A new NRC report highlights many weaknesses in the United States’ readiness to respond to an Arctic oil spill—an increasingly likely prospect as exploration of the Arctic's oil and gas resources (shown) as well as traffic in the Arctic increase.

U.S. Geological Survey

A new NRC report highlights many weaknesses in the United States’ readiness to respond to an Arctic oil spill—an increasingly likely prospect as exploration of the Arctic's oil and gas resources (shown) as well as traffic in the Arctic increase.

Panel Says U.S. Not Ready for Inevitable Arctic Oil Spill

Carolyn is a staff writer for Science and is the editor of the In Brief section.

As eagerness to explore the Arctic’s oil and gas resources grows, the threat of a major Arctic oil spill looms ever larger—and the United States has a lot of work to do to prepare for that inevitability, a panel convened by the National Research Council (NRC) declares in a report released today. The committee, made up of members of academia and industry, recommended beefing up forecasting systems for ocean and ice conditions, infrastructure for supply chains for people and equipment to respond, field research on the behavior of oil in the Arctic environment, and other strategies to prepare for a significant spill in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

The report “identifies the different pieces that need to come together” to have a chance at an effective oil spill response, says Martha Grabowski, a researcher in information systems at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and chair of the NRC committee.

Even in the absence of oil and gas exploration, the Arctic’s rapidly intensifying traffic—whether from barges, research ships, oil tankers, or passenger cruises—makes oil spills increasingly likely. So “the committee felt some urgency” about the issue, says geologist Mark Myers, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The report, sponsored by 10 organizations ranging from the American Petroleum Institute to the Marine Mammal Commission, focused primarily on the United States’ territorial waters north of the Bering Strait, including the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Cleaning up oil in the Arctic is particularly tricky for a number of reasons, the committee notes. The extreme weather conditions are one problem. The lack of many kinds of data—high-resolution topography and bathymetry along the coasts; measurements of ice cover and thickness; distributions in space and time of the region’s fish, birds, and marine mammals—is another. And if an emergency happens, there’s no infrastructure in place—no consistent U.S. Coast Guard presence and no reliable supply chains to support a rapid response.

On top of that, there is little real-world information about how the Arctic’s own oil (rather than an amalgam from an oil pipeline, as is now tested) will behave in the Arctic’s heavily stratified water column, which could prevent deep spills from reaching the surface. Then there’s the lingering question of how effective chemical dispersants or oil-munching microbes are in the frigid Arctic environment. And virtually nothing is known about how oil and sea ice will interact. “Ice really changes everything,” Myers says. Some oil might make its way into the ice, only to later become liquid again when the ice melts; some might remain trapped beneath it, moving with the ice—or possibly not. “We have very few observations of the under-ice environment,” he says.

The report calls for upgrading oil spill response infrastructure, additional studies, and more coordination between agencies, industry, academia, and other Arctic nations. Grabowski also emphasized the need for standardization—of data collection and sharing, of oil spill exercises and responses.

Who would coordinate all of this and who would pay for it remain unsettled questions. Grabowski notes that she and her panel members recommend public-private partnerships, interagency coordination, and working with, for example, local communities to develop trained response teams in local villages. “But in terms of an overall framework,” she says, “I think that that is a wide-open question. And obviously connected to that is a resource question. We can identify lots of ideas for a framework but without adequate resources that causes a real difficulty.”

Still, amid the flurry of Arctic-related reports that have papered Washington, D.C., in the last few years, the committee hopes its recommendations will stick. By digging “deep into the science,” Myers says, “we felt it was going to be a good authoritative source which people can use to help make decisions.”

“This is a study that’s both broad and deep,” Grabowski adds. “In terms of whether anyone picks this up and runs with it—that’s another step.”

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