On November 13, 45 kilometers (28 miles) off the Galician coast in northwest Spain, amysterious gash suddenly ruptured the tanker's hull.
As seawater flooded the ship and oil started to ooze, its crew radioed a frantic SOS
Alarmed by a looming environmental disaster--the coastal waters are a mother lode for localfishermen, the rugged shore a wildlife haven--the Spanish government ordered Prestige tohalt. Rescue tugs sped to the leaking ship and towed it 322 km (200 mi) out into the open sea.
Choppers airlifted all 27 crew members to safety, but the disaster was far from over. Six dayslater, Prestige split in two and sank 3,500 meters to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Before descending, the tanker shed over half its load, say environmental scientists. The rest--some 37,500 tons--sank to the seabed with Prestige. "It's one of the worst spills ever," saysSimon Cripps of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
The Prestige cleanup effort began immediately. Veterinarians and volunteers rescued oil-smothered birds, while thousands of soldiers and fishermen shoveled gummy oil off thousands of kilometers of coastline.
Will the Galician coastal ecosystem ever recover? What happens to oil trapped in the sunkentanker? And how can scientists and governments prevent such future disasters? Read on.
Q: What kind of oil did Prestige spill?
A: The tanker carried dense, gooey oil used to fuel large ships. "It's the kind that floats real low in thewater, like blobs in a lava lamp," Oil this heavy doesn't readily evaporate or break into droplets--making for a killer cleanup.
Q: What happens when oil oozes into the sea?
A: "Oil is a natural product. You can have a diverse, healthy ecosystem around it." But an enormousoil spill can overwhelm and maim an ecosystem.
All oil spills eventually clear up over time.
The name for this process is weathering. Wind. waves,and sunlight decompose an oil slick into droplets; then microscopic organisms in the sea feed on thedroplets. Light petroleum products like kerosene or gasoline evaporate quickly, disappearing in amatter of days. But unless experts physically remove Prestige's tarlike fuel oil from the water. it willwash ashore and possibly devastate the coastline.
Q: Is there a quick fix to get oil out of seawater?
A: One tactic is to spray a slick with chemical dispersants that split oil into tiny particles so naturalweathering can begin. But that method wouldn't work in this case. Very heavy oils are hard todisperse.Other strategies: Sometimes experts lasso a spill with nets called booms. and skimmer boats suck upthe oil. Or they can set floating oil afire. "Burning the oil removes a lot of it from the surface," Theresulting smoke is similar to that of a forest fire. But the Prestige oil sank 10 to 15 feet below thesurface--out of reach of booms, skimmers, or fire.