Large oil spills are some of the most dramatic human-caused environmental impacts. The impact of an oil spill is affected by a variety of factors, including how close the spill occurs to the shoreline,the pattern of the tides, waves and currents, as well as weather conditions. If an oil spill occurs near the shoreline, it will greatly influence animal and plant life and their habitats. Oil can coat the fur and feathers of mammals and birds, preventing them from moving or flying, as well as decreasing their insulation from the cold. If animals ingest oil they can become sick, unable to reproduce, and/or die. If a spill occurs in the open ocean, the oil may float on top of the water for great distances, spreading rapidly and making clean-up difficult. Even after intensive remediation and clean-up efforts, the long-term consequences to ecosystems and local economies may be felt.
Because oil is less dense than water, it floats on the water's surface. After a spill, a large boom, or barrier, is generally placed around a portion of the oil and its source. Specialized equipment, such as a vacuum, is then used to help remove oil from the water's surface, and chemical detergents are applied to help break up visible slicks. After human efforts have been exhausted, natural processes — in particular evaporation and the cleansing action of waves breaking on shore — deal with what remains.
Left to weather, all but the thickest grades of oil will evaporate. Just how fast this happens, however, depends on whether the oil is light, like gasoline, or heavier, like most crude oils. Knowing the amount and type of oil leaked in a spill, scientists can estimate how much will evaporate in a given time period. What doesn't evaporate must be collected through cleanup activities — otherwise it remains in an ecosystem. Oil that collects together and sinks can remain in the seabed sediment for years. What reaches shore can settle in sub-surface layers. Buried as it is, there is little if any opportunity for it to be naturally removed.
Animals that inhabit these spill zones may not be completely safe from contamination after the clean-up effort is over. Most toxic components in oil tend to rapidly evaporate, and thick deposits that can cover or suffocate shore animals soon break up, so immediate mortality is localized and on a small-scale. However, questions about non-lethal effects of exposure or ingestion — such as impaired reproduction, growth, or feeding — remain.
Sedentary animals — such as filter-feeding oysters, mussels, and clams — are most likely to accumulate oil components in their tissues. While these components may not be dangerous to the animals' own health, a strong and lasting odor may make them unsuitable for human consumption. What's more worrying, however, is that organisms that accumulate toxins may pass them down the food chain. This process, called bioaccumulation, has been linked to the decline of the reproductive health of harlequin ducks in Prince William Sound following the Exxon Valdez incident.The most recent large oil spill happened in July 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. But, perhaps the most famous oil spill occurred in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The following video describes the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the containment and clean-up efforts, and the effects this spill had on the economy and ecosystems of Alaska. The next page of the course offers more information about oil spills, images from the Exxon Valdez spill and clean-up efforts, as well as how scientists monitor and model the movement of oil spills and predict its impact. Be sure to click through all 15 frames on the interactive lesson!