Boating Safety and Safe Boating Blog

Monday, March 21st, 2011

by Alex Czartoryski

Worst Man-made Seaside Disasters

Humans have been victims of nature throughout their entire existence but as powerful as nature is, man has developed a comparable ability to affect nature. The last 200 hundred years of industrialization have given man the ability to produce on a large scale but also destroy.

As a people, humans now have to deal with disasters caused by nature and by man. The following are some of the most catastrophic man-made disasters to have ever affected the earth.

Gulf War oil spill (1991)

Gulf War Oil Spill

The magnitudes of the disasters on this scale are huge but very few are truly intentional. Most man-made disasters are unintentional and happen as a result of an accident or malfunction (two common excuses for failing the boat exam). In the case of the Gulf oil spill this was not the case.

In 1991, Iraqi forces attempted to stop US marines from landing on the Gulf coast by opening valves in the Sea Island oil terminal and dumped oil from tankers across the Persian Gulf directly into the sea. This caused an oil slick over 100 miles wide and 5 inches thick that covered much of the Gulf. The final tally puts the amount of oil spilled between 6 million and 8 million barrels of oil.

A cleanup on the shoreline was never done and up to 800 kilometres of coastline is still contaminated with oil.

Aral Sea (1960-Present)

Aral Sea

Source: Wikipedia

The Aral Sea is located between Kazakhstan, Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan. Once covering an area the size of Ireland, the Aral Sea has shrunk to less than 10% of its original size within the last 50 years. In the 1960s, the Aral Sea was among the four largest lakes in the world. The rapid depletion of water in this mighty lake is due to aggressive irrigation projects started by the Soviet Union.

The lack of water in the region has completely dashed an economy that largely depended on the fishing industry. This has brought serious unemployment and economic hardship to the region which continues to persist. The human and environmental impact is so great it is considered by most to be one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history.

Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill (2010)

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The much televised BP oil spill is considered the worst accidental marine oil disaster in the history of the petroleum industry. The disaster started when the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit used by BP off the Louisiana coast, began drilling for crude oil at roughly 5000 feet into the bed of the Macondo Prospect. The gas emitted from the well was highly pressurized and shot up the drill column causing the oil platform to explode killing 11 workers and injuring 17.

The now erupting well was spewing 5000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean. After the initial explosion in April, the daily crude oil emissions continued to rise reaching a peak of 62,000 barrels in June. By the time the well was sealed close to 5 million barrels of oil had spilled into the ocean.

Ixtoc I (1979)

Ixtoc I Oil Spill

Source: Wikipedia

Inexperience in deep water drilling and improper equipment were to blame for the Ixtoc I disaster. Pemex, a Mexican crown corporation, began drilling for oil in the Bay of Campeche in June of 1979.

When drilling deep into the sea floor it's vital to maintain equalized pressure throughout the drill shaft while monitoring gas levels in the displaced mud. If the pressure is not maintained oil will overflow and cause the well to explode. In the case of the platform Sedco 135F, this is precisely what happened.

The resulting explosion caused the well to leak 30,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time the leak was stopped in March of 1980 (9 months later), 3.5 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf.

Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989)

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Source: Wikipedia

The Exxon Valdez oil spill is the most referenced of any oil spill to date. It's so well known that all subsequent oil spills are compared to it. The ability of news and media to cover events like this had increased considerably by the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster and this made it by far the most covered oil spill up to that point.

The tanker struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and spilled 750,000 barrels of crude into Alaskan waters. Lack of sleep and an over-worked crew were identified as major factors in the incident.

The clean-up ended up causing more harm than good when in an attempt to remove oil that had collected on the shoreline resulted in the removal of microbes that were breaking down the oil. The scientific community has since come to understand the important role these microbes play during oil disasters and have learned to work with them.

S.S. Atlantic Empress (1979)

S.S. Atlantic Oil Spill

Sometimes these disasters are caused by a combination both nature and human error. In this case of the Greek tanker the Atlantic Empress, a tropical rainstorm was partly to blame. The rainstorm reduced visibility and control which resulted in the Empress colliding with the Aegean Captain.

The original spill was bad (287,000 metric tonnes of oil) but it was made worse during the recovery process. The boat towing the Empress managed to cause the tanker to capsize again off the coast of Barbados which resulted in an additional 41 million gallons of oil spill into the ocean.

Halifax Explosion (1917)

The French cargo ship, the SS Mont-Blanc arrived in the Halifax Harbour fully laden with wartime explosives. While attempting to dock, the ship lost control and collided with the Belgian SS Imo triggering the largest man-made accidental explosion in world's history.

The initial explosion caused 1600 deaths which later rose to 2000 with the resulting fires. A total 9000 people incurred injuries. 500 acres along the shore were completely obliterated. The blast was so powerful it triggered a tsunami 60ft high that crashed back into the harbour. This left close to 25,000 people without adequate shelter during the harsh winter months to follow.

Source: Wikipedia

Halifax Explosion

Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone (1985-Present)

Mississippi Dead Zone

Source: Science Daily

A "dead zone", in oceanic terms, means an area where water has little oxygen. The lack of oxygen makes the possibility of life impossible for most marine creatures. The deprivation of oxygen happens when there is an over-abundance of nutrients in the water. Algae feed on these nutrients and begin to overgrow. When algae die they decompose and it's this decomposition that depletes oxygen in the water.

Farming and other human activities have tripled the nitrogen levels of the water along the coast. These continued activities further expand the Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico dead zone every year. The dead zone is now roughly 8000 square miles.

Great Pacific/North Atlantic Garbage Patches (1985*-Present)

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Source: New Wood

The dumping of garbage in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been an ongoing problem for centuries. The problem has become more severe as humans began producing more non-biodegradable materials like plastics and cleaning products.

Cruise ships are to blame for roughly 20% of the garbage accumulated in these patches while the remaining 80% comes from land-based sources. The garbage patches are estimated to take up between .41% and 8.1% of the ocean's surface.

The plastics degrade in a process called photodegradation and are broken down into smaller particles which are then digested by marine life. The process causes plastic waste to be introduced into the food chain.

*1985 was the year researchers began looking for patches