- Electric car batteries and tanks of oil and gas now lie at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, around two miles down and 230 miles from the Azores islands.
- The Portuguese Navy is breaking up a small oil patch on the surface of the water, and so far, no other pollution is visible. At this point, Portuguese authorities don’t know the condition of the wrecked cargo ship, but continue to monitor the site.
- A deep sea ecologist is concerned about the environment around the ship, which supports many forms of marine life.
Thousands of cars, lithium-ion batteries, oil, gas, and an entire cargo ship now litter the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. On March 1, the car carrier Felicity Ace sank beneath the waves near the Portuguese Azores archipelago. Now, ecologists are worried that pollution from the wreck will impact the rich undersea environment the carrier has invaded.
The ship, carrying thousands of vehicles to the United States from Europe, caught fire about two weeks before it listed to one side and sank about 200 nautical miles (230 miles) from the Azores. Its position on the Extended Continental Shelf puts it out of Portuguese jurisdiction, according to the international Law of the Sea Convention. In other words, this region of seafloor is far enough away from land that no country can automatically take over its management.
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Felicity Ace sits 3,000 meters (1.9 miles) below the ocean’s surface. Upon impact, the wreck definitely affected the sea floor and all of the organisms that make their home there, deep sea ecologist Ana Colaço tells Popular Mechanics.
Her work at the Institute of Marine Research at the University of the Azores focuses on deep-sea habitats around the islands. “The most important thing to know is that the deep sea is not a desert,” she says. “If the ship is on soft sediment, there are sea cucumbers, crustaceans, and worms that live on this seafloor. There may be sponges and corals. Of course, there are fish of several kinds—the diversity of the deep sea is very high.”
When the ship went down, it was carrying 2,200 tons of fuel, 2,200 tons of oil, and up to 4,000 vehicles, some of which carried electric car batteries, the Associated Press reported the day after the sinking. Hardly any wreckage remained above the surface, but tug boats were using hoses to break up a small oil slick at the site. Portugal has been keeping a Navy vessel and an Air Force plane on site to monitor for further signs of surface pollution.
The Felicity Ace Incident Information Center reported that it would continue to observe the water surface with satellite photographs and respond quickly to any changing situation. The statement on March 14 added that it is “unlikely that a large-scale oil spill will occur” and that the oil patch is dissipating and is expected to disappear.
What’s needed now are undersea vehicles with cameras and instruments to dive to the wreck and assess its condition, including the tanks of oil and fuel. Chances are, if the tanks are full of liquid, they won’t burst from the water pressure at that depth, Colaco says. But leakages depend on so many factors, such as whether or not they were damaged in the fire or during the sinking.
Authorities tried to salvage the flaming ship before it sank, cooling down the hull with ocean-going firefighting equipment. The Portuguese Navy rescued the entire crew the day of the fire, which may have started with the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles on board; the exact cause of the fire is still unknown, though. The fire went out before the sinking, while salvage crews were preparing to tow the ship toward shore.
Ideally, the most dangerous parts of the wreck—the electric car batteries and tanks of oil and gas—would be extracted and brought safely back to shore, but that’s a dream at this point, Colaco says. It would likely be prohibitively expensive, and it’s not clear who would manage such a huge operation.
If nothing toxic leaches into the water, there’s some chance of turning the structures into an artificial reef in the future. Today, we know very little about the condition of the wreck, Colaco says. All authorities can do at this time is watch, wait, and hope.
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