The Gulf Oil spill and Cooper Island seabirds – so far and yet so near

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 31, 2010 — Cooper Island is about as far from the Gulf of Mexico, and its now-oiled waters, as one can be and still be in the United States. But the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and the resulting paradigm shift in how the government and public views offshore oil drilling, will have a major effect on the potential threats of oil to the arctic marine system that surrounds this island.

Cooper Island biota has a history of being affected by distant and political forces:

  • The boxes and debris used by nesting Black Guillemots are only here because the Navy visited at the end of the Korean to dispose of surplus ordnance.
  • My first visit here in 1972 was the result of the federal government responding to the potential of supertankers moving Prudhoe Bay oil through the Arctic since the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was held up the courts.
  • My extended study began here in 1975 as part of a national assessment of the outer continental shelves where the U.S. was considering drilling in response to the Arab oil embargo.

The moratorium on offshore drilling resulting from the recent events in the Gulf of Mexico has delayed industry plans to drill exploratory wells in northern Alaskan waters this summer. The drilling planned for the Chukchi Sea was already being delayed by the courts due to insufficient information on the biota that could be affected by drilling. The “Liberty” project near Prudhoe Bay, where BP intends to use directional drilling to tap offshore reserves from onshore, is receiving increased scrutiny. (Read more in the New York Times.) If and when the moratorium is lifted the potential that offshore drilling could occur near Cooper is very real. The map below shows the lease areas near Cooper Island that could be exploited if and when the moratorium on offshore drilling is lifted.

aufort lease showing cooper island

The dark area just north of Cooper has been kept out of lease sales due to pressure from the native community and local government who know that to be an important area for feeding bowhead whales. As the current Gulf spill shows any leak from any of the adjacent areas would impact that region and the birds on Cooper Island.

There are many who believe that the development of offshore oil and gas reserves in the Arctic is inevitable as the country’s need for fossil fuels shows no signs of waning and the decreasing extent and thickness of the pack ice facilitates operations in the region. There is a very real possibility that after a number of years of being affected primarily by the indirect effects of fossil fuel emissions well south of this latitude, Cooper Island biota could soon be directly affected by the same sorts of impacts being seen in the Gulf of Mexico.

The response and impacts of a spill equivalent to the Deepwater Horizon occurring in the Arctic is almost impossible to fathom given the differences in the physical and biological environments of the two regions as well as the asymmetry in infrastructure. Oil gushing from an uncapped well in the Arctic would be entering extremely cold water where oil dispersal would be much less than in the warm waters of the Gulf and where organisms that break down oil are less abundant. For at least nine months of the year in most areas of the Arctic the oil would be rising to an ocean surface with near complete ice cover. The underside of the pack ice where it would gather is the habitat supporting biota that is the basis for much of the marine food chain in the Arctic. Oil that found its way to cracks and openings in the ice would foul critical habitat for both marine bird and mammal species that depend on those openings for feeding and migration corridors.

The logistics of controlling and responding to a spill in the Arctic would demonstrate just how remote the region is. A flotilla of vessels of the size responding to Deepwater, to stop and contain the spill, is not present in arctic Alaska, nor is there a road system that could allow responders to easily access coastal areas. Equally deficient is a pool of personnel that would be able to respond to a spill. Even if large numbers of people could be flown up to Barrow (there is no road access to the village) there is insufficient infrastructure to house and feed many more than the approximately 4500 people who live there now. The lack of vessels, roads, personnel and infrastructure would probably mean a major exercise by the military would be necessary.

A large majority of the general public only sees (or thinks about) seabirds when they are oiled or recovering from oiling in “rehabilitation centers”. In most cases the only information provided on the individual bird is the species (and sometimes not even that if the oil is thick enough). I consider myself (and the Cooper Island seabirds) lucky in that oiling events have not reached this region. Although the more popular iconic image of an oil catastrophe in the arctic might be an oiled polar bear, the image that would be most upsetting to me would be a that of an oiled banded Black Guillemot that I had weighed as a chick in the 1980s and whose breeding history I had followed for the past quarter century. I hope that day never comes.

Currently, guillemot chick hatching is proceeding with approximately 175 chicks still doing very well. Strong (> 30 mph) south winds today (July 31) are moving the ice away from the island, however, and cod abundance could decrease as a result. So that readers of this post don’t leave with thoughts of oiled seabirds, here is an image taken by Elizabeth White of the BBC during her recent visit.

2-males-black-guillemot-birds-walking-

Two Black Guillemots with its distinctive red mouth lining and feet.

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