Preventing and Preparing for Oil Spills in the Arctic
Fjord off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Image credit: NOAA.
View off the coast of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Taken during a search and rescue demonstration for an Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group meeting. Image Credit: NOAA
Amy Merten on boat with Arctic ice in background. Image credit: NOAA.
NOAA scientist Amy Merten in the Arctic. Merten is chief of the Spatial Data Branch of the Office of Response and Restoration and served as chair of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. Image credit: NOAA.

May 11, 2017 - As rising temperatures and thinning ice in the Arctic create openings for increased human activities, it also increases the potential for oil spills and chemical releases into the remote environment of the region.

Planning emergency response operations for the Arctic falls to the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group, an Arctic Council body. The emergency working group has representatives from each of the member states with expertise in oil spill response, search and rescue, and response to radiological events.

NOAA’s Amy Merten, chief of the Spatial Data Branch, will finish her two-year stint as chair of the working group in May 2017. The chair is elected every two years from among the working group’s members including: Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States and permanent participants. Merten served on the working group for 5 years before becoming chair. She will leave the position on May 11, 2017. Jens Peter Holst-Andersen, from the Kingdom of Denmark will be the new chair at the next meeting in Vologda, Russia.

Merten, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences/environmental chemistry, shared her insights into the complexities of planning for emergencies in the remote regions of the Arctic and about what it’s like working with other nations to protect the Arctic environments.

What are the biggest challenges facing spill response in the Arctic?

There are many; remote locations, short windows of open-water and daylight in which to respond, and lack of infrastructure—you can’t send a massive response community to Arctic communities there is not enough food, hotel space, or fuel to sustain larger groups. Lack of communication is another challenge. Things that we take for granted working at moderate temperatures (cameras, GPS), don’t work at cold temperatures. For search and rescue, there is not adequate hospital space or expertise. Therefore, if a large cruise ship gets into trouble in the Arctic, the rescue, triage and sustainability of the passengers will be a major challenge.

Why is it important to have international cooperation when developing response plans?

Each country has unique experiences and may have developed a way to respond to oil spills in ice or Arctic conditions that can be shared with other countries facing potential spills in ice. Because of the remoteness of the Arctic, with little to no infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Canada, countries will have to rely on equipment and support from others.

Additionally, there are parts of the Arctic Ocean that are international waters, and should a vessel founder there, the countries would collectively respond. We share thoughts on high-risk scenarios, best practices, and identification of research needs. We also share ideas and findings on the latest technologies in communications, oil-in-ice modeling, data management and response technologies.

How does communication with other countries during an emergency work?

We have an up-to-date communication list and protocol. This is part of our agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. We also practice our communication connectivity once a year, and conduct an international exercise every two years.

What role do satellites have in preparing for and responding to emergencies in the region?

We rely on satellite information for monitoring conditions (weather and ice) and vessel traffic. We would certainly rely on satellite data for an incident in order to plan the response, monitor the extent of the oiling, and understand the weather and ice conditions.

How do the member countries work to share plans so that emergency response is not being duplicated?

This is one of the functions of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group. It ensures we communicate about domestic projects and plans that may benefit the other nations to maximize the collective effectiveness and avoid duplications.

NOAA’s online environmental mapping tool for the region, Arctic ERMA, now includes polar projections; do the other council countries use Arctic ERMA?

They use it during our joint exercises, and we use it to visualize other working group projects, like the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement-led Pan-Arctic response assets database. We also discuss sharing data across systems and are developing data sharing agreements.

What are the three biggest threats to the Arctic environment?

Keeping it a peaceful governance, climate change, and oil spills/chemical spills.

Why is the Arctic environment important to the United States?

Arctic weather and climate affects the world’s oceans, weather, and climate, including the Lower 48. The Arctic is replete with energy, mineral, and fishing resources. The Arctic is inhabited by indigenous communities with unique lifestyles that are threatened and need protection. The Arctic is also home to unique flora and fauna that are important for biodiversity, ecological services, and overall healthy environments. As the Arctic becomes more accessible, national security pressures increase.

What would be the worst types of oil spills in the Arctic?

This is a hard question to answer but I’d say a spill of a persistent oil that occurs in broken ice during freeze up or thawing periods. During freeze up because it will be difficult to respond, and difficult to track the oil. During thawing because it’s the emergence of primary production for the food web, hunting subsistence practices would be threatened and it could be unsafe to respond due to of the changing ice conditions. It all depends on how far away and difficult it is to get vessels, aircraft, people, and skimmers onsite, and in a way they can operate safely in a meaningful way.

A “worst spill” doesn’t have to be a “large” spill if it impacts sensitive resources at key reproductive and growth cycles, or if it impacts Arctic communities’ food security, subsistence activities, and ways of life.

How has being chair added to your understanding of the emergency response in the Arctic?

I think it’s increased my concern that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” a spill will happen. The logistics of a response will be complicated, slow, and likely, fairly ineffective. The potential for long-term impacts on stressed communities and stressed environments is high. I do have a good feeling that international cooperation will be at its best, but the challenges are daunting for all of us.