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Lessons from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill: A biological perspective

October 28, 2014

On March 24, 1989, the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez altered its course to avoid floating ice, and ran aground on Bligh Reef in northeastern Prince William Sound (PWS), Alaska (Figure 1). The tanker was carrying about 53 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude, a heavy oil, and an estimated 11 million gallons spilled (264,000 barrels or about 42 million liters) in what was, prior to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) spill of 2010, the largest accidental release of oil into U.S. waters (Morris and Loughlin 1994; Spies et al. 1996; Shigenaka 2014). Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS), a broad range of studies was implemented and 25 years later, monitoring and research efforts to understand the long-term impacts of the spill continue, although now at a lesser intensity. The Exxon Valdez and DWH spills differed in many ways (Plater 2010; Atlas and Hazen 2011; Sylves and Comfort 2012), but there are also similarities, and lessons from the EVOS experience may offer valuable insights as research efforts proceed in the wake of the DWH spill. Here we provide an overview of the EVOS, summarize key findings from several long-term biological research programs, and conclude with some considerations of lessons learned after two and a half decades of study.

  • USGS Source: Publications Warehouse (indexId: 70148017)

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