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|
|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.
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.
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…..