Response to the Exxon Valdez Spill
Within hours after the tanker Exxon Valdez began spilling crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, a team of NOAA scientists from OR&R arrived on-scene.
During the days and weeks after the spill, U.S. Coast Guard and Exxon responders and others trying to control the effects of the huge oil slick used NOAA's predictions of the spilled oil’s trajectory in Prince William Sound. They also employed NOAA scientists' observations of the oil, made during overflights and sampling trips to affected shorelines.
In addition, responders used OR&R's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps of the region, which show the locations of especially oil-sensitive animal and plant populations, to decide which areas were most important to protect and eventually to clean up.
NOAA team members also provided weather forecasts and briefed responders about the potential costs and benefits of alternative response strategies.
Important questions emerged during the response to the Exxon Valdez spill:
- How quickly and completely would affected areas recover from the spill?
- Did spill cleanup measures—which included washing oiled beaches with hot water and mechanical scrubbing of beach rocks—speed up or slow down regrowth of the plants and animals that populated those areas?
Beginning in 1989 and ending in 2000, a team of NOAA OR&R biologists conducted a long-term study to monitor the area affected by the spill. Their goal was to evaluate the effects both of the oiling and of subsequent cleanup treatments on intertidal and shallow subtidal habitats in Prince William Sound. This allowed researchers to observe how quickly, and in what ways, shoreline habitats around the sound were recovering.