Mixing Oil and Water: Tracking the Sources and Impacts of Oil Pollution in the Marine Environment

By Farrington, John W.; McDowell, Judith E. | Oceanus, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Mixing Oil and Water: Tracking the Sources and Impacts of Oil Pollution in the Marine Environment


Farrington, John W., McDowell, Judith E., Oceanus


Drop by drop--that is how most oil enters the oceans. Catastrophic spills make the headlines, but it is the chronic dribble, dribble, dribble of seemingly small inputs that supplies most of the oil pollution in the world's oceans.

In recent decades scientists have made substantial progress in understanding how oil enters the oceans, what happens to it, and how it affects marine organisms and ecosystems. This knowledge has led to regulations, practices, and decisions that have helped us reduce sources of pollution, prevent and respond to spills, clean up contaminated environments, wisely dredge harbors, and locate new petroleum handling facilities.

But tracking the sources, fates, and effects of oil in the marine environment remains a challenge for a number of reasons. For starters, oil is a complicated mixture of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of chemicals. Every source of oil, and even the same general types of oil (crude oils or fuel oils, for example) can have distinctive compositions depending on which oil field or well they came out of and how they were refined.

This varying, complex mixture of chemicals gets spilled or seeps into an already complex chemical chowder of seawater, mud, and marine organisms in the ocean. There, the oil is stirred by currents, tides, and waves, altered by other physical processes, and changed further by chemical reactions and interactions with organisms in the sea.

In the midst of this dynamic situation, scientists seek to pinpoint the impacts of oil on myriad individual species, as well as on entire ecosystems. Here the challenge comes full circle, because we now know that the impact of oil can vary greatly, depending on its distinctive chemical composition. But let's start at the beginning.

How does oil get into the ocean?

Scientists have known since the 1970s that accidents account for only a small percentage of the oil entering our waters. In fact, accidental spills of all types--from ships, shore facilities, pipelines, and offshore platforms--contributed just 9.8 percent of the oil entering the marine environment on an annual, worldwide basis between 1990 and 1999 (but just 3 to 4 percent in U.S. waters).

That doesn't mean we should dismiss the importance of spills. Accidents such as the 1989 Valdez incident off Alaska or the 2002 Prestige spill off Spain can have devastating effects on marine life and on people's ability to use the ocean. The impact of a spill depends on the type of oil, the amount spilled, the ocean and weather conditions, and the dynamics of the area or ecosystem where it takes place.

Progress in prevention--through more stringent laws, rules, and guidelines, and increased vigilance by industry and regulators--has reduced accidental spills, at least in developed countries. For instance, studies of tanker spills have prompted regulations for the steady, ongoing replacement of single-hulled tankers in the world fleet with double-hulled tankers.

But spills are just one small way, albeit dramatic, for oil to mix with our waters. So where is the rest of it coming from?

* Seeps: Between one-third and one-half of the oil in the ocean comes from naturally occurring seeps. These are seafloor springs where oil and natural gas leak and rise buoyantly from oil-laden, sub-seafloor sediments that have been lifted close to Earth's surface by natural processes.

If oil is natural to the oceans and if it is the biggest source of input, what is the fuss about oil as a pollutant? The answer lies in the locations and rates of oil inputs. Oil seeps are generally old, sometimes ancient, so the marine plants and animals in these ecosystems have had hundreds to thousands of years to adjust and acclimate to exposure to petroleum chemicals. On the other hand, the production, transportation, and consumption of oil by humans often results in the addition of oil to environments and ecosystems that have not experienced significant direct inputs and have not become acclimated.

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Mixing Oil and Water: Tracking the Sources and Impacts of Oil Pollution in the Marine Environment
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