The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez was the largest US oil tanker of its time, with a length of 300 meters and a capacity of 1.48 million barrels of crude oil. On 24 March 1989, the Exxon Valdez left the prescribed shipping channel lane off the coast of Alaska to avoid icebergs, but instead it ran aground on Bligh Reef, where it ruptured 8 of its 11 cargo tanks. As a result, approximately 41.6 million liters of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound. The initial response to the grounding and spill was too slow to contain and skim the oil before the spill hit coastal areas. Chemical dispersants were used early on, but only briefly, mainly due to local conditions in the region at the time. Additionally, their use was controversial and their effects on local ecosystems were unknown. The environmental effects were visible and massive. The spill area would eventually spread 740 km from the tanker, affecting some 3,000 km of coastline, 320 km of that being significantly impacted. The impact to wildlife was well-publicized and losses were substantial: an estimated 22 orcas, 300 harbor seals, more than 150 bald eagles, 5,000 sea otters, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and other birds, and an unknown number of fish such as salmon and herring were killed. Subsequent economic impacts to the region due to loss of fishing and tourism amounted to billions of US dollars.

Contributed by Jennifer Abplanalp
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, US