07/25/2014 12:52 EDT | Updated 09/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Now Is Our Chance to Protect the Arctic

Keren Su via Getty Images

When I think about oil in the Arctic, I think about the Exxon-Valdez -- about the images of oiled animals, of the dark, ominous slick spreading across the water. When I think about an oil well blowout, I think about the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- about the 86 days it took to stop the oil from flowing, in the best-serviced waters on the planet. The combination of those images and memories creates a profound fear that many of us share when we think of Arctic development.

The risk is very real, but too often our ideas about it are shaped by media images, rather than by information and science. The truth is that we really have very little information about what an oil spill in the Arctic would look like -- where and how the oil would travel, how it would interact with ice, where it would reach important areas for ecosystems and wildlife.

That's what WWF aims to change for the Beaufort Sea region in Canada's western Arctic. Today, we're releasing new research that explores how oil spills from a range of sources would travel through the region, and the likelihood of it spreading different distances.

These results provide critical information to shape decisions on Arctic development, especially when we see how these spills might overlap with key beluga-feeding areas, where the oil might wash up on the shores of communities, and the likelihood that it will cross into American and international waters.

We worked with leading experts to develop this information and used cutting-edge technology that allowed us to map potential oil spills using real-world data. We used proposals from industry to determine the most likely shipping and drilling locations, and compiled measured temperatures, wind speeds, currents, ice coverage and more. The results were hundreds of models for 22 different scenarios -- an incredible amount of information.

The results revealed a number of concerning trends, notably that spilled oil is easily trapped in sea ice, making it difficult to contain and clean up, and allowing it to spread far from the site of the spill -- in some cases the models showed oil reaching Russian shores. The research also showed that oil spilled in Canadian waters could reach U.S. shorelines and affect communities and wildlife there. The bottom line message is clear: even minor spills can have major impacts. We must tread very carefully, and treat any Arctic development with great care and concern.

Equally as important as what the information tells us is what we do with it. WWF is in the midst of traveling to Inuvialuit communities over the coming weeks to present the report to the people who would be most affected by an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea. We have shared this information with key decision-makers in and for the Arctic. We trust that as new development opportunities are considered, this information will help everyone involved understand what could be at risk, and be prepared for both the most likely and the worst-case scenarios.

At a time when a number of international oil companies are considering offshore development in the Beaufort Sea, this information is critical. Everyone agrees that accidents can and will happen -- it's ultimately inevitable.

Now is our chance to get things right, to lay the groundwork for smart, sustainable development that limits the risks to the environment. This is the moment to put our research to work for a healthy future for the Arctic, ensuring that we avoid the damage an oil spill would wreak on this important ecosystem, affecting communities and wildlife.


Global Oil Spills Since Deepwater Horizon