A Scientific Approach to Understand the Impact of Oil Spills

When we talk about the adverse impact of oil spills on a region’s ecology, it should always stand ground with scientific facts. To be sure we are on the same page, let’s look at some data trends of historical oil spills:

The dataset provided by ITOPF (International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation) shows a substantial decrease in spill accidents from 1970 to 2018 despite a worldwide increase in petroleum and gas products trade. In the 1970s, the average oil spill per year was about 78.8 which decreased to 6.2 in the last decade.

Source: itopf.org


The data below shows the trends of the quantity of oil spilled over the same period:

We can see that the quantity of oil spilled has been on the decrease with a slight year over year changes. Now, the data’s positive outlook doesn’t mean that we can sit back and ignore the hazard posed by oil spills. Oil spills have both long-term and short-term impact on our oceans’ sensitive ecosystem and in no way should be treated lightly. 

Source: itopf.org

Factors Affecting the Impact of an Oil Spill

The impact of oil spills depends on the quantity of oil, the composition of the oil, the region’s sensitivity, the sensitivity of the marine flora and fauna, the spill response and cleanup process, etc. The temporary impact of oil spills includes the loss of habitat of aquatic animals, and the long term impact may change that region’s biodiversity. The oil usually degrades faster in oceans and other water bodies as compared to lands. This makes it all the more important to react swiftly and help the ecosystem in the recovery process. 

Dynamic Nature of the Aquatic Ecosystem

Most aquatic ecosystems, like shallow coral reefs, face various kinds of natural disturbances like typhoons and tsunamis. Their dynamic nature allows them to rejuvenate, albeit it takes a very long time and we might see a different set of species and animals now occupying the habitat. Measuring the impact of such changes scientifically is necessary and will further help us develop more effective and efficient measures. The ecosystem’s natural recovery process can also be assisted with proper oil cleanup promptly and other rejuvenation projects. 

Oil Spill Impact on Marine Ecosystem

Let us understand in what ways the oil spill could affect the ecosystem and marine life:

Physical impact on organisms: The oil can accumulate on the body of aquatic animals which may cause difficulty in breathing, movement, feeding, etc.  This usually happens with oils of high viscosity.

Toxicity in aquatic organisms: The lighter oil components can also be absorbed into the body, organs, or tissues, leading to toxicity. This is very lethal to marine animals. This also affects the seafood-consuming population as the fishes population might decline, and the toxic buildup also harms the human body. 

Impact on the ecology of water bodies: The oil spill may change the region’s biodiversity that may lead to the loss of some key species and other species replaced by newcomers taking similar roles as that of their predecessors. This usually changes the region’s known dynamics and might have an adverse impact despite the ecosystem’s recovery.

The less-dense oil doesn’t mix with water but floats above forming a layer that prevents the sunlight from reaching the producers and thus affecting the entire food chain.

This thin layer has a specific name known as ‘slick’, and it can spread very quickly if no measures are taken to control the spill. The spread depends on various factors such as wind speed, direction, waves, etc. The volatile components of the oil evaporate and may travel farther with the wind.

The impact of the oil spills on the coastlines is one of the most visual confrontations with most people. Not only the animals and birds we see on the television or online, but the ground, the microbiome, all are similarly affected by it.

It takes a long time in the natural degradation of the oil unless actions are taken to clean up the mess. The spill control and cleanup on time can substantially reduce the adverse impact onshore and offshore locations. As long as oil exploration & transportation takes place, spills will happen even if we take all the precautions as that is the nature of spills.

The importance of innovative methods and equipment becomes all the more important for the handling of such incidents with maximum efficiency while minimizing the loss as much as possible.

Related Posts: