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How Oil Spills Affect the Environment—And What You Can Do

There have been 350 reports of oil spills since Hurricane Ida. Here's how oil spills affect the environment, and what you can do to help.

Written by
Asha Swann

Oil spills—which are often a result of accidents involving tankers, pipelines, and oil rigs—have a long-term, negative impact on our waterways, marine life, and even human health.

As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, storms like hurricanes continue to get stronger, which ultimately increases the risk of more oil spill occurrences. The most recent example? Hurricane Ida.

The U.S. Coast Guard said there have been 350 reports of oil spills since Hurricane Ida began. But this isn't the first time a tropical storm has inadvertently caused an oil spill. Around 8 million gallons of oil spilled off the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, too.

When hurricanes become stronger, drilling for oil becomes more challenging. These hurricanes generate extremely strong winds that end up breaking the machinery, which is the direct cause of the spill. When spills do happen, it can be devastating for a number of reasons.

How Oil Spills Affect the Environment

You've probably seen pictures of how oil spills impact the environment and wildlife. According to Sciencing, oil is so detrimental because it can expand until the oil layer is super thin. This can spread hundreds of miles. Aside from affecting the underwater habitat, it also affects the coastline.

"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," writes author S.F. Heron. "Unless there's a concerted effort to clean the shoreline, oil will stay onshore until weather and time break the oil down."

Wildlife is also heavily impacted by oil. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), oil destroys the insulating ability of fur mammals (like sea otters) and the water repellency of bird's feathers. When these animals aren't able to repel water and keep themselves warm, they can die from hypothermia.

Other issues that can arise are juvenile sea turtles becoming trapped in oil, as well as eating it thinking it's food. Dolphins and whales are also commonly affected: If they inhale the oil, it can affect their lungs, immune function, and reproduction.

Coral reefs can also suffer from coming into contact with an oil spill. The NOAA says "it can kill them or impede their reproduction, growth, behavior, and development." Since they support a quarter of all marine life and provide at least half a billion people with food security, it can create a trickle effect.

While hearing news of oil spills can make you feel helpless, there are some ways you can make a big difference.

How to Help When an Oil Spill Occurs

Adopt an Animal

Unless you're a trained wildlife professional, most of us can't directly rescue and rehabilitate animals affected by oil spills. But one thing we can do is participate in symbolic adoptions of animals like sea turtles, brown pelicans, or other species that need help.

For example, a $20 adoption fee to the National Wildlife Federation will make you an official sea turtle parent. The funds will go toward protecting fragile sea turtle hatcheries.

Participate in a Beach Pre-Cleanup

You might be thinking: How can a beach cleanup help an oil spill before the spill happens? Organizations like RedCross and Volunteer Louisiana are seeking volunteers to pre-clean beaches.

Removing trash and debris ahead of time can make oil cleanups even more effective. It can also make it easier to find animals that may be trapped, so they aren't hidden or covered by larger pieces of debris.