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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Studying Marine Life a Year After the Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach

One year after the pipeline oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California, scientists from NOAA and our partners have been back to the site of the spill. They are gathering a new round of samples to help determine the health of the environment and marine life.

This May and June, these teams have been conducting comprehensive scientific surveys to collect data on three distinct but interconnected habitats within the impacted spill zone: sandy beach, subtidal, and rocky intertidal habitats.

Specifically, the surveys are examining:

  • talitrid (beach hopper or “sand flea”) populations in sandy beach habitats.
  • a variety of organisms in rocky intertidal habitat.
  • surfgrass in subtidal habitats.
  • fish, including grunion spawning on the beaches and surfperch in nearshore waters.

Information collected from these sampling efforts will be used to determine the amount of restoration needed to return the environment to the condition it would have been in if not for the spill, and to compensate the public for natural resource injuries and lost recreational opportunities. This is part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates the environmental impacts of pollution and implements restoration to make up for those effects.

Ten people stand in the beach surf pulling a seine net to shore.

Scientists pull in a seine net along a beach near Santa Barbara, California, about a year after the oil spill at Refugio State Beach. They are sampling fish known as surfperch to evaluate any impacts from the oil spill. (NOAA)

This pipeline spill occurred on May 19, 2015 and resulted in more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil being released on land, with a portion of the oil reaching the Pacific Ocean. Field teams documented dead fish, invertebrates, and other wildlife in the oiled areas following the spill. The spill also shut down fisheries, closed multiple beaches, and impacted recreational uses, such as camping, non-commercial fishing, and beach visits.

To submit a restoration project idea, please visit: http://bit.ly/refugiorestoration. Learn more about spill cleanup and response efforts at www.refugioresponse.com.


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How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

Head and upper body of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle coated in thick brown oil.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Sea turtles: These beloved marine reptiles have been swimming the seas for millions of years. Yet, in less than a hundred years, threats from humans, such as accidentally catching turtles in fishing gear (“bycatch”), killing nesting turtles and their eggs, and destroying habitat, have caused sea turtle populations to plummet. In fact, all six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

As we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, oil spills represent yet another danger for these air-breathing reptiles that rely on clean water and clean beaches. But how exactly do oil spills affect sea turtles? And what do people do during and after an oil spill to look out for the well-being of sea turtles?

Living the Ocean Life

From the oil itself to the spill response and cleanup activities, a major oil spill has the potential to have serious negative effects on sea turtles. Part of the reason for this is because sea turtles migrate long distances and inhabit so many different parts of the ocean environment at different stages of their lives.

Graphic showing the life cycle of sea turtles in the ocean: egg laying; hatchling dispersal; oceanic feeding: small juveniles in sargassum; feeding on the continental shelf: large juveniles and adults, mating and breeding migration; and internesting near beach.

The life cycle of a sea turtle spans multiple habitats across the ocean, from sandy beaches to the open ocean. (NOAA)

For starters, sea turtles hatch (and females later return as adults to lay eggs) on sandy beaches. Then, they head to the vast open ocean where the tiny young turtles drift, hide from predators, and grow among floating islands of seaweed called sargassum. Finally, as larger juveniles and adults, they swim to the shallower waters of the continental shelf and near shore, where they spend the majority of the rest of their lives.

If a large offshore spill releases oil into the open ocean, currents and winds can carry oil across all of the habitats where sea turtles are found—and into the potential path of sea turtles of every age—as it makes its way to shore.

Another reason sea turtles can be particularly vulnerable to ocean oil spills is simply because they breathe air. Even though sea turtles can hold their breath on dives for extended periods of time, they usually come to the surface to breathe several times an hour. Because most oils float, sea turtles can surface into large oil slicks over and over again.

The situation can be even worse for very young sea turtles living among floating sargassum patches, as these small turtles almost never leave the top few feet of water, increasing their exposure to a floating oil slick. Furthermore, ocean currents and winds often bring oil to the same oceanic convergence zones that bring sargassum and young sea turtles together.

Turtle Meets Oil, Inside and Out

So, we know the many places sea turtles can run into an oil spill, but how exactly do they encounter the oil during a spill?

Graphic showing how spilled oil in the ocean can affect sea turtles at all stages of life and across ocean habitats: Oil on the shoreline can contaminate nesting females, nests, and hatchlings; larger turtles can inhale oil vapors, ingest oil in prey or sediment, and become coated in oil at the surface; winds and currents create ocean fronts, bringing together oil, dispersants, and sargassum communities, causing prolonged floating oil exposure; juvenile turtles ingest oil, inhale vapors, and become fatally mired and overheated; prey items may also be killed by becoming stuck in heavy oil or by dissolved oil components; and sargassum fouled by oil and dispersants can sink, leaving sargassum-dependent animals without food and cover and vulnerable to predators. Dead sea turtles may sink.

The potential impacts of an oil spill on sea turtles are many and varied. For example, some impacts can result from sea turtles inhaling and ingesting oil, becoming covered in oil to the point of being unable to swim, or losing important habitat or food that is killed or contaminated by oil. (NOAA)

It likely starts when they raise their heads above the water’s surface to breathe. When sea turtles surface in a slick, they can inhale oil and its vapors into their lungs; gulp oil into their mouths, down their throats, and into their digestive tracts while feeding; and become coated in oil, to the point of becoming entirely mired and unable to swim. Similarly, sea turtles may swim through oil drifting in the water column or disturb it in the sediments on the ocean bottom.

Female sea turtles that ingest oil can even pass oil compounds on to their developing young, and once laid, the eggs can absorb oil components in the sand through the eggshell, potentially damaging the baby turtle developing inside. Nesting turtles and their hatchlings are also likely to crawl into oil on contaminated beaches.

Not the Picture of Health

Graphic showing how oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles: Cleaning oil from surface and subsurface shores with large machines deters nesting; booms and other barriers prevent females from nesting; response vessels can strike and kill sea turtles and relocation trawlers can inadvertently drown them; application of dispersants may have effects on sea turtles; and skimming and burning heavy oil may kill some sea turtles, while also exposing others to smoke inhalation.

Oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles as well. For example, oil containment booms along beaches can prevent nesting females from reaching the shores to lay their eggs. (NOAA)

Once sea turtles encounter oil, what are the impacts of that exposure?

Inhaling and swallowing oil generally result in negative health effects for animals, as shown in dolphins and other wildlife, hindering their overall health, growth, and survival. Lining the inside of sea turtles’ throats are pointy spines called esophageal papillae, which normally act to keep swallowed food inside while allowing water to be expelled. Unfortunately, these projections also seem to trap thick oil in sea turtles’ throats, and evidence of oil has been detected in the feces of oiled turtles taken into wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Oil can irritate sensitive mucus membranes around the eyes, mouth, lungs, and digestive tract of sea turtles, and toxic oil compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be absorbed into vital organ tissues such as the lungs and liver. Because sea turtles can hold their breath for long periods, inhaled oil has a greater chance of being absorbed into their bodies. Oil compounds that get passed from mother turtles to their young can interfere with development and threaten the survival of sea turtles still developing in the eggs.

Once inside their systems, oil can impede breathing and heart function in sea turtles, which can make diving, feeding, migrating, mating, and escaping predators more difficult. Being heavily covered in oil likewise impedes sea turtles’ abilities to undertake these activities, which puts them at risk of exhaustion and dehydration. In addition, dark oil under a hot summer sun can heat up turtles to dangerous temperatures, further jeopardizing their health and even killing them. In fact, sea turtles heavily coated in oil are not likely to survive without medical attention from humans.

Another, less direct way oil spills can affect the health of sea turtles is by killing or contaminating what they eat, which, depending on the species, can range from fish and crabs to jellyfish to seagrass and algae. In addition, if oil kills the sargassum where young sea turtles live, they lose their shelter and source of food and are forced to find suitable habitat elsewhere, which makes them more vulnerable to predators and uses more energy.

Spill response and cleanup operations also can harm sea turtles unintentionally. Turtles can be killed after being struck by response vessels or as a result of oil burning and skimming activities. Extra lighting and activity on beaches can disrupt nesting and hatchling turtles, as well as incubating eggs.

Help Is on the Way

A person holding a small clean Kemp's Ridley sea turtle over a blue bin.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle ready to be returned to the wild after being cleaned and rehabilitated during an oil spill. (NOAA)

The harm that oil spills can cause to sea turtles is significant, and estimating the full suite of impacts to these species is a long and complicated process.  There are some actions that have been taken to protect these vulnerable marine reptiles during oil spills. These include activities such as:

  • Performing rescue operations by boat, which involve scooping turtles out of oil or water using dip-nets and assessing their health.
  • Taking rescued turtles to wildlife rehabilitation centers to be cleaned and cared for.
  • Monitoring beaches and coastlines for injured (and sometimes dead) turtles.
  • Monitoring nesting beaches to safeguard incubating nests.
  • Conducting aerial surveys to assess abundance of adults and large juvenile turtles potentially in the footprint of an oil spill.

Finally, the government agencies acting as stewards on behalf of sea turtles, as well as other wildlife and habitats, will undertake a scientific evaluation of an oil spill’s environmental impacts and identify restoration projects that make up for any impacts.

As an example, read about the impacts to sea turtles from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, details about how they were harmed, and the proposed restoration path forward.


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How Does NOAA Model Oil Spills?

Dark oil drifts near the populated shores of Berkeley and Emerville, California.

After the cargo ship M/V Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007, NOAA oceanographers modeled how wind, waves, tides, and weather would carry the ship’s fuel oil across San Francisco Bay. Here, dark oil drifts near the shores of Berkeley and Emerville, California, on November 9, 2007. (NOAA)

One foggy morning in 2007, a cargo ship was gliding across the gray waters of San Francisco Bay when it ran into trouble, quite literally. This ship, the M/V Cosco Busan, struck the Bay Bridge, tearing a hundred-foot-long gash in its hull and releasing 53,000 gallons of thick, sticky fuel oil into the bay.

When such an oil spill, or even the threat of a spill, happens in coastal waters, the U.S. Coast Guard asks the oceanographers at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for an oil spill trajectory.

Watch as NOAA’s Ocean Service breaks down what an oil spill trajectory is in a one-minute video, giving a peek at how we model the oil’s path during a spill.

Using a specialized NOAA computer model, called GNOME, our oceanographers forecast the movement of spilled oil on the water surface. With the help of data for winds, tides, weather, and ocean currents, they model where the oil is most likely to travel and how quickly it may come ashore or threaten vulnerable coastal resources, such as endangered seabirds or a busy shipping lane.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we produced dozens of oil spill trajectory maps, starting on April 21 and ending August 23, 2010, when aerial surveys and satellite analyses eventually showed no recoverable oil in the spill area. You can download the trajectory maps from that spill.

Swirls of oil on the surface of San Francisco Bay west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Specially trained observers fly over oil spills to gather information that is fed back into NOAA’s trajectory model to improve the next forecast of where the oil is going. (NOAA)

Learn more about how we model and respond to oil spills:

Attempting to Answer One Question Over and Over Again: Where Will the Oil Go?

“Over the duration of a typical spill, we’ll revise and reissue our forecast maps on a daily basis. These maps include our best prediction of where the oil might go and the regions of highest oil coverage, as well as what is known as a “confidence boundary.” This is a line encircling not just our best predictions for oil coverage but also a broader area on the map reflecting the full possible range in our forecasts [PDF].

Our oceanographers include this confidence boundary on the forecast maps to indicate that there is a chance that oil could be located anywhere inside its borders, depending on actual conditions for wind, weather, and currents.”

A Bird’s Eye View: Looking for Oil Spills from the Sky

“Aerial overflights are surveys from airplanes or helicopters which help responders find oil slicks as they move and break up across a potentially wide expanse of water … Overflights give snapshots of where the oil is located and how it is behaving at a specific date and time, which we use to compare to our oceanographic models. By visually confirming an oil slick’s location, we can provide even more accurate forecasts of where the oil is expected to go, which is a key component of response operations.”

Five Key Questions NOAA Scientists Ask During Oil Spills

“Responders can potentially clean up what is on top of the water but recovering oil droplets from the water column is practically impossible. This is why it is so important to spill responders to receive accurate predictions of the movement of the surface slicks so they can quickly implement cleanup or prevention strategies.”


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National PrepareAthon! Day—April 30, 2016

Three students work at a table with cups of sand and oil.

Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT) is a systematic method for surveying an affected shoreline after an oil spill. Here students work on an exercise during a recent NOAA-led course. (NOAA)

The White House has designated Saturday, April 30, 2016, as National PrepareAthon! Day.

This campaign asks federal agencies to work with their stakeholders to “coordinate a comprehensive campaign to build and sustain national preparedness, including public outreach and community-based and private-sector programs to enhance national resilience…”

By encouraging organizations and communities to participate, the goal is to increase the number of individuals who:

  • Understand which disasters could happen in their community
  • Know what to do to be safe and mitigate damage
  • Take action to increase their preparedness
  • Participate in community resilience planning

Here at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), we know the value of continually improving our capacity to respond to disasters. Whether it is about responding to oil and chemical spills, restoring the environment following a disaster, training emergency responders, developing response tools or making sure that we are communicating effectively during an emergency, our efforts are focused on having the skills and tools to respond quickly and effectively.

Please read: Resilience Starts with Being Ready: Better Preparing Our Coasts to Cope with Environmental Disasters to learn more about how we prepare for disasters such as oil and chemical spills in the marine environment.

We encourage you to visit the National PrepareAthon! website to increase your own preparedness for your local hazards.

Infographic showing cityscape, beach and water with corresponding response tools for each area.

Some of the tools NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has developed for use in responding to oil and chemical spills. (NOAA)


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Using a NOAA Tool to Evaluate Toxic Doses of Pollution at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

This is a post by Troy Baker, an environmental scientist in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Salmon swimming in a river.

NOAA and partners are examining whether chromium released at Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation has affected Chinook salmon eggs and young fishes in the Columbia River. (Department of Energy)

Chromium, manganese, zinc.

Elements like these may show up in a daily multivitamin, but when found in a certain form and concentration in water and soil, these elements can cause serious problems for fish, birds, and wildlife. As assessors of environmental harm from pollution, we see this scenario being played out at hazardous waste sites around the country.

Take chromium, for example, which is an element found in some multivitamins and also naturally in rocks, plants, soil, and animals (and thus at very low concentrations in meat, eggs, and cheese). At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington, we are evaluating how historical discharges of chromium resulting from nuclear fuel production may have affected soils, river sediments, groundwater, and surface waters along the Columbia River bordering this property.

Of particular concern is whether discharged chromium affected Chinook salmon eggs and young fishes. Hanford’s nuclear reactors, first constructed as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II, required huge amounts of river water to keep the reactor’s nuclear core cool, and chromium compounds were added to keep this essential equipment from corroding.

A little bit of chromium in the environment is considered part of a baseline condition, but if animals and plants are exposed to elevated amounts during sensitive periods, such as when very young, they may receive harmful doses.

How Much Is Too Much?

Have you heard the saying, “the dose makes the poison?” I wanted to find out how my evaluation of what chemicals may cause harm to aquatic species at Hanford matches up to toxicity data from one of NOAA’s software tools, the Chemical Aquatic Fate and Effects (CAFE) database.

I already knew that chromium in surface waters at the level of parts per billion (ppb) has the potential to cause harm at Hanford, including to migratory Chinook salmon and steelhead. But what does that concentration look like?

A helpful analogy from the Washington State Department of Ecology shows just how small that concentration is: One part per billion would be one kernel of corn sitting in a 45-foot high, 16-foot diameter silo.

Digging Through Data

Government scientists set standards called “injury thresholds” to indicate the pollution concentrations when harm reliably occurs to a certain species of animal or type of habitat. It’s my job to see if we can trace a particular contaminant such as chromium back to a source at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and then document whether aquatic species were exposed to that contaminant for a certain area and time period and harmed as a result.

I’m currently working with my colleagues to set injury thresholds for the amount of chromium and other harmful materials in soils, sediments, and surface waters at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

What’s different in this case is that we are evaluating what short-term harm might have occurred to fishes and other animals from either historical pollution mixtures or existing contamination in the Columbia River. To do that, we need large amounts of toxicity data for aquatic species presented in an easy-to-digest format. That’s where NOAA’s CAFE database comes in.

Graph from the CAFE database showing the level of toxic effects for chromium exposure to a range of fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Example data output from NOAA’s CAFE database showing aquatic invertebrates as the most sensitive freshwater aquatic organism after exposure to chromium for 48 hours in laboratory tests. One microgram per liter (µg/L) is equivalent to one part per billion. (NOAA)

Using this toxicity database for aquatic species, I was able to generate multiple scenarios for chromium exposure to a range of freshwater fish and invertebrates found in the database. I could compare at what concentration chromium becomes toxic to these species and easily see which life stage, from egg to adult, is most affected after 24, 48, and 96 hours of exposure.

The results from CAFE confirmed that setting an injury threshold for chromium somewhere within the “very highly toxic” range of exposure (less than 100 parts per billion of chromium) would be appropriate to protect a wide range of aquatic invertebrates and fish. With the help of CAFE, I was able to quickly double-check whether there is any scientific reason to lower or raise the injury thresholds I’m discussing with my Hanford colleagues.

More Contamination, More Work Ahead

hanford-h-reactor-cocooned-columbia-river_noaa_1946

View of Cocooned H reactor at Hanford Nuclear Facility from Locke Island, Columbia River, Washington. The reactor operated for 15 years and was one of nine along the river. (NOAA)

My colleagues and I have a lot more environmental assessment work to do at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Home to nine former nuclear reactors plus processing facilities, that site is one of the nation’s most complex pollution cases.

Part of my work at NOAA is to collaborate with my agency and tribal colleagues through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process to understand whether harm occurred and ultimately restore the environment in a way that’s equivalent to the scale of the injuries.

We are concerned about more than 40 contaminants at Hanford, but that shouldn’t be a problem for CAFE. This database holds information on environmental fate and effects for about 40,000 chemicals.

The next version of CAFE, due out in 2016, will be able to display information on longer-term effects of chemicals beyond 96 hours, increasing to 28 days if laboratory test data are available. Having toxicity data available for longer durations will be a huge help to my work as it gets translated into decisions about environmental restoration in the future.

Learn more about our environmental assessment and restoration work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.


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From Kayaking to Carbon Storage, What We Stand to Gain (and Lose) from Our Coasts

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the range of values and benefits that coastal areas offer people—including what we stand to lose when oil spills and chemical pollution harm nature and how we work to restore our lost uses of nature afterward. Read all the stories.

This is a guest post by Stefanie Simpson of Restore America’s Estuaries.

People sitting in canoes and standing on a shoreline.

When coastal habitats are damaged or destroyed, we lose all of the benefits they provide, such as carbon storage and places to canoe. (NOAA)

Estuaries, bays, inlets, sounds—these unique places where rivers meet the sea can go by many different names depending on which region of the United States you’re in. Whether you’re kayaking through marsh in the Carolinas, hiking through mangrove forest in the Everglades, or fishing in San Francisco Bay, you are experiencing the bounty estuaries provide.

Natural habitats like estuaries offer people an incredible array of benefits, which we value in assorted ways—ecologically, economically, culturally, recreationally, and aesthetically.

Estuaries, where saltwater and freshwater merge, are some of the most productive habitats in the world. Their benefits, also called “ecosystem services,” can be measured in a variety of ways, such as by counting the number of birding or boating trips made there or by measuring the amount of fish or seafood produced.

If you eat seafood, chances are before ending on up your plate, that fish spent at least some of its life in an estuary. Estuaries provide critical habitat for over 75% of our commercial fish catch and 80% of our recreational fish catch. Coastal waters support more than 69 million jobs and generate half the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [PDF]. Estuaries also improve water quality by filtering excess nutrients and pollutants and protect the coast from storms and flooding.

Another, perhaps less obvious, benefit of estuaries is that they are also excellent at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the ground long-term. In fact, estuary habitats like mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses store so much carbon, scientists gave it its own name: blue carbon.

How do we know how much carbon is in an estuary? Scientists can collect soil cores from habitats such as a salt marsh and analyze them in the lab to determine how much carbon is in the soil and how long it’s been there.

But you can also see the difference. Carbon-rich soils are made up of years of accumulated sediment and dead and decaying plant and animal material. These soils are dark, thick, and mucky—much different from the sandy, mineral soils you might find along a beach.

Science continues to improve our understanding of ecosystem services, such as blue carbon, and their value to people. For example, in 2014 a study was conducted in the Snohomish Estuary in Washington’s Puget Sound to find out just how much carbon could be stored by restoring estuaries. The study estimated that full restoration of the Snohomish Estuary (over 9,884 acres) would remove 8.9 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—that’s roughly equal to taking 1,760,000 cars off the road for an entire year.

Estuary restoration would not only help to mitigate the effects of climate change but would have a positive cascading effect on other ecosystem services as well, including providing habitat for fish, improving water quality, and preventing erosion.

Healthy estuaries provide us with so many important benefits, yet these habitats are some of the most threatened in the world and are disappearing at alarming rates. In less than 100 years, most of these habitats may be lost, due to human development and the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise.

When we lose estuaries and other coastal habitats, we lose all of the ecosystem services they provide, including carbon storage. When coastal habitat is drained or destroyed, the carbon stored in the ground is released back into the atmosphere and our coast becomes more vulnerable to storms and flooding. It is estimated that half a billion tons of carbon dioxide are released every year due to coastal and estuary habitat loss.

These benefits can also be compromised when coastal habitats are harmed by oil spills and chemical pollution. People also feel these impacts to nature, whether because an oil spill has closed their favorite beach or chemical dumping has made the fish a tribe relies on unsafe to eat.

Scientists and economists continue to increase our understanding of the many benefits provided by our coastal habitats, and land managers use this information to protect and restore habitats and their numerous services. Stay tuned for more this week as NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Restore America’s Estuaries explore how our use of nature suffers from pollution and why habitat restoration is so important.

Stefanie Simpson.Stefanie Simpson is the Blue Carbon Program Coordinator for Restore America’s Estuaries where she works to promote blue carbon as a tool for coastal restoration and conservation and coordinates the Blue Carbon National Network. Ms. Simpson is also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Philippines 2010-12) and has her Master of Science in Environmental Studies.

The views expressed here reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the federal government.


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10 Photos That Tell the Story of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and its Impacts

Exxon Valdez ship with response vessels in Prince William Sound.

The single-hull tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While oil spills happen almost every day, we are fortunate that relatively few make such large or lasting impressions as the Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez spills. Before 2010, when the United States was fixated on a gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, most Americans could probably only name one spill: when the tanker Exxon Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

Here we’ve gathered 10 photos that help tell the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its impacts, not only on the environment but also on science, policy, spill response, school kids, and even board games. It has become a touchstone event in many ways, one to be learned from even decades after the fact.

1. Time for safety

Calendar showing March 1989 and image of Exxon Valdez ship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Exxon Shipping Company’s safety calendar featured the tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989, the same month the ship ran aground. Image: From the collection of Gary Shigenaka.

Long before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, a series of events were building that would enable this catastrophic marine accident to unfold as it did. These actions varied from the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to the decision by the corporation running that pipeline to disband its oil spill response team and Exxon’s efforts to hold up both the tanker Exxon Valdez and its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, as exemplars of safety.

Captain Hazelwood received two Exxon Fleet safety awards for 1987 and 1988, the years leading up to March 1989, which was coincidentally the month the Exxon Valdez was featured on an Exxon Shipping Company calendar bearing the warning to “take time to be careful – now.”

Read more about the timeline of events leading up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

2. A law for the birds

Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act, federal and state agencies can more easily evaluate the full environmental impacts of oil spills — and then enact restoration to make up for that harm. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

Photos of oil-soaked birds and other wildlife in Prince William Sound reinforced just how inadequate the patchwork of existing federal, state, and local laws were at preventing or addressing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

While lawmakers took nearly a year and a half—and a few more oil spills—to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, this landmark legislation was without a doubt inspired by that major oil spill. (After all, the law specifically “bars from Prince William Sound any tank vessels that have spilled over 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989.” In other words, the Exxon Valdez.) In the years since it passed, this law has made huge strides in improving oil spill prevention, cleanup, liability, and restoration.

3.  The end of single-hull tankers

People observe a large tanker with a huge gash in its hull in dry dock.

Evidence of the success of double-hull tankers: The Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla collided with a submerged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009 and despite this damage, did not spill any oil. (Texas General Land Office)

This image of a damaged ship is not showing the T/V Exxon Valdez, and that is precisely the point. The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker with a single hull, which meant that when it hit ground, there was only one layer of metal for the rocks to tear through and release its tanks of oil.

But this 2009 photo shows the Norwegian tanker SKS Satilla after it sustained a major gash in its double-sided hull — and didn’t spill a drop of oil. Thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all new tankers and tank-barges were required to be built with double hulls to reduce the chance of another Exxon Valdez situation. January 1, 2015 was the final deadline for phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters.

 4. Oiled otters and angry kids

Policymakers weren’t the only ones to take note and take action in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, California, was quite upset that the oil spill was having such devastating effects on one of her favorite animals: sea otters. So, on April 13, 1989, she wrote and illustrated a letter to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to let him know she felt that the oil spill was “killing nature.”

Indeed, sea otters in Prince William Sound weren’t declared recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill until 2013. Other species still haven’t recovered and in some sheltered beaches below the surface, you can still find pockets of oil.

5. Oil and killer whales do mix (unfortunately)

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

One of the species that has yet to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the killer whale, or orca. Before this oil spill, scientists and oil spill experts thought that these marine mammals were able to detect and avoid oil spills. That is, until two killer whale pods were spotted swimming near or through oil from this spill. One of them, a group nicknamed the “AT1 Transients” which feed primarily on marine mammals, suffered an abrupt 40% drop in population during the 18 months following the oil spill.

The second group of affected killer whales, the fish-eating “AB Pod Residents,” lost 33% of their population, and while they have started to rebound, the transients are listed as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and may have as few as seven individuals remaining, down from a stable population of at least 22 in the 1980s.

Building on the lessons of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, NOAA has developed an emergency plan for keeping the endangered Southern Resident killer whale populations of Washington and British Columbia away from potential oil spills.

6. Tuna troubles

Top: A normal young yellowfin tuna. Bottom: A deformed yellowfin tuna exposed to oil during development.

A normal yellowfin tuna larva (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of abnormalities including excess fluid building up around the heart due to heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (NOAA)

How does crude oil affect fish populations? In the decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, teams of scientists have been studying the long-term effects of oil on fish such as herring, pink salmon, and tuna. In the first couple years after this spill, they found that oil was in fact toxic to developing fish, curving their spines, reducing the size of their eyes and jaws, and building up fluid around their hearts.

As part of this rich research tradition begun after the Exxon Valdez spill, NOAA scientists helped uncover the precise mechanisms for how this happens after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The photo here shows both a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top) and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil as it developed in the egg (bottom).

The oil-exposed larva exhibits a suite of abnormalities, showing how toxic chemicals in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can affect the embryonic heart. By altering the embryonic heartbeat, exposure to oil can transform the shape of the heart, with implications for how well the fish can swim and survive as an adult.

7. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Mearns Rock boulder in 2003.

The boulder nicknamed “Mearns Rock,” located in the southwest corner of Prince William Sound, Alaska, was coated in oil which was not cleaned off after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This image was taken in 2003. (NOAA)

Not all impacts from an oil spill are as easy to see as deformed fish hearts. As NOAA scientists Alan Mearns and Gary Shigenaka have learned since 1989, picking out those impacts from the noisy background levels of variability in the natural environment become even harder when the global climate and ocean are undergoing unprecedented change as well.

Mearns, for example, has been monitoring the boom and bust cycles of marine life on a large boulder—nicknamed “Mearns Rock”—that was oiled but not cleaned after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What he and Shigenaka have observed on that rock and elsewhere in Prince William Sound has revealed large natural swings in the numbers of mussels, seaweeds, and barnacles, changes which are unrelated to the oil spill as they were occurring even in areas untouched by the spill.

Read more about how these scientists are exploring these challenges and a report on NOAA’s involvement in the wake of this spill.

8. A game culture

A view of part of the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” with a map of Prince William Sound.

The game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” challenges players to clean all 200 miles of shoreline oiled by the Exxon Valdez — and do so with limits on time and money. (Credit: Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, ARLIS)

Just as the Exxon Valdez oil spill touched approximately 200 miles of remote and rugged Alaskan shoreline, this spill also touched the hearts and minds of people far from the spill. References to it permeated mainstream American culture in surprising ways, inspiring a cookbook, a movie, a play, music, books, poetry, and even a board game.

That’s right, a bartender from Valdez, Alaska, produced the board game “On the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill” as a result of his experience employed in spill cleanup. Players vied to be the first to wash all 200 miles of oiled shoreline without running out of time or money.

9. Carrying a piece of the ship

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with "On the rocks," is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay.

The rusted and nondescript piece of steel on the left was a piece of the tanker Exxon Valdez, recovered by the salvage crew in 1989 and given to NOAA marine biologist Gary Shigenaka. It was the beginning of his collection of Exxon Valdez artifacts and remains the item with the biggest personal value to him. The piece of metal on the right, inscribed with “On the rocks,” is also metal from the ship but was purchased on eBay. (NOAA)

One NOAA scientist in particular, Gary Shigenaka, who kicked off his career working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was personally touched by this spill as well. After receiving a small chunk of metal from the ship’s salvage, Shigenaka began amassing a collection of Exxon Valdez–related memorabilia, ranging from a highball glass commemorating the ship’s launch in 1986 (ironic considering the questions surrounding its captain being intoxicated the night of the accident) to the front page of the local paper the day of the spill.

See more photos of his collection.

10. The infamous ship’s fate

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled on the beach of Alang, India, 2012.

Exxon Valdez/Exxon Mediterranean/Sea River Mediterranean/S/R Mediterranean/Mediterranean/Dong Fang Ocean/Oriental Nicety being dismantled in Alang, India, 2012. Photo by ToxicsWatch Alliance.

After causing the largest-to-date oil spill in U.S. waters, what ever happened to the ill-fated Exxon Valdez ship? It limped back for repairs to San Diego Bay where it was built, but by the time it was sea-ready again, the ship had been banned from Prince William Sound by the Oil Pollution Act and would instead be reassigned to the Mediterranean and Middle East and renamed accordingly, the Exxon Mediterranean.

But a series of new names and bad luck continued to follow this ship, until it was finally sold for scrap in 2011. Under its final name, Oriental Nicety, it was intentionally grounded at the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Alang, Gujarat, India, in 2012 and dismantled in its final resting place 23 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground half a world away.