Oil & Natural Gas
As more exploration and development takes place in the Arctic, we increase the risk of oil spills.
Scientists are concerned that spilled oil would collect in leads in the ice and between ice floes, affecting both polar bears and their seal prey.
At present, there is no proven method to clean up oil spills in Arctic waters, and a basic emergency response infrastructure is lacking.
Earlier studies have shown that polar bears and oil don’t mix: oil collects in polar-bear fur, causing the bears to ingest toxins as they try to groom themselves. This can lead to kidney failure, digestive disorders, and brain damage, which are ultimately fatal. Lost insulation from hair loss, and skin and eye irritations are other effects.
The risk of an oil spill climbs as exploration opportunities increase.
Although a large Arctic spill has not yet occurred in the marine environment, such a spill could lead to widespread fatalities for both seals and polar bears, depending on the circumstances—such as the time of year, the area affected, and sea ice conditions. Such an event would also have far-reaching impacts across the Arctic ecosystem, as cold temperatures would delay the breakdown of hydrocarbons and related chemicals.
Increased oil exploration also adds the risk of noise disturbance from seismic activity, potentially disturbing polar bear mothers and cubs during the sensitive period when they are in their dens and dispersing prey. Excessive disturbances could cause a mother to abandon a den.
Renewable energy is a preferable option for the North.
Significantly, fossil fuels such as oil produce greenhouse gas emissions when burned. Scientists advocate transitioning to renewable energy sources and leaving the majority of remaining oil reserves in the ground.
As the sea ice melts and more shipping routes open up, the Arctic is expected to see an increase in ocean traffic.
The effects of these additional activities on polar bears are unknown, although there are concerns about increased undersea sound, enhanced risk of oil spills as a result of shipping accidents, and the general lack of an emergency response infrastructure for both human and environmental safety.
Mining activity in the Arctic is a potential threat to polar bears mainly because of shipping.
This is due to the need to ship equipment in, and product out. Mining also brings a minor threat of habitat disturbance and degradation from near-shore infrastructure needs such as docks and transfer facilities.
As with increased ship traffic, added tourism in the Arctic could pose a threat to polar bears and lead to a surge of human-to-polar-bear conflicts.
Ship-based tourism also adds to the concerns around commercial shipping.
Polar bears are curious animals that are drawn to unusual sights and smells. This leads them to check out campsites, cabins, and tourists on shore. Without careful management and education about how to safely visit polar-bear habitats, these encounters could end tragically—for polar bears and people.
At first glance, the polar bear’s natural environment seems white and pristine—far removed from the pollution in major cities and industrial areas.
But in reality, polar bears in some parts of the Arctic can carry surprisingly high loads of toxic chemicals.
Why? Because wind and ocean currents transport these pollutants to parts of the Arctic, where they concentrate as they make their way up the food chain. Polar bears absorb these higher levels when they eat seals. The problem is compounded by the fact that many such chemicals are fat-soluble and the Arctic has a relatively high-fat food web.
Most polar bears sampled to date show signs of chemical contamination to some degree, but polar bears in the Barents Sea, Northeast Greenland, and the Kara Sea appear to be the most affected by certain well-known chemicals and chemical groups (e.g., DDT, PCB, and Brominated Flame Retardants).
Even young cubs carry pollutant loads, absorbed from their mother's milk.
Polar bears in the Beaufort Sea seem to have some of the lowest loads reported, at least to date. The gradient of chemical exposure from West to East is largely an artefact of pollution transport from the highly populated and industrialized Eastern U.S. and Western Europe.
Harmful effects of pollution
Well-studied contaminants have a wide range of potentially harmful effects on polar bears and their prey, while the impacts of less studied chemicals are virtually unknown.
So far, scientists know that:
- The chemical cocktail found in any polar bear is complex, consisting of up to 200+ different compounds.
- Pollutants can affect the bears’ hormonal system, including hormones essential to their growth, reproduction, and metabolism.
- Contaminants have been shown to cause shrinking genitalia in polar bears and weakened bones. Overall, this could affect their reproduction and general health.
- Vitamin levels appear to be affected too, as are some aspects of skull bone structure.
- A high load of contaminants may also suppress the polar bears’ immune system, affecting their ability to fight off disease.
- Certain toxins at high enough levels may affect the polar bears' nervous systems and thus potentially their cognitive skills.