Unpredictable ice and bad weather could make it nearly impossible to respond to a spill on the scale of what was seen in the Gulf a year ago.
While the waters aren't as deep as those in the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon well blew, an oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating.
More information is needed about ecosystems in the Arctic before drilling begins, groups argue, to identify critical areas for protection.
Shell plans to begin drilling in the Alaskan Arctic in 2012.
The seas at the top of our planet are home to beloved marine mammals -- walruses, whales, seals and polar bears -- as well as to legions of migratory birds and some of the world's most productive fisheries. They provide large portions of the diets of the four million people who live in the Arctic. But they are also the site of growing pressure to drill for oil and gas.
As the anniversary of the start of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout arrives, some are looking north and warning that an Arctic oil spill would leave us even more helpless than last year's 87-day disaster.
In a commentary last week in the journal Nature, Susan Murray of the advocacy group Oceana and Jeffrey Short, lead chemist for Alaska and the federal government for the Exxon Valdez spill and formerly of Oceana and the National Marine Fisheries Service, highlighted that as bad as the Deepwater Horizon spill was, in some respects, it was a best-case scenario.
"It was one place in the world where preparedness was top-notch," Murray said. "They had the equipment nearby, onsite to deal with the spill and yet it was still woefully inadequate."
Meanwhile, in the Alaskan Arctic, the nearest Coast Guard station is 900 miles away and landing strips and ports in the area are nearly non-existent, Murray and Short noted.
"It's cold. It's dark. The conditions are generally nasty. The visibility is terrible. In those conditions, even if you had the best of the best preparedness, what are the chances if you had a spill you'd be able to do something about it?" Murray said.
Even in summer, when seas are relativity ice-free, weather can move ice around in unpredictable ways, making areas impossible to access. In the summer of 2010, during a seismic research expedition, it took five days evacuate someone with a medical emergency because of unexpected ice, Short said.
"If that were an oil spill, it's all over," he said.
"[The Deepwater Horizon spill] is comparable to having a heart attack while standing in the waiting room in a major New York City hospital," agreed Lisa Speer, who directs the International Oceans Program at the National Resources Defense Council. "In contrast, a spill in the Arctic is like having a heart attack in the middle of the Gobi Desert."
"If we can't deal with a major spill in the best-prepared areas and in the most amenable environmental conditions," she added, "how are we going to deal with a catastrophe in the Arctic?"
BP, which has programs in the Russian and Canadian Arctic, cites experience in drilling in the region and under Arctic conditions, as does Royal Dutch Shell, which plans to begin drilling in the Alaskan Arctic in 2012.
According to a Shell document titled "Preventing and Responding to Spills in the Alaskan Arctic," they have drilled 32 offshore wells in the Alaskan Arctic.
"We understand that one of the biggest concerns among those opposed to Arctic development is the possibility of an Arctic oil spill," the report reads. "Shell's approach to exploration and development minimizes the chances of a spill, and Shell has put a comprehensive program in place to clean it up and mitigate its effect in the unlikely event a spill does occur."
"The North Sea, where tens of thousands of wells have been drilled, has some of the worst offshore weather in the world, and we have experience of ice-constrained seasonal drilling from Sakhalin (far east Russia), and seasonal seismic from (Canada's Beaufort Sea)," BP press officer Robert Wine told Discovery News. "Planning is important: Onshore Alaska, winter is the time when you can drill and safely move equipment over the frozen ground; offshore, of course, the summer is better.
As for the fate of oil in an Arctic spill, Short and Murray write that, as with the Deepwater Horizon, some oil would evaporate and much would be degraded by microbes within a year. But some could settle on the sea floor, contaminating that ecosystem, and buried masses could remain for decades, they said.
"A blowout during autumn would spill among growing ice floes," they wrote, "spreading contamination further than it could be tracked and concentrating oil in the ice holes through which marine mammals breathe."
If oil couldn't be tracked, it could be devastating for people who fish in the area, especially for the indigenous Arctic population, poised to be most affected. "Once you can't tell people where the oil is, they assume it's everywhere and they start making decisions based on that." Short said. This could lead people to stop their traditional fishing practices, for instance.
According to U.S. government estimates, the Arctic could harbor about one-fifth of the world's undiscovered petroleum resources, about 84 percent of that offshore.
Most drilling in the Arctic would be at depths less than about 1,600 feet, unlike the nearly 5,000-foot-deep Macondo well that erupted in the Gulf of Mexico.
Murray and Short recognize that development of Arctic oil fields is likely, but argue that before it is started, a better understanding of Arctic ecosystems is needed, including potential biological hotspots such as migration routes or spawning grounds that deserve priority protection.
"I think what should happen is to take a time-out and figure out how this ecosystem really works because the odds of you being really able to stop it, are really, really low," Murray said.
This is especially true, they and others note, because the Arctic is already under extreme stress from climate change: warming temperatures, melting ice and acidifying oceans. An oil spill would only add to that, they said.
Climate change also complicates the political situation. "We have this lid of ice that has essentially acted to prevent development in most of the area. Now that the lid is lifting, we're realizing that the regulatory system that's up there is just not sufficient," said Speer of the NRDC.
An opportunity to address this is coming soon, she and others noted. Unlike Antarctica, which is managed by an international treaty signed by 46 countries, the Arctic is governed solely by the Arctic Council, comprised of representatives of the eight Arctic nations plus indigenous groups. The council will meet in May for its biannual meeting.
"I think it is extraordinarily important what happens at this May ministerial meeting," said William Eichbaum, Vice President of Marine and Arctic Policy for the World Wildlife Fund, U.S.
"The Arctic Council have a tremendous opportunity to step up to the plate and say: 'We're not just going to say we're going to be responsible. We're going to demonstrate that we can do the things that show we are responsible,'" Eichbaum added. "If they don't do that, they may well find that the rest of the world is not going to be satisfied with that level of a response and the license to roam freely might be retracted."