NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Illustrating the Effects of Oil Spills in the Arctic


Libby Logerwell in the Arctic.

Libby Logerwell at the Arctic Ocean shore in Barrow, Alaska during March 2011.

As a fishery biologist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, I usually spend more time thinking about fishing than oil spills. However, that’s changed since I started a six-month assignment with the Office of Response and Restoration’s (OR&R) Assessment and Restoration Division in December 2010. I got interested in this assignment after I attended a workshop on Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) in the Arctic. NRDA is the process of figuring out what effects an oil spill has on the environment (including natural resources that people use), and what restoration projects are needed to bring things back to the way they were before the spill. I was struck by how we need the same kind of data to assess environmental damage after an oil spill as we do for monitoring the effects of climate change and fishing (the kinds of things I research as a fisheries biologist). I had done some field research in the Beaufort Sea and felt a personal desire to learn more about how NOAA works to protect and restore Arctic ecosystems. So here I am!

One of the main projects I am working on is creating a model of what would happen to Arctic habitats and wildlife in the event of an oil spill. If this did happen in the Arctic, one of the first things we would have to do, even before we would go out in boats and helicopters to the site of the spill, would be to figure out what wildlife or habitats could be affected.

One way to get a handle on this question is to build a conceptual model that lays out all the possible ways oil could move through the marine environment and all the different things that could get exposed to oil. Dr. Mary Baker of OR&R and I have worked together to build a first draft of such a model, and we are hoping to publish it at a seminar to be held in Calgary this fall. We constructed a simple flow chart showing how fish, invertebrates, birds, and marine mammals could be exposed to oil at the surface of the ocean, deeper in the water, and on the ocean bottom.

We are also working with Kate Sweeney, an illustrator at the University of Washington, to make a user-friendly illustration of our ideas. In this picture below, you can look at different parts of the Arctic marine environment and see what could be impacted by oil and in what way. For example, look at the “Benthos,” or “bottom,” box, and you can see that fish and crabs could be impacted because oil would damage their food web (what they eat and what they eat eats). Putting together this model was really interesting and challenging for me—it was like a crash course in Arctic ecology!

I learned that although there is a lot known about certain wildlife groups in some areas of the sea, a lot more information is needed for others. For example, not much is known about fish eggs and larvae (baby fish) from the Beaufort Sea. This is particularly important because shipping creates a high risk for oil spills on the surface of Arctic waters, which could then impact the fish eggs and larvae found there. We also learned that more data is needed on the toxic effects of oil on Arctic fish, especially Arctic cod, which are food for other fish, marine mammals, and seabirds and so are a key part of Arctic food webs. We hope to fill these gaps in understanding over the next few years using any means available!

By Libby Logerwell

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea, as well as to cultural and subsistence uses of these resources. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

3 thoughts on “Illustrating the Effects of Oil Spills in the Arctic

  1. Pingback: Oil Spill Effects – OIL WORLD

  2. Pingback: Oil Spill Effects – GREEN PROTECTION

  3. So that means we are going to be drilling and shipping oil through the melted arctic sea. When are we EVER going to move to alternative fuels!!!

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