Skimming the surface of Arctic oil recovery

Crewmembers aboard the Coast
Guard Cutter Healy prepare an ice-capable oil skimmer for testing in the Arctic, July 23, 2017.

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Meredith Manning

The chances of oil spills become more likely as permanent sea ice diminishes in the Arctic and maritime activity increases. As the federal response agency for offshore spills, the Coast Guard is exploring options for recovering oil in the Arctic.

As part of Coast Guard Cutter Healy’s 2017 annual science patrol, a 4-person Coast Guard National Strike Force Team and a member from the Coast Guard Research and Development Center tested the capabilities of the Aqua-Guard Triton RotoX, an ice-capable oil skimmer, in the Arctic.

The RotoX, designed and built in Canada, is a self-propelled skimmer prototype that was designed to collect oil in broken ice which is typically found in the Arctic. It features ice-cutting teeth, 10-inch thrusters and a brush designed to collect oil. The team tested these features in order to evaluate the skimmer’s ability to recover oil if a spill occurred in broken ice to include maneuverability, buoyancy and ice interactions.

“Recovering oil in broken ice is the challenging part,” said Chief Petty Officer Angela Vallier, a member of the strike force team. “We have proven technology in open water and proven technology in packed ice, but those technologies would be inefficient in broken ice.”

Coast Guard National Strike Force members, with support from Coast Guard Cutter Healy deck crewmembers, hoist a self-propelled Arctic oil skimmer after an initial test in the Bering Sea northwest of St. George, Alaska, July 24, 2017. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center often deploys existing oil spill response technologies to better understand the limitations and capabilities, especially in the Arctic environment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Rachel Polish

During the trials, the team discovered that the skimmer easily propelled itself through the ice floes and the thrusters provided ample power. However, the ice-cutting teeth that were designed to chop the ice into small pieces did not work as well as expected.

“The testing of these technologies is extremely important to ensure the capability to deal with an incident is available in the future should one occur,” said Scot Tripp, the chief scientist aboard the Healy during the skimmer trials. “Each time we test a technology, we get a better handle on its capabilities and its limitations.”

The testing of this unit was a joint effort between Coast Guard RDC, Coast Guard National Strike Force, Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska, and Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

The results of the trials will inform future spill response decisions and influence future ice-capable skimmer requirements. The RDC will also share the findings with Aqua-Guard and provide recommendations for improvements.

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