Scientists Warn Massive Red Sea Oil Spill Is Imminent, and It Will Be Catastrophic

Corals in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea (Credit: Maoz Fine)

(CN) — Oil from a decaying tanker in the Red Sea must be removed immediately to prevent an environmental disaster four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, a team of international scientists warned Tuesday.

In a policy brief published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers explained the tanker Safer is an abandoned storage and offloading vessel containing 1.15 million barrels of crude oil that is already seeping into the seawater inlet between Africa and Asia. 

Access to the ship is controlled by Yemen’s Houthis, who are embroiled in that country’s civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

Scientists warn that the Red Sea’s warm-water coral reefs are endangered without swift intervention, to say nothing of the millions of people who rely on the water’s fish to feed themselves.

“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,” said Karine Kleinhaus, an associate professor of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, in a release.

“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,” she said.

The urgent policy brief, “A Closing Window of Opportunity to Save a Unique Marine Ecosystem,” comes weeks after The New York Times reported that the Houthis have agreed to allow a U.N. team to repair the vessel.

The northern Red Sea’s coral reefs are unique because they survive in much warmer waters than current ocean temperatures, which are too high for most coral to tolerate. In contrast, over half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has degraded from marine heat waves caused by climate change.

Originally a Japanese oil tanker, the 45-year-old Safer has been under control of the Houthis since 2015, after which her structural condition “deteriorated significantly,” according to Wikipedia.

In May 2020, seawater breached the engine compartment of the tanker, causing oil spots to appear next to the vessel.

Kleinhaus’ policy brief includes a computer model of how the oil would disperse if the hull is breached during winter, which will spread the crude much farther than a summer breach due to the typical winter currents in that region of the Red Sea.

Despite signs of structural deterioration, access to the tanker has been blocked by the Houthis — prompting dire warnings from the international community.

“Emergent action must be taken by the U.N. 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 team of scientists warn.

“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.”

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