Marine Pollution; Shipwrecks at Risk of Spilling 6 Billion Gallon Oil

Marine Pollution; Shipwrecks at Risk of Spilling 6 Billion Gallon Oil

Marine pollution from sunken vessels is predicted to reach its highest level this decade, with over 8,500 shipwrecks at risk of leaking approximately 6 billion gallons of oil, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The IUCN in its brief said the ocean contains an estimated three million sunken and abandoned vessels, over 8,500 classified as ‘potentially polluting wrecks’. The majority of these wrecks date back to World War I and II (WWI and WWII) and contain harmful chemical pollutants, unexploded munitions and an estimated 6 billion gallons of heavy fuel oil. This is 545 times more oil than the Exxon Valdez leak in 1989 and 30 times that of the Deep-water Horizon spill in 2010, both of which had severe and long-lasting environmental consequences, the IUCN said.


The IUCN brief noted that severe weather events resulting from climate change are likely to speed up the process of wrecks breaking apart. After more than 75 years of corrosion, leaks from sunken vessels are expected to reach their highest levels within ten years. However, scientists do not yet have enough data to forecast when or where individual leaks will occur.


The financial cost of responding to marine pollution from wrecks is prohibitively expensive for developing nations. It is also unclear who is responsible for this cost. Many of the countries most affected were not participants in WWI and WWII, and ships sunk in war remain owned by the country they sailed for under the principle of sovereign immunity.

The lack of data and international cooperation on how to manage pollution from wrecks means many governments do not act proactively to prevent leaks.


A new International Standard needed to determine best practice and classify sunken vessels according to potential environmental, social and economic impacts. 

More research needed to inform the structure of the Standard, specifically on individual wrecks, possible local impacts, and the risk factors that cause wrecks to break apart.

Extending existing research programmes to combine historical data, local biodiversity and economic assessments, and analysis of weather patterns, currents, water salinity and temperature, seismic activity and detailed mapping of the seafloor.


  • Stop pollution spreading by removing it from wrecks and responding to leaks
  • Provide financial support for communities whose livelihoods are affected by pollution
  • Restore damaged ecosystems once pollution has been contained.


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