Burn the sea – The potential drama of oil spills in the Arctic

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Photo: Martina Lan Salomon/Gemini

The environmental challenges of developing the Arctic sector are well-known. But do we really know what will happen if oil spills into the Arctic ocean?

The Arctic is a valuable, but vulnerable place on our planet. There lies a great potential below the frosty ocean, and the world is tempted to explore it. Political decisions have opened up for development in the Arctic region, but the consequences may be more complicated than it seems.

Oil is lighter than seawater. While crude oil spill in normal seawater will float, this is not the case with frosty seawater. We might believe sea ice to be solid, it is more like a sponge with small channels and pores that contains air, salt and seawater. This means that if oil is spilled into arctic water, it can migrate upward and get trapped inside the ice. In other words, if oil is spilled into frosty water, it will not react as it does with normal seawater. This makes the process of cleaning up the oil spills difficult. The Arctic sea is also so complex that it is difficult to know exactly how oil and ice will interact.

According to a recent report published on the research news website www.gemini.no, researchers at the international project MOSIDEO (Microscale interaction of oil with sea ice for detection and environmental risk management in sustainable operations), are working with this topic.

“The only realistic approach to remove this oil from the surface of a closed ice cover is to burn it. However, most of the oil can only be burned during a window of opportunity of typically one week”, researcher Sönke Maus explained. After a week, this oil will be “weathered”. This means that it has lost certain components, gotten mixed with water and can no longer be removed by burning it. “This oil then threatens the arctic ecosystem,” Maus said.

Funded by the Research Council of Norway, MOSIDEO is affiliated with several Norwegian research institutions, and works on understanding oil behavior in the sea ice, especially how oil and sea ice interact. Hopefully, the researchers’ work will improve risk assessment and contingency planning for oil spills in the future.

Read the full text of the research here.