Italian experts are considering anchoring the capsized Costa Concordia luxury liner to the reef to prevent the vessel from sinking as weather conditions are expected to worsen this weekend.
The 114,500-ton ship that ran aground off the coast of Giglio island seven days ago with more than 4,200 people aboard, is dangerously approaching the point in which the sea floor drops off sharply to a depth of about 290 feet.
According to Nicola Casagli of the University of Florence, who is monitoring the ship's stability, sensors revealed that the ship's stern is now moving about 0.27 inches an hour and the bow about 0.59 inches an hour.
Reaching an inclination of 80 degrees, and moving dangerously, the Concordia has forced rescue divers to abandon their search for the more than 20 passengers still missing.
A remote operated vehicle (ROV) has now taken their place. The robot, which has so far explored some 33,000 square feet around the ship, is also checking its points of support.
"We are very worried because of the weather forecast. We are rushing against time," Italy's environment minister Corrado Clini said.
Waves are expected to reach a height of more than 4 feet by Saturday evening, making any operation extremely difficult. Moreover, waves could move the ship from its precarious resting place, possibly rupturing fuel tanks filled with 2,300 tons of oil.
Italian authorities have warned that, although no leakage of fuel oil has yet occurred, other pollutants, such as paints, soaps, lubricating oils and waste of any kind, are dissolving in great quantities into the waters of the Tuscan wildlife sanctuary.
Indeed, the island of Giglio falls within the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, and is home to more than 700 botanical and animal species including fin whales, sperm whales, dolphins, tuna, billfish and sharks.
Experts say that even a contained leakage of fuel would be an ecological disaster for the flora and fauna in the area.
"Fuel oil is particularly nasty stuff, much worse than diesel, and those responsible for cleaning up the 2,300 tons of it carried aboard the ship will have a difficult job on their hands if significant leakage occurs," Charles Greene, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University and an expert on the protection of threatened marine ecosystems, said.
Image: The capsized Costa Concordia luxury liner. (Credit: Roberto Vongher/Wikimedia Commons).