March 24, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the second most catastrophic environmental disaster in history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 1989, years before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, a 987-foot ocean liner struck Bligh Reef, carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil. In a matter of hours, 10.8 millions gallons of dense, toxic crude oil gushed into the water and it dispersed throughout 1300 miles of shoreline and 11,000 square miles of ocean by storms and currents. Prince William Sound is an isolated location and was only accessible by aircraft or boat which made response efforts very problematic. The region was a pristine biosphere of vast marine animals; sea otters, seals, salmon, herring and seabirds.
The cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill would require the resources of massive personnel and equipment over a period of several months. There were many challenges in coordinating response management; providing fuel, meals, berthing and transporting equipment. At the height of the response to the oil spill, there were 11,000 personnel, 1,300 vessels and 85 aircraft engaged in the cleanup. Cleaning of the shoreline began in April, 1989 and lasted until September, 1989. In 1990 and 1991, response efforts were ongoing in the summer months with minimal monitoring in the winter months.
25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Alaskan ecosystem is still struggling. A marine ecologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), claims that when the oil spilled and mixed with the seawater, it created an emulsion that converted into a gooey substance. The gooey substance eventually reached the boulders and cobbles of beaches in the Gulf of Alaska and still remains there today. Since the boulders are sedentary, it does not allow the residual oil to move along. The composition of the oil underneath the rocks is the same as oil that was 11 days old.
After 25 years, residents of Alaska are still effected by the oil spill. Many people who made their living from Alaska’s sea life went bankrupt because the fishing industry is not same. The shrimp are slowly recovering and crab has not made a comeback. Pacific herring has become extinct in the region due to their main food source, zooplankton, having died out three years after the spill. With a diminished food supply, the herrings were more susceptible to disease and eventually disappeared. 3,000 sea otters perished in the first year after the spill and in the ensuing years hundreds more died from exposure. A biologist from the USGS, released a federal study last month, it concludes as of recent the otter population is at pre-spill levels.
The pigeon guillemots are another species that has not rebounded was becoming endangered before the spill. An estimation of 2,000 to 6,000 guillemots died due to severe oiling. Scientists suspect that river otters, minks and predators ate guillemot eggs because their food source was drenched in oil on the beaches. Also, many died from consuming oil-tainted invertebrates in sediments and there is slim chance of the pigeon guillemot population being restored. The only positive result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, is the tragedy has helped science discover more physical and biological data of other marine ecosystems than that which was known of Prince William Sound.
By Isriya Kendrick
Encyclopedia of Earth