NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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After an Oil Spill, How—and Why—Do We Survey Affected Shorelines?

Four people walking along a beach.

A team of responders surveying the shoreline of Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on May 12, 2010. They use a systematic method for surveying and describing shorelines affected by oil spills, which was developed during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. (U.S. Navy)

This is part of the National Ocean Service’s efforts to celebrate our role in the surveys that inform our lives and protect our coasts.

In March of 1989, oil spill responders in Valdez, Alaska, had a problem. They had a very large oil spill on their hands after the tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound.

At the time, many aspects of the situation were unprecedented—including the amount of oil spilled and the level of response and cleanup required. Further complicating their efforts were the miles and miles of remote shoreline along Prince William Sound. How could responders know which shorelines were hardest hit by the oil and where they should focus their cleanup efforts? Plus, with so many people involved in the response, what one person might consider “light oiling” on a particular beach, another might consider “heavy oiling.” They needed a systematic way to document the oil spill’s impacts on the extensive shorelines of the sound.

Out of these needs ultimately came the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique, or SCAT. NOAA was a key player involved in developing this formal process for surveying coastal shorelines affected by oil spills. Today, we maintain the only SCAT program in the federal government although we have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help develop similar methods for oil spills on inland lakes and rivers.

Survey Says …

SCAT aims to describe both the oil and the environment along discrete stretches of shoreline potentially affected by an oil spill. Based on that information, responders then can determine the appropriate cleanup methods that will do the most good and the least harm for each section of shoreline.

The teams of trained responders performing SCAT surveys normally are composed of representatives from the state and federal government and the organization responsible for the spill. They head out into the field, armed with SCAT’s clear methodology for categorizing the level and kind of oiling on the shoreline. This includes standardized definitions for describing how thick the oil is, its level of weathering (physical or chemical change), and the type of shoreline impacted, which may be as different as a rocky shoreline, a saltwater marsh, or flooded low-lying tundra.

After carefully documenting these data along all possibly affected portions of shoreline, the teams make their recommendations for cleanup methods. In the process, they have to take a number of other factors into account, such as whether threatened or endangered species are present or if the shoreline is in a high public access area.

It is actually very easy to do more damage than good when cleaning up oiled shorelines. The cleanup itself—with lots of people, heavy equipment, and activity—can be just as or even more harmful to the environment than spilled oil. For sensitive areas, such as a marsh, taking no cleanup action is often the best option for protecting the stability of the fragile shoreline, even if some oil remains.

Data, Data Everywhere

Having a common language for describing shoreline oiling is a critical piece of the conversation during a spill response. Without this standard protocol, spill responders would be reinventing the wheel for each spill. Along that same vein, responders at NOAA are working with the U.S. EPA and State of California to establish a common data standard for the mounds of data collected during these shoreline surveys.

Managing all of that data and turning it into useful products for the response is a lot of work. During bigger spills, multiple data specialists work around the clock to process the data collected during SCAT surveys, perform quality assurance and control, and create informational products, such as maps showing where oil is located and its level of coverage on various types of shorelines.

Data management tools such as GPS trackers and georeferenced photographs help speed up that process, but the next step is moving from paper forms used by SCAT field teams to electronic tools that enable these teams to directly enter their data into the central database for that spill.

Our goal is to create a data framework that can be translated into any tool for any handheld electronic device. These guidelines would provide consistency across digital platforms, specifying exactly what data are being collected and in which structure and format. Furthermore, they would standardize which data are being shared into a spill’s central database, whether they come from a state government agency or the company that caused the spill. This effort feeds into the larger picture for managing data during oil spills and allows everyone working on that spill to understand, access, and work with the data collected, for a long time after the spill.

Currently, we are drafting these data standards for SCAT surveys and incorporating feedback from NOAA, EPA, and California. In the next year or two, we hope to offer these standards as official NOAA guidelines for gathering digital data during oiled shoreline surveys.

To learn more about how teams perform SCAT surveys, check out NOAA’s Shoreline Assessment Manual and Job Aid.


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Three and a Half Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Oil Spills

Lakeview oil gusher surrounded by sandbags.

The largest oil spill in the United States actually took place in 1910 in Kern county, California. The Lakeview #1 gusher is seen here, bordered by sandbags and derrick removed, after the well’s release had started to subside. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Like human-caused climate change and garbage in the ocean, oil spills seem to be another environmental plague of modern times. Or are they?

The human relationship with oil may be older than you think. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, that relationship may date back more than 13,000 years. Archaeologists have discovered a long history of Native Americans using oil from the area’s natural seeps, including the Yokut Indians creating dice-like game pieces out of walnut shells, asphalt, and abalone shells. At an archaeological site in Syria, the timeline extends back even further: bitumen oil was used to affix handles onto Middle Paleolithic flint tools dating to around 40,000 BC.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, we can benefit from occasional glimpses back in time to place what is happening today into a context beyond our own fast-moving lives. When it comes to oil spills, you may be surprised to learn that this history goes far beyond—and is much more complicated than—simply the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spills.

Based on the research of NOAA oil spill biologist Gary Shigenaka, here we present three and a half things you probably didn’t know about the history of oil spills.

1. Oil spills have been happening for more than 150 years, but society has only recently started considering them “disasters.”

If you look back in time for historical accounts of oil spills, you may have a hard time finding early reports. When the first oil prospectors in Pennsylvania would hit oil and it almost inevitably gushed into the nearby soil and streams, people at the time saw this not as “environmental degradation” but as a natural consequence of the good fortune of finding oil. In an 1866 account of Pennsylvania’s oil-producing Venango County, this attitude of acceptance becomes apparent:

When the first wells were opened…there was little or no tankage ready to receive it, and the oil ran into the creek and flooded the land around the wells until it lay in small ponds.  Pits were dug in the ground to receive it, and dams constructed to secure it, yet withal the loss was very great…the river was flooded with oil, and hundreds of barrels were gathered from the surface as low down as Franklin, and prepared as lubricating oil.  Even below this point oil could be gathered in the eddies and still water along the shore, and was distinctly perceptible as far down as Pittsburgh, one hundred and forty miles below.

2. The largest oil spill in the United States didn’t take place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 but in the California desert a hundred years earlier.

But similar to the Deepwater Horizon, this oil spill also stemmed from a runaway oil well. In Maricopa, California, the people drilling Lakeview Well No. 1 lost control of the well, which would eventually spew approximately 378 million gallons of oil into the sandy soil around it. The spill lasted more than a year, from March 14, 1910 until September 10, 1911, and only ceased after the well collapsed on itself, leaving a crater in the desert surrounded by layers of oil the consistency of asphalt.

3. The Alaskan Arctic is not untouched by oil spills; the first one happened in 1944.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice. This ship likely caused the first major oil spill in Alaskan Arctic waters in August 1944. (U.S. Navy)

NOAA and many others are doing a lot of planning in case of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. But whatever may happen in the future, in August of 1944, Alaska Native Thomas P. Brower, Sr. witnessed what was likely the first oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. The U.S. Navy cargo ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington grounded on a sandbar near Barrow, Alaska. To lighten the ship enough to get off the sandbar, the crew apparently chose to release some of the oil it was carrying. In a 1978 interview, Brower describes the scene and its impacts on Arctic wildlife:

About 25,000 gallons of oil were deliberately spilled into the Beaufort Sea…the oil formed a mass several inches thick on top of the water. Both sides of the barrier islands in that area…became covered with oil.  That first year, I saw a solid mass of oil six to ten inches thick surrounding the islands.

…I observed how seals and birds who swam in the water would be blinded and suffocated by contact with the oil.  It took approximately four years for the oil to finally disappear. I have observed that the bowhead whale normally migrates close to these islands in the fall migration … But I observed that for four years after that oil spill, the whales made a wide detour out to sea from these islands.

And because the last point refers more to oil than oil spills, we’re counting it as item three and a half:

3½. The oil industry probably saved the whales.

Cartoon of whales throwing a ball with banners.

On April 20, 1861, this cartoon appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair in the United Kingdom. It hails the “Grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania.” (Public Domain)

The drilling of the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859 touched off the modern oil industry in the United States and beyond—and likely saved the populations of whales, particularly sperm whales, being hunted to near-extinction for their own oil, which was used for lighting and lubrication. The resulting boom in producing kerosene from petroleum delivered what would eventually be a lethal blow to the whaling industry, much to the whales’ delight.


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NOAA Assists with Response to Bakken Oil Train Derailment and Fire in West Virginia

Smoldering train cars derailed from the railroad tracks in snowy West Virginia.

On Feb. 18, 2015, response crews for the West Virginia train derailment were continuing to monitor the burning of the derailed rail cars near Mount Carbon next to the Kanawha River. The West Virginia Train Derailment Unified Command continues to work with federal, state and local agencies on the response efforts for the train derailment that occurred near Mount Carbon on February 15, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On February 16, 2015, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia near the confluence of Armstrong Creek and the Kanawha River. The train was hauling 3.1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a facility in Virginia. Oil coming from the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota and Montana is highly volatile, and according to an industry report [PDF] prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, it contains “higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to some heavy crude oils.”

Of the 109 train cars, 27 of them derailed on the banks of the Kanawha River, but none of them entered the river. Much of the oil they were carrying was consumed in the fire, which affected 19 train cars, and an unknown amount of oil has reached the icy creek and river. Initially, the derailed train cars caused a huge fire, which burned down a nearby house, and resulted in the evacuation of several nearby towns. The evacuation order, which affected at least 100 residents, has now been lifted for all but five homes immediately next to the accident site.

The fires have been contained, and now the focus is on cleaning up the accident site, removing any remaining oil from the damaged train cars, and protecting drinking water intakes downstream. So far, responders have collected approximately 6,800 gallons of oily water from containment trenches dug along the river embankment.

Heavy equipment and oily boom on the edge of a frozen river.

Some oil from the derailed train cars has been observed frozen into the river ice, but no signs of oil appear downstream. (NOAA)

The area, near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, has been experiencing heavy snow and extremely cold temperatures, and the river is largely frozen. Some oil has been observed frozen into the river ice, but testing downstream water intakes for the presence of oil has so far shown negative results. NOAA has been assisting the response by providing custom weather and river forecasting, which includes modeling the potential fate of any oil that has reached the river.

The rapid growth of oil shipments by rail in the past few years has led to a number of high-profile train accidents. A similar incident in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year involved a train also headed to Yorktown, Virginia. In July 2013, 47 people were killed in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded. NOAA continues to prepare for the emerging risks associated with this shift in oil transport in the United States.

Look for more updates on this incident from the U.S. Coast Guard News Room and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.


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NOAA Experts Help Students Study up on Oil Spills and Ocean Science

Person on boat looking oiled sargassum in the ocean.

Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, surveying oiled sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Every year high school students across the country compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl to test their knowledge of the marine sciences, ranging from biology and oceanography to policy and technology. This year’s competition will quiz students on “The Science of Oil in the Ocean.” As NOAA’s center for expertise on oil spills, the Office of Response and Restoration has been a natural study buddy for these aspiring ocean scientists.

In addition to providing some of our reports as study resources, three of our experts recently answered students’ questions about the science of oil spills in a live video Q&A. In an online event hosted by the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, NOAA environmental scientist Ken Finkelstein, oceanographer Amy MacFadyen, and policy analyst Meg Imholt fielded questions on oil-eating microbes, oil’s movement in the ocean, and much more.

Here is a sampling of the more than a dozen questions asked and answered, plus a bit of extra research to help you learn more. (You also can view the full hour-long video of the Q&A.)

What are the most important policies that relate to the oil industry?

There are lots of policies related to the oil industry. Here are a few that impact our work:

  • The Clean Water Act establishes rules about water pollution.
  • The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 establishes the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to support oil spill response and holds companies responsible for damages to natural resources caused by a spill.
  • The National Contingency Plan guides preparedness and response for oil and hazardous material spills. It also regulates the use of some response tools such as dispersants.
  • The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gives the Department of Interior authority to lease areas in federal waters for oil and gas development and to regulate offshore drilling.
  • The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act establish rules for protected species that companies must consider in their operations.

How do waves help transport oil?

Waves move oil in a few ways. First is surface transport. Waves move suspended particles in circles. If oil is floating on the surface, waves can move it toward the shore. However, ocean currents and winds blowing over the surface of the ocean are generally much more important in transporting surface oil. For example, tidal currents associated with rising and falling water levels can be very fast — these currents can move oil in the coastal zone at speeds of several miles per hour. Over time, all these processes act to spread oil out.

Waves are also important for a mixing process called dispersion. Most oils float on the surface because they are less dense than water. However, breaking waves can drive oil into the water column as droplets. Larger, buoyant droplets rise to the surface. Smaller droplets stay in the water column and move around in the subsurface until they are dissolved and degraded.

How widespread is the use of bacteria to remediate oil spills?

Some bacteria have evolved over millions of years to eat oil around natural oil seeps. In places without much of this bacteria, responders may boost existing populations by adding nutrients, rather than adding new bacteria.

This works best as a polishing tool. After an initial response, particles of oil are left behind.  Combined with wave movement, nutrient-boosted bacteria help clean up those particles.

Are oil dispersants such as Corexit proven to be poisonous, and if so, what are potential adverse effects as a result of its use?

Both oil and dispersants can have toxicological effects, and responders must weigh the trade-offs. Dispersants can help mitigate oil’s impacts to the shoreline. When oil reaches shore, it is difficult to remove and can create a domino effect in the ecosystem. Still, dispersants break oil into tiny droplets that enter the water column. This protects the shoreline, but has potential consequences for organisms that swim and live at the bottom of the sea.

To help answer questions like these, we partnered with the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire to fund research on dispersants and dispersed oil. Already, this research is being used to improve scientific support during spills.

What are the sources of oil in the ocean? How much comes from natural sources and how much comes from man-made sources?

Oil can come from natural seeps, oil spills, and also runoff from land, but total volumes are difficult to estimate. Natural seeps of oil account for approximately 60 percent of the estimated total load in North American waters and 40 percent worldwide, according to the National Academy of Sciences in a 2003 report. In 2014, NOAA provided scientific support to over 100 incidents involving oil, totaling more than 8 million gallons of oil potentially spilled. Scientists can identify the source of oil through a chemical technique known as oil fingerprinting. This provides evidence of where oil found in the ocean is from.

An important factor is not only how much oil is in the environment, but also the type of oil and how quickly it is released. Natural oil seeps release oil slowly over time, allowing ecosystems to adapt. In a spill, the amount of oil released in a short time can overwhelm the ecosystem.

What is the most effective order of oil spill procedure? What is currently the best method?

It depends on what happened, where it’s going, what’s at risk, and the chemistry of the oil.  Sometimes responders might skim oil off the surface, burn it, or use pads to absorb oil. The best response is determined by the experts at the incident.

Bag of oiled waste on a beach.

Oiled waste on the beach in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. On average, oil spill cleanups generate waste 10 times the amount of oil spilled. (NOAA)

What do you do with the oil once it is collected? Is there any way to use recovered oil for a later use?

Oil weathers in the environment, mixing with water and making it unusable in that state. Typically, collected oil has to be either processed before being recycled or sent to the landfill, along with some oiled equipment. Oil spill cleanups create a large amount of waste that is a separate issue from the oil spill itself.

Are the effects of oil spills as bad on plants as they are on animals?

Oil can have significant effects on plants, especially in coastal habitat. For example, mangroves and marshes are particularly sensitive to oil. Oil can be challenging to remove in these areas, and deploying responders and equipment can sometimes trample sensitive habitat, so responders need to consider how to minimize the potential unintended adverse impact of cleanup actions.

Does some of the crude oil settle on the seafloor? What effect does it have?

Oil usually floats, but can sometimes reach the seafloor. Oil can mix with sediment, separate into lighter and heavier components, or be ingested and excreted by plankton, all causing it to sink, with potential impacts for benthic (bottom-dwelling) creatures and other organisms.

When oil does reach the seafloor, removing it has trade-offs. In some cases, removing oil could require removing sediment, which is home to many important benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms. Responders work with scientists to decide this on a case-by-case basis.

To what extent is the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still affecting the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem?

NOAA and our co-trustees have released a number of studies as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this spill and continue to release new research. Some public research has shown impacts on dolphins, deep sea ecosystems, and tuna. Other groups, like the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, are conducting research outside of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

How effective are materials such as saw dust and hair when soaking up oil from the ocean surface?

Oil spill responders use specialized products, such as sorbent materials, which are much more effective.


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When Oil Spills Take You to Hawaii and the Yellowstone River in Two Days

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill.

Overview of the Yellowstone River at the site of the pipeline spill on Jan. 19, 2015. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

We get called for scientific support between 100 and 150 times a year for oil spills, chemical releases, and other marine pollution events around the nation. That averages to two or three calls per week from the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but those calls aren’t nicely scheduled out during the week, or spread out regionally among staff in different parts of the country.

The date of an oil spill is just the starting point. Many of these pollution incidents are resolved in a day or two, but some can lead to years of work for our part of NOAA. Some oil spills make the national and regional news while others might only be a local story for the small coastal town where the spill took place.

To give you an idea, some of the incidents we worked on just last week took us from Hawaii one day to eastern Montana the next day—and we were already working on two others elsewhere. These incidents included a pipeline break and oil spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana; a mystery spill of an unknown, non-oil substance that resulted in birds stranded in San Francisco Bay, California; a tug boat sinking and releasing diesel fuel off of Oahu, Hawaii; and a fishing vessel grounded near Sitka, Alaska.

Aerial view of oil spilled along the edge of Yellowstone River.

View from an aerial survey of the spill site on the Yellowstone River, taken about six miles upstream from Glendive, Montana. (Montana Department of Environmental Quality)

The Yellowstone River spill involved a pipeline releasing oil as it ran under a frozen river. The source of the leaking oil has been secured, which means no more oil is leaking, but response operations are continuing. It is an interesting spill for several reasons. One is because the oil type, Bakken crude, is an oil that has been in the news a lot recently. More Bakken crude oil is being transported by train these days because the location of the oil fields is far from ports or existing pipelines. Several rail car accidents involving this oil have ended in explosions. Another reason the Yellowstone River spill is of particular interest is because the response has to deal with ice and snow conditions along with the usual challenges of dealing with an oil spill.

Watch footage of an aerial survey over the Yellowstone River and spilled oil:

The mystery spill in the San Francisco Bay Area is still a mystery at this point (both what it is and where it came from), but hundreds of birds are being cleaned in the meantime. The response is coordinating sampling and chemical analysis to figure out the source of the “mystery goo” coating these seabirds.

Marine diesel fuel dyed red in the ocean.

Marine diesel fuel, dyed red, is shown approximately seven miles south of Honolulu Airport on January 23, 2015. The spill came from a tugboat that sank off Barbers Point Harbor, Oahu, on January 22. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Meanwhile, the tugboat accident in Hawaii involved about 75,000 gallons of fuel oil leaking from a tugboat that sank in over 2,000 feet of water. All 11 crewmembers of the tugboat were safely rescued. We were helping forecast what was happening to the spilled oil and where it might be drifting. In addition, there was a lot of concern about endangered Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles in the area, but no oiled wildlife have been reported.

And that brings us to the fishing vessel grounded in Alaska. At this time the vessel is still intact and hasn’t spilled any of the 700 gallons of fuel believed to be onboard. Salvors are working to refloat the vessel. Fortunately, the crew had time to cap some of the fuel tank vents before abandoning ship, which may be helping prevent oil from being released. All four crew were safely rescued.

That makes four very different spills in four very different areas … and we have to be ready to respond with oil spill models and environmental expertise for all of them at the same time. But that’s just all in a day’s work at NOAA.


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2015

A group of people gathered on a deck, with a ferry in the background.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled a Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class for the week of April 27-May 1, 2015 in Houston, Texas.

We will accept applications for this class through Friday, February 27, 2015, and we will notify applicants regarding their participation status by Friday, March 13, 2015, via email.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please be advised that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The Office of Response and Restoration tries to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

One additional SOS course will be held in 2015 in Seattle, Washington (date to be determined).

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Why Are Seabirds so Vulnerable to Oil Spills?

Out of the squawking thousands of black and white birds crowding the cliff, a single male sidled up to the rocky edge. After arranging a few out-of-place feathers with his sleek beak, the bird plunged like a bullet into the ocean below. These penguin look-alikes (no relation) are Common Murres. Found along the U.S. coast from Alaska to California, this abundant species of seabird dives underwater, using its wings to pursue a seafood dinner, namely small fish.

During an oil spill, however, these classic characteristics of murres and other seabirds work to their disadvantage, upping the chance they will encounter oil—and in more ways than one. To understand why seabirds are so vulnerable to oil spills, let’s return to our lone male murre and a hypothetical oil spill near his colony in the Gulf of Alaska.

Preening in an Oil Sheen

After diving hundreds of feet beneath the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean, the male murre pops back to the surface with a belly full of fish—and feathers laminated in oil. This bird has surfaced from his dinner dive into an oil slick, a common problem for diving birds during oil spills. His coat of feathers, once warm and waterproof, is now matted. The oil is breaking up his interlocking layer of feathers, usually maintained by the bird’s constant arranging and rearranging, known as preening.

With his sensitive skin suddenly exposed not just to the irritating influence of oil but also to the cold, the male murre becomes chilled. If he does not repair the alignment of his feathers soon, hypothermia could set in. This same insulating structure also traps air and helps the bird float on the water’s surface, but without it, the bird would struggle to stay afloat.

Quickly, the freshly oiled seabird begins preening. But with each peck of his pointed beak into the plumage, he gulps down small amounts of oil. If the murre ingests enough oil, it could have serious effects on his internal organs. Impacts range from disrupted digestion and diarrhea to liver and kidney damage and destruction of red blood cells (anemia).

But oil can find yet another way of entering the bird: via the lungs. When oil is spilled, it begins interacting with the wind, water, and waves and changing its physical and chemical properties through the process of weathering. Some components of the oil may evaporate, and the murre, bobbing on the water’s surface, could breathe in the resulting toxic fumes, leading to potential lung problems.

Birds’-Eye View

Colony of murres on a rocky outcropping on the California coast.

Murres are very social birds, living in large colonies on rocky cliffs and shores along the U.S. West Coast. If disturbed by an oil spill, many of these birds may set off temporarily to find a more suitable home. (Creative Commons: Donna Pomeroy, Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License)

This single male murre is likely not the only one in his colony to experience a run-in with the oil spill. Even those seabirds not encountering the oil directly can be affected. With oil spread across areas where the birds normally search for food and with some of their prey potentially contaminated or killed by the oil, the colony may have to travel farther away to find enough to eat. On the other hand, large numbers of these seabirds may decide to up and move to another home for the time being.

At the same time that good food is becoming scarcer, these birds will need even more food to keep up their energy levels to stay warm, find food, and ward off disease. One source of stress—the oil spill—can exacerbate many other stresses that the birds often can handle under usual circumstances.

If the oil spill happens during mating and nesting time, the impacts can be even more severe. Reproducing requires a lot of energy, and on top of that, exposure to oil can hinder birds’ ability to reproduce. Eggs and very young birds are particularly sensitive to the toxic and potentially deadly properties of oil. Murres lay only one egg at a time, meaning they are slower to replace themselves.

The glossy-eyed male murre we are following, even if he manages to escape most of the immediate impacts of being oiled, would soon face the daunting responsibility of taking care of his fledgling chick. As young as three weeks old, his one, still-developing chick plops off the steep cliff face where the colony resides and tumbles into the ocean, perhaps a thousand feet to its waiting father below. There, the father murre is the chick’s constant caregiver as they travel out to sea, an energy-intensive role even without having to deal with the potential fallout from an oil spill.

Birds of a Feather Get Oiled Together

Like a bathtub filled with rubber ducks, murres form giant floating congregations on the water, known as “rafts,” which can include up to 250,000 birds. In fact, murres spend all but three or four months of the year out at sea. Depending on where the oil travels after a spill, a raft of murres could float right into it, a scenario which may be especially likely considering murre habitat often overlaps with major shipping channels.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, responders collected some 30,000 dead, oil-covered birds. Nearly three-quarters of them were murres, but the total included other birds which dive or feed on the ocean surface as well. Because most bird carcasses never make it to shore intact where researchers can count them, they have to make estimations of the total number of birds killed. The best approximation from the Exxon Valdez spill is that 250,000 birds died, with 185,000 of them murres.

While this population of seabirds certainly suffered from this oil spill (perhaps losing up to 40 percent of the population), murres began recovering within a few years of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Surprisingly resilient, this species is nonetheless one of the most studied seabirds [PDF] precisely because it is so often the victim of oil spills.

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