How Does an Oil Spill Affect The Environment?

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Much of the oil we use for machinery, vehicles and industry is deep below the surface of the Earth oftentimes in the middle of the ocean. When oils rigs or machinery malfunction or break, thousands of tons of oil can seep into the environment. Oil spill effects on environments and habitats can be catastrophic: they can kill plants and animals, disturb salinity/pH levels, pollute air/water and more.
Read more about the types of oil pollution.

Oil Spill Effects on Environments in Water

The oil environmental impact on water in damaging in a variety of ways. When there are oil spills in the ocean or freshwater, it does not blend with the water. Oil floats on the surface of salt and fresh water. Over a very short period of time, the oil spreads out into a very thin layer across the surface of the water. This can block sunlight from reaching oceanic environments, which can severely impact producers and, thus, the entire food chain of an ecosystem.

Slick Expands

This layer, called a slick, expands until the oil layer is extremely thin and can spread hundreds of miles wide. This layer is called a sheen and is usually less than 0.01 mm thick. Oil spills on the surface of the water are subjected to the whims of weather, waves and currents. Thus, an oil spill far out at sea can be carried ashore by wave and current action.

Rough seas can split an oil slick apart, carrying some oil in one direction and more in another. In contrast, a near shore oil spill can be totally controlled by currents and wave action that causes the oil to come ashore, damaging marine shoreline habitat.

Oil Breakdown

Different types of oil react differently when spilled. Some evaporate in small amounts, while others break down quicker. After the sheen breaks down, a moderate amount of oil will break down and be deposited on the bottom of the ocean.

Certain types of microbes will break apart and consume the oil, but this in no way makes up for the damage done during the spill. In addition, when oil spills in the ocean break apart and sink to the ocean floor, it contaminates the underwater habitat, too.

Oil Environmental Impact on the Coastline

Perhaps the most visual part of an oil spill is the harsh effects oil has on the coastline. Pictures of oil covered birds and sea mammals are common. Oil is thick and sticks to everything it touches. While the most visual part of the damage might be the birds and wildlife you see on TV, consider that the oil covers everything right down to a grain of sand. Every rock, piece of driftwood, saw grass, sand, soil and microscopic habitat is destroyed or affected by the thick oil that washes ashore after a spill.

Unless there is a concerted effort to clean the shoreline, oil will stay on shore until weather and time break the oil down. The process is extremely slow, which is why so many environmentalists work diligently to clean beach areas, rocks and shoreline that have been contaminated. The gooey mass that makes up an oil slick litters the shoreline with ugly black tar.

What makes it so very dangerous is that the coastline is where so much marine life is concentrated. Typically, shore areas are the nurseries for fish and marine life, in addition to being the home of many young marine mammals.
Read more about the effects of oil spills.

Effects on Marine Life and Wildlife

The effects of oil spills in the ocean are far reaching.

Marine Life Direct Impact

Marine and coastal life can be contaminated in a number of ways, through poison by ingestion, destruction of habitat and direct contact with oil. For example, when oil floats on the water surface, a marine mammal that surfaces in the center of the slick ingests the oil. Marine animals and organisms that swim through the slick area can also ingest oil through their gills.

Even if a marine animal is miles from the oil spill, but they eat another organism that was close by, they'll ingest that oil, which is poisonous. Ingesting oil can cause any number of problems besides death and sickness. If an animal or other marine organisms ingests oil, it can affect their ability to reproduce and produce viable offspring.

Oil Environmental Impact on Habitat and Wildlife

Habitat destruction is all too obvious with an oil spill. The most visible would be seen on shore, but beneath the water there is a very delicate balance in the reefs and shallow water habitats. Plankton, producers at the bottom of the food chain, are often killed by oil spills as a result of changes to the water and lack of sunlight beneath the oil slick.

This effect moves right on up the food chain. Of particular concern are the very delicate sea animals, such as clams and mussels that feed on plankton.

Direct contact with oil harms any organism that comes in contact with the oil. For example, when oil cakes the feathers of a bird, it keeps their feather from repelling water. Oil also weighs down the bird, keeping it from flying. If a bird isn't cleaned of the oil, it's a sure license to death. Many birds also ingest deadly amounts of oil trying to clean their feathers.

The same holds true for marine mammals. Marine mammal fur acts as an insulator to keep the animal warm in the coldest waters. When oil saturates the fur, it ruins the ability of the fur to retain heat. Again, marine mammals can ingest the oil when trying to clean their fur.

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