Using data to improve oil spill response in the Arctic

25 August 2020
The Arctic is undergoing rapid environmental and social changes. As human activity increases in the region, so does the risk of oil spills.

Oil spills are a major concern in the Arctic. Besides the major environmental and social impact on vulnerable human communities and animal species, the harsh conditions in the region can make oil spill response extremely difficult.

To improve oil spill response in the Arctic marine environment, the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group conducted a study of oil spill response viability for the circumpolar North. The study helped to better understand the potential for different oil spill response systems to operate in the Arctic marine environment – research that is much needed due to the increasing concern on the risk of oil spills as human activity increases in the Arctic. Based on the viability analysis, EPPR developed a web-based GIS tool in collaboration with the Norwegian Coastal Administration and DNV GL. The Circumpolar Oil Spill Response Viability Analysis (COSRVA) online tool uses data that enables oil spill responders to work more accurately and efficiently, directly via a computer, tablet or smartphone.

How can data improve oil spill response in the Arctic, and how will the rapidly changing Arctic impact future oil spill response? We spoke with two experts involved with the development of COSRVA, Øivin Aarnes, principal specialist of environmental risk and preparedness at DNV GL and Synnøve Lunde, senior advisor at the Norwegian Coastal Administration to find out.

How are oil spills different in Arctic waters compared to oil spills that happen in southern regions?

Synnøve Lunde: The main differences of an oil spill in Arctic conditions compared to southern regions are the cold water and rough conditions. We do not have that much experience with different types of oils in the Arctic and how they react on cold water. The cold water and presence of sea ice may affect the oil spill equipment and make it difficult or impossible to use. Cold temperatures also will affect responders.

Øivin Aarnes: Considering the physical environment and geography, weather conditions, cold temperatures, darkness and accessibility makes an oil spill response quite challenging in some regions.

A key difference is that an oil spill in the Arctic is likely to stay there for a very long time, and the environmental impact can be severe and lasting. The nature of Arctic ecosystems makes them particularly sensitive to marine pollution because of their dependency to the ocean as a source of food, a low reproduction rate and because many habitats and communities are so specialized.

Synnøve Lunde: The Arctic environment is very vulnerable to oil spills. You might have just a few species but a huge number of individuals. An oil spill at wrong place in wrong time might do a lot of damage for that specific species.

In the Arctic, it is also a challenge that infrastructure and the availability of oil spill equipment is very limited.

Why was the COSRVA web tool developed, and how does it contribute to oil spill response in the Arctic?

Synnøve Lunde: The purpose of the COSRVA is to better understand the potential for different oil spill response systems to operate in the Arctic marine environment. The COSRVA gives users a percentage of time that operational conditions in the Arctic are favorable, marginal or not favorable for 10 different oil spill response systems in the circumpolar Arctic. Thereby, it can inform oil spill planners and operators on how to develop their oil spill response systems in different regions. It also could contribute to conducting exercises.

Øivin Aarnes: The COSRVA web tool development was initiated by the Norwegian Coastal Administration when EPPR endorsed the idea in 2017. The tool has gradually evolved and improved its analysis to include the entire Arctic under diverse conditions. The tool was developed to support a transparent and constructive dialogue among Arctic stakeholders on the topics of emergency and oil spill response, and to have a science-based foundation for understanding the main challenges.

What types of data feeds into the COSRVA web-tool?

Øivin Aarnes: The types of data feeding into the tool are meteorology and oceanography information, or ”metocean” data obtained from climate and ocean models. The latest update uses the ERA5 dataset provided by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) through the Copernicus Programme. The Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) provided by the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group are used to illustrate important boundaries with respect to functions of Arctic ecosystems. Data on oil spill response systems, assets and operational limitations are delivered in collaboration between the Norwegian Coastal Administration, DNV GL and NUKA Research and Planning Group, LCC.

Synnøve Lunde: It is a lot of data that goes into the tool. It is 10 years (2009-2018) hindcast of historical metocean data. Wind, waves, temperature, darkness visibility and sea ice to mention some. The analysis is based on four mechanical recovery systems (contain and collect oil from surface), three systems with dispersants (adding chemicals to the slick) and three systems with in-situ burning (conduct a controlled burn of oil).

Øivin Aarnes: A possible expansion of the tool is to integrate weather forecasts for predicting response viability near future, and thus provide a more accurate account on response options. Another interesting case could be to look at the effectiveness of different response strategies and to integrate biological data.

What types of conditions can affect oil spill response in the Arctic?

Synnøve Lunde: All metocean conditions can affect an oil spill in the Arctic. A response operation when the Arctic is in complete darkness all day through is very difficult. Also, cold waters with a lot of ice are challenging for vessels to operate. Wind and waves will also influence the operation very much.

Øivin Aarnes: Ice represents a key limiting factor in many areas, and fog and low visibility can be a problem much of the time in areas such as on the Eastern banks of Greenland. Darkness in winter and remoteness makes the Arctic less accessible and long distances can be a challenge when coordinating responses between Arctic states. In addition, rapidly changing weather conditions can make response operations very difficult. The window of opportunity for a successful operation is limited, and therefore, aligning resources, planning of depos, allocating equipment, etc. are measures which can determine whether a response is successful or not.

As the Arctic environment undergoes rapid change, how is this expected to impact oil spill response conditions?

Synnøve Lunde: Activities in the Arctic will see major changes due to climate change. Shipping and oil exploration are increasing, new shipping routes are opening up, fish stocks and fishing fleets are moving further north. Increased activity means increased risks for an accident and following oil spill.

Additionally, the Norwegian follow up study to COSRVA (NOSRVA) indicated that with less sea ice and more open sea, we could have more and stronger waves since sea ice otherwise mutes waves.

Øivin Aarnes: Different scenarios exist for what the Arctic future might look like, but a common notion is that we are likely to see ice-free summers with the current warming rate. With an opening of the Arctic Ocean, many argue that commercial activity such as exploration, fisheries and mining will increase, and that trans-Arctic shipping will increase accordingly. Increased traffic will undoubtedly lead to higher risk of accidents and oil spills.

Another side to the effects of climate change is the melting of permafrost, which will destabilize installations and pipelines, and this may call for new response measures and preparedness. As ice becomes less prevalent, and some waters become more exposed to storms and sudden shifts in weather, there may be a need for adapting oil spill response systems to a new reality. In a hypothetical scenario we can imagine large regions of the Arctic ice free year-round in a not-so-distant future, a future where warmer waters contribute to a more unstable Arctic climate, one in which weather becomes less predictable, and where oil spill response operations need to adapt.

In such an event, there may be a need for prioritizing, focusing and arranging response operations differently. Effective and targeted responses with a primary objective of minimizing long-term harm to the environment, could for instance, be centered around environmentally sensitive areas, protected areas or exposed sites.

To learn more about COSRVA and oil spill response viability in the Arctic, visit the COSRVA project page on EPPR’s website.