Microbiology for Oil Spill Preparedness in Canada’s Arctic

Reduced sea ice cover and ice-free summers have led to dramatic increases in maritime shipping through the Canadian Arctic. Increased industrial activity brings increased risks of accidental releases of diesel or bunker fuel and other transportation related contaminants. Climate change has also focused attention on Arctic oil exploration and attendant fears of an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. Significant oil reserves are estimated to exist in the Arctic, although recent decisions by major oil producers signal that drilling in the Canadian Arctic is not imminent.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated the power of microbial genomics including advanced technologies such as metagenomics. This contributed important understanding of oil spills, including the phenomenon of sinking oil in “marine oil snow” and demonstrated the potential for biodegradation at low temperatures in the cold deep water of the Gulf.


In the Canadian Arctic Ocean similar low temperature microbial activity would be needed for microbial biodegradation to mitigate the negative effects of a spill of oil, diesel, or bunker fuel in the ocean. Are these microbes present in the Canadian Arctic and are they similarly poised to respond to a spill? The Gulf of Mexico has many natural hydrocarbon seeps that are potentially ‘priming’ its marine microbiome for an oil degradation response. Is there a similar priming effect in the Canadian Arctic, where the number of known hydrocarbon seeps is fewer? How similar or different are oil-degrading microbial communities in seawater and sediment, which may reach temperatures down to -2°C, compared to sea ice where brines can reach -20°C?
The Geomicrobiology Group is investigating these questions by combining genomics and other omics with in situ sampling of Canadian sea ice, seawater and sediment. These samples are also used to set up mock oil spill experiments that are assessed for changes in microbial community structure and losses of oil or fuel compounds using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. We also use temperature gradient blocks to test temperature effects, and work with sea ice microbial habitats where liquid brines offer microbial habitats at temperatures down to -20°C.
Geomicrobiology post docs and grad students together with undergraduate researchers have collected several samples on field campaigns aboard the Arctic Research Foundation vessels RV Martin Bergmann and RV William Kennedy, and about the Canadian Coast Guard research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen. On these expeditions we get to work closely with oceanographers from other Canadian universities and government departments, as well as international collaborators. We also get to spend time in Arctic communities and have worked with northern residents in aspects of our research.



Key study sites have been off the coast of Labrador in the Labrador Sea, in the Northwest Passage close to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, home to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), and in Hudson Bay including its NW region close to Churchill, home to the Churchill Marine Observatory where mesocosm-scale experiments that expose seawater and sea ice to crude oil and other contaminants can be performed.

Research outcomes interface with the complex milieu of economic policy development and learning around emergency preparedness and oil spill response in Canada’s Arctic waters. Ongoing engagement and interactive exchange of knowledge between scientists and different end-user groups includes residents of potentially affected northern communities, different levels of government including regulatory agencies, non-governmental and Indigenous organizations, and the private sector. The Geomicrobiology Group’s research on Arctic oil spill microbiology is and has been funded by ArcticNet, the Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP), Canada’s Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) network, and Genome Canada.