Tag Archives: Red Sea

In the Red Sea, an oil tanker rots — it could create the largest spill in human history

The Red Sea is at risk of becoming an oil-drenched waste, according to a new paper. It draws attention to the need of removing an abandoned, decaying tanker from the sea that holds approximately one million barrels of oil.

Image via Pixabay.

The ship, named quite ironically the “FSO Safer”, was employed as a floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) for several years before being abandoned due to the Yemeni Civil War. Now it’s essentially a floating, derelict oil container. Although no longer in use, it still carries around one million barrels of oil, which is four times as much as spilled from the Exxon Valdez in the infamous 1989 spill. Removing the tanker before its current seepage can turn into a full-fledged oil spill is critical for the health of local marine ecosystems and the communities they support.

The study follows on the coattails of an announcement on November 24th that the Yemeni Houthis will allow a United Nations (UN) team to board, inspect, and repair the vessel in the near future.

Biggest oil can

“The time is now to prevent a potential devastation to the region’s waters and the livelihoods and health of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea’s coast,” says Karine Kleinhaus, MD, MPH, an Associate Professor of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University and lead author of the paper.

“If a spill from the Safer is allowed to occur, the oil would spread via ocean currents to devastate a global ocean resource, as the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba are projected to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to survive the coming decades.”

The paper calls for the removal of oil currently held inside the Safer before a spill occurs. It outlines a policy brief required to do so, and has been authored by an international team of researchers.

The Safer started its life as the Esso Japan in 1976 and was converted to an unpropelled storage vessel in 1987, acquired by the Yemeni government in 1988, and anchored off the coast of Yemen. Rechristened as the Safer, it was used as temporary storage for oil extracted in the area awaiting export. In 2015, when Houthi forces took control of its surrounding coastline, they also in effect took ownership of the vessel. Due to a lack of proper maintenance, the Safer’s structure suffered extensive wear and tear over the following years.

Storage ships typically use inert gas chambers to prevent combustion of oil or oil vapors on board, and the Safer was no exception. However, its advanced level of deterioration means that some of its gas chambers have likely vented by now, posing an explosive risk. The aging metal plates could also give way, leading to a massive spill. The Safer still holds an estimated US$80 million worth of oil onboard, some 1.14 million barrels. Its value has thwarted any hope that the Houthi forces and Yemeni government would reach an understanding on how to proceed with the ship (as both parties claim rights over the ship and its cargo).

Leaks first started being reported around the Safer in 2019 through Al Jazeera, although subsequent satellite imagery found no signs of oil spills. Still, the risk is very real. The Houtis granted permission for a UN team to board and inspect the vessel in the near future, as announced by The New York Times on November 24th of this year.

The Red Sea is a unique environment, so I’m very happy that they did. Coral reefs in the sea are particularly at risk from any spills, and they’re different from reefs anywhere else. Corals in the Red Sea have adapted to survive in higher temperatures than anywhere else. Researchers have pinned much hope that these organisms can be used to seed reefs throughout the world that are currently dying due to global warming (such as the Great Barrier Reef, for example). Communities in all countries bordering the sea also rely heavily on its wildlife for food and income, and the Red Sea is a hotbed of biodiversity. A spill here would cause immense damage to nature and people.

The current paper used computer simulations to estimate the impact of a spill from Safer. The projections show that it would spread massively during winter due to local current patterns, and less in summer. On simulations with longer run times, the oil would spread farther away from the ship, suggesting that the issue could grow out of hand quickly if allowed. Especially as it’s winter right now.

According to the authors, seawater breached the Safer reaching its engine compartment in May 2020, and there have been reports of associated leaks.

“Emergent action must be taken by the UN and its International Maritime Organization to address the threat of the Safer, despite political tensions, as a spill will have disastrous environmental and humanitarian consequences, especially if it occurs during winter,” the paper notes.

“With millions of barrels of oil a day passing through the Red Sea, a regional strategy must be drafted for leak prevention and containment that is specific to the Red Sea’s unique ecosystems, unusual water currents, and political landscape.”

The paper, titled “A Closing Window of Opportunity to Save a Unique Marine Ecosystem,” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Volcanic twins of the Red Sea: Sholan and Jadid

We tend to think of the planets as static, enduring, and never changing. With the average human life spanning only decades, we can be forgiven that the dimension of time in which geological processes take place goes a bit over our heads. However, recent images captured by satellites showing the birth of two volcanic islands published in a study by Nature Communications are a powerful reminder that the Earth is a planet alive under its crust as well as above.

We’re gonna need a bigger diaper.
Image via arstechnica.com

The two islands, named Sholan and Jadid formed during volcanic eruptions in the Zubair archipelago in 2011 and 2013, respectively. They provided an excellent opportunity for scientists to study a rare and not fully understood phenomenon: the creation of land by submarine eruptions. Only a few such eruptions have been witnessed since the emergence of Surtsey Island to the south of Iceland in the 1960s.

Using high-resolution optical satellite images, the study charts the rapid growth of the new islands during their initial eruptive phases and how their shape changes as the waves wash over their coasts: they are being eroded fast by the waters of the Red Sea, one of the islands losing over 30% of its surface in just two years.

The southern part of the Red Sea is a new ocean-to-be, forming as tectonic plates spread apart at about 6mm per year. Under its waters a range of mountains created by volcanic eruptions, an embryonic mid-ocean ridge, forms at the point where these two plates’ boundaries are closest. The structure spreads following the system that feeds the eruptions, magma-filled cracks called dykes.

Tectonic spreading, with magma rising to the surface and mid-ocean ridge formation.
Image via www.divediscover.whoi.edu

Seismic activity similar to that recorded during the islands’ formation has also been recorded in the past, but without emersion of new land. Scientists suggest that this is caused by underwater eruptions or the formation of new intrusive structures in the crust (such as dykes), suggesting that this area is more volcanically active than previously thought.

Looking at the satellite captured images and data pertaining to ground deformation geologists discovered that while the islands measure in at about 1-km in diameter the dykes are at least 10-km in length. This is similar to other areas where spreading takes place, such as Iceland, where geological activity becomes focused around a few vents as the eruption progresses, supporting their claim that active tectonic spreading is taking place in the area.

Sholan and Jadid’s creation has provided scientists with valuable insight into geological processes, but perhaps more importantly, their birth reminds us that the ground underneath our feet was born, lives and one day will return to the earth. It’s alive. Just like us.