New economic developments in the Arctic, such as shipping and oil exploitation, bring along unprecedented risks of marine oil spills. Microorganisms have played a central role in degrading and reducing the impact of the spilled oil during past oil disasters. However, in the Arctic, and in particular in its pristine areas, the self-cleaning capacity and biodegradation potential of the natural microbial communities have yet to be uncovered.
This review compiles and investigates the current knowledge with respect to environmental parameters and biochemical constraints that control oil biodegradation in the Arctic. Hereby, seawaters off Greenland are considered as a case study. Key factors for biodegradation include the bioavailability of hydrocarbons, the presence of hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria and the availability of nutrients. We show how these key factors may be influenced by the physical oceanographic conditions in seawaters off Greenland and other environmental parameters including low temperature, sea ice, sunlight regime, suspended sediment plumes and phytoplankton blooms that characterize the Arctic.
Based on the acquired insights, a first qualitative assessment of the biodegradation potential in seawaters off Greenland is presented. In addition to the most apparent Arctic characteristics, such as low temperature and sea ice, the impact of typical Arctic features such as the oligotrophic environment, poor microbial adaptation to hydrocarbon degradation, mixing of stratified water masses, and massive phytoplankton blooms and suspended sediment plumes merit to be topics of future investigation.