Oil exploration and production in the Arctic regions has resulted in spills of petroleum and salt water in tundra ecosystems. The transportation and use of refined petroleum in Arctic regions has also led to spills, and the cleanup and ecosystem restoration in these systems can often be complicated by the existence of ice-rich soil permafrost. Compaction, removal, or tearing of the protective vegetation and organic soil can result in thermokarsting and associated changes in plant communities, which may persist for decades. Such problems led the State of Alaska to establish recovery-based clean-up regulations for spills to tundra.
A review was conducted of published literature, government agency spill files, and industry reports concerning spills of petroleum and saline water in tundra regions. A tundra spill database was created, which allows the determination of the spill frequency of refined petroleum, crude oil, and saline water. Refined-petroleum spills are more common and smaller than crude-oil and saline-water spills. Most spills are to wet tundra during winter, and winter spills are more effectively cleaned up than those in summer. In winter, snow contains most spills, frozen soil and frozen water bodies prevent much soil penetration, plants are dormant, and operation of heavy equipment is feasible on frozen ground. The use of fire to reduce the volume of petroleum spills in winter is not recommended. Heat from burning petroleum can melt snow, thaw soil, and allow the penetration of petroleum into soil.