The "Prestige" will probably remain as one of the most famous sinkings in recent years, and undoubtably one of the most photographed. She finally sank beneath the waves on November 19th 2002, after the Spanish government had refused to allow her to be towed into a port for repair. It is argued that, had they done so, the pollution that will now afflict the Galician coastline for many years, may have been avoided. It was a routine voyage for the oil tanker Prestige in November 2002--until it glided into a savage storm. The 26-year-old ship, bound from Latvia to Gibraltar, hauled some 77,000 tons of heavy, tarlike fuel oil.

On November 13, 45 kilometers (28 miles) off the Galician coast in northwest Spain, a mysterious 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 local fishermen, the rugged shore a wildlife haven--the Spanish government ordered Prestige to halt. 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 days later, 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," says Simon Cripps of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. The Prestige cleanup effort began immediately. Veterinarians and volunteers rescued oilsmothered 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 sunken tanker? 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 the water, 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 enormous oil 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 the droplets. Light petroleum products like kerosene or gasoline evaporate quickly, disappearing in a matter of days. But unless experts physically remove Prestige's tarlike fuel oil from the water. it will wash 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 natural weathering can begin. But that method wouldn't work in this case. Very heavy oils are hard to disperse. Other strategies: Sometimes experts lasso a spill with nets called booms. and skimmer boats suck up the oil. Or they can set floating oil afire. "Burning the oil removes a lot of it from the surface," The resulting smoke is similar to that of a forest fire. But the Prestige oil sank 10 to 15 feet below the surface--out of reach of booms, skimmers, or fire.

Q: What happens to oil that reaches the coast? "When oil washes up on beaches, people just shovel it up. "It's not a high-tech thing." In this case, the affected coast is a mix of rocky shorelines and nearly 600 sandy beaches. "We went to places where the oil was a meter thick," Shigenaka says. After people have mopped up the "black tide," nature will weather remaining oil on the surface. Q: How has the oil spill impacted the region? A: It's hard for scientists to predict the extent of the ecological damage. But they're looking at the aftermath of the worst oil spill in U.S. waters for clues: Oil patches left over from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster still release toxins that harm Alaskan sea life--from fish and birds to land mammals. It's going to take a long time for the oil to be gone and for the effects to go away Oil from Prestige has already killed 200,000 seabirds of 71 species, says the British Trust for Ornithology. As for fishing--Galicia's economic backbone--"a lot of fisheries shut down," says Shigenaka. And the wrecked tanker oozing oil at the ocean bottom threatens the entire marine food chain, as oil particles pass from tiny microbes called zooplankton to the small fish that eat them, and so on; even tiny amounts of crude oil can damage fish eggs and embryos, according to a National Marine Fisheries Services study. Q: Will the oil sit in Prestige forever? A: At first, that was the idea. "There was hope the cold temperature in the ocean depths would solidify the oil," Shigenaka says. Instead, the oil has thickened into a gel that steadily seeps into the water. As a temporary fix, a French mini-submarine patched 17 of 20 holes in the tanker. "But ultimately the hull will rust through,". That's why scientists are urging the Spanish government to use underwater robots to pump remaining oil out of the ship's tanks. Although the remedy could prove daunting in 3.5-km-deep water, research teams are exploring strategies. Q: How can we prevent future spills? A: For starters, oil tankers need to be upgraded. Old tankers like Prestige contain one layer of metal separating the cargo from the ocean. The new "millennium class" oil tanker has a double hull, offering greater protection against spills U.S. and European Union laws now require all new tankers to feature double hulls. But as experts point out, even the best crew in the safest ship can run into trouble. "This is not the first tanker disaster and it will not be the last," To meet the planet's 3-billion-gallon-per-day oil habit, fuel is shipped, piped, and trucked around the globe. Are there energy alternatives? Turn the page to find out. Maths Prestige was carrying 77,000 tons of oil. About how many barrels is that? How many liters? Use these figures to help you:

1 barrel = 160 liters 1 ton = 7 to 9 barrels (depending on the oil weight)
Critical Thinking: In response to the Prestige disaster, the European Union plans to introduce tougher penalties for marine polluters--upping the severity from monetary fines to criminal sanctions. When a tanker spills oil, who should be held responsible and how should they be penalized?

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful