Thanks to reduced sea ice cover and ice-free summers, the Northwest Passage has never been so busy. Shipping has increased by 166% since 2004, while cruise ships and tourism have increased by 500 per cent in the past five years. In August 2016, the mammoth ship Crystal Serenity, with 1,000 passengers and 500 crew members, madeitsway through the Northwest Passage, the first-ever attempt of its kind. With this increased activity, the risk of accidental releases of diesel or bunker fuel or other transportation-related contaminants has grown. In addition, climate change has focused attention on Arctic oil exploration and fears of an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.
Current decisions by major oil companies suggest that drilling for oil in the Canadian Arctic is at least a decade away, giving scientists a window of opportunity to develop emergency preparedness plans for future exploration activities that may take place. Marine microbial communities are known for their ability to help clean up, or bioremediate, oil spills in the south, where it is warmer. Drs. Casey Hubert and Gary Stern are leading a team that will use microbial genomics to generate credible, science-based evidence on the role and potential of bioremediation to deal with oil spills in the cold, ice-laden Arctic Ocean.
This work will result in a “Best Practices” document concerning bioremediation of oil spills in Arctic regions that will be shared widely with residents of potentially affected northern communities, various levels of government, non-governmental and indigenous organizations and the private sector.
In addition, the GE3LS research component of the project will include engagement with multiple end-user groups to deliver new tools for informing policy and strategies for oil spill preparedness and response. The research aims to provide useful information for planning of safe ship corridor networks, remove the uncertainty of the costs associated with potential spills, and enhance environmental baselines needed by regulatory agencies. Northern communities and organizations, in partnership with the GE3LS team, will enhance Canadians’ understanding of bioremediation. Policies and strategies informed by the research will enable an improved capacity for environmental protection through safer shipping and oil exploration in the Arctic.