Risk in the Arctic is as diverse as the region itself. The Arctic is home to huge variations in its geography, resources and conditions, creating a highly complex risk picture. In order to plan sustainable development, society, industry and authorities must find ways to build their understanding of the region and make the optimum risk-informed decisions. DNV GL is committed to supporting global stakeholders as they strive to meet these objectives.


The need for effective risk management

Operating in the Arctic does not have to be high risk. Vessels have traded in the region for many years with only a limited number of incidents, while oil and gas activities in arctic conditions have a long and ultimately successful history. 

However, as industry eyes new regional frontiers - with more severe ice, deeper waters and more remote areas – new challenges arise. The key to addressing them lies in a combination of research and a proactive approach. Gathering information and qualifying new and existing solutions is central to future developments, but in areas with larger operational challenges and increased ‘event’ consequences, there is a need for more effective barriers and a structured risk management approach. Key elements within this approach should be, in order of importance:

  • Measures that facilitate safe practices by removing a hazard or an unwanted effect (such as restricting operations in certain areas altogether) 

  • Preventive measures that reduce the likelihood of problems occurring, or reduce the likelihood of a hazard leading to an incident 

  • Consequence-reducing measures that control the effects of an accident 

  • Measures that require external assistance (these should be secondary to measures based on self-support and robust operations) 

Preventive and consequence-reducing measures (barriers) can be of a technical, organisational and human nature. Technical measures should always be guided by clear operating principles.  It is also vital, particularly in rapidly changing Arctic conditions, to keep a continuous overview of the status of hazards, to keep the risk register updated and to actively use the risk analysis in decision making.

Polar bear looking

Key Arctic risks

Arctic operations engender a broad spectrum of risk, requiring a structured and multi-faceted management strategy. The main risks are technical, weather-related, operational, environmental, reputational, and personnel-related.

Technical risks

Some of the major technical risks are due to: 

  • Low temperatures – impacting upon material properties 
  • Sea ice and icebergs – ice loads, ice in waves 
  • Marine icing – impairment of safety equipment, stability issues
  • Atmospheric icing - covering radars, antennas etc.

Weather, communication and operational decisions

Communication is difficult and support is far away. This heavily influences the processes for operational decisions that a captain or platform manager in the Arctic must be prepared to make. The consequences of incorrect decisions are magnified by the region’s remote nature. 

  • Polar lows - strong winds, heavy snowfall and low temperatures  
  • Uncertain metocean data – unpredictable weather forecasts Visibility - fog hampering helicopter operations and ship-to-ship operations 
  • Darkness – making SAR-operations challenging 
  • Reduced satellite coverage – limited communication and positioning above 70 degrees 
  • Remoteness and lack of infrastructure – emergency response, logistics, oil spill response.

Safety risk

It is essential to devise evacuation and rescue procedures and equipment that are suitable for Arctic conditions, ensuring a crew’s survival until external assistance arrives. To further improve safety, the development of emergency-response infrastructure and resources should be a coordinated effort. 

Environmental risk

One of the main issues of concern is a large oil spill – a risk that is increased by greater shipping and oil & gas activity in the region. The extent of the damage would be governed by where and when a spill occurred in relation to patterns of breeding, spawning and congregation of marine environmental resources. Generally speaking, the Arctic ecosystem has a slow reproduction rate, meaning it would require a longer period of time to recover from a spill. DNV GL is of the opinion that all the main options in the response toolbox – including mechanical recovery, dispersion application, in-situ burning and remote sensing – should be considered and assessed in an objective manner.

Reputational risk

Accidents and incidents lead to public attention and brand damage. Good risk management, communication about risk management and general stakeholder communication is therefore essential to safeguard reputation.

Arctic Risk map

Arctic Risk map

DNV GL has developed an interactive Arctic Risk Map to help communicate the risk associated with maritime and offshore activities in the Arctic. The map provides an explanation and visualisation of the main environmental and safety concerns, indicating how risk factors change depending on a variety of parameters, such as location and season. It takes into account seasonal distribution of ice and metocean (physical environment) conditions, biological assets, shipping traffic, oil and gas resources and accident history. It also contains indices for risk levels that affect safety, operability and environmental vulnerability.

View the arctic risk map

Safety Operability

Safety and Operability Index

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

A high rating indicates extreme Arctic conditions that require active measures to reduce the risk to levels comparable with the benchmark. The risk map also allows the user to choose which risk factors to include, in order to understand the impact of each risk factor on the total risk level.

Safety Operations index
Environmental Vulnerability

Environmental Vulnerability Index

The Environmental Vulnerability Index is based on assessments of Arctic species and their vulnerability to an oil spill. The index shows great variations in seasonality and geographic location for oil & gas activities, as well as shipping.

The Arctic environment is generally at its most vulnerable during summer, due to the presence of species at sensitive life stages in combination with the industrial activity that occurs in these months. This vulnerability 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 birds use them for wintering, or fish use them as spawning grounds.

The methodology used to create the Environmental Vulnerability Index can be adapted to study the impact of other environmental stressors, such as habitat disturbance.

Ice Valley

Stepwise approach

DNV GL believes that ensuring safe development in the Arctic requires a ‘stepwise’ approach, whereby operators master the least challenging regions before contemplating developments in higher risk areas.

This implies gradual development in relation to concentration of ice. It is recommended that each of the three environments – no sea ice, seasonal ice or close to ice edge, and continuous sea ice or heavy ice conditions – is successfully negotiated before moving on to the next. This is key to ensuring an acceptable level of risk.

Key measures are:

  • In Arctic areas with no ice the main focus should be on adequate winterisation of assets, search and rescue capacity, and transparency on risk and trade-offs towards the public.
  • When moving into Arctic areas with seasonal ice or close to the ice edge, oil spill response capability in ice should be ensured. Protected areas and seasonal limitations on activities need to considered and should be expected.
  • Before operating in wintertime in areas with heavy ice, an industry standard is needed for ice management, as well as an adequate icebreaker fleet and the technical capability to evacuate personnel in these conditions. 

All three steps require stakeholders to be continuously present and engaged in formal and informal arenas, and to build and create transparency and dialogue about dilemmas, concerns, benefits and how risks are managed in the Arctic.

Continued research and data collection about the Arctic environment and ecosystems for all seasons is also pre-requisite for the management of environmental risk during the development stages.