The Effect of Oil Spills on the Environment

Updated: Jul 20

How do Oil Spills Harm Marine Life?

It's common knowledge that oil spills harm organisms in the water, but how do they affect the ocean? There are three main possible ways for oil to harm oceanic animals. The first way is ingestion: when an animal swallows/consumes oil. The second is absorption: when an animal makes skin-to-skin contact with oil. This way often causes irritation and even skin cancer. The last way is inhalation: when animals either inhale chemicals from the oil (but not the oil itself) or when they inhale chemicals released by response teams with the intention to make the oil dissolve in the ocean faster.

Many species that inhabit or live near the ocean have fur/feathers. Oil can demolish the ability of fur and feathers to insulate and regulate body temperature. Therefore, a risk stands of endangering the species in question with hypothermia. Many non-fur-bearing animals, including dolphins, whales, and turtles, are affected negatively as well. Young turtles tend to mistake oil for food, which when ingested can affect reproduction and blood flow, and cause internal bleeds/ulcers. While whales and dolphins don't mistake the oil for food as often, the oil combined with the ocean makes it hard to avoid consuming, causing a range of health problems from lung issues to immune function.

Oil spills additionally harm aquatic plants. Oil can get absorbed by seaweed, hurting the wildlife that lives there. In some instances, fish eggs laid on the plants are contaminated and often don't survive. It also can affect fish by enlarging organs, such as livers, and damaging their fins. This is just scratching the surface of the damage oil spills cause the environment.

History's Biggest Oil Spills

Oil Spills are deadly and can cause thousands of fatalities whether it be animals or humans. This became evident when BP's Deepwater Oil Spill of 2010 occurred. Although accidental, this proved dangerous for not only the ecosystems present in the Gulf of Mexico but for the workers present during the incident. When the cement sealing on an oil well naturally breached, natural gas rose and ignited a fire. The massive oil ship capsized two days later. It took months to finally close the oil well, and it was far too late to easily contain the damage. A total of 134 million gallons of oil was spilled, and over 2,000 kilometers of water in the Gulf was polluted. BP ended up paying $65 billion in reimbursement to the civilians. Tragically, the spill took the lives of 11 oil workers and injured 17 workers.

Unlike BP's Deepwater Oil Spill, the Persian Gulf War Oil Spill of 1991 was not accidental. Saddam Hussein (leader of Iraq at the time) invaded Kuwait in hopes of obtaining its oil supply due to the large debt Iraq owed Kuwait. After an air/ground attack led by the US, the British, the French, and other countries in order to halt Iraq, Iraqi forces were driven out. While leaving, however, they lit hundreds upon hundreds of Kuwait's oil wells. It took months to extinguish completely. Later, in an effort to send a message to Kuwait's allies, Hussein ordered his forces to release millions of gallons of oil from Kuwait to the Persian Gulf. It's estimated that 380-520 million gallons of oil were leaked. These oil spills are two of the most notable in history and had a colossal impact on the ecosystem in which they occurred.




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