Cause & Effects of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Environmental Impact

What is Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill which occurred on March 24, 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, is considered the worst ocean oil spill in the maritime history. The oil spill left behind ravaging effects on the environment, some of which are still seen today. Exxon Valdez was a 987 feet long oil tanker ship that spilled almost 40 million liters of crude oil into the sea water. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is known as the most devastating human-caused accident which shook every pillar of the environmental ecosystem.

exxon valdez

How did the Oil Spill Occurred?

The oil tanker left one of the Valdez oil terminals in Alaska on 23rd March, 1989 for Long Beach, California. The pilot maneuvered the ship through the Valdez Narrows and then returned the controls to the ship’s pilot. After passing all the major icebergs and dangerous areas, the Captain of the ship handed the controls to the third mate and the able seaman. The ship was then put into autopilot. Unfortunately, the ship struck the rocks of Bligh Reef on 24th March, 1989. The “grounding” of the ship ruptured the ship’s hull, which lead to the oil spill.


Reasons for the Accident

Investigations say that the accident was an outcome of poor maneuvering. It was also found that the 3rd mate on duty was not given the mandatory 6 hours rest before the starting of his next 12 hour duty. Thus it is possible that stress and excessive workload might have led to inefficient watch-keeping by the 3rd mate. Moreover, though the ship was on autopilot, it was found that the radar was not working since the time ship left the Valdez Terminal. It was also claimed that the master of the ship was under the influence of alcohol and left the watch during maneuvering through critical areas. Thus it was proved that the Exxon Shipping Company couldn’t provide an efficient and sufficient crew to the ship, which unfortunately led to the accident.

Environmental Consequences

During the time of accident, Exxon Valdez was carrying 200 million liters of crude oil, out of which it spilled around 40 million liters into the sea. As a result, approximately 1,990 square kilometers of shoreline was badly polluted. Almost 2000 sea otters, 302 harbor seals, and 250,000 birds died in the days that followed the incident. As there was no solid plan with both the state and federal government to deal with such emergency situation, the oil spill reached far-off places before any kind of response process can be started.

Marine and wild lives were the hardest hit by the oil spill. Lives of millions of fishes almost came to a standstill. Some were killed by eating oil contaminated food, while others were starved to death because of the spoiling of plankton and larva on which they were dependent. Moreover, the thick layer of oil on the surface disrupted the whole marine life beneath it. Most of the fishes come to the surface for the zooplankton and larva, which feed on the phytoplankton that takes energy from the sun and converts it into food. The thick oil layer at the top destroyed this phytoplankton and thus the main food source for the fishes. Moreover, millions of young fishes that hatched into the sea were all killed because of the polluted environment.

Wild life was the next worst hit after the marine life. Birds in the number of thousands and otters in hundreds died in the weeks following the oil spill. A specific number of death bodies of birds and animals couldn’t be reached as it was difficult to identify the death bodies in the thick oily sludge. Both, birds and sea otters were the most vulnerable beings affected by the oil spill as they don’t have any thick protecting layer on their bodies other than the furry surface. When this fur surface gets dirty, they die. This was exactly what led to their death.

Beaches and coastal lines were also greatly affected. The life style of the people of the region completely changed. The fishing industry came to a sudden standstill. Many sea birds and animals were washed to the shore, some in dying condition and other already dead. Some of the species such as harbor seals, pink salmon, mussels, harlequin ducks, and sea otters were suddenly invisible. In total, more than 20 types of birds and animals were affected by the oil spill, whose effect is still observed today in many of them.

oil socked otters
oil death
dead birds

References and Image Credits


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