Five ships have sunk, so far, in the vicinity of the Kerch Strait, linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, in an incredible storm. One of the ships was a Russian tanker carrying 1,300 tons of fuel oil. Claims are being made that this is one of the worst environmental disasters ever. One of the things that lends significance to this disaster, regardless of how bad the environmental effects are, is the large number of ships that have sunk or have been rescued, and the dozens of sailors that appear to have died. The catch is that this is a result of one of those extreme storms that we seem to be having more and more of all the time. There are those who will always say “well, you can never attribute a single bad storm to global warming… ” Fine. But on the whole, if climate conditions have changed as a result of global warming to intensify storms and/or increase their frequency, then we can not afford to refuse to acknowledge the connection. We simply have to find a way to appreciate the connection if it is there. Denying the link every time there is a big storm is not any longer acceptable.

Anyway, this oil spill (plus the other oil spill going on in California) made me wonder if all the talk the Oil Industry used to spout (prior to Exxon Valdez, that is) about how tankers were going to become increasingly safe and that we really had nothing to worry about, meant that things were actually improving in the world of oil spills. So, I got some data and I have some numbers and pretty pictures for you.


First, I made a spreadsheet of oil tanker spills that I found on the web (see bottom of the post for sources). The table below is based on this spreadsheet. I ignored releases from land-based sources and off shore rigs. I assume that there is a lot of oil spilled that is not on this table. There is a clear increase in the number of big oil spills through time. I don’t think that is because most of the early spills were unreported, but this may be a factor. (I’m also sure there is a study out there that will provide the answers to this sort of question … but I like to have a fresh look at this sort of thing now and then. Feel free to chime in with additional data!)

Year Location, Tanker name, etc. gallons
1967 Cornwall, Eng.: Torrey Canyon 38000000
1976 Buzzards Bay, Mass.: Argo Merchant 7700000
1978 Portsall, France: Amoco Cadiz 68000000
1979 Tobago: Atlantic Empress, Aegean Captain 87000000
1983 Cape Town: Castillo de Bellver 78000000
1988 Saint John’s, Newfoundland: Odyssey 43000000
1989 Prince William Sound, Alaska: Exxon Valdez 10000000
1990 Galveston, Tex.: Mega Borg 5100000
1991 Kuwait: Gulf War 300000000
1991 Genoa, Italy: Haven 42000000
1991 Angola: ABT Summer 40000000
1993 Tampa Bay: three ships 336000
1996 Welsh coast: Sea Empress 19600000
1999 French coast: Erika 3000000
2000 New Orleans: Westchester 567000
2002 Spain: Prestige 20000000
2003 Pakistan:Tasman Spirit, 7840000
2004 Aleutian Islands, Alaska:Selendang Ayu 337000
2006 Guimaras island, The Philippines 530000
2007 Rusian Tanker in Kerch Strait 364000
2007 SF Container Ship 58,000

I’ve listed the data in gallons which required fewer conversions between tons and gallons. Much of the stuff spilled is crude oil, but a lot is heating oil. The conversion between tons and gallons depends on the kind of oil. I used the value of 280 gallons per ton, which I got from a Petroleum Industry site. Almost all the original data were in the form of gallons.

One line in this table requires special note. This is the oil released from tankers off shore by Iraq when Sadaam Hussein thew some kind of tantrum, and it is by far the largest single release, representing 39% of the total amount of oil spill represented on this table covering 1967 to the present. Holy crap.

There are also a few spills where the exact amount is simply not known, and a huge range is given. I guessed at a number about in the middle of the range . Some “spills” involve a tanker going down … all the way down …. to the bottom of the ocean, and we have not seen any of the oil yet. But I’m counting it as a spill because I have little hope that it will actually be recovered.

Which, naturally, reminds me of a story I have to tell you.

One day several years ago, I was visiting, along with Julia, my sister and her husband in California. We were somewhere on the coast south of San Francisco, in a park. Julia noticed a funny looking bird that the rest of us were ignoring. She insisted that we get a closer look, so we did. Strangely, the bird did not fly off when we approached, though it was clearly stressed out. I still don’t know what kind of bird it was, because, as it turns out, it is hard to identify a bird when you are not familiar with the local avifauna and the particular bird you are trying to ID is covered with oil.

We reported the oil soaked bird to the rangers. They investigated. This led them to discover that a boat that had sunk off shore in this area a couple of decades ago had shifted, and was letting out its fuel. Divers went down, a recovery operation was launched. The birds were saved and the oil was secured before it became a major slick.

Several months later Julia was awarded the Governor’s Service Medal, the highest honor allowed under the Constitution of the State of California. OK, I’m only kidding about that part. Julia was never actually recognized for saving California. But now, it’s been blogged, so that’s good.

OK, so getting back to the theme … I have no idea how to conceive of the amount of oil indicated in this table. It totals to either 774,432,000 or 474,432,000 gallons, depending on whether or not you include Hussein’s Hissy Fit. If you put it all in a lake, how big would the lake be? Not very big, it turns out. If you made an oil slick about a cm deep how much would that cover? I figure it wouldn’t even cover New York City. The larger of the two numbers of oil in these large spills over 40 years is about two weeks of consumption globally.

Obviously, the severity of the environmental impact depends on how much of what kind of oil ends up exactly where and under what conditions.

But, we can say something about the data. Look at the table, as well as the graphs. The number of spills in this data set goes up each decade. This may be in part because of differences in reporting, but the magnitude of change is such that this does not give me comfort. At the very least, it belies the constant droning we heard form the oil companies prior to Exxon Valdez about how everything would be fine, and that we should not worry.

i-095fc34f804e2f033a17c3305c3f7820-spills_per_decade.jpg

The amount of oil spilled in these significant events per decade is alarming. It may be, probably is, that the amount of oil spilled as a percentage of what is being shipped around in tankers is going down. Still, this is not what we were promised, and it is of great concern.

i-b3fd53ef8e9978c2ff078b8b5ffb0eb9-oil_spills.jpg

Comparatively, these current spills are small in amount of oil but apparently large in their level of effect. But they may loom especially large in terms of their meaning. The San Fran spill is now believed to have been a human error … they call it a bridge-ship collision, but really, it was a boat crashing into a bridge. That is a reminder of the frenetic pace and huge volume associated with the effort to pour such huge amounts of oil into the system. The Russian spill, caused, along with several other sinkings, by a preternatural storm, is, of course, the latest sign that the end is near…..


Russian oil tanker sinks in Black Sea storm

Human Error Caused Ship-Bridge Collision
Russian Tanker Splits, Spills 1,300 Tons of Fuel Oil

Infoplease: Oil Spills and Disasters

Comments

  1. #1 Serena
    November 11, 2007

    I remember when the Exxon Valdez accident occurred. There was a great deal of news coverage on the incident, and teachers talked about it nonstop in school. I wonder if the more recent spills are getting as much attention. I certainly haven’t seen as much in the news about them.

  2. #2 bigTom
    November 11, 2007

    One issue is how much oil is being recklessly let loose on the environment. Twenty years ago it was recconed that 10-20times as much oil was being released to the environment by people changing their acrs oil, draining the old oil into a sewer or on the ground than all the major oil spells. It may well be that the large numbers of very small events outweigh the damage of the few large newswrothy events.

    In any case, the “devils excrement” has been a pretty serious degrader of the environment, its amazing that the first oil wells (in Pennsyvania) were selling the oil as medicine.

    More and more people (including now some oil executives), are now saying peak oil has happened, or is about to happen, so we will probably be dealing with decreasing amounts of the stuff in the near future.

  3. #3 Kristjan Wager
    November 12, 2007

    Greg, there is an error in the ‘Human Error Caused Ship-Bridge Collision’ link.

  4. #4 Lassi Hippel�inen
    November 12, 2007

    You could have included the Shetlands spill, even though the 85’000 tons of crude oil didn’t do much harm – yet:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13818791.400-shetland-oil-spill-did-little-harm-.html
    “This oil will slowly break down, but little is known about the ecological implications of this process.”

    The big spills are only the tip of an iceberg. Much oil ends up in the seas via bilge water. Not much at a time, but since practically every ship contributes, the total amount must be pretty high.

  5. #5 Rob
    November 12, 2007

    I liked the post, but the first paragraph (and the title) really gets on my nerves. Scienceblogs seems to be turning into a political advocacy stream. If there’s a post showing evidence for (or against) a link between human activity and storm severity, then I’d love to read it. If a post hypothesizes such a link and explores possible solutions, then that’s also terrific. But “Global warming is terrible…and now something completely different:” adds nothing to the discussion beyond painting scientists as political advocates.

  6. #6 DiscoveredJoys
    November 12, 2007

    I can remember watching the Torrey Canyon story unfold (on black and white television, the world wasn’t in colour then). I particularly remember the aeroplanes carrying out bombing runs to set the oil on fire (it didn’t work).

    One thing that has changed since then is the improved technology available to collect or disperse the floating oil. Still better not to spill it in the first place of course.

  7. #7 greg laden
    November 12, 2007

    Rob,

    What are you, a global warming denier or something?!?

    But seriously, yes, the link between storm activity and global warming is tricky, but I don’t think it is that tenuous. It is theoretically very well supported. On a planet where weather is all about the movement of heat from tropics to poles, warming the atmosphere is going to have this kind of effect. It would be astounding if it was not true. But it is an area where a lot more work needs to be done.

    As to my efforts in a particular blog, sorry, I can’t really accommodate. I can’t provide proof or even detailed discussion of everything I refer to in any one piece of writing. I don’t see how I would do that.

    But, it is an interesting topic that I hope to write about in detail over coming weeks or months!!!!

  8. #8 OriGuy
    November 12, 2007

    One note, that doesn’t detract from your main point: The ship that crashed into the Bay Bridge was not a tanker, but a container ship traveling from Oakland to China.
    (The label in your graph does mention that.) The thing about this is that while such ships carry less oil, there are many more of them. Also, while tanker construction has improved in recent years, that may not be the case for cargo ships.

  9. #9 greg laden
    November 12, 2007

    Ori,

    Some of the other cases are also, I think, non-tankers that ran into each other and made a bit mess.

    I’d like to have another run at the data, updating the table and graphics, etc. I may also convert everything into barrels of oil, as that is the unit that use related stats are expressed in. I suspect the press likes to use gallons partly because it can be claimed that people know what a gallon is (though they don’t) and partly to make the number look larger.

  10. #10 Ian Gould
    November 13, 2007

    On the other hand, here in Australia the prolonged drought (which is likely linked to climate change) is forcing some coal-powered power stations to shut down as they run out of water for their turbines.

    So it’s a partially self-correcting problem.

  11. #11 kim
    November 13, 2007

    Any idea of the ratio of naturally released hydrocarbons to accidently released? Those tar balls on the beach may have arrived there without the intervention of man.
    =============================

  12. #12 Lassi Hippel�inen
    November 13, 2007

    Gallons? Barrels? Are they hat sizes in Texas?

    The world is metric. There is only one corner of the world that still clings to imperial units, even though it claims to be the oldest republic.

  13. #13 Karst
    November 13, 2007

    The graph of spill events per decade needs fixing. Your table seems to give values of one (60′s), three (70′s), three (80′s), seven (90′s), and seven (so far this decade). And what happened to the y axis labels?

  14. #14 Tim Slagle
    November 13, 2007

    “if climate conditions have changed as a result of global warming to intensify storms and/or increase their frequency, then we can not afford to refuse to acknowledge the connection.”

    The trouble is, the sceince is still out on that connection. Even though the IPCC report said that a connection between AGW and storms is “More Likely than Not” they footnooted that remark with: ” Magnitude of anthropogenic contributions not assessed. Attribution for these phenomena based on expert judgement rather than formal attribution studies. ”

    Which means there is no consensus on the link between storms and AGW. To infer there is a link is somewhat disingenuous and Apocalystic. Granted you gave yourself a big out by using the word “If,” but your headline certainly suggests otherwise.

  15. #15 Monado
    November 14, 2007

    As long as we ship oil around the world’s oceans, there will be spills and collisions and sinkings and releases of oil into the environment. It’s only a matter of when and where. The only way to stop it is not to ship oil. Yet each event is spoken of as an unexpected disaster.

    In addition to accidental spills, ships that run on Diesel oil dump some of it. Farley Mowat spoke of sailing in the Atlantic and finding contaminated from one side to the other by blobs of thick “Bunker C” oil.

    Is there any way to mitigate them? Shipping lanes through sensitive areas lined by floating booms all the way? Unlikely. Staying away from “sensitive” areas? Not always possible. Generate electricity and ship that? Too much change in the infrastructure. Find renewable resources? We need to get to work on that!