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Geography in the News: Arctic Dangers to Oil Platforms

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Appalachian State University

 Shell Oil’s Grounded Platform Confirms Worries About Arctic Oil

The Arctic Ocean is a formidable foe to ships, even in the summer. Nonetheless, oil exploration continues despite the dangerous conditions created by wind and ice floes, particularly in the winter. Concerns by Alaskans and Canadians have been expressed often about the exposure of oil platforms and pipelines to extreme Arctic weather conditions, but the recent grounding of a Shell Oil’s floating oil platform has heightened concerns.

The platform called the Kulluk is one of  Shell Oil’s two arctic platforms, according to the New York Times. The Kulluk was being towed back to Seattle from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands when the tug and platform encountered a Northern Pacific storm. The Kulluk broke away and grounded with more than 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants. Although there is no sign yet of leakage, constant motion created by wind and tides may yet weaken the hull. This accident points out just a few of the problems with pumping and transporting oil in and around the Arctic Ocean, especially where ice floes create an even greater danger than just wind and waves to ships, oil platforms, storage facilities and pipelines.

The North Polar region is the Arctic Ocean, whose surface is mostly a relatively thin mantle of sea ice. Normally no thicker than about six feet even in the winter, this ice is frozen mostly from ocean water with some snow.

During the winter, sea ice covers almost the entire Arctic Ocean, with the exceptions of a few temporary open areas of water called “leads” (pronounced leeds). During the summer, the ice thins and may melt along the edges of the continents and islands when the land warms.

Such generalizations, however, belie the fact that large slabs of sea ice, called “floes,” move with the wind and are capable of slamming shut hundreds of yards (or meters) of open leads in minutes. The power of these floes is enormous because of their size and mass.

The collision of two ice floes, one propelled by the wind against another anchored to shore, typically drives up huge pressure ridges of ice. These ridges, sometimes rise to 30 to 50 feet above sea level and consist of large pieces of broken ice in a jumbled mass.

These powerful jaws of ice can easily crush an unlucky ship caught in a closing lead. Should a ship survive a lead slamming shut, it may be caught in the ice pack for weeks or months. Sailing ships’ numerous attempts to find a Northeast Passage often ended in disaster when they were crushed in the ice. Finally, Swede Nils Adolf Eric Nordenskiold’s steam powered whaling ship luckily made it through in 1880 after surviving a winter trapped in the ice.

Current tanker and icebreaker technology is clearly inadequate to battle the Arctic Ocean’s winter sea ice. The hapless Kulluk stranded off Kodiak Island might have been in even at greater peril if ice floes were also involved. One loaded oil tanker, a floating oil derrick or pipeline crushed by Arctic ice floes would result in an environmental disaster of monumental proportions.

And that is Geography in the News.

Authors are Neal Lineback, Professor Emeritus, and geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Read more than 700 of the 1200, full-length Geography in the News articles posted weekly in the K-12 online education resource at demo.Maps101.com, including supporting materials and critical thinking questions.