Emerging Issue Summary


  • There is an immediate need to identify the likely range of human activities (e.g., oil and gas development, fishing, and tourism) in the coastal and offshore waters of the North Slope over the next 20 years. The Arctic Council’s “Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report,” the National Research Council’s assessment of cumulative effects from oil and gas development, and various NEPA documents offer reasonable starting points for the prediction of future scenarios.
  • Once plausible scenarios are understood, potential environmental effects should be modeled in a manner that is relevant to decision makers but also recognizes uncertainties inherent in development trajectories.
  • For many issues, a need for arctic-specific baseline information on current conditions (e.g., community composition, noise levels, water quality, invasive species) and risk assessment (e.g., for oil spills, shipping accidents, bird strikes) was apparent, as was the need for this information to be made accessible to the public (e.g., through GINA).
  • Because consideration of cumulative impacts will be important, effective short- and long-term monitoring of human activities and the physical and biological environments will be needed. This monitoring will require development of standardized methods to make appropriate comparisons over time.

U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy in the Arctic Ocean. (USCG)

Overview and Management Relevance:

The NSSI Senior Staff Committee provided the STAP with questions relevant to increased marine activity. These questions are specifically addressed below. Although each question was addressed individually, we discussed a number of other approaches to organizing information contained in responses, for example:

  • type of physical, biological or social driver most affecting each question
  • nature of the questions presented by agency staff (e.g., information gap filling, impact assessment, or mitigation/regulation)
  • timeline of the need for the information (1-3 years, 3-10 years, and 10-20 years).

No single approach was chosen, but aspects of each of these approaches are woven into the findings presented below in association with each question.

We discussed cumulative effects as a general topic of relevance to this emerging issue and others and it is covered in part under Question 3. It is worth noting that practicable short- and long-term monitoring that retains comparability over time will be needed in any approach to assessing cumulative impacts. MMS efforts such as ANIMIDA and COMIDA provide good examples of affordable methods that can be consistently applied to produce relevant results. Similar efforts will be needed throughout the foreseeable future to support any approach to assessing cumulative effects.

However, the whole issue of how to assess cumulative effects is broader than North Slope or even Alaskan concerns. Although cumulative effects analyses are a routine part of the planning process and a large literature describes various approaches to assessing cumulative effects, the subject continues to generate debate throughout the scientific and management communities, especially with regard to the cumulative effects of underwater sounds associated with marine activities.

Any effort to assess cumulative effects should begin with a thorough understanding of the methodological literature on cumulative effects analyses and a thorough knowledge of past work assessing North Slope cumulative effects, including work associated with various National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents as well as work undertaken by the National Research Council. However, unique new ways to assess cumulative effects may be necessary to address North Slope issues.

Finally, some of the questions from the staff were in fact not issues that warranted scientific or technical advice, but rather were issues that needed management action or legal interpretations beyond the purpose of the STAP. The following are the STAP’s responses to individual questions:

  1. In what ways will increased access enable increased development?

    In the absence of restrictive legislation, increased access likely to result from reduced ice cover will enable increased development and increased activity (including, for example, mining and additional oil and gas exploration and development), but the degree to which this is likely to occur is not known. Despite significant challenges associated with forecasting future development trends, there is an immediate need to gain a basic understanding of the likely range of exploration and development and operational scenarios (including energy development, shipping, and tourism activities) in the 1-20 year timeframe. This may be done using economic research techniques, perhaps including assessments of historical trends, surveys, interviews, and workshops, and by drawing from the Arctic Council’s “Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report,” the National Research Council’s assessment of cumulative effects from oil and gas development, and various NEPA documents. Climate drivers should be a part of these considerations. The goal is to understand, to the extent possible, the likely future of North Slope activities so that research can be planned to address potential impacts in a manner that will allow adjustment of regulatory frameworks as appropriate to manage expected impacts. As an example, if shipping activity is likely to increase substantially, then research geared toward understanding underwater sounds associated with shipping, the response of marine mammals and other marine life to these sounds, and approaches toward assessing cumulative effects of multiple sound sources would be justified. All findings would require ongoing assessment and revision as the economic and environmental landscapes change. It should be noted that the North Slope Borough intends to hold a workshop in 2009 to develop a quantitative approach to measuring cumulative effects of industrial activities on bowhead whales. The results of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment and this cumulative effects workshop could be combined to suggest a way forward for research relevant to the management of impacts from underwater sounds associated with shipping.

  2. How will infrastructure expand to serve development and what may be the effect of this expansion?

    As noted above in #1, it is difficult to predict how infrastructure will expand to support development. As a subset of work undertaken to understand likely future development and operational scenarios, more research to better understand methods of predicting the trajectory of economic development, including but not limited to oil-and-gas development, needs to be done. That is, while work moves forward to better understand likely future scenarios, additional work is needed to understand methods of modeling and the information required to populate and interpret the models used to predict scenarios. For example, some models are based on back-casting development patterns. Rather than relying solely on historical trends, a thorough understanding of innovative options for development and their potential cost-effectiveness will be needed. Understanding the effects of expansion will require an interdisciplinary systems analysis considering social and ecological factors. In the short-term—over the next 1-to-3 years—the focus needs to be on predictions of future scenarios and, during that same period, developing methods for improving predictions. Once plausible development and operations scenarios are understood, then the potential environmental effects of development should be modeled and compared in a manner relevant to decision makers. Information needed to feed into the “potential effects” modeling includes informed mapping of sensitive sites and an understanding of how these may change as the climate changes.

  3. What are, and how will we measure, the cumulative effects of increases in various marine activities?

    To best address this question for North Slope offshore issues, a clear definition of what is meant by “cumulative effects,” especially in a changing climate, should be developed, probably through a dedicated workshop with participants capable of considering additive effects, nonlinear effects, nested effects, and other subcategories of cumulative effects. Human health and societal health should be explicitly considered. In parallel with organization of a workshop to better define cumulative effects, an inventory is needed of the existing approaches to cumulative effects assessment. Consideration of cumulative effects assessment should include transboundary issues (political boundaries as well as community and ecosystem boundaries), various development scenarios, a range of climate change scenarios, and interactions between offshore and terrestrial systems. In addition to these efforts, a retrospective study or studies should be done to compare predicted cumulative effects from past Environmental Assessments or Environmental Impact Statements with actual observed effects to learn from past mistakes and successes. Armed with a clear definition, empirical evidence, the inventory of existing approaches to cumulative effects, and information from retrospective studies, simulation models should be developed to identify situations in which cumulative effects are likely to be important. These models should be interactive decision support tools (i.e., useful as part of an adaptive management program) and in this sense they will be different from (but complementary to) cumulative effects assessments that are legally required as part of the NEPA process.

  4. Baseline information is lacking for many categories of information (species, habitats, water quality . . .); to the extent it exists, is there adequate access to the data?

    Despite strong efforts undertaken by agency and industry research programs, environmental conditions in many areas likely to face increased marine activity in the coming years have been sparsely documented. Significant regional programs of data acquisition on current conditions, including data on seasonal and interannual variability, are needed for areas likely to be affected by increased marine activities. Each program should establish priorities that are relevant to regulatory requirements and to the potential scenarios for increased activity. In general, priorities are likely to include collection of climate data, marine wildlife and fish population dynamics data (including abundance estimates and seasonal locations of marine mammals, key fish species, migrating and molting sea ducks, and key invertebrate prey species), habitat mapping, and inventories of human use (both subsistence and commercial). General species inventories may also be warranted to better understand the potential spread of species transported on vessel hulls and in ballast water. Programs should focus on understanding both open water and ice-covered seasonal conditions. All entities undertaking environmental research potentially relevant to public agency decision-making should be required to make data publicly available either directly through or linked to the Geographic Information Network for Alaska (GINA) or comparable databases. Existing information sources should also be more fully accessed and used – for instance, ‘gray literature’ reports by agencies and industry reports.

  5. Will the spread of invasive species increase? If so, which species and which pathways will be important? How can the spread of invasive species be reduced?

    Although information on native species is incomplete and it is not known to what extent significant invasions have already occurred on the North Slope, it is apparent that increasing marine activity coupled with climate change will result in the increased introduction and spread of invasive species. Which species are likely to be important invaders and which pathways are likely to be most prominent are currently not well studied, although some pathways are obvious, such as shipping (through ballast or hull fouling) and the re-use of marine equipment from other locations without sufficient cleaning between uses. Establishment of an adequate baseline, acceptable sampling protocols, and credible monitoring systems are needed. For an Alaska marine example for baseline determination, see the work of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) done in Prince William Sound (available at: http://www.pwsrcac.org/docs/d0032100.pdf). Once a baseline is established, research will be needed to understand risks associated with species invasions. An important component of this will be to establish a cost-effective early detection monitoring network, for example by engaging a network of citizen scientists. These immediate needs should be addressed before significant increases in marine activities begin—that is, within the next one to three years. Potential pathways for species introductions should be identified and inventoried, with initial emphasis on shipping pathways through the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage. Once pathways are identified, species likely to be transported via these pathways should be identified and those species with the greatest likelihood of becoming established should be determined. Methods to prevent transport of species will have to be prioritized on a risk basis, with the majority of effort targeting those species most likely to aggressively colonize new areas and those pathways most likely to facilitate species invasions.

  6. How will oil spill risk for production operations and for transport operations change in the coming years?

    Assuming that offshore development of oil and gas fields moves forward or that shipping activity increases, spill risk will increase. The risk of transport spills (spills from vessels transporting goods, supplies, or products) may be greater than the risk of production spills (spills associated with oil and gas production), at least in terms of catastrophic (rather than chronic) spill events. To some degree, research should therefore focus on transportation risk. Recognizing that spills may include substances other than oil, management and related research should not be limited to oil spills. Probabilities for different sizes of spills of various materials associated with a wide range of activities in different locations should be estimated. Substantial work on spill trajectories is needed, including further work to understand surface currents. A standard risk assessment method should be developed. Risk assessments, including those undertaken during contingency planning, should include consideration of spill response capacity and include consideration of seasonal conditions, availability of personnel and equipment, and emerging methods, especially during severe weather or in broken ice where response capability is limited at best.

  7. How will the ‘acoustic ecology’ change and what is the comparability of prior studies (e.g., Gulf of Mexico versus Arctic)?

    If marine activity levels increase, the anthropogenic acoustic footprint will inevitably increase, especially in the frequency range below 1,000 hertz. Furthermore, as ice cover recedes and ice thickness decreases, ambient sound conditions will change. Understanding ambient sound conditions will be a necessary step toward better understanding potential impacts from anthropogenic sounds. Acoustics and biological work done in the Gulf of Mexico and other regions has very little application to the acoustic ecology of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. This is because of differences in physical conditions that affect sound transmission, in species that occur in the Arctic, and in the degree to which Arctic species have become habituated to anthropogenic sounds. Regionally specific acoustic studies are needed to account for differences in oceanographic, bathymetric, and other environmental conditions, as well as differences in species-specific and situation-specific responses to anthropogenic sounds. To understand reactions to sounds associated with increased marine activity, behavioral studies of migrating and feeding marine mammals are needed. At a minimum, long-term, year-round sound monitoring is needed throughout the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to understand changes as development progresses and as the climate changes (which is likely to result in changes in ambient sound levels as a result of decreased ice cover, increased fetch, and perhaps increased wind speeds and precipitation). The field of acoustics, perhaps more so than most other fields, suffers from the absence of standard methods—effective long-term acoustic monitoring requires development of standard methods. For further information, see the Marine Mammals Emerging Issue Summary.

  8. How will shipping and other marine operations interfere with species and their pursuit by subsistence hunters (e.g., will whale migrations be deflected and whaling access thus be altered)?

    The degree to which increased marine activities will impact subsistence species and subsistence hunters depends to a large degree on the extent and nature of the increased marine activities and implementation of appropriate mitigation measures. At a minimum, increased facilities and vessel traffic will limit access to areas near the facilities and traffic. Increased vessel traffic will inevitably lead to collisions with whales. Regarding impacts to marine mammals important to subsistence hunters, currently available information from studies associated with BP’s Northstar production island suggests that at least some bowhead whales respond to continuous anthropogenic sounds that are slightly above ambient levels by moving away from the sound source or changing calling behavior. Additional data from studies associated with seismic shoots suggest that some bowhead whales avoid impulsive sounds with levels greater than about 120 dB RE 1μPA (broadband) and that most bowhead whales avoid impulsive sounds with levels approaching 180 dB RE 1μPA (broadband). Limited data suggest that ringed seals are substantially less responsive to anthropogenic sound than bowhead whales. Data on other marine mammal species – including beluga whales, walrus, and the various other whales and seals that occur in the Arctic – is limited. Very little is known about long-term effects of chronic exposure to anthropogenic sounds in bowhead whales and other species that occur in the Arctic. In short, existing information suggests that unfettered increases in marine activities will eventually lead to changes in the behavior of some marine mammals that will reduce their availability as subsistence food. Information needed to more thoroughly address the question includes: the current patterns of habitat use by bowhead whales (especially west of Point Barrow) and other species; an improved understanding of avoidance or migration deflection responses for most species; improved understanding of behavioral responses (such as changes in diving patterns in the presence of anthropogenic sound); and improved understanding of the chronic effects of exposure to anthropogenic sound that might change fecundity and growth rates. To some degree, research on bowhead whales and beluga whales should be given priority in recognition of their apparent sensitivity to anthropogenic sound and their importance to subsistence hunters. Additionally, spatially explicit quantitative research focusing on social and ecological interactions is needed to understand subsistence use patterns. “Anxiety studies” should be undertaken to understand industry impacts on the quality of the subsistence hunting experience and way of life. For further information, see the Marine Mammals Emerging Issue Summary.

  9. To what degree will increased marine discharges of pollutants affect water quality (e.g., for prey species)?

    The degree of impact associated with marine discharges will depend on the species exposed and the type, magnitude, timing, and location of discharges, as well as other factors. Research should estimate risk associated with various kinds and quantities of discharges under various conditions, including risks to important subsistence species or their prey. The research should include analyses of the likelihood of reaching various levels for each kind of discharge. Emerging technologies that will limit or eliminate discharges should be reviewed and opportunities for research and development should be pursued that will limit or eliminate discharges and thus reduce the likelihood of reaching levels that can meaningfully harm the environment.

  10. What are the risks from the increasing presence of non-ice hardened cruise ships?

    The suite of risks associated with non-ice hardened ships, such as cruise ships, is similar to other shipping and includes oil spills, spills of other materials, invasive species transfers, loss of human life, capacity for response and rescue, direct and indirect impacts on coastal communities and coastal ecosystems, and potential interference with subsistence, industry, and scientific operations. Incident Management Team exercises could be mounted as a “research tool” to better understand the consequences of sinkings, collisions, or other accidents, and include the consequences for local communities, hunters, researchers, and others likely to be involved in search and rescue efforts. In addition, impacts from shipping in the absence of accidents should be considered, probably as a part of other impact studies.

  11. Will increased activity cause more bird strikes?

    Greater marine activity will increase the number of obstacles present in the near shore and offshore environments and will therefore increase the number of bird strikes. Detailed satellite tracking studies can identify movement patterns of birds and yield insight on areas where collision risk might be high enough to justify mitigation efforts. Bird strikes on existing structures or vessels should be monitored and quantified as a low-cost method of understanding the severity of the problem. Methods to decrease the likelihood of collisions, such as warning lights, should be developed and assessed, perhaps using methods similar to those used in BP’s Northstar Avian Radar Study. Marine mammal strikes will also increase as marine traffic increases (and as marine mammal populations or densities increase).

  12. What are the Law of the Sea implications?

    U.S. participation, or continued non-participation, in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea may affect the legal framework within which marine activities operate, and may even have some implications for the coordination and implementation of arctic studies. However, the STAP does not see this as a scientific or technical issue, but rather an issue best addressed by policy makers and attorneys.

  13. We will need even greater federal/state/local coordination to avoid regulatory uncertainty for activity management.

    It seems reasonable to believe that increased marine activity will lead to a need for greater intergovernmental coordination. However, the STAP does not see this as a scientific or technical issue, but rather an issue best addressed by managers.


  1. As soon as possible and as a first step to understanding potential impacts and management needs, the NSSI should undertake or encourage assessment of the likely range of development and operational scenarios in the 1-to-20 year timeframe.
  2. Once the likely range of development and operational scenarios is understood, environmental effects likely to be associated with these scenarios should be assessed.
  3. In areas likely to face increased development pressure, the NSSI should encourage continuing and new data collection efforts using standard methods. Methods standardization is critical to ensure comparability of data collected over time.
  4. The NSSI should promote requirements to make environmental data publicly available through GINA or similar databases.
  5. While research needs associated with future development scenarios are under development and standard methods are developed, the NSSI should encourage ongoing and new research related to contaminants, anthropogenic sounds, bird strikes, and similar potential impacts. That is, neither the development of likely future scenarios and their associated impacts nor development of standardized methods for use in monitoring should be used as an excuse for deferring research efforts.


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