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Flames envelop the Sanchi oil tanker on 13 January.Credit: China Daily/Reuters

Flames envelop the Sanchi oil tanker on 13 January. Credit: China Daily/Reuters


The Inertia

Remember when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, sank, killed 11 crewmen, and vomited colossal amounts of oil into the sea? Of course you do, even though it was eight years ago. You know why you remember it? Because it was heavily covered by the media, and it was all you heard about for a long, long time. Well, there’s something happening that could be on-par with the scale of that disaster, but you might not even be aware that it’s happening.

Back on January 6th, an Iranian oil tanker called the Sanchi smashed into a Chinese cargo ship in the East China Sea. It caught on fire, burned for a week straight, and sank eight days later, killing all 32 crewmembers aboard and spilling its contents into the ocean. But the Sanchi wasn’t carrying regular old crude oil like the Deepwater Horizon or the Exxon Valdez. Instead, it was full of 136,000 tons—about one million barrels—of natural gas condensate, a super light, super expensive petroleum product that barely needs to be refined before use. A condensate spill of this size has never been seen before, and researchers studying the disaster are stumbling blindly along without a map. See, spills like the Deepwater Horizon and the Exxon Valdez, as horrible as they were, are nothing new. We’ve been making horrendous mistakes like those since we started ferrying oil all over the world. The impacts of regular oil spills have been well researched and well documented, and scientists know what to expect and what needs to be done. A condensate spill of this magnitude, however, is uncharted territory.

“This is charting new ground, unfortunately,” Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska professor in Anchorage, told Nature. “This is probably one of the most unique spills ever.”

Now, weeks later, the spill has spread throughout the East China Sea. It’s thought to be a little bigger than Paris, or about 50 square miles, which, as far as oil spills go, isn’t actually all that big. Here’s where it gets a little tricky: it could actually be much larger. Condensate is “colorless, partially soluble in water, and only liquid under certain conditions,” which makes it pretty damn hard to gauge how much of it is out there and even harder to clean up. While heavy crude oil sits on the surface and creates those massive, glistening slicks, condensate doesn’t accumulate on the surface, nor does it sink. Instead, it evaporates over time, leaving its chemical components adrift. “Most oil spills have a chronic toxicological effect due to heavy residuals remaining and sinking over time,” says Ralph Portier, a marine microbiologist and toxicologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, to Nature. “This may be one of the first spills where short-term toxicity is of most concern.”

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The wreckage of the Sanchi, which sank in nearly 500 feet of water, is probably still leaking. It sits fairly close to a current known as the Kuroshio current, or Black Tide, which is similar to the Atlantic Gulf Stream in that it carries warm, nutrition-rich waters to currents that circle the globe. “It will definitely be possible to detect some pollution particles from the Sanchi along America’s west coast in the future,” said Zhu Xiaohua, a researcher at the Second Institute of Oceanography, State Oceanic Administration in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, to the South China Morning Post.

With any luck, the spill won’t make its way into those global currents, because that would not be a good thing… depending on who you talk to. Guan Weibin, an offshore biology researcher, thinks that would be the best possible outcome. “If the Black Tide can carry the remaining oil spill to the Pacific Ocean, it will be good news,” he explained. “A million barrels sounds like a lot, but it is negligible compared to the size of the Pacific Ocean.”

Still, though, most researchers are worried about the damage that will occur to the marine ecosystem. “The critical thing is to understand that when we put hydrocarbons into the oceans through events like this, it’s going to affect a wide range of animals,” Jessica Meeuwig, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Western Australia said to CNN.

Worse still, there doesn’t seem to be much being done. Officials in China don’t seem to have started any form of real environmental monitoring. Government statements have been released with the results of water-quality tests in the Sanchi‘s immediate area, but not much else. “Time is of the essence, particularly with a volatile substance like condensate,” Steiner says. “They needed to immediately be doing plankton monitoring, and monitoring of fish, seabirds,” Rick Steiner concluded. “I’ve seen no reports of any attempt to do that.