Arctic spill would create inaccessible ‘oil sandwich’ in ice impossible to clean, says UK polar expert

By Tierney Smith 

An offshore oil spill in the Arctic would be almost impossible to clean up and could affect vast areas of the ocean, a leading polar expert has told RTCC.

Professor Peter Wadhams, Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University, warns that the way oil interacts with sea ice would mean it could quickly become inaccessible to recovery teams.

“You would have a kind of oil sandwich,” he told RTCC. “The oil comes up under the ice and forms a layer, new ice then grows under that layer and the ice moves away.

“So you are having a continuous trail of oiled ice spreading through the Arctic and the oil is inaccessible because new ice has grown underneath it.

“The oil doesn’t then re-enter the environment until the ice flow melts in the summer.”

A 2008 US Geological Survey estimated that the region is home to 90 Billion Barrels of oil, with Shell leading the way with plans to drill exploratory wells off the coast of Alaska this summer.

The company claim to have adequate oil spill plans in place – although lead response vessel Arctic Challenger has not received final clearance to sail.

This summer oil company Shell plans to drill the first exploratory wells in the Arctic off the coast of Alaska (Source: USGS/Creative Commons)

Melting ice has opened up the Arctic to oil and gas companies, keen to be the first to discover 30% of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil, and Shell’s mission is the first of many planned.

This week Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace travelled to Russia to meet with the country’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister to discuss the country’s drilling plans for the Arctic.

Energy giant Gazprom has already moved its Prirazlomnaya platform to a location 50-60 kilometres off the Russian coast, from where it plans to drill for oil in the Pechora field. This will be Russia’s Arctic first offshore oil venture.

A report commissioned by Greenpeace and WWF warns that a spill in the Arctic could reach nature reserves and protected areas in as little as 18 hours.

The BP Gulf of Mexico spill took over six months to cap, and saw an estimated 4.9 million barrels released in to the sea.

Tropical storms hampered efforts to stop oil gushing into the sea, but Wadhams, who was the first civilian scientist to travel under the Arctic ice in a submarine, in 1971, says the potential for a clean up operation in the polar regions would be even more limited.

“I don’t see that there is any response possible anyway. Once the oil has got into the ice it is inaccessible. There isn’t anything anybody could do really even if they could land on the ice,” he explained.

“If you look at a typical circulation in the Arctic ice travels about 5-10 kilometres a day,” he says. “Say the blow-out happens early in the winter and goes on all through the winter… You are looking at up to 2-3 thousand kilometres of downstream motion.

“That takes it around most of the Arctic – half the Arctic Ocean – and it is not a continuous trail. The ice is always breaking up and being moved around by the wind so it is downstream 2-3 thousand kilometres but spread out sideways as well.”

Once the winter ice returns only 20% of the Arctic is accessible by boat. And as a WWF report on oil spill response plans in the Arctic explains, attempts to clean a spill would face ‘sea ice, extreme cold, limited visibility, rough seas, and wind’.

Shell’s Arctic factsheet says a spill is ‘unlikely’, and claims that ‘should a spill occur, Shell has a comprehensive range of techniques and expertise in place to respond and mitigate its effect in a variety of operating conditions’.

The company also argues that Arctic conditions could work in its favour in the event of a disaster – as the “low temperatures would also present opportunities to help contain spilled oil, slow its spread and provide vital time to respond with a variety of

But even if companies took drastic actions, such as entering the region using huge ice-breaker ships and drilling into the ice to extract oil deposits, Wadhams says he would expect only 1% of the oil to be recoverable.

“The effort required would be enormous and the results would be small,” he said. “The oil would already have been distributed very thinly by just the process of the blow-out and the coating of the underside of the ice.”

Related stories

Russian government tells Greenpeace it will “balance economy and ecology” in the Arctic

RTCC Q&A: Why Shell’s Arctic adventure could have implications for us all

NASA reports “extreme melt” of Greenland ice sheet underway but climate change link unconfirmed

What’s stopping Russia taking a lead at the UN climate change talks?

Read more on: Arctic | Energy | Nature | | | | |