The risk of oil spills off European coasts has been assessed

A study by the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country proposes a risk index to measure and compare the vulnerability to spills faced by European coastal regions

  • Ikerketa

First publication date: 07/07/2017

A statistical index warning of the relative risk of oil spills at sea which could affect certain coastal regions, proposed by a researcher in the UPV/EHU's Department of Econometrics and Statistics, warns that European countries on the Atlantic seaboard are facing increased risks in comparison with coastal countries in other European waters. It is a tool that could help to design protection policies and reduce the vulnerability of marine and coastal areas.

Dr Javier Fernández-Macho of the UPV/EHU's Department of Econometrics and Statistics has conducted a study in which he is proposing a method to measure and compare the risk run by European coastal regions of suffering the effects of oil spills at sea. The statistical model proposed and tested by the researcher has established a ranking of relative risk or vulnerability of coastal regions with respect to this type of pollution, which if applied "could help to design protection policies and reduce the vulnerability of marine resources and sensitive coastlines," explained Fernández-Macho.

"The approach of the index is not so much to assess the damage on a one-by-one basis that a spill is going to cause, but to link the relative risk of spills of each region when compared with the remaining European regions," he added. "What it involves is a ranking to find out which regions run the greatest risk, and perhaps solutions will need to be proposed in the areas subject to greater risk than others".

The researcher has used computer modelling that simulates the effect of oil spills at sea along the whole European coast. Four important variables were taken into consideration to produce this model: the distance between the coast and the location where each maritime accident takes place, the size of the spill released as a result of the marine accident, the shape and length of the coastal area potentially affected, and the effect of ocean currents in the location and on the date of the accident.

The model is based on data pertaining to 301 incidents and accidents taking place in European waters between 1970 and 2014 and drawn from the database published by the ITOPF, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation.  With all this, the relative risk of 429 regional units and 156 coastal regions specified by Eurostat, the European Statistics Office, has been assessed and plotted on a map.

The United Kingdom is at highest risk of being affected

The results of the study show a high degree of contrast between European coastal regions and the areas running the highest risk of spills at sea are predominantly located on the Atlantic coast. In particular, according to the study, the coasts of the United Kingdom are significantly affected, since only five of the first 25 regional units most exposed to spills at sea, are not British.

As Fernández-Macho points out, the conclusions obtained in this study do in fact display considerable common sense.  For example, he cites the results relating to the United Kingdom: "There is a great deal of maritime traffic in the English Channel, and due to the narrowness of some areas, it is highly logical that in the course of time there have been more serious accidents off the coast than in other areas". The researcher also established that "while no change in policy is applied, it is very easy to extrapolate what is known historically to the future," in other words, it is highly likely that where there have been serious accidents, they will occur again.  That is why the UPV/EHU researcher is warning that "the European coasts, above all the Atlantic coast, are facing a high risk, and that policies on a European, national or local level need to be applied to offset the serious problem that oil spills can cause".

As regards the Basque coasts, the researcher explained that "they are not routes plied by large maritime shipments and dangerous oil tankers. We are more affected by the fact that the marine currents may bring the spillages to our coasts. That is why our risk levels are relatively low".

The study has caught the attention of international researchers interested in seeing how the same kind of index could be adapted for waters in other geographical environments.

Additional information

Dr Javier Fernández-Macho coordinates the Sustainable Economics and Welfare Unit of the UPV/EHU's Department of Econometrics and Statistics. One of the aims of this unit is to promote studies that help to enhance the life quality of citizens, by driving forward research into models of sustainable development and also by encouraging the protection of biodiversity and the conservation of ecosystems and thus contribute towards the sustainable use of both land and marine resources.

Bibliographic reference

J. Fernández-Macho. Risk assessment for marine spills along European coastlines Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 113 (2016), pp. 200-210 DOI: