Ocean Currents

A Chilling Look at the Potential Impacts of Oil Spills in the Beaufort Sea

© Christopher Michel

Yesterday, we celebrated Alaska Day by taking a moment to appreciate the wonders of Alaska.  Today, we’ll zoom in on the Arctic portion of Alaska—a region that hosts superbly adapted wildlife, sustainable fisheries and vibrant Alaska native communities.

Many of you live far from the Arctic, but no matter where we live, we’re all affected by what happens in the north. The Arctic provides habitat for migratory species, regulates our climate and is vital to freshwater inflow for the entire planet. It benefits all of us to make sure the Arctic is healthy and remains so for future generations.

That’s why we just finished up an important project that looked at what would happen if a major oil spill occurred in Arctic waters—specifically in the Beaufort Sea. We worked with a scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory to use a sophisticated ecosystem model to assess how different kinds of hypothetical oil spills would affect polar bears, fish, local indigenous communities and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walruses). The results gave us a chilling reminder of the damage that oil spills can cause.

Polar bears

After the simulated oil spill, the ecosystem model showed a decrease in polar bear populations in the area around the spill. The model also predicted that an oil spill would have negative impacts on polar bear populations even at great distances from the spill site.


In general, as oil contamination increases, fish populations decrease. Oil spills may have a lasting effect on fish population dynamics. In some of the hypothetical spill scenarios, the ecosystem model predicted that fish populations would continue to be negatively affected at least two years after oil was completely removed from the ecosystem. Some fish populations in Prince William Sound—like herring—still have not recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Local indigenous communities

The ecosystem model indicated that a major oil spill from an offshore oil platform would result in a significant net loss of protein from traditional ocean-based food sources in Beaufort Sea coastal communities. In some instances, the model predicted that communities would have significantly less access to protein from traditional marine food sources—even three and a half years after the simulated spill.

Pinnipeds (we’re talking about seals, sea lions and walruses)

Under all hypothetical oil spill scenarios, the ecosystem model predicted negative impacts to pinniped populations. In one of those scenarios, the model predicted that Arctic communities would experience significantly reduced catch rates throughout all subsistence use areas.

The modeling project emphasizes that we just can’t afford to close our eyes to the risks of offshore drilling in remote Arctic waters. An accident could lead to a massive oil spill that could cause severe impacts to the economies of coastal communities; mar beaches and shorelines; and injure or kill birds, fish and marine mammals.

Take action today! Opening up more of our coasts to offshore drilling is dangerous and short-sighted in and of itself; rolling back regulations and safeguards that protect our ocean and shorelines is even worse.

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