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Mapping the risks of Arctic exploration and development

21 May 2015

“The Arctic is not a monolithic area and the risk picture varies accordingly. Stakeholders therefore need a sound decision basis for understanding the risks associated with Arctic development and transportation”, says Børre Paaske, project manager at DNV GL – Oil & Gas.

Though the risks associated with oil and gas exploration in the Arctic are well documented, experience has revealed gaps in expertise.  Practical knowledge of the complexities, sensitivities and expense of developing large, undiscovered resources in the polar region is localised and limited to a relatively small number of specialists.  To provide a more complete picture, DNV GL has developed an interactive Arctic Risk Map to present the risks associated with offshore and maritime activities in the Arctic.

Companies with an interest in the region have an obligation to educate employees about the harsh and challenging realities of such a hostile, and volatile, operating environment and to share those learnings. Collaboration will be crucial for further safe and successful Arctic development, particularly in the quest to fast track innovation and develop new industry standards to overcome extreme technical and operatonal challenges.

The undiscovered prize

Although oil and gas exploration in the Arctic is not new – oil was first produced in 1968 from Prudhoe Bay on the Alaska North Slope - Arctic development has been minimal as resources were  previously considered commercially unrecoverable.  Now though, there are clear efforts being made to develop new technology for safe and sustainable operations in the region.  The expected trends of increasing energy demand  have already led to a revamped focus on the remaining but substantial hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic. 

A 2008 United States Geological Survey (USGS) report estimated that areas north of the Arctic Circle have 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil (and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids) in 25 geologically defined areas.  This represents 13% of the undiscovered oil in the world.  Of the estimated totals, more than half of the undiscovered oil resources are estimated to occur in just three geological provinces - Arctic Alaska, the Amerasia Basin, and the East Greenland Rift Basins. 

More than 70% of the mean undiscovered oil resources is estimated to occur in five provinces: Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Basin, East Greenland Rift Basins, East Barents Basins, and West Greenland–East Canada.  It is further estimated that approximately 84% of the undiscovered oil and gas occurs offshore. 

Exploration is already well underway in the Beaufort Sea and the West Barents Sea. 

Pioneering preparedness

For industry players to assess the viability of any offshore or marine activities in the Arctic, it is critical to know the risk factors and how they change depending on a variety of parameters, such as location and season.  As a pioneer of risk management in the Arctic since the early days of scientific exploration, DNV GL has developed an Arctic Risk Map to better understand and evaluate potential hazards for offshore and maritime activities.  The map is a free, web-based application and presents complex information in an accessible format. 

Arctic conditions - January & July
Arctic conditions - January & July

It provides stakeholders with a comprehensive tool for decision-making and transparent communications and aims to assist the oil and gas industry evaluate and manage various activities, in specific areas, at different times of the year.  Designed using multiple dimensions, it also details the potential limitations of future activities, such as development and transportation.  It takes into account the seasonal distribution of ice and metocean (physical environment) conditions, sea-ice concentrations, biological assets, shipping traffic, oil and gas resources, and accident history. 

A Safety and Operabilty Index provides a better view of the ever-changing levels of risk in the Arctic throughout the year.  The Index gives a rating to risk influencing factors relevant to Arctic operations and compares this rating to productive offshore fields in the Norwegian Sea.  These fields were chosen as the benchmark because they lie in a harsh but well-known environment where there is nearly two decades of operational experience.

The index shows, for example, that even in the summer, the risk is higher off the north-west and north-east of Greenland than it is in the south Barents Sea in winter.  In July, large parts of the Barents Sea and Laptev Sea and the seas south-west of Greenland experience similar operating conditions to fields in the Norwegian Sea.  The Barents Sea in particular, has the lowest safety and operability index and even in winter, the southern part of the Barents Sea has conditions comparable to the Norwegian Sea. 

The Kara, Chukchi and Beaufort seas - which are most likely to hold significant oil deposits – have a safety and operability index of ‘Severe Arctic Conditions’ for several months of the year.  This obviously means conditions are likely to challenge the safety and operability of offshore and maritime activities.  Conversely, areas around the Central Arctic Ocean and north-west and north-east Greenland present severe operational challenges, even in summer.  These areas, as well as the northern part of Baffin Bay, have severe Arctic conditions for several months of the year.

In terms of environmental risk in the Arctic, the main issue of concern is a large oil spill.  DNV GL has incorporated an Environmental Vulnerability Index into the Arctic Risk Map, which required a careful assessment of Arctic species and their vulnerability to oil spill.  The company’s analysis shows that the Arctic environment is characterised by seasonal variation in environmental vulnerability, and that this vulnerabilty increases in the summer months - a time when industrial activity collides with important life stages for the Arctic’s inhabitants.  This risk tapers off during autumn and is at its lowest in winter.  However, this differs greatly between regions.  Some areas, for example, are particularly vulnerable in winter, when they are used by birds wintering or as spawning grounds for fish.

Due to global warming, the average temperature in the Arctic is increasing twice as fast as elsewhere in the world, and the polar ice cap is retracting. A number of ice dependent species are already under a lot of pressure from these changes, and may therefore be especially vulnerable to additional impacts caused, for example, by an oil spill.


Sea spray icing is one of the many challenges when operating in Arctic conditions. It poses a threat on multiple levels, from blocking the operation of essential components to jeopardising stability and integrity and in extreme circumstances, such as a capsized vessel, a heightened risk to life.

Arctic Risk Map screengrab
Arctic Risk Map screengrab

A number of standards, for example DNV GL’s offshore standard ‘Winterization for Cold Climate Operations (DNV-OS-A201)’, currently provides guidance on mitigating ice accumulation using specified anti and de-icing procedures.  However, the standards available today are general and not site and structure specific; they do not give a specific answer to how and where measures should be implemented.

DNV GL is initiating a joint industry project (JIP) called ‘RigSpray’ to provide a methodology which would link requirements for structural design and the actual environmental conditions leading to icing.  The methodology is to be used during design and winterization giving the basis for the procedural implementation of the requirements when icing risk is acknowledged. 

Despite making headway in addressing the challenge through the ‘MarIce’ JIP last year, where DNV GL worked together with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and Statoil to create the world’s most advanced marine-icing model, further innovation is required to present an accurate representation of sea spray.  The ‘RigSpray’ JIP will firstly develop a software tool to further understand sea spray icing using mathematical modelling and measurements and will undertake more experimental and modelling studies.  This will provide a solid basis for extending local ice estimations to a wider spectrum of metocean and structural conditions, which in turn will lead to safer and more cost-efficient winterization solutions for drilling rigs, production platforms and vessels operating in cold climate areas.

Currently, the Norwegian regulation NORSOK N-003 is being updated and ISO (International Organisation for Standarization) is developing a new standard on the collection and analysis of data for the design and planning of operations in the Arctic.  One of the goals for these activities is to make regulations and standards more specific and provide more information to be used during design and operation of Arctic vessels and offshore installations. 

DNV GL also has a Recommended Practice in development which will provide practical and consistent design recommendations for fixed and floating structures in ice. It aims to provide guidance where existing codes are incomplete, silent or merely provide functional requirements. The Recommended Practice is developed on the basis of independent data analysis and experience from past and current industry projects.

Managing Arctic Risk

Oil and gas exploration in the Arctic is not a new activity and does not have to be high risk.  As industries enter the Arctic, understanding, communicating and managing risks will be essential both to earning social licence to operate and minimising the impacts of industrial activities.  By combining effective risk management with research, continuous learning and cooperation and new technologies, a business can reduce the risk of its Arctic operations to an acceptable level. 

With such high stakes, the Arctic will be a defining frontier – not just of operations, but of safer, smarter, greener technologies and standards.

The Arctic Risk Map is available at

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