15 Major Oil Spills Of The Maritime World

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, even ending the lives of thousands of species at a time.

When the incidents like wildfire and bombing end up destroying the marine 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 damage 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 quite a 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 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 fire as a measure to block the forces of the 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 the 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 fish and marine mammals.

2. Deepwater Horizon

Also known as the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill and BP oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered 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 BP’s oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, in its Macondo Prospect.

The accident killed 11 men working abroad on the rig and 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 caused extensive damage 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 of oil- almost 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil 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 surrounded Rancho Nuevo, a prominent nesting site for Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles on Mexican coasts. Moreover, as a measure to reduce the impact on marine life, thousands of baby sea turtles were moved to the cleaner part of the ocean.

4. Atlantic Empress

In July 1979, two oil tankers collided 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 were 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 oil leaking. 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 resulting from the spill was measured at around 80 square miles. The tanker burned for the next three days until it capsized, killing five of the 32 crew 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 on 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 tons 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 sank, killing six people on board. In addition, 45 million gallons of oil were 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 vessel’s cargo caught fire as it sank, dumping 43 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean.

The oil spill covered an area of 4.8 km x 16 km, while the amount of oil that reached the shore was minimal. Moreover, all the 27 crew onboard the Odyssey are presumed to have died in the incident.

11. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Regarding 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 the Alaskan Coastline after the accident.

As a result, the ecosystem 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.

12. The Torrey Canyon oil spill

The Torrey Canyon oil spill occurred on 18th March 1967 in the Scilly Isles, UK. It led to an oil slick spanning 270 square miles, contaminating 180 miles of coastal areas. 

Torrey Canyon was a supertanker which was designed to carry 60,000 tonnes of oil. Its capacity was enlarged to 120,000 tonnes, which was the amount the vessel was shipping when it struck a reef off the Cornwall coast. 

Referred to as the world’s first major supertanker disaster, it killed over 15,000 birds and thousands of fish, including marine plants. About 100,000 tonnes of crude oil spilt into the English channel. 

Beaches were covered with sludge, and it was termed the worst environmental accident in Britain during that time. The livelihood of locals who depended on fishing was also affected. 

Brittany in north France bore the brunt as its coast was covered with the thickest slick, and it came to be known as the black tide.

The authorities considered cleaning the beaches more important than saving marine life. The way the cleanup operations were conducted worsened the issue. 

Toxic and chemical-based cleaning agents like the BP 1002 were sprayed on the affected waters to disperse oil, but it did not bring great results. Then they decided to set fire to the ocean and burn the oil by using bombs. This method of cleaning the oil did great environmental damage, the impact of which was felt for many years. 

13. Komi Pipeline Oil Spill

A series of crude oil spills occurred in 1994 in the 70 km section of an oil pipeline in the Komi Republic of Russia. The pipeline carried unprocessed crude oil; however, it was not maintained properly, which caused the accident.

It was leaking for about 8 months, but a dike had held the oil. The cold weather led to the collapse of the dike, and over a million barrels of oil spilt into the local streams, rivers, bogs and marshlands.

The annual flooding washed the oil into Kolva and Pechora rivers which drain into the Arctic Ocean. Also, dams were created to contain the oil spill, but they gave out in spring as the ice began to melt slowly. 

Several kinds of cleaning techniques were employed on different terrains, such as flooding and washing the banks of streams, manual recovery operations and mechanical removal of oil, squeezing on floating bogs, and burning and tilling. Another method included bioremediation and willow sprig planting. 

14. Sea Star Oil Spill

The oil spill occurred on 19th December 1972 when the South Korean tanker Sea Star was travelling from Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. It collided with the Brazilian oil tanker Horta Barbosa in the Gulf of Oman.

This led to the death of 12 crew members, and although both ships were engulfed in flames, the Horta Barbosa fire was extinguished in 24 hours, whereas the Sea Star underwent several explosions before sinking on the 5th day after the tragic accident. 

The collision led to a crack in the hull of the Sea Star. Its entire cargo, which was about 115,000 tonnes of crude oil, emptied into the ocean. The crew abandoned the vessels after they caught fire. However, still, 12 crew members lost their lives. 

The first vessel to reach the scene was the US Navy destroyer ship, USS Charles R. Ware. Its crew rescued 26 crew members from the burning vessels, most of whom were sent to Bahrain for treatment. 

What’s surprising is that there was no immediate response action or cleanup efforts undertaken. Hence, its impact on marine life and the environment remains unknown to this day. 

15. Lakeview Gusher

One of the world’s most catastrophic and large oil spills was the result of a blowout. On the unfateful day of 15th March 1910, crude oil flowed out of an oil well in Midway-Sunset Oil Field, Kern county, California, and the eruptions continued for 18 months before they could be contained. 

By this time, i.e. between March 1910 to September 1911, around nine million barrels of oil had spilt out and created a lake on which people could raft. It led to great environmental damage even though people created sandbars to prevent the spill from reaching downstream into rivers and streams whose waters were used for irrigation. 

This happened when the Lakeview Oil Company wanted to extract natural gas and oil from the wells in the region, but due to enormous pressure, the well blew out, releasing enormous amounts of oil, about 90 gallons every day. Soon the storage tanks were also full, and the oil flow still did not stop. 

Given that it occurred in 1910 when modern cleanup methods were not available, the spill made a huge environmental impact. 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How can we prevent oil spills?

Mechanical methods like containment and skimming by using booms and skimmers are used. Booms are physical barriers that prevent the oil from spreading, and skimmers are modified boats which skim the oil from the surface of the water.

2. What was the largest oil spill ever?

The world’s largest oil spill was the result of a war near the Persian Gulf. During the Gulf war in 1991, as the Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, they opened pipelines and the valves of oil wells and set fire as a measure to block the forces of the United States from landing in the area.

3. What was the largest oil spill in the US?

Also known as the Gulf Of Mexico oil spill and BP oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered 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 BP’s oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, in its Macondo Prospect.

4. How did the Odyssey Oil Spill happen?

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. It sunk 700 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia after an explosion on board. The vessel’s cargo caught fire as it sank, dumping 43 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean.

5. What was the Torrey Canyon Oil Spill?

The Torrey Canyon oil spill occurred on 18th March 1967 in the Scilly Isles, UK. It led to an oil slick spanning 270 square miles, contaminating 180 miles of coastal areas. The world’s first major supertanker disaster killed over 15,000 birds and thousands of fish, including marine plants. About 100,000 tonnes of crude oil spilt into the English channel. 

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