Polar bears and oil developments

Pristine Arctic sea ice habitat?Image: Andrew Derocher

Oil development in the Arctic poses a wide of range of threats to polar bears ranging from oil spills to increased human-bear interactions. As oil development increases in polar bear habitat, there is an increased risk that oil spills will occur. It is probable that an oil spill in sea ice habitat would result in oil being concentrated in leads and between ice floes resulting in both polar bears and their main prey (ringed and bearded seals) being directly exposed to oil. Studies have shown that polar bears exposed to oil will absorb large quantities of oil in their fur. Following oil exposure, polar bears groom themselves and can digest sufficient oil to result in kidney failure, digestive system disorder, and brain damage that ultimately result in death. Other effects include loss of insulation from fur, hair loss, and skin and eye irritations.

Another concern is that seals covered in oil may be a major source of oil to polar bears. The effects of minor and chronic exposure to oil are unclear. The general consensus is that a polar bear population exposed to a large oil spill could suffer widespread mortality sufficient to greatly reduce the population but this is dependent upon the time of year, sea ice conditions, and the area of the spill. Given the low population growth rates of polar bears, a population damaged by an oil spill may take many years to recover. Another concern from oil development arises from exploration methods such as seismic surveys. Studies suggest that polar bears are sensitive to disturbance at maternity den sites. Disturbance could occur both when a pregnant female is selecting a den site and during the winter-spring after the cubs are born. If exploration or development occurred sufficiently close to a den, the mother may abandon the den prematurely or abandon her offspring. It is thought that with careful planning and control of exploration activities, the impacts can be reduced.

The effects of increased ship traffic, pollution from drilling compounds, and the effects of noise on polar bears and their prey are unknown. Ice-breaking vessels may have negative impacts on the breeding habitat of ringed seals but these effects are likely to be fairly localised.

Another area of concern is increased human-bear interactions. Polar bears are often attracted by the smells and sounds associated with human developments. This attraction to developments can increase the number of bears killed in an area. In some areas, special polar bear monitors are hired to scare bears away from oil rigs.