This paper was written as part of the 2010 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Shrinking Sea Ice, Growing Risk


Ian Americus
Ben Americus
Keegan Crowley
Adam Zamudio
James Allen

The Notorious Dawgsharks

Cordova High School
P.O. Box 140
Cordova, AK 99574

Prince William Sound Science Center
P.O. Box 705
Cordova, AK 99574


The chances for an oil spill in the Arctic will be greatly increased due to heightened shipping traffic, oil transport and extraction as a result of shrinking sea ice cover. While at present the circumpolar trade routes are just being tested, they are expected to increase in traffic in the next decade, and are the most immediate threat for an Arctic oil spill. The demand for oil and the shrinking ice pack may lead to more drilling, especially farther offshore in the now frozen ocean and the currently closed National Petroleum Reserve and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil spills are an important issue in Cordova, and we decided to apply what we have learned here to the future problem of an arctic oil spill.

Oil ingested by plankton and other small animals travels up the food chain, increasing the concentration of petroleum hydrocarbons in animals like whales and seals that the people of Kaktovik, Alaska feed upon. Oil cleanup in the Arctic Ocean brings up many challenges unique to the environment. Shallow depth and ice pack make traditional response boats and vehicles hard to use; the oil may freeze into the ice pack and travel many miles from the spill source. Steps need to be taken to help prevent an arctic oils spill, such as vessel and sea ice monitoring, increased safety procedures, dedicated icebreakers for the North Slope and community oversight. Response equipment will need to be placed along the coast in case of a spill, and people will have to be trained in its use.


Our paper is on the village of Kaktovik, the main Alaskan village in the Beaufort Sea. This area is one of the most sensitive to climate change. Climate change will create many environmental problems for the arctic; melting permafrost, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and most visibly the melting Arctic ice cap. Greenhouses gases in the atmosphere help the earth retain heat. Increased anthropogenic carbon dioxide makes the earth retain more heat and warmth. This warming melts the polar ice pack during the summer and allows less to form during the winter. The melting in the Arctic is a runaway feedback loop; the less ice, the lower the albedo and thus more heat is retained, causing more ice to melt. This shrinking ice pack will bring many challenges to the Beaufort Sea, from shifting vegetation patterns to coastal erosion. It will also bring more economic development to the Arctic as humans will be better able to build in the warmer climate. Development is expected to affect Kaktovik from two major sources: shipping over the Northwest Passage and oil development in the Beaufort Sea.

The chances for an oil spill will be greatly increased in the Arctic from heightened shipping traffic, oil transport, and extraction. While at present the circumpolar trade routes are just being tested, they are expected to increase in traffic in the next decade, and are the most immediate threat for an Arctic oil spill (Lawson, 2008) (Figure 1). The demand for oil and the shrinking ice pack may lead to more drilling especially farther offshore in the now frozen ocean, and the currently closed National Petroleum Reserve and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil spills are an important issue in Cordova, and we decided to apply what we have learned here to the future problem of an Arctic oil spill.

Oil ingested by plankton and other small animals travels up the food chain, increasing the concentration of petroleum hydrocarbons in animals like whales and seals that the people of Kaktovik feed upon. Oil cleanup in the Arctic Ocean brings up many challenges unique to the environment. Shallow depth and ice pack make traditional response boats and vehicles hard to use, and the oil may freeze into the ice pack and travel many miles from the spill source.

In 2008 the first commercial cargo ship, the M/V Camilla Desagnes sailed through the Northwest Passage from east to west. The cruise ship M/V Bremen passed through in 2006 ( The melting of the Arctic ice cap will allow increased oil development in the area as well as shipping over the Northwest Passage. Shipping in the near future will be from cargo ships and possibly oil tankers as well, picking up oil at the source instead of sending it through the pipeline. Shipping would be rather seasonal, probably only from July through October. The threat of an oil spill would be from collisions between these large vessels, sea ice, and other vessels, as well as the possibility of grounding in the shallow Arctic seas (Lawson, 2008). If the fuel tanks were punctured, diesel or bunker oil would spill out. While not as persistent or damaging as crude oil, these fuels are still quite damaging to the environment. Spills from wells and pipelines can happen year round (Cripps & Sheers, 1997). The proposed gas pipeline along with Canadian development in the Mackenzie River delta will bring a lot more traffic to the Arctic region. Construction equipment and boats could also cause oil spills.


The village of Kaktovik, meaning "seining place", is located on the northern shore of Barter Island in the Arctic region of Alaska (Figure 2). Located in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), it is home to many species of birds and wildlife. These include loons, shorebirds, owls, buntings, long-tailed ducks, pintails, and Lapland Longspurs. During the long, harsh winters, polar bears often wander into town to escape the elements and to find food. Inuit Kaktovikmiut of Kaktovik rely very heavily on subsistence, and consider themselves harvesters of the land. They hunt bowhead whales, walruses, seals, and land mammals such as caribou, musk oxen, and sheep, along with a few others. They will occasionally kill a polar bear if it causes a disturbance in town. In total, the Kaktovikmiut harvest more land animals per capita than any other village in the state of Alaska.

If the Arctic environment were disrupted by a human-caused disaster, such as an oil spill, the Kaktovikmiut's lives would be cast into disarray. The mammal, fish, and bird populations would decrease in extreme amounts from disease, poison, or lack of food. With a diminishing number of subsistence animals, the 293 year-round residents of Kaktovik would face economical collapse (

The Kaktovikmiut people of Kaktovik depend very highly on subsistence for their way of life. If the Arctic ecosystem and the animals that go along with it were damaged in consequence of an oil spill, it would mean a grave future for both the people of Kaktovik, and the oil companies in that area. By providing improved regulations and implementing new response technology, we can first prevent a spill from occurring, and second, be better prepared to react if one does occur.

Oil in Icy Waters

Little research has been done on oil spills in the Arctic. The nation's research plan has not been updated or revised since 1997, and out of the $28 million a year that was set aside for oil spill research, only $7 million was used last year. The Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute, located in Cordova, Alaska only spends $800,000 a year to study spills in the Arctic. Since 2006, Norway has spent $10 million to study new technologies to confront the same problems. If we do not make efforts to prepare for and prevent an oil spill in the Arctic, such a spill could have an impact similar or greater to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill (Torrice, 2009).

A major factor in Arctic oil recovery is the presence of sea ice. Immediately after a spill, oil is absorbed into the surface layer of snow on top of the ice. This snow can hold the oil for long periods of time until the snow is melted or submerged. Once the snow is eventually melted, it forms meltwater pools that sit upon the ice. Oil that gets trapped on the surface of the water is channeled into pools by the moving ice. These pools are convenient for mechanical recovery of the oil, but if left unattended, the oil pools can be absorbed into the ice itself. These oil pools are submerged by ice and frozen into the underwater frazil ice in the thickening ice sheet. The main factor with oil in sea ice is that the longer the oil sits in the ice, the more difficult it becomes to recover. For that reason, it is crucial for the proper equipment and manpower to be in place before an oil spill occurs (Allen, 2008) (Figure 4).

Cleaning Up

There are several reasons why a spill in the Arctic would be difficult to clean up. The daylight limitations and severe weather during the winter season are major issues, but the difficulty to contain oil in the presumably icy waters is the main problem. A diagram from Shell's oil response program shows that ice can pick up large floats of oil and carry it out to sea or inland, where it would be more difficult to control (Figure 4). Even if a spill did occur in the summer, there would still be challenges. The nearest spill response equipment to Kaktovik is located in Prudhoe Bay, nearly 120 miles away. Transporting this equipment would be difficult because of the fragility of the tundra (Kelly, 2009).

Spills from the Oil Industry

With increased marine transportation and oil development on the North Slope, there will be an escalated rate of construction in the area, putting underwater pipelines at risk. More wells mean more feeder pipelines to the main. These pipelines and the main Trans-Alaska Pipeline require maintenance and have a history of oil spill-related accidents. If a spill occurred in the winter, the oil in the water would be preserved in the snow and be destructive to the ecosystem year round. If the spill occurred during the summer, the oil would not be able to penetrate the layer of permafrost and would stay on the surface where it would contaminate the plants and small animals in the area, eventually leading to starvation of animals higher in the food chain (

Spills from pipelines pose a massive threat to the Arctic ecosystem. The first major occurrence with an oil spill from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline occurred in 1978 when an unknown individual sabotaged a section east of Fairbanks, Alaska at Steele Creek. Approximately 16,000 barrels of oil were spilled before the pipeline was shut down (The Associated Press,1978). In 2001, a gunshot fired by Daniel Lewis ruptured a section of the pipeline near the town of Livengood, Alaska. Nearly two acres of tundra were damaged from the spill, and cleanup costs totaled close to $17 million ( In 2006 a feeder pipeline on the North Slope gave way due to corrosion and spilled more than 265,000 gallons of oil. Repairs of the corroded section cost British Petroleum $500 million ( This year in 2009, another spill in the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay contaminated about 8,400 square feet of snowcovered tundra (

To monitor the pipeline and be alerted of spills, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company uses leak detection and alert systems that monitor variations in pressure and flow. With an automatic alert system, the company is able to detect possible future spills before they occur. If a section of the pipeline is left unattended, there is special oil recovery equipment to clean it up. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company operates 12 vacuum trucks and 46,700 feet of boom that can be used for oil recovery (

Biological Effects of Oil

If spilled oil hits the water in the Arctic, major damage will occur to the Arctic ecosystem. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (the main chemicals found in crude oil) are dangerous to animals that ingest it and are exposed to it. Absorption and ingestion of oil can overwhelm the liver, which filters blood, therefore reducing the total liver function. The oil can cause ulcers in the animal's stomach and cause intestinal bleeding in marine mammals and seabirds. Oil chemicals mimic estrogen, a reproductive hormone, binding to endocrine receptors, therefore decreasing the ability to reproduce. These chemicals bioaccumulate as they go up the food chain, from organisms like plankton to animals such as seabirds and caribou. The texture of the oil is also very damaging, because it disturbs the insulation qualities of the feathers and fur of Arctic animals, which can then die of hypothermia. Oil can completely envelop fish, causing them to suffocate in their own mucus.

The worst possible scenario for an oil spill in the Arctic would be around June and July when seasonal animals are aggregated there. Young birds and seal pups present during these months would be especially vulnerable to the effects of the oil (

Cleanup Technologies

Oil spills in the Arctic are especially difficult to manage and clean up because of cold water temperatures and the presence of ice. Special technology and equipment are required in these regions of Alaska.

Because of the shallow water of the Arctic region of Alaska and the difficulty to maneuver in ice-laden waters, smaller oil response vessels are needed. Multiple shallow draft workboats can be used to tend to the booms so that they may gather the oil for recovery and/or disposal. Disposal methods may include coagulation by chemical agents, such as rubberizer, or aircraft-dropped dispersants. Rubberizer is a product that absorbs the oil into special booms or pillows, which can be burned with a less than 0.1% ash residue. The booms and pillows use the rubberizer particulate as filler and have a 100% polypropylene fabric cover. Dispersants will rapidly remove large amounts of oil by transferring it into the water column, where wave energy will further break it up so it is diluted and biodegraded by microorganisms (

With the use of special fire booms, oil can be towed into place and then ignited by helicopters carrying a Heli-torch. A Heli-torch is a device that drops burning gelled fuel onto the oil. The risks of the Heli-torch are clear—pollution and lung damage to nearby people and animals—so shallow water environments away from villages and communities are the best places to use this (

There are several techniques that can remove oil from ice-strewn waters by mechanical means. Skimmers (vessels and machines which suck the oil into holding tanks) can work their way along the edges of heavy ice concentrations, sucking up pockets of oil trapped in the ice. These small vessels can then transfer their recovered oil load to onshore tanks or offshore support vessels like the ice-hardened Arctic Endeavor and Nanuq (Allen, 2008). These larger crafts can also assist in the cleanup, with the use of state-of-the-art LAMOR Brush Skimmers. These skimmers can be operated from the side of the boat, and through a system of booms and conveyor belts, have a cleanup efficiency rate greater than 80% (

Certain areas of shoreline along the Arctic coast are more ecologically valuable than others. Therefore these areas need to be especially protected from the hazards that oil creates once it reaches the shoreline. These areas primarily are estuaries such as lagoons and river mouths. These areas can be either completely sealed off with booms, or the oil in the area can be diverted away to a less harmful site to be burned or recovered. Specially positioned holding barges can deflect oil into better areas for cleanup, and booms that are set up on points can protect the coastline behind them (

With these new technologies, including combustible, mechanical and chemical methods of oil recovery and disposal, the catastrophic effects of an oil spill in the Arctic can be reduced (


With the increased traffic in the Northern waters of Alaska there will be an increased need for icebreakers and ice-hardened ships. Unlike ice-hardened ships that are only designed for one-year ice 50-100 cm thick, icebreakers can break through thick pack ice several years old ( Icebreakers function through a continual process of driving their bow upon the ice with great momentum and the power of such a large ship, and then collapsing the ice underneath with the ship's weight. Specially designed hulls shed the broken ice away from the icebreaker, providing a clear path for the rudder and propeller shafts at the stern of the boat. What sets icebreakers and ice-hardened ships apart are the ways they get through the ice. Ice-hardened ships simply plow through the ice with the power from the engine, while icebreakers use their weight to crash through from above, letting them travel in much thicker ice then other ships.

During the shipping season of June to early November in the Arctic, icebreakers can be rented from Canada and brought up though the Northern passage. These icebreakers would perform operations including route assistance, harbor breakouts, and re-supply trips for coastline communities. Shell's Nanuk and Arctic Endeavor are ice-hardened ships set aside for oil spill response. Besides their oil spill response equipment, they have such features as thicker, double layered hulls and more rounded bows to shed ice.

At the present time, there are two US Coast Guard-operated icebreakers in the Arctic regions of Alaska. Roughly 30 years ago two heavy icebreakers were made especially for the Arctic. The Polar Star was taken out of operation in 2006, and the Polar Sea only has an estimated six years of operation left until it is discontinued. A new icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, was commissioned in 2000 to fill the spot of the Polar Star. The Healy mostly runs the area outside of Barrow, Alaska and features special technologies such as heated water jets and air bubbling systems to enhance icebreaking (

Nuclear-powered icebreakers should also be considered. In August 2009, Admiral Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard toured the North Slope as part of the Interagency Arctic Awareness Trip. Allen recommended to the Homeland Security Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations Committee that the U.S. acquire further icebreaking capacity, preferably nuclear powered ( This new ship would be able to stay in Arctic for longer periods of time than the existing icebreakers, and would be able to run routes throughout the year ( These vessels only require refueling every three to four years (, which is more convenient because the nearest refueling station to the North Slope for large diesel powered vessels like conventional ice breakers, is located in Kodiak, almost 1000 miles away ( Besides having a longer range, these nuclear powered vessels are also more powerful and faster than conventional vessels (, making them the obvious pick for a new marine system in the Arctic in years to come. So far, Russia is the only nation that uses nuclear-powered icebreakers, but they have been proven both functional and economically feasible.

Laws and Regulations

One of our proposed solutions is strict enforcement of existing laws and regulations to reduce the chances of an oil spill occurring in the first place. The regulations that are in place today are intended to promote safe practices in oil and gas exploration, production, and transport (Figure 3). These laws and regulations are important so that oil companies operate safely and responsibly.

One of the main regulations that is in place today is that the company that is drilling for oil needs a permit to drill and use that land. Geophysical exploration permits are also needed to survey the land and make sure it is safe to drill. This allows them to conduct seismic surveys on state lands and water. The company needs to do this so they can find geologic structures that might have oil or gas in them. This is important so they know that where they are digging has oil. Other laws and regulations for maintaining the environment prevent the oil company from interfering with water flow in wetlands and tideflats. Companies must also have a permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game if their activities disrupt salmon streams. This is important for keeping the environment as natural as possible (

New laws and regulations should also be implemented to protect the Arctic environment from oil spills. In the future, oil companies should be required to provide response equipment for oil spills of all kinds in the region. With increased marine traffic in the Arctic region, more oil spill response equipment will be needed. Currently, the main location of oil response equipment is in Prudhoe Bay. It would take valuable time to transport the equipment to different areas. This time would allow the oil to spread by wave action, wind, and ocean currents. Spacing oil response equipment more evenly along the cost is a prerequisite for future development.

The Beaufort Sea territorial dispute could also bring up challenges if a spill occurs in the disputed area—whose responsibility would it be to clean up? There is currently an oil spill task force for collaboration between British Columbia and the states of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Something similar could be developed with the Yukon provincial government. Vessel monitoring would also have to be a joint effort between both countries.

A citizen's oversight group should be established in the North Slope. This group could be modeled after the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (PWSRCAC). The PWSRCAC is a non-profit organization, made up of regional representatives and local interest groups from Prince William all the way to Kodiak Island and the lower Cook Inlet area ( Communities away from the immediate proximity of oil production and transportation, such as Kodiak, are involved in the council because drifting oil can affect far-away communities as it did in the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. The PWSRCAC's 19 board members come from a variety of fields including oil spill response work, commercial fishing, Alyeska terminal operations, and native corporation positions ( The many jobs of the Regional Citizens' Advisory Boards include providing input on tanker and pipeline safety, developing contingency plans, insuring safe and clean operations, and preventing complacency over safety procedures ( In Prince William Sound, its main mission is to make sure that the Valdez terminal is performing safe operations while transporting oil.

Since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, oil companies operating in the different regions of Alaska's southcentral coast must fund a citizens' advisory council in that region ( The PWSRCAC is funded by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. A collection of oil companies including ConocoPhillips and Tesoro Alaska fund the Cook Inlet RCAC, and oil companies in the lower 48 states are required to do the same by funding local councils in their area (

If implemented in the North Slope, an RCAC could require funding from major oil companies such as Shell and Chevron who operate drilling platforms in the area ( This North Slope RCAC, with board members from Kaktovik, Barrow, and other Arctic communities, could monitor and provide input on the oil development and shipping standards in the area, further protecting the safety and ecological balance of the area (


Oil spill cleanup in the Arctic Ocean presents many challenges unique to the Arctic environment. Shallow water depth and ice pack make traditional boats and vehicles hard to use, slowing response efforts. The oil may freeze into the ice pack and travel many miles from the spill source. Citizens and policy makers need to ensure that actions are taken to help prevent an oil spill in the Arctic. These actions include vessel and sea ice monitoring, enforcement of new and existing regulations and safety procedures, icebreakers dedicated to the North Slope, and the establishment of community oversight groups. Response equipment will need to be placed along the Arctic coast in case of a spill, and people will have to be trained in its use. If the right steps are taken, an Arctic oil spill will never have to happen.

Figures and Tables

map of the Northwest Passage trade route

Figure 1. A map of the Northwest Passage.
Source: Creative Commons

map of northern Alaska showing where Kaktovik is located

Figure 2. Kaktovik Location.
Source: "Kaktovik History." The City of Kaktovik Alaska. Accessed 12/1/09.


Law Name

Law Effect


AS 38.05.027

Leases require permit from ADNR and ADF&G.

AS 38.35.010-260

The commissioner of ADNR controls the leasing of pipeline of crude oil and natural gas.

11 AAC 96.010

Require permit to use explosive devises.


AS 38.05.180

Oil and gas leasing program for gas exploration in Alaska.

11 AAC 96.010-150

Geophysical exploration permit provide controls over activities on state lands.


11 AAC 80.005-055

Right of way for leasing a pipeline.

11 AAC 93.040-130

Water rights permit is required for beneficial use.


AS 41.17.082

Requires all forest clearing operations be created to lessen the effects of disease in the forest.

11 AAC 95.195

Methods for getting rid of fallen trees to reduce the spread of bark beetles.

11AAC 95.220

Leasee must have a plan of operations for the state forester.


AS 16.05.840

Permit is required before fish streams are obstructed.

AS 16.20.180-210

Requires conservation, protection, restoration and propagation of endangered wildlife.

5 AAC 95.420-430

Requires a special permit for certain area of the state.


AS 31.05.030(d)(9)

Gas operator has to have a plan of development and operation.

20 AAC 25.005-570

Requires a permit to drill and help maintain control over drilling in the state.


AS 46.03

Environmental conservation including air and water pollution is controlled.

AS 46.03.100

Requires solid waste disposal permits.

AS 46.03.759

Maximum discharge for crude oil is $500 million.

AS 46.04.010-900

Oil and Hazardous Substance Control Act which makes violators responsible for cleaning money.

AS 46.04.030

Requires lessees to have oil discharge prevention and contingency plans.

AS 46.04.050

Requires 5,000 bbl of crude oil or 10,000 bbl of non-crude oil be stored above ground.

18 AAC 15

Requires a Water Quality Certification to protect water from being polluted.

18 AAC 60.220-240

Requires solid waste disposal permit and a solid waste disposal facility.

18 AAC 60.520

Containment structures must be used for drilling waste.

18 AAC 72

Requires a wastewater disposal permit to prevent water pollution.

18 AAC 75.065-75

Requires a storage tank and surge tank.


AS 46.40

Creates the Alaska Coastal Management Program.

6 AAC 80.070(b)(11)&(12)

Requires facilities to be caring to allow wildlife a free passage.

AS 26.23.195

Establishes the State Emergency Response Commission

AS 24.20.600

Establishes a five member team to watch the state and are responsible for oil prevention and response.



The North Slope Borough land manager regulates, plans, and permits.

Figure 3. A selection of laws related to oil drilling.

How oil interacts with sea ice

Figure 4. How oil interacts with sea ice.
Source: "Oil in Ice", Oil Spill Response Planning for Shell's Offshore Exploration Program in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, A. Allen, 2008.

Works Cited