Oil spills in the Antarctic

Person talking and gesturing to a fuel clean up kit to people gathered listening..
Demonstrating how to use a fuel spill kit (Photo: J. Pritchard)

Oil spills affect the entire food web, and spills in polar regions differ from temperate regions. This makes it particularly important to have measures in place to minimise risk and clean up any spills.

In 1989, an Argentine resupply vessel with tourists on board ran aground on a reef near the US station of Palmer, on the Antarctic Peninsula, spilling about 600,000 litres of fuel - the largest marine oil spill ever to occur in Antarctica. Fortunately the spill was not the catastrophe it was first feared with effects restricted to a few kilometres from the wreck, and only negligible effect on fish, seals and whales. However it serves as a warning. Oil spills can impact on the whole food web. The feathers of oil-coated birds can't hold air or repel water, mammals such as seals die from drowning and freezing and oil toxicity can affect even the tiniest creatures at the bottom of the food chain.

  • Why is an oil spill in a polar environment a particularly bad thing? (Oil behaves differently at low temperatures: microbes take longer to degrade oil and the oil globules trapped in ice can take years to disperse. Moreover, in the event of a major accident it is unlikely that there would be the local resources to carry out a large-scale clean up.)
  • What sort of measures can be taken to minimise the risk of an oil spill in Antarctica? (Ships should use light fuels like diesel that evaporate and disperse much more easily than heavy fuel oils – as do all of the Australian Antarctic program's vessels. They should be ice-strengthened and carry sophisticated navigation equipment. All nations operating in the Antarctic should prepare an oil spill contingency plan. Ships' crews should be trained in preventative measures. Measures need to be enacted to make nations legally and financially responsible for damage to the environment.)
  • What if someone makes a spill and doesn't clean it up? Should they be fined? If so, how much, by whom, and to whom should the money go? Read about the liability annexe VI (not yet in force) to the Madrid Protocol.

See the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's website for information about oil spills and some excellent science experiments, games and other education material. (Particularly good is Fix-a-slick, an oil spill cleanup simulation game that requires you to select methods to clean up a marine oil spill.)

Live from Antarctica 2 features oil and water don't mix or do they?: a lesson that investigates the effects of oil on the skin and coats of Antarctic marine organisms. Also very good are the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's pages on oil spills which includes images, guided tours and experiments.

For a comprehensive resource on the Exxon Valdez oil spill (with information and dramatic photos on the grounding, cleanup methods and the current status of the Sound) go to Prince William Sound: Paradise Lost?.

This page was last modified on July 3, 2014.