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The only coral reefs predicted to survive climate change are now threatened by an enormous oil spill

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Yemen’s Houthi rebels in Yemen finally gave the United Nations access to a disintegrating oil tanker that threatens the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba's coral reefs and coastal communities. Safer, the tanker, had been abandoned with over 1.1 million barrels of crude oil (four times the amount of the Exxon Valdez) for over five years; the goop is valued at forty million dollars. After years of refusing the United Nations, the Houthi had finally relented to evaluate the damage to the ship. 

Frontiers in Marine Science write:

A massive leak of over 1 million barrels of oil (4 times the Exxon Valdez tanker spill) is anticipated shortly off the coast of Yemen, in the Red Sea, where the Safer floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) is in the final stages of decay. In May of this year seawater breached the single hull and entered the engine compartment (Michael, 2020), while on September 25 a global maritime news outlet reported that Saudi Arabia has detected an “oil spot” next to the tanker (Chambers, 2020). Oil spills are typically emergent events that take governments and conservationists by surprise. The Safer has been stranded and deteriorating off Yemen’s coast since 2015, giving the world the most advanced warning ever of a major oil spill. But this unique opportunity is being squandered.

A 1-million-barrel leak guarantees a regional environmental and humanitarian disaster. Devastation to the health and livelihoods of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea coast would be assured. The air they breathe, the food they harvest at sea, and their water desalination are all at immediate risk. In addition, the oil spill will affect the rest of the international community by degrading a critical global resource. The coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba are understood to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to thrive beyond mid-century (Fine et al., 2013; Osman et al., 2018). Our last chance to pump off the oil in the vessel and stockpile oil booms regionally to contain an imminent spill is quickly disappearing.

Another key consideration for policy efforts is that water has a long residence time within the Red Sea, and the strongest currents driving water into the Red Sea occur during winter. Figure 1 shows results from modeling experiments of oil spill dispersion patterns over 30 days in winter and in summer. The underlying surface currents for these experiments are climatological (Biton et al., 2010). The model is a conservative estimate of the potential dispersal of spilled oil at these different time periods. The affected area is expected to be even larger, as wave-induced turbulence is not accounted for in this model. In addition, when the model was run beyond 30 days even greater dispersion was predicted (not shown). It is clear from the analysis that in winter oil dispersion will extend further north and into the center of the Red Sea as compared to a spill dispersing during summer. Therefore, action should be taken before winter, as a winter spill ensures that the oil will spread further north and will remain trapped for longer within the Red Sea. Secretary-General Guterres and IMO officials should act immediately to secure the livelihood of the Red Sea’s peoples and the world’s largest marine refuge from climate change.

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The New Arab provides additional details on the situation:

Effectively a floating storage platform, the Safer has had virtually no maintenance for five years since war broke out in the country where the Houthis have seized much of the north from the internationally recognised government.

The Yemen government has warned the Safer could explode and cause “the largest environmental disaster regionally and globally”.

Top Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Huthi said on Twitter last month that the rebels want guarantees the vessel will be repaired and that the value of the oil on board is used to pay salaries of their employees.

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Apart from corrosion to the aging vessel, essential work on reducing explosive gases in the storage tanks has been neglected for years. Experts said the latest problem emerged in May with a leak in a cooling pipe.

“The pipe burst, sending water into the engine room and creating a really dangerous situation,” said Ian Ralby, CEO of IR Consilium, a global maritime consultancy which follows the vessel closely.

A team from Yemen's Safer Exploration and Production Operations, a public oil company partly controlled by the Houthis, sent divers in to fix the leak, narrowly avoiding the ship sinking, Ralby said.

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The region's ecology would need over 30 years to recover from an oil spillage of that size, it said in a recent report, adding that about 115 of Yemen's Red Sea islands would lose their biodiversity and natural habitats.

In a country where the majority of people already rely on aid to survive, an estimated 126,000 fishermen, including 68,000 in Hodeida, would lose their only source of income.

IR Consilium said any salvage operation after an oil spill would be greatly hampered by the coronavirus crisis.

“In the midst of a global pandemic and on the edge of a conflict zone, the chances of an early and adequate response are vanishingly small,” it said in a report.

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