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Oil Spills: Ink-Black Rainbow of Catastrophe

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In the name of fulfilling the ever-increasing demand for energy, humans are literally sucking the Earth dry right now through fossil fuel extraction. This is not an easy feat by any standards, involving complex machinery, precise calculations, and topped off with many risks. Combine all those things together and mistakes are bound to happen every now and then, such as in the form of oil spill incidents that sometimes have catastrophic effects on the environment. Today we’ll be discussing those oil spill cases, the culprits of some of the worst human-induced ecological calamities.

The pumpjack, a drilling equipment designed to bring oil to the surface from oil wells
The pumpjack, an equipment designed for drilling into oil wells to bring oil to the surface

Photo by Bashta [14]


An oil spill case happens with human activity's accidental or intentional release of liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment. It is undoubtedly one of the worst forms of pollution for both mankind and nature. While ocean-based oil spills can create beautiful rainbow-colored mirages, the fate of the creatures affected by these oil spills is however not beautiful at all, as the oil will coat the plumage of birds and the fur of mammals, leading to various complications that will ultimately leave them with a very low survival chance [1][2]. Oil spills can also harm air quality due to the various toxic chemicals contained in the oil, which can cause various health problems if inhaled by humans [3][4].

A juvenile sea turtle covered from head to fin in the oil spilled by the Deepwater Horizon incident
A juvenile sea turtle fully smeared in the oil spilled by the Deepwater Horizon incident

Photo by Blair Witherington [15]


Oil spills can be caused by several things, such as the aftereffects of natural disasters, human error, technical failures, or intentional release [5]. An example of a natural disaster-caused spillage is the 2004 Taylor Oil Spill case in the Gulf of Mexico, which was caused by Hurricane Ivan sinking the Taylor Energy oil platform [6]. The cases caused by human error and technical failure, such as the Deepwater Horizon and Ixtoc I oil spill accidents [7], receive a lot of media spotlight due to their accidental nature. However, the biggest oil spill cases in history are caused by intentional releases, such as the Gulf War oil spill and the Kuwaiti oil fires cases being intentionally caused by Iraq in 1991 as acts of war [8].

The tank barge DBL 152 sinking and spilling oil after striking a sunken oil platform, who itself was sunk by Hurricane Rita
The tank barge 'DBL 152' sank and spilled oil after striking a sunken offshore oil platform sunk by Hurricane Rita

Photo by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) [16]


Cleanup and recovery efforts from an oil spillage are not only very expensive but also very difficult, taking decades in the worst cases [9]. Our current methods for cleaning oil spills either have harmful effects, such as oil dispersants that may kill fishes and their eggs [10], or require specific conditions that are hard to meet, such as controlled burning that can only be done in low wind [11]. Because of this, studies are being done to find cleaner and more efficient cleaning methods, for example by using bacteria such as the Fusobacteria species which are capable of colonizing and degrading oil slicks on the sea surface [12].

But even if such cleaning methods are ready, preventative methods will remain our best weapons in mitigating the risk of oil extractions, such as the improvement and more widespread use of the GPS to prevent oil tankers from hitting corals [13]. New preventative methods and improvements on already existing ones can be made by knowing how things went wrong. As such, we need to learn from our past sins by looking back and studying previous oil spill cases to prevent them from reoccurring.


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