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What happened during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacted the entire Gulf of Mexico, from deep-sea communities to more than 1,300 miles of shoreline (Credit: NOAA).

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacted the entire Gulf of Mexico, from deep-sea communities to more than 1,300 miles of shoreline (Credit: NOAA). View and print this infographic and see the description below.

The largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, started on April 10, 2010. An estimated 60,000 barrels of oil spewed out of the damaged well each day. That is the equivalent of nearly 400 tanker trailers’ worth of oil per day! The volume and duration of this spill were greater than any previous spill in U.S. history: 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. The explosion that caused the spill also killed 11 people and injured 17.

In order to address the spill, scientists had to identify exactly where the oil was coming from, how to stop it, and how to respond to the areas it impacted. Scientists determined that the oil was spewing from 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. Reaching the well and sealing the leak was difficult and dangerous. After nearly 3 months of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, responders were able to inject cement into the leaking area and stop the flow of oil.

The geographic range of the damage caused by the oil spill also challenged scientists. While responders were able to recover around 16% of the oil during initial efforts, the unprecedented duration of the spill resulted in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the oil was trapped deep underwater and collected on the seafloor. About half of the oil eventually rose to the water’s surface, where winds and currents pushed it west toward Louisiana. More than 1,300 miles of shoreline were impacted by oil—the equivalent to driving from New Orleans to New York City.

The oil devastated habitats and wildlife across the region, including deep-sea corals, birds, sea turtles, fish, and marine mammals. Oil sank to the ocean floor, mixed throughout the water, saturated marshes, and soiled beaches. Animals swam through, inhaled, and even swallowed the oil. The oil spill also significantly harmed humans. Many people suffered, including commercial and recreational fishers, residents, and businesses that depend on tourism like restaurants, hotels, and local tours.

Scientists and community members continue to work to restore habitats and fisheries damaged by the oil spill.

A screenshot from the 'First Hand Account' video.
Deepwater Horizon: A First Hand Account of the Spill

Senior Scientist Lisa DiPinto from NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration remembers what it was like to witness the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Watch this video to hear her first-hand experience of the spill’s aftermath.

A screenshot from the 'Restoring the Gulf' video.
Restoring the Gulf: 10 Years After Deepwater Horizon

The Deepwater Horizon spill impacted the entire Gulf ecosystem as well as the communities that rely on the Gulf's natural resources. Watch this video to learn more about the restoration efforts that have taken place in the last 10 years.

Infographic Description

This graphic shows a cross-section of the marine environment, illustrating where the oil from Deepwater Horizon spilled.

In the background, a beachside scene is shown with text reading “Beaches and Other Recreational Uses.”

In the rest of the graphic, oil is shown impacting the following areas, labeled with text:

  • Marsh and Other Nearshore Habitat: A vegetated shoreline with a stream running into the ocean, oil spilling onto the vegetation.
  • Beach Habitat: Shallow water and sandy shore covered with oil.
  • Birds: Pelicans and other sea birds landing on oiled vegetation and water.
  • Sea Turtles: Two turtles surfacing amid oil on the water.
  • Fish and Water Column Species: A variety of different fish species swimming through oil in the water.
  • Marine Mammals: Two dolphins swimming through oiled water.
  • Deep-Sea Communities: A patch of deep-sea corals being smothered by oil sinking through the water.

Key Takeaway: Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill affected many parts of the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem, from beaches and nearshore habitats to deep-sea coral communities.