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EU research targets marine oil spills

A new EU-funded research project is developing monitoring and recognition systems to combat pollution caused by maritime transport and other marine activities.

Satellite image of Mediterranean. © Argomarine
Tracking the effects of maritime transport.
© Argomarine

The tragic events in the Gulf of Mexico highlight the vulnerability of our seas and oceans, as offshore oil drilling and maritime transport continue to increase and dramatic oil spills seem to come at regular intervals.

The European Commission is currently funding projects aimed at developing new technologies to mitigate the effects of pollution in our seas and oceans. The 'Argomarine' project ('Automatic oil spill recognition and geopositioning integrated in a marine monitoring network') is one example.

Led by Italy's Tuscany Archipelago National Park, the project is tracking the movements of marine carriers and commercial ships through environmentally sensitive areas. Its ultimate aim is to be able to identify vessels in emergency situations and to protect the marine environment against the risk of pollution.

Gathering evidence

EU project Officer Maurizio Maggiore says Argomarine has already delivered some very interesting satellite images showing the effects of marine traffic in the Mediterranean Sea. "These new technologies allow us to see pollution, especially oil, even in small quantities, on the surface of the water. This includes, for example, effluents that result from ships cleaning out their holds while at sea."

Maggiore says this kind of behaviour is tightly controlled, but restrictions and the level of enforcement can vary. "What we have learned from these images," he points out, " is that ships are crossing into international waters and then washing out their tanks just on the other side of the boundary. As a result, we can see clearly identifiable zones where pollution is being concentrated, a certain very specific distance off the Italian coast in the Mediterranean, for example."

Using the latest monitoring tools

Scene from the Tuscany Archipelago. © Tuscany Archipelago National Park
The Tuscany Archipelago.
© Tuscany Archipelago
National Park

The data being delivered by Argomarine is precise and detailed. Monitoring is carried out by means of sophisticated electronic, geopositioning, and telematic tools joined together via a high-speed network, with data transmission through suitable links. All data is being integrated within a flexible, centralised processing system.

Maggiore says further demonstrations are now planned involving aeroplanes with special instrumentation that will fly over areas of interest.

"This project is making headway on an issue of extreme relevance to both the shipping industry and regulatory authorities, but also to average citizens who are deeply concerned by events such as the recent Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the Prestige shipwreck."