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The Effects of Deepwater Horizon Disaster on Ecology

by Nikolai Nikitenko March 15, 2016

The Effects of Deepwater Horizon Disaster on Ecology


The human footprint on this planet has left much to be desired in our society today. Much of our activity has great implications on the environment and the wildlife that lives in it. In the past 26 years we have seen two major events that have shown the devastation that can be brought on by our need to go faster and further. The Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 both left massive devastation to the areas around them. Today we are still learning of the environmental implications surrounding these two events.

The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker, owned and operated by the Exxon Company to transport crude oil from Alaska to California. On its journey in March of 1989 the ship ran aground and spilled 38 million US gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. This became the worst oil spill in history at the time. The immediate effects were seen with the choking out of life in the area. The immediate effects were the death of an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas and an uncountable number of salmon, herring and other miscellaneous fish. But even with that the effects of the spill were yet to be seen.

Years after the end of the cleanup efforts, an ongoing decrease in Pink Salmon population in the Prince William Sound area prompted scientists to look into the environment even more closely. The results were concerning. Even with the trace amounts of crude oil still in the water, there was still a major increase in developmental defects in fish. The toxins within the oil were changing the fish, and not in a good way. The fish would develop smaller jaws, defective spines, eye defects and even more concerning is there was a notable heart defect in salmon embryos. All of this combined would make it less probable that the salmon would survive in the wild, thus accounting for the odd decrease of salmon population. Of course this problem is not only found in salmon. Many other marine fish species have shown similar reactions to the toxins in the crude oil remains. This was groundbreaking. Previously it was believed that trace amounts of oil in the water would not cause this type of damage. After 26 years, life in Prince William Sound is slowly coming back to the way it was before the disaster. Otter populations are back on the rise and the traces of oil have greatly broken down. NOAA continues to monitor the area and assess the changes over time in hopes to understand the effects of crude oil better.

In April 20th of 2010, a massive explosion occurred off the coast of Mississippi. Expanding methane gasses had ignited, causing a massive explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oilrig. 11 people were killed as a massive fire had engulfed the platform. Firefighters battled the flames until 2 days later, when the Deepwater Horizon platform sank to the bottom of the sea. But the disaster was only beginning. Crude oil had begun leaking from the bottom of the ocean. It was not until the 19th of September that the leaking oil well had been sealed, and by then 210 million gallons of crude oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, making this the worst oil spill in history.

Once again as in Alaska, thousands of different species of marine wildlife began to die. Mammals like dolphins began washing ashore at staggering numbers. Methane from the oil was removing oxygen from entire areas, thus creating dead zones for life. But as in Prince William Sound, the most staggering effects were the long term ones. Fish began exhibiting the same defects of jaw, spine, eye and heart. Toxins from the oil would penetrate the young roe and cause a slight abnormality in the heartbeat. The heart is the first thing to develop, thus triggering a numbers of other developmental defects pre-birth. With research from Prince William Sound and from the Gulf of Mexico, researchers were able to hone the cause of the heart defects to a compound in oil called Polycyclic Aromaic Hydrocarbons (PAH). Even with that discovery there is much to be learned. For example, it is still unknown as to how PAH damages the heart. But with research in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico still undergoing, we hope that many of these questions will soon have answers.

One of the largest concerns during both events was about the safety of seafood from these areas. After so many years of recovery, the FDA has found that seafood from Prince William Sound to be safe for human consumption. Fisheries have been reopened and the seafood industry in the area is growing once more. As for the Gulf of Mexico that is a different story at the moment. With so much oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon well, some areas of the Gulf are now dead zones. There is no life in those areas. That is beginning to affect the rate of natural biodegrading of the remaining oil. Noting that there are still areas that have higher levels of crude oil traces. As of today all federal areas are open, but some state regulated areas of the Gulf of Mexico are still closed to commercial fishing. Some fisheries are re-opening, but the recovery will be a very hard and long one. FDA is cautiously allowing fishing to go on, but careful monitoring by NOAA and seafood processors will go on the ensure food safety.

There is not much that we can do to speed up the recovery of these areas. All we can do is simply allow nature to take its course in breaking down the remaining oil. Research goes on to understand how oil affects marine life in the long run. Yes these two events are absolutely terrible, but in the long run they will allow us to understand the environmental impact of oil drilling and processing. With Arctic drilling projects being planned out, we hope that these disasters have shown us the importance of safety so that we never have to face a situation like Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon ever again. But if it does happen, the research done by NOAA and other oceanographers and biologists will help us in dealing with another disaster if it arises.
NOAA Assessment On Long Term Affects Of Exxon Valdez Disaster
NOAA Assessment On Long Term Affects Of Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Nikolai Nikitenko
Nikolai Nikitenko


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