Potential impacts of offshore oil spills on polar bears in the Chukchi Sea
Sea ice decline is anticipated to increase human access to the Arctic Ocean allowing for offshore oil and gas development in once inaccessible areas. Given the potential negative consequences of an oil spill on marine wildlife populations in the Arctic, it is important to understand the magnitude of impact a large spill could have on wildlife to inform response planning efforts. In this study we simulated oil spills that released 25,000 barrels of oil for 30 days in autumn originating from two sites in the Chukchi Sea (one in Russia and one in the U.S.) and tracked the distribution of oil for 76 days. We then determined the potential impact such a spill might have on polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and their habitat by overlapping spills with maps of polar bear habitat and movement trajectories. Only a small proportion (1–10%) of high-value polar bear sea ice habitat was directly affected by oil sufficient to impact bears. However, 27–38% of polar bears in the region were potentially exposed to oil. Oil consistently had the highest probability of reaching Wrangel and Herald islands, important areas of denning and summer terrestrial habitat. Oil did not reach polar bears until approximately 3 weeks after the spills. Our study found the potential for significant impacts to polar bears under a worst case discharge scenario, but suggests that there is a window of time where effective containment efforts could minimize exposure to bears. Our study provides a framework for wildlife managers and planners to assess the level of response that would be required to treat exposed wildlife and where spill response equipment might be best stationed. While the size of spill we simulated has a low probability of occurring, it provides an upper limit for planners to consider when crafting response plans.
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