NASA Earth Observatory image modified by SkyTruth

Cerulean

Cerulean Case Study

Exposing Biodiversity Loss in UK Waters

The climate advocacy organization, Uplift, used Cerulean data alongside ocean advocacy group, Oceana, to reveal how oil and chemicals released into UK waters by the oil and gas industry harm endangered whales, dolphins, seabirds, seals, and cold water reefs. In April 2023, they published a report, In Deep Water, revealing that these species are subject to a constant flow of small oil spills, which has the potential to kill or significantly harm sea life and undermine the ocean’s potential to recover and thrive.

“The impacts of the oil and gas industry on UK waters have been largely unknown or ignored for nearly five decades. By mapping oil slicks hundreds of miles offshore, SkyTruth helped us quantify and visualize the harm being caused and strengthen the case for an end to new oil and gas production in the North Sea.”

The UK has some extraordinarily biodiverse marine habitats, such as deep sponge communities, cold-water corals, and sandbanks. Oil rigs and other oil and gas infrastructure are frequently built in or near some of these, leading to direct habitat loss, which could take decades or more to recover, if at all. The In Deep Water report shows how oil and gas production harms marine life through spills, toxic chemicals, microplastics, and extreme noise pollution. Using Cerulean, SkyTruth exposed the extent of chronic oil pollution from offshore oil rigs in UK waters from space.

According to the report, chronic oil pollution from offshore oil rigs can harm marine mammals through direct contact with oil when swimming, by swallowing oil when feeding in contaminated areas or on oiled prey, or by inhaling toxic vapors at the surface. Some marine mammals may die immediately from these spills, and there is evidence that many species suffer longer-term health impacts including reduced fertility, affecting entire populations and ecosystems. Major oil spill incidents in the Shetland Islands, for instance, including the Braer oil spill, led to the death of at least 1,500 birds and affected up to a quarter of the grey seal population.

Long-term impacts on fisheries can also be significant. The BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill took place during a key time for fish spawning. It was estimated to have resulted in the direct death of between 2 and 5 trillion fish larvae in the area – leading to long-term production losses. In the UK and USA, high PAH levels (chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline) have been found in seafood following major oil spill events, putting consumers at risk.

Oil contamination also causes cardiac arrest and high levels of mortality in blue mussels and horse mussels, two key reef-building species that create productive biodiversity hotspots in UK waters.

Image of diverse coral life in UK waters - Dead Man's Fingers, Polychaete, and common sunstar.
Two Striped Dolphins jump out of the water.
The waters around the UK are home to unique and diverse marine life, like (top) Dead Man’s Fingers soft coral, Polychaete marine worm, and the common sunstar as well as marine mammals like (bottom) these striped dolphins. Photo credits: Uplift.
Oil spill cleanup from above.
An oil spill clean up viewed from above. Photo credits: Uplift.

Oceana and Uplift are calling for an end to new oil and gas production to protect the UK’s vulnerable and unique marine environment, and to tackle the climate crisis by reducing emissions and preserving the sea as an important carbon store. Using Cerulean, advocacy organizations like Oceana and Uplift can hold polluters accountable and inspire action for ocean conservation, climate action, and biodiversity protection.

“The continued burning of fossil fuels is having a catastrophic impact on the world’s oceans and seas,” says the report. “Unless it is rapidly halted, it will lead to the ecological collapse of many marine ecosystems.”