The easy answer? No more oil. The reality? Global transportation needs AI to fight oil spills.

The Mauritius oil spill reveals yet another example of how international freight shipping can cause serious harm to critical ecosystems. Using AI to reduce human error is our best hope for a solution.

Busy? Try the speed read.

What’s the situation? A stricken ship has leaked over 1,000 tons of oil over the coast of Mauritius. Experts fear that the ship may soon break in half, which could have devastating effects on the surrounding environment.

How did it happen? It is believed that harsh weather conditions caused the leak.

Who caused it? The cracked vessel, MV Wakashio, is operated by the Japanese Mitsui OSK Lines.

More facts The spill occurred near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems, as well as the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve. There are also mangrove plantations and well-known beaches nearby.

Threatened birds, captive fruit bats, and thousands of plants were removed from a nearby island, Ile aux Aigrettes by conservation activists.

Using technology to mitigate spills

Human error is the leading cause for maritime accidents.

By integrating AI into the complicated world of global transportation, we can reduce and possibly even eliminate the risks associated with long-distance, heavy-duty shipping routes.

AI can…

  1. Use predictive analysis to prevent spills
  2. Expedite response-time
  3. Mitigate risks for clean-up efforts

Bottom line Using AI in shipping and clean-ups lessens the risk of future spills, and reduces the impact of existing disasters.

Dig deeper → 5 min

Daren Mauree / L'Express Maurice / AFP - Getty Images

Breaking down the Mauritius oil spill

A stricken ship has leaked over 1,000 tons of oil over the coast of Mauritius. Experts fear that the ship may soon break in half, which could have devastating effects on the surrounding environment.

UPDATE 8/17/2020: The cargo ship split in two after sitting a few miles off the Mauritian coast for almost a week. Fortunately, most of the oil had been removed from the ship prior to splitting apart.

How it happened

It is believed that harsh weather conditions caused the leak.

Currently, activists are scrambling with make-shift solutions to clean up the oil and minimize damage. Some activists may face fines as they break local protocols for clean-up efforts.

Activists blame their hasty violation on the haphazard government response as groups take a critical first-step toward mitigation efforts.

It is important to note that as activists clean today, the risks for a further spill lingers.

One activist, David Savauge, worked through the night, using a net stuffed with dried sugarcane leaves in an effort to prevent the oil from flooding the island. Savauge hasn’t left the waterfront since the initial spill began.

NGOs have recommended to activists to avoide the dangers of exposure to oil, and instead focus on building booms. For those unfamiliar, an oil boom is a temporary floating barrier designed to contain an oil spill. Responders commonly use oil booms to fight oil spills.

About the ship

The cracked vessel, MV Wakashio, is operated by the Japanese Mitsui OSK Lines.

In response, Japan’s Foreign Ministry has sent over a six-member team from Japan Disaster Relief “upon request from” the Mauritanian government. Not a good look for Japan.

The country had been handling COVID-19, very well, totaling a manageable 10 deaths from the outbreak within its borders. Local officials were planning to get tourism back and running, but this major disaster sets them back months.

Ecological disaster

The spill occurred near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems, as well as the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve. There are also mangrove plantations and well-known beaches nearby. The disaster has caused serious frustration for locals, who depend heavily on tourism and fishing.

Threatened birds, captive fruit bats, and thousands of plants were removed from a nearby island, Ile aux Aigrettes by conservation activists. Before the spill, Mahebourg Lagoon, known for its pristine turquoise waters, had corals growing and marine life returning due to rejuvenation efforts in the area since 2001.

Human error causes most spills

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), spills can be caused by:

  • people making mistakes or being careless.
  • equipment breaking down.
  • natural disasters such as hurricanes.
  • deliberate acts by terrorists, countries at war, vandals, or illegal dumpers.

For the Mauritius oil spill, an equipment breakdown seems to be the most likely cause. The ship operator is pointing to harsh weather conditions leading up to the spill. And in a recent conference in Tokyo, an executive from Mitsui OSK Lines has apologized for the “trouble we have caused”.

With that type of language, we can assume that either there was some form of negligence or human error involved in the equipment breakdown, regardless of impact from sea conditions.

 

So why does it matter how it happened? Well, we can actually use the causes of oil spills to better understand how to prevent them. AI may be the answer.

How AI can prevent future spills

Human error is the leading cause for maritime accidents. By integrating AI into the complicated world of global transportation, we can reduce and possibly even eliminate the risks associated with long-distance, heavy-duty shipping routes.

Think of it like driving a car.

Over 30,000 people die from motor vehicle accidents in the US every year. With new technology, assisted driving in cars allow further safety protocols to reduce the risks associated with drowsiness, fatigue and intoxication. These are all things that shouldn’t exist when humans are operating a motor vehicle, but it happens anyway.

By implementing assisted navigation, AI can determine best routes, avoid harsh weather, anticipate equipment malfunctions, and notify crew members of a potential disaster before the disaster occurs.

Improving response time

As we can see with cars, implementing assisted driving techniques is not a complete solution. Disasters may still occur. This is where AI becomes more compelling. In the case of a spill, AI can help improve response time and mitigate damages.

As we see with the Mauritius oil spill unfolding, every minute following the initial leak matters. The ship is now at risk of breaking in half, which may cause thousands of tons more of oil to seep into the pristine Mauritian waters.

Using applications that use predictive analytics above traditional monitoring capabilities allow ship operators to take a proactive approach to mitigation efforts. In the case of Mauritius, the spill occurred near the coastline.

This is good and bad. It’s good because they are closer to civilization, which warrants a faster response-time. For obvious reasons, this is also bad as it has a harsher impact on the surrounding environment and local community.

Protecting oil spill responders

Artificial intelligence tools can also assist first-responders to evaluate the risks associated with clean-up efforts. Oil spills are dangerous for marine wildlife and sensitive ecosystems, but it is also poses a high-risk for humans. Oil spills are ridden with carcinogens, contaminants and toxins.

As I write this, responders are dealing with this muck first-hand. And the risks are real.

If the ship operator or mitigation teams implemented AI into clean-up efforts, they would be better equipped to protect responders and ensure a more efficient recovery.

Bottom line

I’m as wary of Big Tech and AI as much as the next guy.

My au naturel pro-bio-side remains cringes whenever new technology emerges. I am satisfied with my toys and tools, now leave me and my nature hikes alone.

My rational side, however, understands the potential benefits. As much as advanced technology can harm the human psyche (I’m looking @ you, ig filters), it can also create systems, procedures and behaviors that make the impossible realizable. I’ll have to write a piece on Musk’s Neuralink this week.

Using AI in shipping and restoration will lessen the risks of future spills and reduce the impact of ones that slip through the cracks.

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