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The Blog Aquatic

News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy

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Four Reasons Why an Arctic Oil Spill Could be Catastrophic

Posted On March 25, 2014 by

Photo: NOAA

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.

The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?

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Warming Arctic Means Frigid Weather Fronts for Us

Posted On January 10, 2014 by

Photo courtesy morningnettle / morningnettle/Flickr

Strong polar vortex winds normally trap cold air in the Arctic and circle the North Pole from west to east. This pattern broke down this month, allowing cold Arctic air to spill over the central United States and create record cold temperatures for the eastern half of the United States.

This isn’t the first time that the polar vortex has been weak. During late autumn and early winter in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010, weak polar vortex winds were associated with an increase of cold air moving south from the Arctic. During this event in 2009, North America was 3 to 18 °F cooler than normal monthly averages, and the Arctic region was more than 7 °F warmer than average.

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When It Comes to Arctic Drilling, Cumulative Effects Add Up

Posted On November 22, 2013 by

Workers in the ArcticPicture five oil rigs in your nearby ocean. These oil rigs are different sizes and operate in different locations and at different times. Each of these rigs has an impact on marine life and water quality, but each to a different degree.

When the individual impacts of each of these rigs accumulate over time and space, it is known as “cumulative effects.” Think of this like a snowball fight. It’s easy to dodge snowballs when you’re up against one other person.  But when five people are throwing snowballs at you, it’s much harder to avoid getting hit. And the more hits you take, the more bruises you’re bound to get.

Cumulative effects recognizes that the impact of an individual action may be relatively minor on its own, but could be much more significant when considered in combination with the effects of other past, present and future actions. Effective assessment of cumulative effects is one of the most challenging issues in resource management.

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Reprieve from Arctic Drilling Creates an Opportunity for Progress

Posted On September 10, 2013 by

Polar Bear Mother and Cubs near Pack Ice

Photo © Image Plan/Corbis

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Shell Oil had a fleet of vessels in the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to drill for oil off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. But Shell’s 2012 season was plagued by mishaps and mistakes, from the near-grounding of the drillship Noble Discoverer last July to the all-too-real grounding of the drilling unit Kulluk on New Year’s Day this year.

In the end, Shell failed to complete a single Arctic well, and both the Noble Discoverer and Kulluk were so badly damaged that they were towed to Asia for repair earlier this year. In fact, the EPA just fined Shell $1.1 million for unauthorized levels of air pollution from the two vessels — yet another reminder that Shell was not prepared for its Arctic operations.

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Court Upholds Shell’s Spill Response Plans Despite Past Failures and Serious Questions

Posted On August 6, 2013 by

Workers in the ArcticYesterday in Anchorage, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s decision to approve Shell Oil’s plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. The court’s decision is a setback, but it doesn’t change the fact that Shell has failed to meet its obligation to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic at every turn.

The 2012 Arctic drilling season for Shell was remarkably calamitous. From the beginning, Shell experienced failures when their drillship the Noble Discoverer nearly ran aground in Unalaska Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. By the end of the drilling season, the same drillship developed propulsion problems and needed to be towed into port in Seward for repairs.

Then in late December, the Kulluk, Shell’s other Arctic drilling unit, ran aground off of Sitkalidak Island after heavy seas snapped the towline between it and Shell’s tugboat. After a salvage operation plucked the Kulluk off the coast—thankfully with no major injuries or spills—it was eventually dry-towed to Asia for repairs in March.

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Happy Anniversary to Vital Ocean Policy

Posted On July 20, 2013 by

humpback whale breach

Credit: Phil Wrobel / Photo Contest

It was just three years ago yesterday that President Obama signed the Executive Order establishing the National Ocean Policy. We’ve come a long way so far, and we are starting to realize the policy’s considerable promise.

As I’ve written about before, the National Ocean Policy and the subsequent Implementation Plan are historically significant. President Obama recognized that a healthy ocean is a productive ocean and thus established the policy to ensure that we work together to balance use and conservation.

This policy directly addresses the key challenge of our time: how to meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us. The ocean, of course, is at the center of every aspect of this challenge—food, energy, climate and protection of our natural resources.

Our ability to manage impacts on the ocean will make a crucial difference in making this planet work for 9 billion people. As the ocean is asked to provide in so many ways, it is inevitable that we need to prioritize, coordinate and optimize. That’s where the National Ocean Policy—a set of common-sense principles to help protect our ocean resources—comes in.

This anniversary offers an opportunity to look ahead. Read more at National Geographic’s News Watch blog.

Why Exploring the Ocean is More than Cool, it’s Vital

Posted On June 11, 2013 by

The submersible Deepsea Challenger which James Cameron piloted to the deepest parts of the ocean floor, on display outside Senate office buildings in Washington, DC — credit Julia Roberson

Later today filmmaker and ocean explorer James Cameron will be headlining a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee about the importance of funding ocean science and exploration. Also on display outside the hearing is the Deepsea Challenger, the submersible Cameron piloted in a historic solo dive to the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench.

Fantastic voyages like the one taken by James Cameron are truly inspiring for the sheer physical accomplishment. But they are also a stark reminder of how little we still know and understand about the ocean. In a world where the chemistry of the ocean is now changing faster than life can adapt, it’s vitally important that we learn as much as we can about the ocean to better prepare for the future.

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