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Geomorphic factors related to the persistence of subsurface oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill

December 1, 2013

Oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill has persisted along shorelines of Prince William Sound, Alaska, for more than two decades as both surface and subsurface oil residues. To better understand the distribution of persistent subsurface oil and assess the potential need for further restoration, a thorough and quantitative understanding of the geomorphic factors controlling the presence or absence of subsurface oil is required. Data on oiling and geomorphic features were collected at 198 sites in Prince William Sound to identify and quantify the relationships among these geomorphic factors and the presence and absence of persistent subsurface oil. Geomorphic factors associated with the presence of subsurface oil were initial oil exposure, substrate permeability, topographic slope, low exposure to waves, armoring on gravel beaches, tombolos, natural breakwaters, and rubble accumulations. Geomorphic factors associated with the absence of subsurface oil were impermeable bedrock; platforms with thin sediment veneer; fine-grained, well-sorted gravel beaches with no armor; and low-permeability, raised bay-bottom beaches. Relationships were found between the geomorphic and physical site characteristics and the likelihood of encountering persistent subsurface oiling at those sites. There is quantitative evidence of more complex interactions between the overall wave energy incident at a site and the presence of fine-scale geomorphic features that may have provided smaller, local wave energy sheltering of oil. Similarly, these data provide evidence for interactions between the shoreline slope and the presence of angular rubble, with decreased likelihood for encountering subsurface oil at steeply sloped sites except at high-angle sheltered rubble shoreline locations. These results reinforce the idea that the interactions of beach permeability, stability, and site-specific wave exposure are key drivers for subsurface oil persistence in exposed and intermittently exposed mixed gravel beach and rocky shoreline environments.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2013
Title Geomorphic factors related to the persistence of subsurface oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill
DOI 10.2112/SI_69_9
Authors Zachary Nixon, Jacqueline Michel, Miles O. Hayes, Gail V. Irvine, Jeff Short
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Coastal Research
Index ID 70044058
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center