Estimating the impacts of oil spills on polar bears

Arctic Research of the United States
By: , and 



The polar bear is the apical predator and universal symbol of the Arctic. They occur throughout the Arctic marine environment wherever sea ice is prevalent. In the southern Beaufort Sea, polar bears are most common within the area of the outer continental shelf, where the hunt for seals along persistent leads and openings in the ice. Polar bears are a significant cultural and subsistence component of the lifestyles of indigenous people. They may also be one of the most important indicators of the health of the Arctic marine environment. Polar bears have a late age of maturation, a long inter0brth period, and small liter sizes. These life history features make polar bear populations susceptible to natural and human perturbations.

Petroleum exploration and extraction have been in progress along the coast of northern Alaska for more than 25 years. Until recently, most activity has taken place on the mainland or at sites connected to the shore by a causeway. In 1999, BP Exploration-Alaska began constructing the first artificial production island designed to transport oil through sub-seafloor pipelines. Other similar projects have been proposed to begin in the next several years.

The proximity of oil exploration and development to principal polar bear habitats raises concerns, and with the advent of true off-shore development projects, these concerns are compounded. Contact with oil and other industrial chemicals by polar bears, through grooming, consumption of tainted food, or direct consumption of chemicals, may be lethal. The active ice where polar bears hunt is also where spilled oil may be expected to concentrate during spring break-up and autumn freeze-up. Because of this, we could expect that an oil spill in the waters and ice of the continental shelf would have profound effects on polar bears. Assessments of the effects of spills, however, have not been done. This report described a promising method for estimating the effects of oil spills on polar bears in the Arctic marine environment. It uses enough real data to illuminate necessary calculations and illustrate the value of the methods. The results and conclusions presented here are only examples of possible scenarios resulting from a new estimation method. Final assessment of the potential impacts to polar bears of an oil spill remains a work in progress.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Estimating the impacts of oil spills on polar bears
Series title Arctic Research of the United States
Volume 14
Issue 2
Year Published 2000
Language English
Publisher National Science Foundation
Publisher location Arlington, VA
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center
Description 5 p.
First page 33
Last page 37
Country Canada, United States
State Alaska, Northwest Territories, Yukon
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