Almost all the mistakes we make harm the environment and the species on the planet in one way or another. While some human errors affect nature eventually, few make immediate and huge impacts on the environment, with even ending the lives of thousands of species at a time.
When the incidents like wildfire and bombing end up destroying the environment in a minute of time on land, it is events such as oil spills that put our seas and oceans into trouble in a short period of time.
Oil spill disasters have been one of the major concerns of the marine world for a long time now. They are commercial and environmental catastrophes. As a result of an accident involving ships or oil rigs, the ocean water became contaminated by liquid petroleum hydrocarbon, causing damages to the environment for decades to come.
In addition to killing fish, marine mammals and birds, oil spills damage beaches and wildlife habitats, among others. When an oil slick reaches the beach, it also affects human settlement on the beaches and mangrove forests etc. In short, an oil spill completely disturbs an entire ecosystem for a quite long period of time.
While only major accidents that result in spills receive most of the attention, a number of smaller and chronic incidents take place on a regular basis. And, it takes month-long oil cleaning operations to bring back the areas around the accident back to normality.
At the same time, efforts have been made to prevent them with the help of technology. Yet, the world has been racked by major oil spill disasters many times. Here are some of the largest and worst oil spills in world history:
1. Gulf war oil spill
The world’s largest oil spill was not an accident. It was the result of a war. During the Gulf war in 1991, as the Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, they opened pipelines and the valves of oil wells and set the fire as a measure to block the forces of United States from landing in the area.
The fire started after the opening of the first well in January 1991 had lasted till the capping of last well in the month of April that year. As a result, around 240 million gallons of oil are believed to have been discharged into the Persian Gulf, killing hundreds of fishes and marine mammals.
2. Deepwater Horizon
Also known as Gulf of Mexico Oil spill and BP oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered to be the largest oil spill in the petroleum industry’s history.
In April 2010, the accident began after a spill from a seafloor oil gusher, leading to the explosion of the BP’s oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, in its Macondo Prospect.
The accident killed 11 men working abroad the rig and also resulted in an oil spill that continued for over three months. An estimated 53,000 barrels were flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every day.
The accident also made extensive damages to the marine environment. According to the Centre for Biological Diversity, the oil spill killed over 82,000 birds, 25,900 marine mammals, 6,000 sea turtles and tens of thousands of fish, among others.
3. Ixtoc 1 Oil Well
In June, 1979, the Bay of Campeche of the Gulf of Mexico saw the collapse of an oil well operated by the Mexican petroleum company, Pemex. Around 140 million gallons oil- almost 10,000 to 30,000 barrels oil was gushing out per day were discharged into the sea during a ten months period of time.
The oil slick resulted from the accident measured around 1100 square miles and it was surrounded Rancho Nuevo, a prominent nesting sites for Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles in Mexican coasts. Moreover, as a measure to reduce the impact on marine life, thousands of baby sea turtles were moved the cleaner part of the ocean.
4. Atlantic Empress
It was in July 1979, two oil tankers were collided each other in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Tobago during a tropical storm.
When the accident occurred, the Atlantic Empress was en route to Beaumont from Saudi Arabia while Aegean Captain was sailing from Aruba to Singapore. Immediately after the accident, the supertankers- the Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain- started to leak their cargo and caught fire.
According to reports, around 88.3 million gallons of crude oil was discharged into the sea, making the accident the largest ship-sourced oil spill in the world. In addition, the accident also claimed the lives of 26 crew members as the Atlantic Empress exploded later.
5. Nowruz Field platform
During the Iran-Iraq war in 1983, an oil tanker hit the Nowruz Field platform situated in the Persian Gulf, leading to a major oil spill.
The damage the accident made to the well resulted in the leaking of oil. It is estimated that about 80 million gallons of oil- around 1500 barrels a day-were flowed into the Persian Gulf during a seven month period after the accident.
The capping could be done only in September as the continuous war meant that the oil spill pollution could not be controlled soon enough. At the cost of 11 lives, a huge amount of oil that went waste and many unfavourable effects on marine life, the oil spill was finally controlled.
6. ABT Summer
On May 28, 1991, about 700 nautical miles from the coast of Angola, an oil tanker named ABT Summer witnessed an explosion on board and caught fire, expelling about 51 million gallons of oil into the sea.
The oil slick resulted from the spill was measured around80 square miles. The tanker was burning for the next three days until it capsized, killing five of the 32 crew members aboard the vessel.
More information about this explosion is not available since a major rescue operation was not ensued immediately, mainly because the oil spill occurred in high seas.
However, since the accident occurred in the high sea, most of the oil leaked from the vessel is believed to have been dispersed, minimising the impact on the marine environment.
7. Castillo de Bellver
The Spanish tanker Castillo de Bellver was en route to Spain from the Persian Gulf when the tanker caught fire around 70 miles northwest of South Africa’s Capetown.
The tanker was carrying 250,000 tonnes (around 79 million gallons) of light crude oil at the time of the accident in August 1983. The burning vessel was abandoned later only to break in half eventually. Following this, the stern of the vessel sank with 110,000 ton of oil inside its tanks.
According to environmentalists, though the impact of this oil spill on the fish stock was less, the incident affected thousands of gannets gathered on a nearby island for their breeding season.
8. Amoco Cadiz
On March 16, 1978, an oil tanker named Amoco Cadiz ran aground and started a major oil spill off the coast of Brittany, France. The very large crude carrier (VLCC) was run aground after the failure of its steering due to a storm.
The vessel later broke in half and sunk, letting its cargo of 246,000 tons of light crude oil spill into the waters of the English Channel.
The oil spill cleaning was a massive and rather futile effort. The slick spread quickly, covering an area of 18 miles with 80 miles in length. As 76 beaches suffered oil spill effects, it killed more marine life than any other oil spills recorded till then.
9. MT Haven
A very large crude carrier, MT Haven, carrying about 144,000 tons of crude oil, exploded off the coast of Genoa, Italy in 1991. The tanker was unloading its 230,000 tonnes of cargo to the Multedo floating platform at the time of the accident.
The explosion occurred when MT Haven was detached to allow the oil to be pumped into a central hold of the vessel from two side-holds after the transfer of 80,000 tonnes.
Immediately after the explosion, the vessel sunk, killing six people on board. In addition, 45 million gallons of oil was discharged into the Mediterranean waters and the impact of the oil spill was also seen for as many as 12 years that followed.
10. Odyssey Oil Spill
Odyssey, the Liberian tanker loaded with around 43 million gallons of North Sea crude oil in its cargo, broke in half and sunk off the coast of Canada in November 1988.
According to reports, the ship sunk 700 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia after an explosion on board. The vessels ‘cargo caught fire as it sank, dumping 43 million gallons oil into the Atlantic Ocean.
The oil spill was covered an area of 4.8 km x 16 km, while the amount of oil reached shore was minimal. Moreover, all the 27 crew members on board the Odyssey are presumed to have died in the incident.
11. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
In terms of the volume of oil discharged, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is the second largest in US waters after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The accident occurred when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in Alaska in March 1989. Out of the total capacity of 58 million gallons, 10.9 million gallons were moved into Alaskan Coastline after the accident.
As a result, the eco-system in the area was affected badly as it immediately killed over a lakh marine species including around 250,000 seabirds, almost 2,800 sea otters and 300 harbour seals, among others.
Similarly, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill also affected the tourism and fishing industry in the region in the years to come.
Disclaimer: The views mentioned above are of the author only. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.
The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight.