We are at a crossroads, the path we take is an intelligence test: do we
drill and burn the fossil fuels reserves that are accessible only because climate change is
causing the sea ice to melt? Or do we protect the Arctic and give it and the communities
living there a chance to adapt to the already serious changes taking place?
Beaufort Sea Project Reprints - Oil, Ice and Climate Change
This book is a compelling summary of material drawn from the Beaufort Sea Project (BSP),
which produced over 40 scientific papers. The BSP was a joint undertaking funded and run
by both industry and government. It is not possible to do this document justice in this summary.
This statement from the book underscores the explicit reality of exploiting off-shore
petroleum resources in northern ocean waters covered intermittently by ice on an annual cycle.
“If a major oil discovery is made in the Beaufort Sea, it will not be a question of
whether there will be oil spilled … but of how much.”
Per the book, credible estimates of major oil spills range from 50,000 to 1.5 million
barrels. Lesser releases are not considered major, but are to be considered an inevitable
consequence of the drilling for, pumping of, storage and transport of crude oil if found
and exploited in Arctic waters. Sources of spills included accidental ship discharges,
tanker compartment ruptures, storage tank breaches, pipeline leaks and subsea well blowouts.
The magnitude of the larger releases include the potential for a leak to continue for months
due to seasonal freeze-up and typical weather conditions in the region slowing the arrival
and deployment of remediation equipment, manpower and material.
A complicating factor for clean-up of such spills where oil spreads under the ice for
a period of time is the movement of the Beaufort Gyre ice pack. The ice covering the
Arctic Ocean is not fixed in place, but rather moves in response to ocean currents and
winds at speeds from 1 to 9 km per day (3 km/day annual average at the edge of the Beaufort
Gyre, where drilling is expected to take place). This transport mechanism will greatly
expand the area affected by an under-ice oil slick. As the oil (and possibly co-located
natural gas) is lighter than water, it will spread a thin layer (8 to 9 millimetres deep)
over a wide area under smooth flat ice. Less regular shaped ice will result in domes of
oil collecting in higher spots, and none under lower spots. Sea ice is somewhat porous,
so oil will also wick its way up through the ice over time, and eventually reach the top
of the ice.
As ice and snow are highly reflective of light, while oil is much less so, the albedo
(degree of reflectivity) will be degraded by the appearance of the oil. This will result
in increased melting of the ice due to higher heat absorption of the oil, which will in
turn melt the surrounding ice and snow. Open water caused by this effect also has a
lower albedo than ice and snow, which will increase the heat gain and ice pack melt still
further. The book postulates that the warming effect of summer sunlight on the spilled
oil could result in an ice melt area up to 10 times the size of the actual spread of the
spill. Albedo can also be degraded by soot produced by burning off spilled oil, or from
the smokestacks of drill ships, oil tankers and service vessels.
To close this summary, consider this text from the concluding chapter from the book.
“The question of whether a large inadvertent spill of oil into the Arctic Ocean
could change the world’s climate is of great concern. The perceived danger is that the
dark-coloured oil would melt off large areas of sea ice in summer. Although localized
in its effect at first, the accident might trigger changes in a complex and perhaps
unstable system which could lead to a dramatic reduction or even elimination of arctic
Oil, Ice and Climate Change - The Beaufort Sea and the Search for Oil (reprint)
by Allen Milne
Edited by R.J. Childerhose
Reproduced with the permission of Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2010.
103 pages (PDF format - 131 MB)