The Science of Spills
To respond safely and effectively to an oil or chemical spill, you need to draw on many kinds of scientific knowledge. For example, NOAA's computer models use the principles of physics and chemistry to predict where a spilled material will go, and how soon it will get there. NOAA biologists and chemical specialists use their knowledge to predict what or who could get hurt and how to minimize the damage.
Spill Response 101
When oil or a chemical spills, a team of experts quickly assembles at the scene. Their assignment: quickly define and carry out a response strategy designed to minimize harm to the environment and safeguard human life and health. Follow the links below to find out what happens next:
What Happens During an Oil Spill?
How oil spills typically happen, who responds to them, and what goes on during a spill response.
Oil Spill Guided Tour
How NOAA's oil spill scientists respond to oil spills, and how a typical response unfolds.
Oil, Water, and Chocolate Mousse
A primer on oil spills and oil spill response, also includes instructions for an oil spill cleanup experiment you can try yourself. From Environment Canada.
Frequently Asked Questions about Oil and Chemical Spills
Answers to questions that students, teachers, and others have asked us about topics related to oil and chemical spills, also includes some ideas for projects and experiments.
You might think of oil as being a single substance, but there are many different kinds of oil.
Dispersants: A Guided Tour
People responding to an oil spill may use several kinds of "countermeasures" intended to reduce the harm caused by the spill. Dispersants are one kind of countermeasure. This tour gives a basic explanation of what they are and how they work.
Safety Training for Responders
This manual describes the required safety training for responders. It's titled "Training Marine Oil Spill Response Workers Under OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard" (HAZWOPER), published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), US Department of Labor, 2001 version. (PDF, 292 kB)
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez into the biologically rich waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound made a deep impression on America's environmental consciousness. It also resulted in important changes to Federal law related to oil spills. Here are links related to this watershed event:
Response to the Exxon Valdez Spill
Overview of the response to this important spill and NOAA's follow-up biological monitoring.
NOAA's Long-Term Monitoring Program in Prince William Sound,
NOAA biologists studied the creatures and habitats of Prince William Sound for years after the oil spill to learn more about how organisms recover from an oil spill.
How Oil Affects Marine Life
Some animals are not usually harmed by oil spills. For example, a whale can avoid spilled oil by swimming away from it. Other animals and habitats are much more vulnerable to harm. Here are links to more information about vulnerable species.
Effects of Oil on Wildlife
Basic overview of the ways wildlife, especially birds, can be harmed by spilled oil. From Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc.
Coral Reefs and Oil Spills: A Guided Tour
Basic overview of tropical, shallow-water coral reefs, some of the threats they face from oil spills, and ways to restore reefs that have been damaged.
Oil Spills in Mangroves: Planning and Response Considerations
Mangrove forests, typically found along tropical seacoasts, are especially vulnerable to both oil spills and cleanup activities. This report explains how they can be harmed, and how to prevent damage to them.
Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning, and Response
Explains sea turtle biology, what is known about the effects of oil on sea turtles, potential spill response actions, and case histories from previous spills.
Experiments You Can Try
Here are links to some experiments we've developed to help you learn more about oil spill topics.
How Does Oil Act in Water?
For younger students.
Find the Best Way to Clean Oil off Bird Feathers
For younger students.
Using Maps to Evaluate Environmental Tradeoffs
For older students and adults. Spill responders use sensitivity maps to plan protection strategies for coastlines threatened by an oil spill. This exercise provides materials and instructions for developing a protection strategy for a section of Delaware Bay shoreline.
Investigating the Top of the Water Column
For younger or older students. Organisms that live near the water surface are especially vulnerable to oil spills. Here are instructions for visiting a coastal location to observe organisms living near the surface.
Graphing Changes in Marine Life Abundance
For older students. Using an online photo series, investigate changes in mussels, barnacles and seaweed growing on a boulder that was oiled by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.