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With recent increased interest in oil and gas exploration and development in the Arctic comes increased potential for an accidental hydrocarbon release into the cryosphere, including within and at the base of snow. There is a critical need to develop effective and reliable methods for detecting such spills. Numerical modeling shows that ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is sensitive to the presence of oil in the snow pack over a broad range of snow densities and oil types. Oil spills from the surface drain through the snow by the mechanisms of unsaturated flow and form geometrically complex distributions that are controlled by snow stratigraphy. These complex distributions generate an irregular pattern of radar reflections that can be differentiated from natural snow stratigraphy, but in many cases, interpretation will not be straightforward. Oil located at the base of the snow tends to reduce the impedance contrast with the underlying ice or soil substrate resulting in anomalously low-amplitude radar reflections. Results of a controlled field experiment using a helicopter- borne, 1000-MHz GPR system showed that a 2-cm-thick oil film trapped between snow and sea ice was detected based on a 51% decrease in reflection strength. This is the first reported test of GPR for the problem of oil detection in and under snow. Results indicate that GPR has the potential to become a robust tool that can substantially improve oil spill characterization and remediation.

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This document was originally published by Society of Exploration Geophysicists in Geophysics. Copyright restrictions may apply. DOI: 10.1190/1.3312184