The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy—one of two working icebreakers in the nation’s fleet—concluded a sobering mission Tuesday in the ice-strewn waters north of Barrow, Alaska. The crew’s task was to practice deploying equipment they hoped they would never use : new, high-tech gear for responding to a massive oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. (See related quiz : "What You Don’t Know About Energy and the Changing Arctic.")
Some of the new technology, which included military-style drone aircraft and an unmanned underwater vehicle dubbed the Jaguar by its developers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was designed to hunt and track oil trapped in or under ice. Other devices, such as oil skimmers and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), were more robust Arctic versions of tools that took center stage during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest maritime oil spill in U.S. history.
The infamous BP blowout has cast a long shadow over the industry, leaving many wondering if the Coast Guard (USCG) and the oil industry really are ready to deal with a big spill in the Arctic, where the weather is far worse and any help is much farther away. (See related coverage : "The Arctic : The Science of Change.") Add to the mix one more complication : The Arctic Ocean annually freezes into a jumbled, floating mass of ice larger than Canada and Alaska combined.
Ship spills are another concern. Ship transit through the Bering Strait, the gateway from the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic, more than doubled between 2008 and 2012. And as of this week 495 ships had received permission to travel Russia’s Northern Sea Route this year up from zero just five years ago. Some experts predict that by 2030, the route will carry a quarter of all trade between Asia and Europe. Others are skeptical that harsh and costly crossings of the Arctic will ever compete with southerly routes for shipping cargo, but they see ship traffic increasing nevertheless as nations seek to reap newly accessible resources—oil, natural gas, minerals, and fish—at the top of the world.
Seeking the Right Tools
The rush of interest lent urgency to the Healy’s practice mission off Alaska’s north coast.
In addition to U.S. Coast Guard crew and the Woods Hole researchers, scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks joined in the simulated detection and recovery of oil from the icy waters. The test flights of small unmanned aircraft systems were the first ever in the Arctic Ocean. "We accomplished all our goals and gathered data to move forward in our mission as stewards of the pristine Arctic environment," said Rich Hansen, the chief scientist and director of the USCG Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, who led the exercise, in a prepared statement.
In an interview before the team set out to the test site, Hansen explained further : "We’re really looking at how to deploy these devices in Arctic conditions. All the things we are bringing with us have a pretty good chance of working."
But is the Coast Guard really ready to handle an oil spill in the Arctic ?