The risk of collision-related oil spills in the Gulf of Finland could quadruple if vessel traffic continues to increase on its current trajectory, according to new research from the University of Helsinki.
The Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea is already considered one of the world's most dangerous waterways owing to the amount of vessel traffic crossing between Helsinki and Tallinn and the difficulty of navigating the shallows around the many islands along the Finnish coast. In the Arctic winter, darkness and ice make navigation even more challenging. And despite a bleak financial outlook, oil tanker traffic to Russia has continued to increase.
"The likelihood of an oil spill on the Gulf of Finland is higher than average. It is practically a miracle that we haven't seen major accidents yet," says researcher Annukka Lehikoinen from the University's Department of Environmental Sciences.
Lehikoinen is a member of the cross-disciplinary research group at the Kotka Maritime Research Centre. The group has studied the likelihood of different frequencies of hypothetical tanker collisions occurring in the Gulf and how often such collisions would lead to oil spills.
According to the results, the risk of collision-related oil spills could up to quadruple in the near future from the traffic amounts of 2007-2008. This would mean that such accidents would be likely to happen once every 24 years. However, these figures do not include cases where a tanker runs aground on a rock, which is a more common occurrence.
"We need to develop appropriate risk analysis in maritime academic culture. We should adapt the high-quality risk culture of nuclear industry or aviation and support the interests of oil companies to minimise the chance of disaster. In this respect, modelling is vital and we need techniques that learn quickly from all possible information sources," says professor Sakari Kuikka, the head of FEM group in University of Helsinki.
The frequency of accidents presented by the research group are based on observed and predicted traffic amounts on the Gulf of Finland, the number of events where ships encounter or overtake each other simulated from the traffic data, as well as on a model which predicts the likelihood of human error in evasive action.
"However, accidents are always individual cases and result from chains of events where many things go wrong at the same time -not to mention the number of other random contributing factors. We have considered these aspects fairly comprehensively, but there are many factors in the background that we are still in the process of identifying and analysing," Lehikoinen points out.
Lehikoinen admits that evaluating the risk of oil spills is difficult since the topic is so abstract. "I think the value of a model like this is that it can be used to compare the changes to the risk level caused by different events. This model will be further developed and applied to examine a range of risk management measures to help determine the most cost-effective solutions."