The Arctic is the next—and perhaps last—frontier for the oil and gas industry. With up to a fifth of the world's remaining reserves, it's the single largest untapped region, and a potential boon for companies struggling to make big finds elsewhere.
The question is whether drilling can be done safely. The industry points to hundreds of deepwater wells that have gone ahead without a hitch. Environmental groups gesture at BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and, before that, the Exxon Valdez disaster. Given the Arctic's harsh, unpredictable environment, it's only a matter of time before something goes wrong.
To illustrate a recent report pointing out the risks of Arctic exploration, the World Wildlife Fund has put together this interactive map tool. It's based on research from RPS Applied Science Associates, a consultancy that specializes in environment damage analysis, and it lets users model the impact of 22 separate scenarios. These include four types of spills (like a shipping accident and a deep water blowout), and variables such as time of year, flow rate, and types of emergency response.
Click on one of the spill types, then hit play and watch the disaster unfold over the next few weeks. You can also look at maps showing contamination probabilities for surface oiling, shoreline impact, and subsea pollution. And you can add in "layers" for a range of wildlife (such as beluga whales) and human developments, like areas claimed by the Inuvialuit first nation.
The maps are based on historic wind, water and ice circulation data, according to WWF, and factor in wave turbulence and the effect of dispersants and sunshine.
In a blog post, WWF Canada president David Miller says the research shows the need for "great care and concern" in any drilling efforts.
"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," he writes. "The research also showed that oil spilled in Canadian waters could reach U.S. shorelines and affect communities and wildlife there."
There's no doubt the Arctic holds great riches. But then, as the maps show, the dangers are pretty great as well. Hopefully WWF won't be pointing to its tool next decade, saying "we told you so."