Corbett sailed with the U.S. Merchant Marine as an engineer.
Photo by Kimberly Doucette
Purchase something online today — be it a watch, a pair of shoes, or a mattress — and you can have it delivered to your door in a matter of days. That’s thanks in part to oceangoing cargo ships, vessels ten or more stories high and two football fields long that carry goods and materials between ports around the world.
The Wilmington Lunch and Lecture event held March 25 focused on the sustainability of such ships. It was sponsored by the University of Delaware’s College of Marine and Earth Studies (CMES), the Delaware Sea Grant College Program, and DuPont Clear into the Future.
Talking to an audience of 100, speaker James Corbett explained that at any given moment about 50,000 oceangoing cargo ships are traveling the world’s seas. With those ships relying on diesel engines that burn high-sulfur fuel, they can affect human health and the environment, said Corbett, a shipping expert and associate professor of marine policy at UD.
The ships emit tiny particles that can cause lung and heart disease, especially among populations in coastal regions along major trade routes. And when black particles from the ships’ fuel land on Arctic ice, they can accelerate the melting process by absorbing the sun’s rays.
Arctic ice sheets are already threatened by global climate change. Showing a comparison of Arctic ice cover in summer 2004 and 2007, Corbett demonstrated that as the ice melts new shipping lanes may allow cargo vessels to take more direct routes to their destinations. While the new routes would reduce ship voyage times, speeding cargo deliveries, they could harm sensitive polar ecosystems.
Policymakers are working to determine steps to reduce shipping’s human and environmental impacts, Corbett said. He and his colleagues are helping inform those policy decisions with scientific, peer-reviewed analysis. One study he co-authored in 2007 found that shipping-related emissions are responsible for approximately 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths annually. A new study he co-wrote found that ships emit half as much particulate pollution as the world’s cars.
Additionally, Corbett said, experts are developing various types of technology that could rely on alternative fuels, reduce the drag of a ship’s hull in the water, or even use incredibly large kites to harness the wind.
Corbett, who sailed with the U.S. Merchant Marine as an engineer, also touched on the history of shipping, providing an overview from the time when oceangoing vessels relied on sails for power. The move from sails to coal-fired steam power enabled ships to take more direct routes because they didn’t have to rely on the winds far out at sea.
“By moving from the age of sail to the age of coal, we saved a lot of time,” he said.
And today we have expansive container ships powered by marine diesel that move even more cargoes faster. The next step: moving those goods in a more sustainable way.
For more about Delaware Sea Grant, visit www.deseagrant.org. To learn about CMES, visit www.ocean.udel.edu.