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Uncovering Surprising Blooms in the Arctic

polarbear

A changing Arctic spells bad news for polar bears and other animals ©Michael Stephens

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.’s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large “blooms” of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.

Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.

The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.

Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.  

Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.


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Arctic Drilling Could Start as Early as July

The Beaufort Sea. [Image credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.]

In the past 60 days Shell Oil, the global oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands, has received two permits from the U.S. government approving their Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea spill response plans. This is shocking because neither of the plans use technology that has ever been successfully tested in America’s Arctic waters.

Drilling could begin as soon as July 1 -- a blatant sign that the Administration is going after a quick political fix that places the public trust behind Big Oil’s bottom line. A year ago people were talking about the possibility of drilling one well in the Arctic,  but today’s approval will make it possible for Shell to drill up to ten wells, four in the Beaufort Sea and six in the Chukchi.

Oceana encourages the Administration to follow a path of attaining and relying on good science, being prepared for a worst case accident, and having a full and fair public dialogue. 

Currently in the North Sea there is a leaking rig that could spark a massive explosion. This latest North Sea disaster is a crystal ball showing us the future in the Arctic. There has never been exploration, development, or transport of oil in the offshore U.S. without a major accident eventually occurring as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the Santa Barbara pipe rupture, and the Exxon Valdez tanker wreck.

The last public U.S. Arctic in-the-water spill response tests were a failure so why is the U.S. government and Shell assuming their untested spill plans will work?  Just look at the most recent failed test and you can see they aren’t prepared.

Wherever oil and gas exploration goes, pollution follows. It is naive to think that a spill won’t happen in the Arctic. And we have the rare opportunity to do thoughtful management and planning in the Arctic. 

There is simply not enough science information or infrastructure in the Arctic to make any kind of claim that offshore drilling could be done without harming this pristine place.

You can help: Tell President Obama to make sure Shell’s final permits are not granted – let’s keep offshore drilling out of the Arctic.


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What if an Oil Spill Happened in the Arctic?

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.

This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.

These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then. Just watch this video of a failed cleanup test:


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