On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, rupturing the hull and spilling oil into the pristine waters of Alaska. In all, nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil devastated this remote and biologically productive body of water. Hundreds of thousands of birds, mammals, and other marine organisms were killed or injured.
In response to the spill, Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act in 1990. Now, as tankers pass through Prince William Sound, they are monitored by the US Coast Guard via satellite and are accompanied by two escort vessels. All tankers must have double hulls by the year 2015. Contingency plans must now include a scenario for a spill of 12.6 million gallons, training drills, and rapid notification of incidents.
Twenty-five years later, NOAA scientists continue to monitor the areas affected by the Valdez spill and use this knowledge to refine their approach to future spills.
One of the most significant advancements is ERMA®. It’s an online tool that gathers all sorts of data like ocean currents and weather, current ship locations, and the predicted path of the oil in real time. This data is layered on a single map with the resources that may be damaged. These maps give emergency managers the information they need to make better decisions when responding to the spill.
ERMA was developed during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. These maps helped coordinate emergency response efforts across federal, state, and local partners. And they’ve been crucial to assessing the damage to fish, wildlife, surrounding habitats, and the public use of those resources.
Oil spills will always pose a major threat to marine life, our beaches and wetlands, and our livelihoods. And NOAA will continue to refine these tools and develop new technologies to improve how we respond to these disasters.