Scientists anticipate a massive leak of over one million barrels of oil — four times greater than the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 — in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
The danger comes from the Safer floating storage and offloading unit, which is in the final stages of decay. The Safer has been stranded and deteriorating since 2015, giving the world the most advanced warning ever of a major oil spill.
Can anything be done to prevent this catastrophe?
In a policy brief published on December 15 in Frontiers in Marine Science, a team of international researchers from Israel, the United States, Germany and Switzerland warns that the health and livelihoods of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea coast will be devastated if the Safer’s decay is not addressed immediately.
The potential spill could also destroy the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, considered to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to thrive beyond mid-century.
“Coral reefs line almost all 4,000 kilometers of the Red Sea’s coastlines and also surround multiple islands within it, so that oil spills in any part of the sea threaten these valuable ecosystems,” said Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University’s Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science, who co-authored the policy brief.
“Action must be taken now. The window of opportunity to save a unique marine ecosystem is quickly closing.”
There have been recent reports of minor oil leakage from the vessel. Researchers say that danger is increased in the winter because currents disperse oil more widely.
The UN International Maritime Organization has deployed experts to develop a risk impact analysis and contingency plans to improve management of emergency response operations in the event of a spill from the Safer.
However, the Houthis — a political and armed movement in northern Yemen — control access to the Safer tanker and have repeatedly denied UN requests to board the vessel to take the necessary steps to prevent a spill. Access has been granted but the UN must act quickly to bring the Safer crisis to an end.
“Immediate international intervention is needed to prevent an imminent humanitarian and ecological disaster,” said Karine Kleinhaus of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, a co-author of the policy brief.
“Emergency action must be taken by the UN and its International Maritime Organization to remove the oil, despite political tensions in the region,” she adds.
Looking beyond the imminent danger posed by the Safer, the authors write that with 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products passing through the Red Sea each day, 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 policy brief’s additional authors were Prof. Hezi Gildor, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yael Amitai, of the Israel Oceanographic & Limnological Research Institute, Prof. Anders Meibom of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and Prof. Christian R. Voolstra of the University of Konstanz in Germany.
Last March, Fine and an international group of researchers called on UNESCO to recognize the Red Sea coral reef as a Marine World Heritage Site so that it can continue providing food, livelihood and a source of natural medicines to over 28 million people living along its coastline in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
(Edited by Annie Yanofsky and David Martosko)
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