As climate change speeds up sea ice drift in the Arctic Ocean, environmental disasters like oil spills could take an even greater toll, new research shows.

Arctic ice floes have been accelerating 14 percent per decade since the late 1980s, according to a study published this week in Earth's Future by a team of Columbia and McGill university researchers.

Each year, that acceleration helps push about 1 million square kilometers of sea ice — an area bigger than France and Germany combined — between different countries' exclusive economic zones.

“If you have a Deepwater Horizon-type spill where sea ice is forming, the oil can get into the ice and be transported to another country's waters,” study co-author Stephanie Pfirman, a researcher at Barnard College and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a statement.

As warming temperatures make the Arctic more navigable, the surrounding countries — the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden — are eyeing the region's untapped natural resources.

The Arctic holds about 90 billion barrels of oil, 1.7 trillion cubic feet of gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Most of those resources lie beneath the Arctic Ocean or the surrounding waters.

The “nightmare scenario,” the researchers wrote, is that “when accidents occur, as they have in every major oil-field (Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, etc.), the extreme cold, seasonal darkness, remoteness, and presence of sea ice will make containment and recovery extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

Arctic nations are well aware of how challenging that environment can be — that's exactly why in 2013 the eight-nation Arctic Council agreed to cooperate on oil spills, said Stephanie Pezard, a researcher at the RAND Corp.

“There's been an understanding for a long time that this [type of disaster] would probably affect more than one country,” she said, explaining that the Arctic Council is becoming an increasingly important forum for shaping international policy in the region. Other binding agreements have covered search-and-rescue operations and scientific exploration.

Still, the Arctic Council's agreements have not yet faced a major test, she said.

The researchers also suggest Arctic countries need to do more to protect the coastal waters where ice forms.

“We all know that pollution in a watershed ends up in lakes and rivers downstream,” said Bruno Tremblay, one of the study's co-authors, who holds joint appointments at McGill and Columbia universities. “But I don't think the concept of an 'iceshed' is fully appreciated. The countries around the Arctic are all connected.”

Further warming could potentially shorten ice floes' reach by causing more aggressive melting, the study says.

And depending on fuel prices and technological advances, serious drilling in the Arctic is likely still 30 to 50 years away, Pezard said.

“That doesn't mean that these countries are not setting up claims for the continental shelf, because someday it will be exploitable,” she said. “And the decisions are being made now.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at