Estimating Potential Effects of Hypothetical Oil Spills on Polar Bears

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Much is known about the transport and fate of oil spilled into the sea and its toxicity to exposed wildlife. Previously, however, there has been no way to quantify the probability that wildlife dispersed over the seascape would be exposed to spilled oil. Polar bears, the apical predator of the arctic, are widely dispersed near the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean, an area also undergoing considerable hydrocarbon exploration and development. We used 15,308 satellite locations from 194 radiocollared polar bears to estimate the probability that polar bears could be exposed to hypothetical oil spills. We used a true 2 dimensional Gausian kernel density estimator, to estimate the number of bears likely to occur in each 1.00 km2 cell of a grid superimposed over near shore areas surrounding 2 oil production facilities: the existing Northstar oil production facility, and the proposed offshore site for the Liberty production facility. We estimated the standard errors of bear numbers per cell with bootstrapping. Simulated oil spill footprints for September and October, the times during which we hypothesized effects of an oil-spill would be worst, were estimated using real wind and current data collected between 1980 and 1996. We used ARC/Info software to calculate overlap (numbers of bears oiled) between simulated oil-spill footprints and polar bear grid-cell values. Numbers of bears potentially oiled by a hypothetical 5912 barrel spill (the largest spill thought probable from a pipeline breach) ranged from 0 to 27 polar bears for September open water conditions, and from 0 to 74 polar bears in October mixed ice conditions. Median numbers oiled by the 5912 barrel hypothetical spill from the Liberty simulation in September and October were 1 and 3 bears, equivalent values for the Northstar simulation were 3 and 11 bears. In October, 75% of trajectories from the 5912 barrel simulated spill at Liberty oiled 9 or fewer bears while 75% of the trajectories affected 20 or fewer polar bears when we simulated an October spill at the Northstar site. Northstar Island is nearer the active ice flaw zone than Liberty. Simulations suggested that oil spilled at Northstar would spread more effectively and more consistently into surrounding areas. Also, polar bear densities are consistently higher near Northstar. Oil spills simulated for the Liberty site were more erratic in the areas they covered and the numbers of bears impacted, and numbers of bears hypothetically exposed were usually smaller. Methods described here are broadly applicable to other dispersed marine wildlife. Key words: Arctic, Beaufort Sea, clustering, kernel, management, oil spill, polar bears, population delineation, radiotelemetry, satellite, smoothing, Ursus maritimus

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USGS Unnumbered Series
Estimating Potential Effects of Hypothetical Oil Spills on Polar Bears
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U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center
Contributing office(s):
Alaska Biological Science Center