NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology & International Relations

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NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology & International Relations
Marine oil spills: Impact, preparedness, and response

  STIR Team

 Vol 1, No. 17, 08 March 2022

Cover Story

Marine oil spills: Impact, preparedness, and response

By Akriti Sharma

Oil is the dominant source of energy. Continuous production of oil due to high demand leads to increased oil spillage incidents, which can not be completely eliminated due to human errors and natural disasters. The process of extracting, exploring, storage, and transportation result in oil spills incurring major socio-economic and environmental costs. An effective management of the oil spills including prevention, preparedness, and response can help in reduction of spill incidents.

Human life has been increasingly dependent on non-renewable sources of energy including oil, coal, and gas due to their high efficiency. Oil is a dominant source of energy globally. Continuous production of oil leads to an increase in oil spillage accidents which cannot be eliminated due to human errors and natural circumstances. According to Oil Tanker Spill Statistics 2021, by International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF), six oil spills over 7 tonnes were recorded from tanker incidents in 2021. The current rate of medium-large oil spills is less than ten per year. Even though the incidents of oil spills have decreased in frequency and quantity in the past few decades, they still have a high risk involved due to the expansion of the maritime trading and evolution of water transportation. The process of extracting, exploring, storage, and transportation sometimes result in spillage causing socio-economic and environmental loss. 

Crude oil is liquid remains of animals and plants. It is used as a major fossil fuel. After extraction of crude oil, it is refined and used in various products like petroleum, gasoline, paints, soaps, and plastics. Oil spills in the oceans can be due to natural and anthropogenic factors. Natural factors include natural seepage of oil from natural reservoirs of oil in the ocean. It can happen due to erosion of sedimentary rocks and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Anthropogenic factors include leakage during drilling, storage, and transportation of oil. Ships, tanker, and non-tanker accidents, and municipal/industrial waste from the land. Ships and municipal/industrial waste account for more than 50 per cent of the oil pollution in the water.

Impact of oil spill on the ocean

Oil spills can occur both on land and water. The impact of the spill depends on a variety of factors such as volume, type, source of spill, weather, and geographic location. Spills in fragile ecosystems like oceans and polar regions can have irreversible impacts. A single marine oil spill can have both short-term and long-term consequences. In 2010, the deepwater oil spill was one of the catastrophic environmental disasters that had a negative impact on the 180,000 km square of ocean.

Oil spills also affect ocean health. Clean-up measures that include usage of oil detergents, sorbents, and dispersants result in harm to marine life, furthering the ecological damage. Oil spill in the oceans can damage the fragile marine ecosystem in multiple ways.

Marine mammals
Sea mammals like fins, dolphins, whales, and otters depend on the surface layers of water; oil spills affect their survival, often leading to hypothermia. As they undertake most of their activities on the surface layers, they have high exposure to oil and dispersants. Animals that rely on their outer skin for insulation are affected the most as oil can stick on their outer layers affecting insulation. Ingestion of oil by sea mammals can lead to liver and lung damage, and neurological disorders.

Marine plants
Aquatic plants are a major component of the marine ecosystem, oil contamination can affect aquatic food chains. Oil toxicity can lead to altered growth and contraction of diseases in marine plants. According to the studies, mangroves, and seagrass were not having new leaves after oil spill incidents in Alaska.

Sea birds are usually found dead on the coasts after an oil spill incident. As they sustain on the upper layer of the sea which is contaminated by oil, they can directly ingest oil which can be fatal for them. This has resulted in fluctuations in their population and species.

Planktonic organisms, benthic, and invertebrates
Planktonic organisms are a major food of sea mammals and whales. Oil spills due to high levels of toxicity can fluctuate quantities of zooplanktons which can affect the food chain. Ingestion of oil can lead to high mortality rates. Additionally, benthic organisms and invertebrates also intake oil through contaminated food, water, and sediment. Oil affects their ability to metabolise the oil components. Due to their high sensitivity to the oil pollution, benthic amphipods are most affected by the spill incidents and take more time to re-populate and recover.

Coral reefs
Coral reefs are a vital component of the marine ecosystems which harbours aquatic life. Due to anthropogenic activities coral reefs are vulnerable but oil and dispersants can affect coral reefs when they are at an early stage. Oil spill can affect coral reefs with respect to their diversity, species abundance, and habitat. During the clean-up of oil spill, oil detergents and dispersants used are also harmful for soft and hard coral reefs.

Due to exposure to oil, fish may experience fluctuated growth patterns, impaired reproduction, changes in respiration rates. Contaminated fish are not fit for human consumption and can affect the food chain and fish market. Consumption of contaminated fish can adversely affect human health.

Physical and chemical properties of the oceans
Oil and its properties can alter the physical and chemical properties of the ocean affecting various zones and their environment. Littoral zones tend to be affected the most, making it unfit for marine life to exist and normally function.

Coastal areas
Due to oil spill, coastal areas and communities that sustain marine ecosystems face socio-economic fallouts. Coastal communities are restricted from fishing which is their major economic activity. Additionally, oil spill areas are restricted for recreational purposes.

Management of oil spills

Management of the oil spills include prevention, preparedness, and response to the oil spill. After the spill, a timely response can reduce the environmental costs of the spill. Any spill that occurs, undergoes multiple chemical and biological processes which depend on the nature of the oil. Natural degradation of the oil can happen through evaporation, dispersion, dissolution, and sedimentation. 

Oils with more proportion of hydrocarbons take a longer time to degrade. Process of degradation is also dependent on the temperature. At higher temperature degradation happens faster than low temperatures. Large amounts of oil can evaporate in a few days depending on the light or heavy type of oils. Dispersion can happen easier in the rough seas where the oil is instantly released into other water bodies following which it can be degraded easily by the microorganisms. Algae, yeast, and fungus can use the hydrocarbons in the oil to produce energy. Dispersion of the oil can be aided by addition of chemical substances. Dissolution of the oil happens when water soluble particles if the oil dissolve in the water but water-soluble portions usually evaporate. Manual cleaning up of the oil spill is the most commonly used technique to address oil spill which involves various techniques:

Oil spill can be effectively removed from the surface by burning but it requires an effective fire resistant mechanism. However, the emissions from burning can lead to pollution. Additionally, the oil layer should be thick enough for burning. Optimum usage of burning technique can help in cleaning up oil effectively. In situ burning also involves high risk of catching fire in the coastal areas.

Booms act as barriers and are used to restrict the oil to spread further. They help in containing the oil at one place to aid the cleaning process. They can prove to be useful in ecological sensitive areas. However, they are not very effective due to their variability to water current and weather conditions. 

Skimmers are devices that can help in removing oil from the upper surface of water without altering the physical and chemical properties of the ocean. The oil skimmed is collected in a storage vessel. Skimmers are usually used along with boomers to facilitate cleaning. Skimmers are effective when the oil layers are thick but skimmers also depend on the weather conditions like water current and wind speed.

Sorbents are materials that can absorb the oil from spills on water and land. They can be useful for removing the final traces of on surface layers. They can prove useful for areas that are difficult to clean like mangroves and reefs. Sorbents can be of two types- natural and synthetic. Natural sorbents include peat moss and synthetic sorbents are made of inorganic substances. However, excessive use of sorbents can affect skimmers and sinking of sorbents can harm marine environments. Sorbents require an effective disposable technique like landfills.

Dispersants are chemical substances that aid dispersion of oil in water and other water bodies. Dispersants break the oil into small droplets that easily submerge and dilute. They can help protect the shoreline by diverting the flow of oil. Surfactants used in dispersants are water soluble and can dilute the oil to reduce toxicity.

Bioremediation helps in aiding the natural biodegradation of oil in oceans. It uses plants, enzymes, and decomposers to improve the condition of the contaminated marine environment. It helps in creating conditions in which hydrocarbons of the oil are degradable by the microbes. This process enhances the ability of the microorganisms to degrade oil which they intake as food. Bioremediation happens through two approaches- bioaugmentation and biostimulation. The latter is used to enhance the biodegrading capabilities of the existing microbes in the water and the former involves addition of oil-degrading microbes to accelerate biodegradation.

Use of technology can help in monitoring oil spills. Oil spill modelling can help in monitoring oil behaviour and movement. After the spill, there is a need to predict the trajectory of the oil spill and the state of the weathering process which can be efficiently done through computerised mathematical models. Spill models can predict the rate of evaporation, degradation, dissolution, dispersion, and the amount of oil accumulated. Oil spill modelling can aid in both prevention and response to oil spills.

Prevention and preparedness of oil spills can be done through contingency plans for redressal of the spills. It can include action plans, use of technology including remote sensing, creation of databases, assessment of the sensitivity and vulnerability, risk assessment and timely reporting. Oil spill is a complex incident but an efficiently planned contingency plan can be easy to follow and implement. Policy/regulations on oil spills can aid in effective prevention, preparedness and response. Many countries have laws, regulations, and policies to protect the environment, and take actions required for oil spill prevention and response. Effective coordination between international, federal, state/provincial, and local actors is required for the management of the spills.



Oil Spill Pollution Causes,” Environmental Pollution Centers.

Oil spills: A major marine ecosystem threat,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 25 July 2016.

Bing Chen, Xudong Ye, Baiyu Zhang, Liang Jing, and Kenneth Lee. "Marine oil spills—Preparedness and countermeasures." World seas: An environmental evaluation (2019): 407-426.

Dan Wilhelmsson, Richard C. Thompson, K. Holmström, O. Lindén, and H. Eriksson-Hägg, "Marine pollution," Managing ocean environments in a changing climate–sustainability and economic perspectives (2013): 127-169.

S. Othumpangat and V. Castranova, "Oil Spills," Encyclopedia of Toxicology, vol. 3, p. 677–681, December 2014.

How to manage the damage from oil spills,” United Nations Environment Programme.

About the author

Akriti Sharma is a doctoral scholar, School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her PhD thesis is titled “Climate change and the Himalayas: A case for regional governance framework.” Her research interests include climate governance, Indian Foreign Policy and politics of Jammu and Kashmir. 


In Brief
By Rashmi BR and Harini Madhusudan

Climate Change: The recent IPCC report

On 28 February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report titled “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. The report is prepared by the Working Group II of the IPCC, and is part of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report scheduled to be released in September 2022. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership… people and planet are getting hit hard by the climate crisis… its time for urgent climate action.” 

The report released in August 2021 highlighted the physical science of the climate crisis and human influence over the planet whereas the latest report looks into climate change impacts on ecosystem, human settlements, infrastructure, vulnerabilities and risks related to socio-economic development, and a detailed account of adaptation, its feasibility and limitations. 

The report emphasises three broad themes. First,, risk framing which includes risks for the ecosystem and people, emanating from the climate crisis. Second, focus on social justice and equity including climate vulnerability and participation in the implementation of climate actions. Third, role of transformation in meeting societal goals. 

There are four key takeaways of the report. First, the human-induced climate change. The Working Group-I report, August 2021 emphasises on the “unequivocally human influence” on earth’s system. Working Group-II explains the extent of impact on the ecosystem and humans themselves with clear socio-economic consequences- “Widespread, pervasive impacts to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure have resulted from the observed increases in the frequency and intensity of climate and weather extremes… extremes have reduced food and water security, hindering efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goals.”

Second, vulnerability and exposure to climate change. The report notes that the vulnerability factor varies according to the geography, regions combined with the level of socio-economic development, level of ocean and land use, inequity, historical reasons and governance. 

Third, risk mapping. Risks are proportional to the vulnerabilities they are exposed to. A temperature rise of 1.7 to 1.8 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial levels will render half the human population to extreme conditions resulting from heat and humidity, including health risks. 

Fourth, adaptation. Growing awareness about climate change has ensured inclusion of adaptation up to some extent. The report states that at least 170 countries have included adaptation in their climate policies and planning. Adelle Thomas, one of the authors of the report said that “although adaptation is taking place, there is not enough funding, and it is not a high priority”. The latest report is therefore an amalgamation of data proving the climate crisis and emphasises on adaptation and solutions that need to be implemented to slow down further downfall. 

(“Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, IPCC, 28 February 2022; “IPCC adaptation report ‘a damning indictment of failed global leadership on climate’”, UN News, 28 February 2022; “What the IPCC Report tells us about the need for radical climate action”, World Economic Forum, 3 March 2022; Andrea Januta, “Factbox: Key takeaways from the IPCC report on climate impacts and adaptation”, Reuters, 28 February 2022; Matt McGrath, “Climate change: IPCC report wans of ‘irreversible’ impacts of global warming”, BBC, 1 March 2022; Amitabh Sinha, “Explained: Reading new climate report”, Indian Express, 1 March 2022; G Ananthakrishnan, “IPCC sounds another climate warning”, The Hindu, 3 March 2022)

Ukraine: Space X’s Starlink is helping evade web censorship

 On 26 February, two days into the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted to Elon Musk: “While you try to colonise Mars — Russia tries to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.” Elon Musk immediately responded by activating Starlink access to Ukraine and within the next two days, shipments of user terminals reached. An organisation that monitors cybersecurity and the governance of the internet, NetBlocks, revealed that since Russia launched its attack Ukraine has suffered a “series of significant disruptions to internet service.”

Due to the damage to critical infrastructure, Ukraine still requires electricity generators to keep the ‘life-saving services,’ and Starlink online. 

Starlink is a satellite internet company that uses satellites in low earth orbit and beam internet access to areas that lack a working web infrastructure. This is possible even in areas without fibre optic cables or cell towers. To access the internet through Starlink, citizens would need satellite dishes known as terminals. Following a series of cyberattacks on Ukraine, the activation of Starlink provides an essential service for the citizens to stay connected with the available resources. On 3 March, SpaceX sent a Falcon 9 rocket with 47 internet satellites as a reinforcement to the Starlink constellation after expanding the network into Ukraine. Currently, Starlink has launched 2,234 spacecraft, including prototypes and older models which are no longer in service. 

The service of Starlink has never been tested for the context of war. And despite the highlight of the significance and the future potential of the lower earth orbit, the system requires sufficient infrastructure to set up for use. Starlink has been built with the ability to address the gaps in internet adoption and infrastructure access in remote areas that are not served by terrestrial and traditional satellite networks, but the transmitter costs between USD 2000-4000 which would be unrealistic for use during war. On the provider’s side, it would be a challenge to maintain stable signal while dodging potential airstrikes against the ground locations. The Starlink transmission would also be a liability to the users, as it would reveal the locations/movement of the troops. Starlink would remain an industry-defining technological advancement in terms of equal access to IoT-backed devices and sensors, thereby reducing the digital divide. (“Ukraine president says he spoke to Musk, will get more Starlink internet terminals,” The Hindu, 6 March 2022; Loren Grush, “Ukraine engineer talks testing SpaceX’s new Starlink service,” TheVerge, 1 March 2022; Stephen Clark, “SpaceX preps for another Starlink launch as internet terminals arrive in Ukraine,” SpaceFlight Now, 2 March 2022; Nicolas Rivero, “Ukrainians will have plenty of ways to evade internet censorship if Russia takes over, Quartz, 27 February 2022; Tara Copp, “The Air & Space Brief: Ukraine-ISS impact; Fighter jets to Ukraine; Will Starlink save the day? Defence One,  1 March 2022)

S&T Nuggets

By Akriti Sharma and Harini Madhusudan



The UN: Negotiations for global treaty on plastic pollution
On 2 March, 175 countries agreed to draft a global treaty on plastic pollution. The treaty would be legally binding in nature and will address recycling of plastic waste in the world and include curbs on plastic production. The decision was made at a meeting of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. Norway’s climate and the environment minister and president of the United Nations Environment Assembly said: “We are making history today.” The agreement drew heavily from a joint proposal by Peru and Rwanda that was submitted in recent years. Initiating negotiations for a global plastic treaty will help in reducing plastic and restrict its production along with efficient disposal. The countries have to draft the treaty by 2024.(“End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument,” UNEP, 2 March 2022; Helen Briggs, Plastic pollution: Green light for 'historic' treaty,” BBC, 3 March 2022; Hiroko Tabuchi, “The World Is Awash in Plastic. Nations Plan a Treaty to Fix That,” The New York Times, 2 March 2022)

Australia: Floods caused by severe rain
On 28 February, the city of Brisbane in Queensland was severely hit by floods due to record-breaking rains. It recorded 790 millimetres of rain in the past week. The east coast of Australia was already facing more rainfall due to La Nina. The region faced wildfires and extreme weather in recent years due to climate change. Seventeen people lost their lives and thousands of stranded people were airlifted under the rescue operation. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “These are floods that we have not seen in living memory in anyone's lifetime, and even before that. And so I can understand the great frustration [we are] seeing expressed.”(Alice Klein, “Record flooding in Australia driven by La Niña and climate change,” NewScientist, 28 February 2022; “Australia steps up flood relief efforts as Sydney braces for heavy rains,” Reuters, 1 March 2022)

Environment: Bitcoin mining, after China ousted miners in 2021
On 28 February, an analysis on The Verge looked at how the carbon dioxide pollution from the industry of Bitcoin mining has gotten worse. The experts have revealed that the reason for this could be because the Bitcoin miners have substituted the mining process with coal and gas, as against the hydropower used by China. The Bitcoin boom saw many countries place mining bans on the industry but this has not been able to eliminate the fossil fuel pollution resulting from it. The cryptocurrency is said to generate huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and the miners are looking at cheap energy elsewhere. The comparison puts the emissions of the Bitcoin mining industry equal to the Czech Republic. Additionally, the process of the transaction of these coins also leaves tremendous amounts of e-waste, making it unsustainable. (Justine Calma, “Bitcoin is ‘less green than ever’ after leaving China,” The Verge, 28 February 2022)

COVID-19: Report suggests coronavirus originated from China
On 28 February, Nature reported that studies indicate that the virus originated in the Wuhan seafood market. Out of three studies, two studies indicate that the outbreak took place in the live animal market and third study indicate that the virus spilled over from animals that were being sold in the market. The studies are based on genetic analysis based on people who were infected in December 2019 and January 2020. Geolocation analysis of the samples suggested it traces to a market where animals were sold. However, it is not clear which animal the virus spilled over from. According to Nature, a virologist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institutes of Health, Montana said: “Analysis-wise, this is excellent work, but it remains open to interpretation.” In January 2020, China identified the animal market in Huanan as a potential source of the virus before it started showing symptoms.( Amy Maxmen, “New Studies Support Wuhan Market as Pandemic’s Origin Point,” Scientific American, 28 February 2022)

Colombia: Abortion decriminalised with 24 weeks
On 22 February, Colombia’s constitutional court decriminalsed abortion within 24 weeks of pregnancy. Under the new set of rules no one will be prosecuted within the time limit. Many countries in the Latin American region still have stringent abortion laws including Brazil. Many countries have ban on abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Earlier Mexico and Argentina had decriminalised abortion. The ruling came out as a result of lawsuit filed by a group “Causa Justa” whose aim is to remove abortion from penal code. Many women in the country secretly undertook abortions putting their lives at risk.(Katy Watson, “Colombia decriminalises abortion in first 24 weeks,” BBC, 22 February 2022)


Ukraine: War in the public eye due to commercial spy satellites 
On 27 February, it was revealed that the pro bono satellite imagery access provided by private companies like Maxar Technologies and BlackSky has made it easier for the public to seek access to the military buildup and other crucial information related to the war. Maxar Technologies and BlackSky are known for their high-resolution imagery data services. 

In a statement to SpaceNews, a representative of Maxar said: “Maxar has made much of this imagery available to news organizations to support global transparency and combat the spread of disinformation. We are proud of our contributions to the public discourse around this situation and hopeful for a peaceful resolution.” It highlights the reduced dependence on government and a better private sector with collaborative mechanisms. (Sandra Erwin, “Commercial spy satellites put Russia’s Ukraine invasion in the public eye,” SpaceNews, 27 February 2022)

Space: OneWeb halted use of Soyuz due to war
On 4 March, a scheduled launch of OneWeb satellites was suspended after the Roscosmos Director-General said that he would allow the launch only if OneWeb guaranteed its satellites would not be used for military purposes, and the British government divested its stake in the company. OneWeb announced that it would stop using Russia’s Soyuz rocket and is considering American, European, Indian, and Japanese rockets for launching the remaining 220 satellites. OneWeb is partly owned by the British Government and has launched 428 of its 648 broadband satellites with the Soyuz, under a 19-launch contract. (Jaison Rainbow, “With Soyuz off the table, OneWeb back in the mix,” SpaceNews, 3 March 2022) 


India: Automatic collision protection system for railways 
On 4 March, the Railway Minister of India participated in the live testing of the indigenously developed Automatic Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). The TCAS or Kavach includes key elements of the European Train Protection and Warning System, and the anti-collision device carrying the features of the high-tech European Train Control System Level-2. To test the same, the Railway Minister was on one train and the Railway Board Chairman on the other, as the two trains raced towards each other on the same track. The Kavach system has applied the brakes 200 metres apart to avoid a collision. (Avishek G Dastidar, “Kavach, the Indian Technology that can prevent two trains from colliding,” Indian Express, 5 March 2022)

Technology: Cyberattacks on Russian and Ukrainian official websites
On 24 February, parallel to the Russian attacks on Ukraine, there was a series of cyberattacks on the official government websites of both countries. The infamous group Anonymous came forward and announced that they were a part of these hacks. Unlike the other zones of conflict, Ukraine relies on advanced technology infrastructure. Ukraine is seen using the social media infrastructure to reach out to the rest of the world. The ten days of war have seen multiple tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tiktok, Microsoft, Airbnb, and financial systems like SWIFT and Mastercard have to take drastic measures in response to the war. Some platforms are denying Russia access to utilise their services for state-run advertisements and others like Telegram have disabled access to all Russian media from its platform. Though these can be seen as timely responses to the war, the long-term implications of the power held by such technology giants would remain questionable. (Nat Rubio-Licht, Alex Eichenstein, Sara Roach, and Veronica Irwin, “The War in Ukraine is putting tech from companies to governments to the test,” Protocol, 4 March 2022)

About the authors

Harini Madhusudan, Rashmi Ramesh and Akriti Sharma are PhD Scholars at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. 

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