Past Oil Spill Data

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land2341's picture
land2341
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Past Oil Spill Data

My FIL's comments about WWII's tanker sinkings off the east coast of the US made me curious.  During the war,  the general public had no idea how many ships were being sunk right off the coast.  Many people saw ships burning on the horizon,  but had no idea the level of devastation.  

The area around Cape Hatteras was called Torpedo Junction.  There were so many ships sunk there that the Petroleum Industry War Council told Roosevelt that if the tanker losses there in the first quarter of 1942 continued, "There would be no oil with which to fight the war by the end of 1942.  There would be nothing but one giant oil slick from New York to Key West."  

Because the ships came from many companies AND countries,  and because much of it was deemed classified during the war it seems hard to come by a definitive list of sunk or damaged tankers.  I am in the process of comparing lists in chronological order.  I am not counting freighters of any kind despite the fact that freighters also carried fuel for themselves and often fuel in barrels.  I am only counting registered tankers.  

I am only through May of 1942,  starting in Jan 1942.  I have records of 49  sunken, or badly damaged, tankers off the east coast of the US.  49.

They were smaller than those we are accustomed to,  but most were fully loaded as the U boats were targeting fuel.  Most carried between 65,000 to 90,000 barrels of petroleum products.  Even a modest estimate of the lower amount puts that at over 3 million barrels of petroleum products dumped into the Atlantic in six months.   

Call me naive, or simply stupid if you wish,  but I am stunned by the magnitude.  People knew there was oil on the beaches and most knew ships had sunk,  but few knew how many.  

Perhaps my FIL is right.  The sinkings continued at a frenzied pace throughout 1942 and while slowed considerably in later years,  did continue.  (The Navy essentially commandeered all US tankers in mid 1942,  but did not stop international ships which continued to enter the waters without escort for quite a while! )

If anyone knows of a simpler way to find this data than the data mining I am doing please let me know.  I am using the records of the book Torpedo Junction, the Petroleum Industry War Council's minutes and the parts of the Eastern Sea Frontier War Diary that I can get ahold of.  

Assistance would be appreciated as would anyone's thoughts on this.

LogansRun's picture
LogansRun
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Re: Past Oil Spill Data

One item of note as you go through this data:  The oil tankers of the time were mostly carrying refined fuels and/or light crude.  These will evaporate much easier/quicker.  Also, from the accounts that I can remember from doing a similar study on sinking’s in the Pacific (Back when I was in HS), most of the destroyed tankers burned at sea.  If they didn't catch from the torpedo, they were instructed to scuttle the ships with high incendiary explosives that mostly destroyed the cargo/oil/fuel.  If this didn't occur, many many are still on the bottom with their fuel/oil.  And the only ships with the heavy crude were very small merchant ships that would be considered barges in today’s navy.

Thanks for the info though!

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ao
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Re: Past Oil Spill Data

land 2341,

I had a conversation with a WW 2 vet back when the spill first occurred that closely paralleled your conversation with your FIL.  The amount of shipping, both merchant marine and military, that was sunk in WW 2 was staggering as was the amount of petroleum products spilled into the environment yet we see little evidence of it today.  If you read books like Aftermath The Remnants of War, you'll realize the extent of the destruction in France from WW 1 (not WW 2) artillery exchanges and the fact that there were hundred of thousands of acres of land in France that were still fenced off when Aftermath was written with millions of  unexploded artillery shells (of which about 10% were estimated to still contain poison gas).  Nevertheless, life went on.  Also, think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  People live there nowadays.  I know a gentleman who was present at one of the first nuclear bomb tests.  He was just a few miles from ground zero standing completely exposed (while the military and political higher-ups were many more miles away in bunkers).  He said the exposed soldiers were facing away from the blast, had their eyes closed, and had their hands over their eyes.  Most of them had their helmets blown off from the shock wave and he said the light was so bright he could see through his hands (and obviously closed eyelids) as though he had X-rays vision.  Nevertheless, he is still alive and quite healthy in his 80s although he did suffer a bout of thyroid cancer.  Granted, this was a low yield nuclear weapon compared to what we have nowadways but these events are still survivable and not the absolute end of the world.  While I'm in no way dismissing the ecological devastation of these events, the point is that the earth and man are both resilient and although "wounded", both will survive.  A big volcanic blast like Krakatoa is far more devastating to the environment than anything man has produced but life still goes on. 

 

land2341's picture
land2341
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
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Posts: 402
Re: Past Oil Spill Data
LogansRun wrote:

One item of note as you go through this data:  The oil tankers of the time were mostly carrying refined fuels and/or light crude.  These will evaporate much easier/quicker.  Also, from the accounts that I can remember from doing a similar study on sinking’s in the Pacific (Back when I was in HS), most of the destroyed tankers burned at sea.  If they didn't catch from the torpedo, they were instructed to scuttle the ships with high incendiary explosives that mostly destroyed the cargo/oil/fuel.  If this didn't occur, many many are still on the bottom with their fuel/oil.  And the only ships with the heavy crude were very small merchant ships that would be considered barges in today’s navy.

Thanks for the info though!

While I don't argue all of your point,  I have found that many that sunk were later depth charge bombed under the mistaken impression that the image was actually a U-boat.  Divers still visit some of these wrecks and some of them are actually still leaking.  Additionally, there are issues of what the ship was carrying - in one case a "tanker" listed as sunk - indeed was sunken,  but it was a tanker full of blackstrap molasses!  Laughing

Other ships which were not listed as tankers where carrying full loads of fuels.  Then, there is the fuel on board all of the many other ships sunken.  My question now is does anyone know exactly what is the nature of the crude that has been leaking??  Clearly it is crude,  but is it sweet or sour?  I am also trying to track the refineries of the area between new york and Port Arthur,  the number of "dumps" they did during this time were astonishing.  And I found news clippings recommending that people dump used motor oil into streams and lakes to keep down the mosquito population!

It just astonishes me that the war was here,  right off the shore and most people still had  no idea it was anywhere but "over there". .......     The breaks that changed the course of this war were small indeed.  But some were innovation related such as the airborn radar systems. 

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