How the global demand for oil and gas is putting our Arctic ecosystems at risk

Environment Insights

28.02.2019 / Morten Hjorth

The effects from climate change are indisputable, unprecedented and of global significance, and in my field of research, marine ecotoxicology, have the potential to enhance negative long-term impacts. Here we discuss future perspectives and actions needed to address the risks.

The Arctic sea ice is melting at an unparalleled pace causing sea levels to rise and oceans to warm, which can be detrimental to many complex ecosystems.

According to the latest assessment by the United Nations, between 1880 and 2012, the average global temperature has increased by 0.85ºC causing snow and ice to melt and the average global sea level to rise by 19cm from 1901 to 2010. Over the last 30 years, Arctic sea ice has declined on average by 12.8% per decade. 

However, for many large oil and gas companies, this creates new opportunities. It is estimated that the area north of the Arctic Circle may contain around 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s unexplored oil reserves. Melting sea ice improves the prospect of exploiting the abundant fossil fuel resources in the seafloor as the potential production fields and shipping routes are now physically more accessible.

With oil prices fluctuating over the past few years and a great uncertainty on how to secure the world’s future energy supply, the attractiveness of Arctic petroleum exploration is increasing, bringing with it the promise of economic development and job creation.

The question of Arctic oil exploration is no longer “if”; it’s “when”.

The great and vulnerable unknown

As the countdown to full on Arctic exploration and drilling ticks on, this harsh reality brings additional concerns; namely the risk of oil spills.

Chances of an oil spill accident in the Arctic are higher, as navigation for oil carrying ships is extremely tricky given nautical maps cannot be faithfully relied. This is due to lack of mapping, rising sea levels, melting permafrost and coastal erosion.

If an oil spill does happen, the Arctic is particularly vulnerable as there is little capacity to respond. The region is highly remote, and responders may have a long way to travel. Changing weather conditions, low visibility and a lack of emergency preparedness, equipment and trained responders does not promote a quick and efficient response either.

Additionally, national and international regulation in the areas of environmental safety, legality, liability and compensation in offshore oil exploration in the Arctic is insufficient and uncoordinated, and adequate technology to contain and remove oil spilled in ice covered waters has not been fully developed. Although working groups like the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) under the Arctic Council have the mandate to develop guidelines for risk assessment, methodologies for response, and more, they are not complete and will not be legally binding.

But of greatest concern from an ecological and ecotoxicological data standpoint, there is so little known about the Arctic, especially when it comes to understanding the physiological and life cycle adaptations of unique marine ecosystems in the region.

Breaking the surface

In 2014, a COWI industrial PhD project began to explore this unknown area in greater depth, focussing on the effects of oil spills on Arctic marine ecosystems in the areas of winter exposure and variations in sensitivity. The project was funded by the IOGP, COWIfonden and Innovationsfonden, and in collaboration with the Technical University of Denmark. As a Chief Specialist with a background in Arctic marine biology, my role as supervisor was to put the research into an ecological and ecotoxicological context and provide an outlook into real-world applications.

The project investigated how a winter oil spill and associated spill response technologies could induce potential stress on Arctic pelagic ecosystems, which forms the foundation of marine ecosystems. Whereas previous studies focused on short-term toxicity stress, we were interested in the delayed effects on population level and aimed to fill in some of the existing knowledge gaps needed to improve environmental risk assessments.

We looked at several different oil spill scenarios. The first part took place in the field with mesocosm experiments. Oil encapsulated in sea ice was treated differently to evaluate the potential effects of spill response technology on ice-associated Arctic plankton communities. The second part included controlled long-term laboratory experiments to get a better understanding of how exposure to oil compounds impacted two ecologically important zooplankton species during overwintering, a sensitive and vulnerable part of their life cycle. During the long, dark Arctic winters, these copepod species hibernate in deep waters, where they remain passive and dormant until spring arrives.

Results, future perspectives and actions needed

After four years of research, our results were equally remarkable and concerning. We found that long-term exposure from oil spills in the Arctic could be more catastrophic to pelagic ecosystems than previously thought, namely in terms of the prolonged negative effects on survival, reproduction, feeding and energy storage. The research also showed that during the ice-covered period, these pelagic communities were more vulnerable when a chemical dispersant was used to treat an oil spill, and less vulnerable when treated with in situ burning.

The way I see it, as long as there is still a global demand for oil and gas, there will still be explorations into new areas rich in fossil fuels, despite the gradual shift towards a greener agenda, and therefore a greater need to develop sustainable approaches.

There are four areas that should be prioritised to find a more comprehensive solution:

1) Research:

While our research was exceptionally enlightening, it simultaneously highlighted the fact that large knowledge gaps still exist. Historically, the Arctic has been a challenging area to study, from both an accessibility and logistical standpoint. However, now more than ever before, we have greater opportunities and the technology available to conduct the research we need to develop cohesive and sustainable recommendations for protecting this unique environment before it’s too late.

In my area of focus within water and environment, the areas we need to explore further include:

  • Combined effects of stress from climate change and pollution from oil
  • Cumulative effects from other kinds of pollution and potential oil spills
  • Better and more effective oil spill response technologies

2) Risk assessments:

The intention of our research was to provide insight into seasonal variability in marine ecosystems to therefore improve how risk assessments are conducted. Standard risk assessments are based on short term studies that only require an assessment of the impact on the environment and ecosystems at the time of the exposure. As you can probably expect, it's very difficult to assess what could happen if you don’t know how long it will take before the impacts take effect.

Our research highlighted the need for making long-term evaluations a requirement within standard risk assessments. If you neglect to look at the whole life stage, especially during the most sensitive phases, you're prone to underestimate the potential impacts.

3) Innovation: 

Spill response technologies needs to be improved and better catered to the region. This may include more precise modelling of oil spill movements and the use of new technology to detect and monitor oil spills on and in the ice (e.g. satellite, radar and drone technology). Standard response technologies in temperate areas, such as chemical dispersants, physical removal or burning do not apply equally in the Arctic marine environment under the influence of sea ice.

A newer emerging field of spill response technology revolves around natural biodegradation or bioremediation. Oil presents a source of carbon, and as certain bacteria have evolved, they can use the oil as a source of carbon and energy. The concept has been developed into commercial products for use on land spills, and the potential exists for marine spills as well. The idea is to add bacterial strains and fertilizer to oil spills to "eat" the oil. However, there is still a lot of work to be done before an applicable tool is available.

4) Regulation:

In the end, regardless of how concrete or comprehensive our findings and recommendations are, we need policy makers to understand the fragility of Arctic ecosystems and that long-term knock-on effects of an oil spill can be devastating and far reaching. The international community must decide on a coordinated approach to prioritise activities in the Arctic based on the best available knowledge.

Our global climate is changing, and if we don’t act now to get a better understanding of how to protect the planet’s unique ecosystems, especially in the Arctic, the consequences could be long-term and irreversible.


As a marine biologist specialised in marine ecotoxicology within the Water & Nature department, my work includes supporting Environmental Impact Assessments and evaluating the environmental impact of major international infrastructure projects on the marine environment.

Personally, I believe that the green transition can’t come soon enough, but realistically I know that our society is still heavily reliant on traditional energy resources. My societal responsibility is to figure out sustainable ways to minimise the risks and long-term impacts on our marine environment, and I am highly committed to doing just that.

Get in contact

Morten Hjorth
Chief Specialist
Water and Nature, Denmark

Tel: +45 56 40 00 00