Report reveals environmental impact of Explorer's sinking

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The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition's preliminary report on the environmental impact of the Explorer ship's sinking in Antarctica revealed that the Explorer was carrying approximately 48,870 gallons of diesel and 317 gallons of gasoline when it sank in the Bransfield Strait near the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula.

According to the report, Chilean officials recorded an initial surface oil slick on Nov. 25 and 26 that measured nearly one mile in length. "Chilean authorities deployed an icebreaker to the region and began to mechanically disperse the oil spill," the ASOC report stated.

According to the ASOC, oil spills in icy waters are difficult to treat. "In the case of the M/S Explorer," ASOC stated, "oil is rising from a depth of 1,000 meters through strong currents to arrive under a cover of sea ice. The only thing that can be done for now is to encourage the natural dispersion of the oil by mechanical means, i.e. stirring."

Nevertheless, the report went on to state that over time, oil spills naturally break up from wind and wave activity, but that this process is slowed down by the low temperatures in the Southern Ocean.

As far as wildlife endangerment is concern, the report cautioned that "the high toxicity of gasoline and diesels can have significant impact on wildlife and local environment."

According to the ASOC, Chilean officials claimed that approximately 2, 500 birds, namely penguins, were in and around the site of the Explorer sinking. ASOC stated that physical contact with the oil, toxic contamination by ingestion or inhalation and sea ice pollution could all potentially threaten the local wildlife.

With regards to the clean up and liability, the ASOC questioned who would be responsible.

According to the organization, the Explorer poses a challenge because it is owned by Canadian-based operator GAP Adventures, and licensed in Liberia, and is not part of the national Antarctic program.

"How to address such environmental emergencies in the Antarctic," the report stated, "is left in a legal vacuum."

To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].

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