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Ocean Physicist Says Current Clean-Up Methods Useless In An Arctic Oil Spill

Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University
Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University
New research suggests that global warming is causing the Arctic ice sheet to melt away at a record speed. For oil companies, the development means previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic can now be reached during summer months for exploration and possible drilling. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with ocean physicist Peter Wadhams -- head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University -- about the environmental risks of drilling for oil in the Arctic.

RFE/RL: Environmental activists from Greenpeace say they are concerned about the environmental risks an offshore oil spill in the Arctic would present. They say oil firms do not have any way to clean up a spill there. As a leading Arctic ocean physicist, do you think Greenpeace's concerns are well-founded?

Peter Wadhams: I think Greenpeace's concern about oil-ice interactions is well-placed because this is really a serious problem. Whatever the oil industry says, it doesn't really have any method for dealing with oil blowouts under ice. All it can do is try to cap off the blowout as quickly as possible. So any kind of drilling in ice-covered waters is very dangerous.

RFE/RL: What you mean by an "oil blowout?" And why wouldn't the clean-up techniques used during BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico be effective in the Arctic?

Wadhams: An oil blowout is the sort of thing that happened in the Gulf of Mexico [in BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster]. High pressure caused a blowout of oil and gas from the seabed which was uncontrolled and produced a large flow of oil and gas into the environment before it could be stopped. If something like that happened in the Arctic, the consequences would be even worse.

There's been some research done on the problem of oil blowouts under ice, and it is pretty certain that there is no known way of getting rid of the oil. The oil and gas produce a layer of oil on the bottom of the ice, and then new ice grows underneath that oil in a kind of sandwich.

So what you could get would be a huge area of ice flows that are oiled, but the oil is hidden. Research shows that the oil reappears in the following summer. When the ice flow starts to melt, the oil comes to the surface and is released into the environment and it still retains its toxicity.

RFE/RL: How does the sea depth in Arctic exploration areas differ from the depth in the Gulf of Mexico near the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Does sea depth have any relevance to the dangers of an oil spill in the Arctic?

Wadhams: The depths that are being explored at the moment in the Arctic are much less. Deepwater Horizon was 3,000 or 4,000 meters, I think. It was very deep ocean.

[With the Russians] you are not quite sure how far they are going because they are working on the edge of the continental shelf at the moment in the Russian Arctic. And so the water depth, depending on where they go, can vary from less than 100 meters to 1,000 meters or so. And they keep relatively quiet about where exactly they are going to be drilling.

But because it is on the edge of the continental shelf, it could vary through quite a wide range of possibilities. You don't have the same problems of the oil being so compressed that it stays at the seabed like it does in the Gulf of Mexico. It will certainly rise to the surface. But, of course, that is the extra problem. If it rises to the surface, then it gets trapped into the ice.

RFE/RL: Do you believe that the Arctic ice sheet is melting away during summer months more quickly than before because of human activity on the planet?

Wadhams: Yes, it is highly ironic, in fact. We are finding that the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic -- which is caused by global warming [and] by fossil fuel burning -- is itself inducing an acceleration of global warming.

So we are in a terrible little feedback loop here. And yet, all the politicians can think about is "Hey, there's not so much ice around so we can go in and get the oil out." It's a pretty short-sighted attitude, I think.