American Oceans

How Do Oil Spills Affect the Environment and Surrounding Communities?

You may have heard of oil spills and their dangerous impact a few times. Or maybe you’re here from the soap commercials with the sad little animals covered in oil.

Whether or not you have a deep understanding of the issue of oil spills, it may be hard to truly comprehend the lasting effects an oil spill can have. 

Oil spills can affect our world on many different levels, which can be overwhelming to think about all at once. Maybe you’re asking yourself, “What are the effects of an oil spill? Is oil pollution a serious problem? How does oil kill marine life? Can oil spills kill humans?”

In order to fully grasp the threat oil spills pose to the environment and communities, it’s important to understand what oil spills are. Read on to learn more about oil spills and how they can affect the lives of many. 

What is an Oil Spill? 

oil spill on beach

So, what exactly is an oil spill? Oil spills are a form of pollution in which crude oil, the oil found underneath the ground’s surface, is released into the environment due to humans.

Oil spills can occur anywhere oil is being used, obtained or transported. However, most of the instances people acknowledge when referencing oil spills are those that occur in bodies of water such as the ocean.

What Causes Oil Spills?

As previously mentioned, oil spills are the result of human activities. As oil is transported, especially across bodies of water, it can leak or spill from the tanker or ship that is carrying it.

In this instance, some of the spills are fairly small. However, it is important to note small spills still have detrimental effects. 

Additionally, we often hear about major oil spills. Spills you may have heard of include two in the Gulf of Mexico by Deepwater Horizon (2010) and Taylor Energy (2004). Large spills such as these are often caused by pipelines breaking, oil ships sinking, or improper drilling. 

What Do We Use Oil For?

After hearing about the causes of oil spills, you may be wondering, why are we transporting and drilling for oil? Well, once oil is drilled, it is transported to a refinery.

Refineries process this oil so it can be used to create products we use everyday such as gasoline, soap, paint, asphalt, and even moisturizers.

Oil Spill Effects

Oil spills, large or small, are not something to brush under the rug. Though ecosystems in which oil spills occur are impacted most immediately, it is vital to understand these disasters can also impact the environment as a whole, society, and even the economy. 

How do oil spills affect marine life?

When it comes to oil spills, it’s arguable marine life is the most tragically impacted. Oil spills in oceans affect fish, shellfish, birds, plants and other living organisms. While contact with oil itself puts marine life at risk, it is also in danger when it comes to the clean up process associated with oil spills. 

Though some animals may suffer and survive due to an oil spill, sadly, many animals also die from these disasters. This is because the oil can hinder the animals defense mechanisms or adaptations.

How does oil kill fish and other animals?

So how does oil specifically lead to the death of so many animals? Well, the effects of an oil spill fluctuate greatly from species to species. First and foremost, the scent of the oil in water can impact some animals’ orientation abilities.

Certain species of marine life use the scent of their mother or offspring to find one another. As the scent of oil overpowers the scent of an animal’s relatives, they often become separated. As you can imagine, this leaves many young animals helpless and alone, eventually leading to their death. 

Oil covered bird sits on shore

Birds are also greatly affected by oil spills. When oil coats the wings of birds, they can lose their ability to fly off and escape any danger. Additionally, birds may also consume oil damaging their organs, leading to death.

Due to many of these complications, most of the birds that come in contact with oil will die if they do not receive help from humans. Even more despairing, it has been found that among oil-covered birds, less than 1% survive even with medical attention.

Fur-sporting animals face risks as well in terms of oil spills. It is necessary to understand that the fur of these animals is vital to the maintenance of their body temperature and even the ability to float.

When oil coats the fur of these animals, they are often unable to stay afloat properly and to stay warm enough. This can lead to issues such as hypothermia, resulting in death. 

Dead fish on shore from oil spill

Lastly, the presence of oil in these ecosystems can leave many animals blind or poisoned. When blinded, animals are often unable to defend themselves and can be attacked or left helpless. It is easy to see the long list of threats oil spills create for marine life. 

How do oil spills affect the environment?

While it is clear oil spills put the precious lives of animals at risk, they additionally pose a threat to the environment. As oils are released, they can leach toxic chemicals into the air. On top of this, burning oil from the spills can pollute the environment.

Lastly, even the clean up process of oil spills can have negative effects. Specifically, pollutants such as nitric oxides can fill the air lowering it to a very unhealthy quality.

Are oil spills toxic to humans?

Volunteers clean up oil spill

When it comes to the health of humans in regard to oil spills, the state of the environment plays a large role. As toxic chemicals are leached into the environment, it is likely people in surrounding communities will breathe these chemicals in.

The unhealthy air can lead to irritation of the skin and eyes, breathing problems, and neurological problems. Research has shown that those involved with oil spill clean up are the most at risk for developing these issues. However, little is known about any long term effects of oil exposure. 

How do oil spills affect society?

As oil spills create issues in many levels of peoples’ lives, they can sometimes lead to social unrest. Threats to the lives of people and marine life can be very upsetting and leave individuals wanting to make a change.

Additionally, new coverage of these events can inform masses of people around the world. This can lead to society calling on the government to make a change to prevent oil spills. 

How do oil spills affect the economy?

Though many may be primarily concerned with the impact of oil spills from an environmental standpoint, it is important to address that oil spills also affect the world economically. Most clearly, oil spills can often lead to the rise of oil prices around the world, due to the great amount of oil lost. 

Additionally, oil spills can often lead to a decrease in tourism in any area. This may be due to the fact that bodies of water often attract tourists. In other words, when this body of water is damaged, people will be less likely to visit this area, leading to a decrease of revenue in that particular location. 

Lastly, many industries that rely on the thriving populations of marine life such as fishing and shrimping industries are likely to suffer greatly after an oil spill due to a lack of resources. 

Why do the effects of an oil spill last a long time?

Although the effects of an oil spill alone are devastating, even more saddening is the fact that these effects can last for years after a spill. This is because even after being cleaned up, oil can remain within the water and organisms, affecting marine life. 

Additionally, after the loss of many animals, it can be difficult for an ecosystem to return to a balanced state in which each species is at a normal level.

For example, the Gulf of Mexico is still being restored, and will likely continue to need attention past 2030. Similarly, as the costs of an oil spill persist for years on end, the economy can continue to struggle. 

How common are oil spills?

Believe it or not, oil spills are actually quite common. Thousands of oil spills occur in the U.S. each year, but we often don’t hear about them because they’re small. 

How are oil spills cleaned up?

Worker cleans up oil spill

When it comes to the clean up of oil spills, the U.S. Coast Guard is typically in charge. There are many different tactics used to clean up oils spills including booms, skimmers, and the use of fire or chemicals.

Booms are physical barriers used in oil spill clean ups to help contain the oil. This can prevent oil from spreading to areas that may be impacted more negatively by the oil. 

Skimmers are used by boats to remove oil from the water’s surface to help decrease the concentration marine life encounters. 

Lastly, fire can be used to burn oil from the surface and chemicals can be used to break up the oil. However, these methods can have detrimental effects, as noted above. All in all, the clean up of oil spills are never completely successful. 

How Can We Avoid Oil Spills?

When it comes to the prevention of oil spills, a lot of it has to do with the structures involved with the oil industry. More specifically, this includes adding multiple layers to oil containing vessels to avoid the leakage of oil.

Additionally, checking the functionality and security of ship parts can prevent oil spills. Further, some have suggested prison time for parties responsible for oil spills. 

In the end…

In the end, it is vital for anyone to understand the gravity of oil spills. It may seem as though oil spills are no big deal, especially for those who do not live close to these spills.

However, after learning about the numerous, lasting effects oil spills can have, it is clear these catastrophic events pose a serious threat to every individual. Without change, oil spills will continue to occur and endanger lives.

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