In a small town set not far above the Arctic Circle, residents of Kotzebue, Alaska, brace themselves for a worst-case scenario that looms uncomfortably close: an oil spill in the frigid, remote waters of the Chukchi Sea. This fall, they and a variety of federal and state agencies, including NOAA, imagined what would happen if a fuel barge broke up, spilling 400,000 gallons of oil onto the northwestern Alaska coast near Kotzebue. Would subsistence hunters in the area be affected? What would happen to nearby whales, seals, or shorebirds?
This nightmarish scenario presented everyone, from Kotzebue’s mayor (of a town that is almost three-quarters Alaska Native) to the U.S. Coast Guard, with the dilemma of figuring out how and which cultural and natural resources to protect—if even possible—in the event of a major oil spill.
Oceanographers from the Office of Response and Restoration used NOAA models to forecast where the intermediate fuel oil released in this scenario might end up. They projected that hundreds of thousands of gallons would wash onto an Arctic coast that in the summer, according to OR&R ecologist Alan Mearns, is not unlike Louisiana, with barrier islands and large lagoons hosting extensive marshes and packed with migratory birds and other wildlife. In the scenario, thousands of gallons of fuel oil slipped into several lagoons. Most of the oil, however, came ashore at the village of Shishmaref, about 100 miles southwest of Kotzebue.
Recalling the headaches of dealing with oiled Gulf of Mexico marshes, Mearns walked away from the Kotzebue exercises realizing that these sensitive lagoons needed to be protected during a spill. The Coast Guard has response equipment in Anchorage, but, for a town more than 500 miles away, what could the community do before this kind of equipment arrived? Those attending the exercise saw the need to train local residents to be the first line of defense against oil spills. Mearns likens this to the model of volunteer fire departments. He notes a (quite effective) example of this already exists among Washington state’s San Juan Islands: the community-staffed Islands’ Oil Spill Association [leaves this blog].
However, the next phase of spill response would have to come from the “big guns,” an established rapid response organization that could bring in the heavy equipment and experience in dealing with oil spills. Unfortunately, there aren’t any such organizations currently committed to filling this role for the northwest coast of Alaska. Even if there were, it would take five to ten days to get most equipment to Kotzebue in the first place. That, in itself, is a challenge: imagine a helicopter transporting a skimming boat across the Arctic horizon.
Once response equipment is there to deal with any oil, a new suite of concerns appears for the local Native community. For example, they have burial sites and historic camps from traditional subsistence activities—fishing, whaling, trapping, camping, etc.—spread across the coast. Because these places are so meaningful for local Natives, decision makers should also be planning where (and where not) to land a helicopter or send out trucks loaded with oil boom.
“Some of the greatest concerns [are about] the ability of the environment to recover from a spill and provide healthy subsistence and cultural resources to communities,” said Ukallaysaaq Tom Okleasik, Planning Director of the Northwest Arctic Borough, based in Kotzebue. “Subsistence is inseparable from the way of life in rural villages that would be impacted by an oil spill in the Northwest Arctic—it would impact a way of life.”
Native Elders, hunters, and fishers also represent an extensive and too-often underutilized source for what is known as “traditional ecological knowledge” about local plants, animals, and the environment. Elevating and acknowledging this resource could be an important step in building up an arsenal of tools to use against a spill, whether it comes from maritime transport or the offshore oil and gas drilling expected to begin in the Chukchi Sea in 2012.
NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the other federal, state, and local organizations involved in this workshop in remote Kotzebue are trying to bridge the gap between ecology and culture in evaluating potential impacts of responding to oil spills. And that’s just the first step: Once a spill happens, these groups need to be ready not only to evaluate the impacts of the spill itself, but how to compensate for those impacts and restore natural resources. Of course, these questions—and their proposed solutions—can be complicated by the shifting conditions in the Arctic [leaves this blog] as the air and sea temperatures continue to rise. Which is why there is no such thing as being too prepared, especially in a place like the Arctic.