New tool helps scientists monitor chronic oil in Arctic wildlife

When we think about the Arctic, most of us think of a snow-covered barren landscape and vast stretches of icy ocean. This is far from the reality of the Canadian Arctic today. With approximately 150,000 people calling it home, this region is certainly not barren.

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. This stark increase in temperature affects wildlife, plants and humans and results in less sea ice, which many predators and hunters use year-round.

The loss of sea ice is also making the North more accessible than ever, thus increasing the probability of major oil spills as ship and tanker traffic multiplies. These spills expose the wildlife to new contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic compounds — the main contaminant in oil spills — which can cause cancer in birds.

This influx of new contaminants in the environment makes it challenging for researchers to monitor their effect on wildlife. After studying ways to monitor the quantity and variety of contaminants in Arctic wildlife, we have created a new tool — ToxChip — to analyze changes in the DNA of animals exposed to oil and solve this challenge.

Increased oil exploration and extraction

Between 1995 and 2015, shipping traffic nearly tripled in the Canadian Arctic due to depleting sea ice. Newly accessible shipping routes, including the Northern Sea Route, cut transit time between East Asia and Western Europe by about 10 days.

The Exxon Valdez tanker discharged over 37,000 tons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, killing thousands of birds and other wildlife.
(AP Photo/John Gaps III)

As the Arctic contains around 13 per cent of the world’s unexploited oil, the race to claim this precious resource is on. Unfortunately, more extraction and shipping in the Arctic will inevitably lead to more oil spills.

The infamous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 discharged nearly 37,000 tons of crude oil into Alaska’s southern coast, killing over 30,000 birds.

More recently, a fuel tank at a power plant released 20,000 tons of diesel into the Ambarnaya river in Russia in 2020.

The main compounds found in oil and petroleum products called polycyclic aromatic compounds, or PACs, can harm birds in the marine environment. When emitted through exhaust or spills, these chemicals make their way into wildlife and plants in the area. They attach easily to fat in animals and can accumulate in them throughout their lifetime.

Birds reveal environmental contaminants

Seabirds are especially vulnerable to the effects of oil, as they feed on the water surface. Oil can coat a bird’s feathers, making them unable to fly or regulate their temperature.

A bird with oil-covered wings
Birds with oil-covered feathers are unable to fly or regulate their body temperature.

Birds also clean their feathers with their beaks, which introduces oil into their digestive system. Oil and petroleum products also affect birds, causing stunted limbs, reduced breeding and population declines.

In fact, there are documented long-term effects on ducks, whose survival rates were lower compared to non-oiled birds for at least 11 years after a spill.

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