Increased activity of oil and gas operations in the Arctic

Working Group on the Biological effects of Contaminants
Published: 24 June 2020

​The Arctic marine environment is considered to be at risk due to the mounting pressures associated with global warming and increased human activities. Arctic species are particularly vulnerable with limits on how far north they can move to adapt to the rise in air and sea temperatures and the decline of sea ice. Increased competition from more southern species migrating north is also expected to increase pressures on native species.

The increased activity of oil and gas operations in the Arctic provides a real risk of exposure to produced water, drilling cuttings, and accidental oil spills. A recent review by members of the Working Group on the Biological effects of Contaminants (WGBEC), commissioned by the Norwegian government, was conducted to determine whether the environmental risks associated with offshore oil and gas activities, such as produced water discharges, were significantly larger in the Arctic compared to elsewhere on the Norwegian continental shelf. Strict regulations were initially put in place for offshore developments in the Arctic compared to other regions in order to minimise contaminant inputs. However, research is ongoing to find reasons for claiming that Arctic Sea ecosystems and organisms are systematically more sensitive to oil and gas associated contamination than comparable ecosystems.

WGBEC members have also been involved in a recent project focusing on the effectiveness and environmental effects of different oil spill response methods in a cold climate. The results were made available to international organizations that plan and perform cross-border oil spill responses in the Arctic. Laboratory and field studies were performed including: longitudinal and seasonal baseline studies on biomarker responses; experimental coastal and offshore burning of oil and assessment of their effects on biomarker responses; and laboratory exposure of marine species to different types of oil and dispersants at different salinities and temperatures. 

The results obtained in the laboratory exposures indicated significant variability in biological responses depending on the oil and dispersants used as well as on salinity and temperature. In the field, baselines and responses measured in various biomarkers also vary depending on geographical location (south-north axis, salinity). The results emphasise the need for more research and data for realistic risk assessments of oil spills under different environmental conditions, especially in cold environments where they are currently sparse. ​

The Working Group on Biological Effects of Contaminants (WGBEC​) examines the biological effects of contaminants in the marine environment, improves understanding and research of such pollutants, and aids international research and monitoring.​​

Back to ICES Science Highlights: science and advice in a changing Arctic​.​​​

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Shoreline experimental in situ burning, carried out as part of the GRACE project. Photo: Ole Geertz-Hansen.

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Increased activity of oil and gas operations in the Arctic

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