The Prestige Disaster and the Weather Connection

Lino Naranjo Diaz
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

18 December 2002

"The Prestige is our Chernobyl" (Spanish Government Official)

On November 13, 2002, a severe storm hit the Galician coast in Spain along the northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Heavy rains and high winds of over 120 km/h were observed over the region, and especially over the maritime area near the Atlantic coast of Galicia. This was not unusual for that time of the year. Autumn and winter in this part of the world are usually characterized by a high frequency of winter storms that have heavy rainfall and high gusty winds, and navigation in this region becomes especially risky. In ancient times, Romans called the northwestern tip of this land "Cape Finisterrae" (End of the World), and in modern times this coastal area is known as "Costa da Morte" (The Dead Coast). Severe storms have destroyed many ships over the centuries. However, November 13, 2002, was special: a single-hulled tank steamer named Prestige, bound for Singapore with more than 77,000 metric tons of fuel oil on board, suffered from the high winds and turbulent sea very near the Spanish coast and began to spill fuel. This was the start of one of the worst ecological disasters ever recorded in Galicia, in Spain, in Europe, and even worldwide. The Prestige was transporting twice as much oil as the infamous Exxon Valdez, which went aground in Alaskan waters in 1989.

Prestige breaking upVarious factors contributed to the increasing magnitude of the disaster, but the most important one was undoubtedly the "weather connection." On November 14, the Spanish government made the decision to move the vessel westward, away from the coast. They believed such a movement would prevent the fuel from spreading to any part of the Iberian coast. However, when the ship began to move away from Costa de Morte, it was surprisingly carried southward toward Portuguese waters, spreading the oil spill into a long "fuel front" exactly to the west, exposing almost the entire Atlantic coastline of Galicia. This was a terrible mistake, because it did not take into account the climate factor. The winds in autumn normally blow from the west, and forecasts from many sources indicated that changes for westerly (eastward-flowing) winds over the area for the next few days was practically assured. As a consequence, "black tides" of highly toxic fuel oil began to reach the coastal areas, driven by high westerly winds during the next two weeks. The oil slick virtually destroyed one of the most beautiful and richest areas for fishing in Europe, affecting the economy and the basis of many fishermen's livelihood. Hundreds of beaches were destroyed, and the wildlife has been severely damaged, which affects the crucial economic activities such as tourism.

Oil on rocky beachAre individuals, institutions, or governments to blame for this environmental tragedy? Searching for reasonable explanations about why weather and climate factors were not adequately taken into account is currently almost impossible. However, some lessons have to be learned. On a national level, Spain did not have a preparedness plan for this kind of disaster. Although these kinds of events are not unusual in Galicia, the magnitude of this event forced the national government to take urgent action. It had to improvise under strong regional pressure and, consequently, obstructed the development of faster relief measures. This increased the chances for making severe mistakes.

For the first time, a "human-made" disaster has had a harsh impact on all stages of Galician social life, and even in all of Spain. The political consequences in the long term are very difficult to predict. The capacity of the European Union (EU) to exert a leadership role in environmental protection, following the US withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol process, has also been called into question. The EU has maintained a very weak policy about ocean transport of dangerous cargo, a policy forced by the economic interests of some EU members.

Satellite image of Prestige oil spillCurrently, the Prestige is an ecological time bomb. Sunk 3,000 meters deep in the Atlantic Ocean, with 40,000 tons of fuel oil remaining in its tanks, it continues to represent a serious threat not only to Galicia, but to other locations in the Atlantic as well. Living marine resources in this part of the Atlantic could be damaged by the toxic waste; fishing industries of several countries could be impacted in a wider sense. The Prestige disaster might, for example, prove to be the beginning of the end for many parts of the rich fishing industry based in Galicia. It is also the beginning of the end of the old EU policy regarding the security of transportation in European seas and coastal areas. In any event, what the Prestige disaster MUST be is the beginning of the end of a worldwide policy that relegates the environment to being held hostage to the economic interests in the name of human well-being. Back home, thousands of Galician fishermen remain at risk, and the world must pay attention.

-- Lino Narajo Diaz

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