NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

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Five Coming Innovations in Arctic Science

Arctic sea ice.

On July 12, 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard retrieved supplies for NASA's ICESCAPE mission, a two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen.

Scientific tools have come a long way from the simple, leather-bound journals 18th century naturalists were toting on expeditions into uncharted lands. But hundreds of years later, we are still asking many of the same questions about the natural world: what’s out there and how does it work?

A handful of adventurous researchers have been probing the northern frontiers of the Arctic Circle for decades, and last week, I was fortunate enough listen in as they offered their knowledge of this region to the experts at NOAA who specialize in marine oil spill preparedness and response. NOAA hosted the University of Alaska Fairbanks for an Arctic Oil Spill Science Workshop, setting to tackle the scariest natural disaster the Arctic could face in the coming century (outside of climate change, and in a way because of it).

Take a look at some of the coolest innovations in Arctic science that may one day help us deal with oil spills:

1. The High-Flying Robo-Naturalist

In the inhospitable high Arctic, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers hope to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) strapped with sensors to assess where marine mammals are, how sea ice moves, and potentially where oil is in the event of a spill. Space for sensors on these small aircraft is in high demand, so which sensors are the most important?  Ultraviolet (UV) sensors can spot a polar bear but not a seal. Thermal imaging can identify a walrus, but due to its thick blubber insulation, it can’t find a whale.

2. Oil-Sniffing Underwater Watchdogs

There are many potential causes of an oil or chemical spill in the Arctic, but only a few are likely to occur at specific locations where we can set up monitoring systems for early detection. Scientists from the University of Alaska are interested in using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to patrol oil and gas infrastructure (pipelines, drilling rigs), sniffing the water for signs of oil to detect tiny leaks that pressure sensors within pipelines might not catch.

3. Canary in the Coal Mine, Meet Crab at the Drill Site

A new twist on using canaries to warn coal miners of environmental dangers, the next iteration of this concept is using critters to alert us of oil in Arctic marine environments. Scientists at the international energy company StatOil have used the closing of mussels to signal the presence of oil [leaves this blog] in the undersea environment, so the concept holds some promise. At last week’s Arctic science workshop, NOAA and University of Alaska Fairbanks biologists discussed the options for developing a similar mechanism in the Arctic using animals friendly to cooler climes, like cold-water crabs or fishes.

4. Get Yourself Some Seep

Unlike other countries, the U.S. does not permit anyone to spill oil in the ocean—even for research purposes—so oil spill responders must rely on natural oil seeps to test their tools and skills. The best test bed in the U.S. is located just off the shores of Santa Barbara, Calif., but responding to an oil spill in the Sunshine State bears little resemblance to what responders could face in the Arctic Ocean. As a result, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers hope to review data logs and speak with residents of Alaska’s North Slope to determine if and where there might be a natural seep to test oil spill response techniques in the U.S. Arctic.

5. More Ice, More Problems

One of the most daunting challenges facing NOAA’s oil spill modelers is determining where oil will move when placed in, under, and between chunks of ice. University of Alaska Fairbanks and NOAA researchers discussed the possibility of combining the forces of both aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles to simultaneously map the structure of sea ice from above and below. This has never been done, but it could shed considerable light on the 3-D shape and movement of sea ice.