What happens to life in the sea in the Arctic in the event of an oil spill? And will the actual clean-up operation have a negative impact on the marine environment? An international team of oceanographers is attempting to answer these very questions.
I’m sorry, but we simply have to stop. I can’t see if there are any polar bears out there,” says Rune Svendsen, Logistics Coordinator at the Norwegian company Akvaplan-niva. Around him stands an international team of frustrated marine researchers with only two short days in which to gather fjord samples at the top of the world before returning to civilization.
It is March and we are near the mining village Svea in Van Mijn Fjord, Svalbard. Yesterday, the temperature here was minus 25 degrees, but today it has risen to just below zero. Large snowflakes fill the air, blurring all contours of the steep mountain sides bordering on the barracks. The falling snow makes it impossible to see whether a polar bear is approaching.
Only two kilometres across the fjord ice lies the experiment set-up which the researchers are desperate to reach. Eight custom-built rubber bags on large rings frozen into the fjord ice will allow the scientists to study how crude oil and the use of various techniques for removing it affect life in the ice and in the interface between ice and water. The three methods to remove oil spillage examined by the team are natural degradation, burning, and chemical reduction—so-called dispersion.
Shooting practice for all
All the researchers have received shooting training prior to departure, and there are rifles on all scooters should a polar bear suddenly get too close. But this is the polar bear’s home turf, and the main priority, therefore, is to avoid ending up in a situation where a bear is discovered so late that it has to be shot. So, in snowy conditions such as these, work is brought to a standstill.
In Longyearbyen, 80 kilometres away, two other members of the team are busy readying the laboratory at the University Centre in Svalbard. Industrial PhD Kirstine Toxværd, Cowi, and her supervisor from DTU Aqua, Professor Torkel Gissel Nielsen, sort through copepods and label bottles in which to conduct tests for when their colleagues hopefully return with water samples retrieved from under the eight rubber bags beneath the ice. Here, the copepods are left for two weeks while the researchers monitor their egg production and metabolism (food intake and oxygen consumption) to determine whether they have been affected by the clean-up methods.
“The response is important in order to determine how various oil-removing technologies affect the marine life we are studying. These data can tell us something about how they may affect the food chain and thereby the entire marine ecosystem. The findings can be used to improve the basis for decision-making in the oil and gas industry and are important data in relation to offering advice on the environmental impact of oil extraction in the Arctic,” explains Kirstine Toxværd.
Different methods—different effects
This is the first time scientists are investigating the biological response to various cleaning methods in situ in an icy Arctic environment where traditional mechanical clean-up technologies do not work. The methods being tested are currently used in the event of oil spillage from an oil platform or a shipwreck. The individual experiment set-ups are defined by the rubber bags beneath the ice.
The big unknown is how sea ice affects oil degradation and the effect of the various clean-up methods on the marine environment.
Previous tests, for example, have shown that chemical dispersant acts as a kind of washing-up liquid, surrounding the oil droplets and degrading them, and that this can prevent birds from being covered in oil or large oil slicks from reaching coastal regions. However, oil dispersion also renders smaller marine organisms such as copepods and single-celled plankton living in the border zone between sea ice and water column susceptible to contamination. What researchers do not know is the effect of dispersion and other cleaning methods if sea ice is also added to the equation.
To answer this question, the researchers set up the experiment at the coal mine in Van Mijn Fjord in February in Svalbard’s freezing polar darkness. Six of the rings contain oil extracted from the Barents Sea, and in sets of two, respectively, the oil is burned and treated with chemical dispersants that are used to degrade the oil. In the last two rings, the oil is left untreated (natural degradation). And there is also one test set-up without oil.
The Danish project participants—experts from DTU Aqua and Cowi—are jointly responsible for the part of the project dealing with the response of copepods and the microscopic, single-celled plankton that live in the transition zone between the ice and water. The small plankton organisms can absorb oil toxins in the ice and thus contaminate the food chain when consumed by copepods, which in turn are consumed by fish. Other research groups are investigating how algae in the ice and Arctic cod are affected to ensure a wider overview of the possible effects on the food chain.
“We’re all familiar with the scary images of birds and mammals covered in black oil following spillage. The largest biomass in the sea, however, is made up of the lower parts of the food chain, which provide the basis for all marine life because they channel energy in the form of fat into the food chain. But how they react to oil or on the technologies that are used for handling oil spills, is something we know very little about. DTU Aqua has carried out pioneering work with tar-based Pyrene—but this is the first time we are examining the effect of the entire cocktail on the natural environment,” says Professor Torkel Gissel Nielsen, DTU Aqua.
As the Arctic ice melts, it gradually lays bear areas previously buried under a thick layer of ice. US geological surveys estimate that 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 per cent of gas reserves will be found in the Arctic. Any oil extraction and increased marine traffic poses a potential threat to the vulnerable Arctic marine ecosystems in the form of accidental oil spillage.
To examine whether the Arctic ecosystem is particularly vulnerable in the spring when copepods consume large quantities of algae and reproduce (thus providing the basis for extensive fishing in, among other places, the Barents Sea and along the west coast of Greenland), the research team will return in May to collect water samples and repeat the experiment. The researchers want to collect the water samples as late as possible before the ice melts so that the copepods are ready to reproduce, but it is also important to carry out the work while the ice is still stable.
Polar bears in the fjord
Back in Svea at the frozen fjord in March, the group of researchers have packed the fjord water sample bottles on the sledge behind the snowmobile. As the snow finally abates and they are given the go-ahead, the researchers head off across the fjord ice on their snowmobiles. Accompanying them is an armed guard, whose sole task is to keep an eye on any polar bears that might approach. Using hand pumps, the researchers carefully retrieve water from the lower edge of the ice, which is then tapped into large glass bottles through a filter.
Two days and four trips later, the team has collected two 25-litre water samples of fjord water from each of the four different set-ups. The water and the researchers are on the first available flight back to Longyearbyen, where two weeks of intensive work in the laboratory await. That same evening they are told that a total of seven polar bears were spotted in Van Mijn Fjord.