which spread oil through the water column to prevent a slick that smothers seabirds, cause a new set of problems, says marine-pollution researcher Jørgensen. These dispersants can combine with the oil to kill fish, plankton, and other life below the sea’s surface, taking the oil’s deadly effects into the depths.
The urgency to develop Arctic-specific tools for oil-disaster response and an Arctic ecological baseline has only increased in recent months. In late May, news broke of a massive Arctic oil spill: not in the ocean, but inland in Norilsk, Russia, where a fuel-storage tank at a power plant collapsed, dumping more than an estimated 15,000 tons of diesel oil into the Daldykan and Ambarnaya Rivers. Floating river ice broke the booms that officials used to try to hold the oil back from Lake Pyasino, with dire consequences for both the large freshwater lake’s ecology and the animals—including humans—that depend on it for water. Shortly afterward, a scorching heat wave blasted through Siberia, with temperatures soaring past previous record highs, in one case hitting 25 degrees Celsius at a time of year when daytime temperatures are usually zero degrees Celsius. And each summer, Arctic sea ice recedes a little more: September 2020 had the second-least coverage since record-keeping began, outstripped only by 2012.
As the Arctic opens up and the surrounding nations scramble for the region’s newly available mineral and oil resources, the Arctic Council has strengthened cooperation among its member states to cope with the climbing environmental risk. Member countries are building capacity to deal with oil spills by augmenting their stores of equipment, like dispersant items for helicopters and stronger booms that can handle ice; equipping people in remote Arctic communities to work as early responders until reinforcements arrive; and running training exercises to simulate actual oil spills.
When I speak to Hjort-Larsen over a video call, he’s about to leave for one of these exercises in Svalbard. The Norwegian coast guard has already made some adjustments based on lessons learned from the Northguider incident—most importantly to its remote-communication networks, with powerful new digital radios on board the Svalbard coast guard vessel and a new, higher-coverage satellite-communication system. But there are still challenges with coverage and power supply for these improvements. Later, Hjort-Larsen sends me photos of the training exercise: A small boat tugs a large oil bag before a stunning backdrop of snowcapped mountains and bright blue skies.
Meanwhile, farther north in Hinlopen, the hull of the Northguider sat for nearly two years, emptied of its dangerous fuel but still stranded by harsh conditions. Finally, this summer, a salvage crew managed to demolish what was left of the wreck, and divers scoured the seabed to remove any final traces. With luck, the next time something goes awry, the Arctic country unfortunate enough to play host to the disaster will be more ready.
This post appears courtesy of Hakai Magazine.