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Dogs trained to detect oil spills in the Arctic?

Dogs trained to detect oil spills in the Arctic?

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Oil company Shell is training dogs to 'sniff out' oil spills beneath ice and snow in the Arctic.

United States-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, Shell Oil Company, has taken an innovative approach to the problem of detecting oil spills in harsh terrains -- to be precise, training a dachshund and two border collies.

Drilling for oil in the Arctic is a challenge that companies who wish to remain competitive and claim a share of new reserves face. A recent 'oil rush' caused by warming conditions breaking apart ice fields -- allowing oil corporations more access to the as-yet unexploited resources on the continent -- may entice with rich rewards, but securing the fossil fuel is laden with dangerous challenges.

In light of these issues, Shell has invested in testing and training to see whether animals could be beneficial in navigating across harsh Arctic terrains and detecting oil. The testing and training program was undertaken by Norwegian research company Sintef, and began in 2008.

Where dogs are commonly used in a variety of roles, from rescue operation to drug detection, testing different breeds and their capabilities of detecting smells under ice and snow to work for oil companies is a new avenue for handlers to consider.

The question is -- without the need for heavy-duty, expensive equipment, how can oil companies find out if their drilling activities have caused oil spills in the Arctic, a nightmare scenario that could result in catastrophic environmental issues, as well as heavy fines?

Dogs, with their sensitivity to smells, may be an answer. According to the researchers, the three canine trainees were able to detect the scent of oil up to 5km downwind of a spill -- which means the idea may have some merit.

However, opposing groups do not agree. Greenpeace is one of the main sources of criticism at the idea of drilling on the continent, believing that we do not have the required knowledge or technology to make the idea viable and safe. Ben Ayliffe, Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace said:

"The idea that small dogs can track leaking oil deep under the Arctic pack ice in the middle of winter is absurd. The fact that they are paying good money to seriously use this as an option shows how much they are scrabbling around for a solution."

A spokesperson for Shell told the Guardian that additional research has been conducted concerning oil-detection dogs, but there are no immediate plans to deploy any animals across to drilling projects at the moment.

The first target for Shell is the north-west coast of Alaska, where it hopes to begin drilling this summer.

(via The Guardian)

Image credit: Individuo/Flickr

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure