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Prince William's Oily Mess: A Tale of Recovery


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How does an ecosystem recover from a major

one-time insult such as an oil spill?

Photo credits: OR&R, NOAA; Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council; Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research

As you will learn from this Discovery Story, the answer is not simple. It isn't easy to determine whether a particular area of shoreline has recovered from oiling during a spill, or how to expect it to look when it has.

In March 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, rupturing its hull and spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil. It remains the largest oil spill ever to occur in U.S. waters.

Computer simulation of how oil traveled across Prince William Sound
video cam Watch & Discover: An Oil Spill Trajectory Model - Computer simulation of how oil traveled across Prince William Sound during the first week after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

To learn how Prince William Sound is recovering from this environmental shock, NOAA scientists have conducted a monitoring study there since 1990. Even today, these scientists and others are trying to answer the following questions:

  •  How did the oil impact marine life and their habitats?

  •  Did the massive cleanup operations actually cause more harm than good?

  •  How much oil remains in Prince William Sound?

All the facts aren't yet in, but here you can read about how NOAA biologists have been monitoring the long-term effects of this major spill on marine life, the various cleanup efforts, and the recovery of Prince William Sound ever since that unfortunate day.

  •  What did the Exxon Valdez teach us about oil spill response?

  •  Has Prince William Sound recovered from the spill?

You can analyze the Mearns Rock Time Series, which is a sequence of photos of the same oiled rock in Prince William Sound. The photos were taken once each year since the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred there. You can try your hand at working with some real data collected by scientists at Mearns Rock, and answer the question:

  •  How did the Exxon Valdez oil spill affect the abundance of marine life on Mearns Rock?

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