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What are Oil Slicks?

By S. Mithra
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Oil slicks float on oceans and seas, covering them in a thick film of crude or refined petroleum oil. When freight ships carrying tens of thousands of tons of fuel crash, malfunction, or encounter harsh weather, they spill enormous amounts of oil into the water. Since oil and water don't mix, the oil spreads out into a layer that hovers, as one mass, on top of the ocean.

Thousands of oil slicks result from massive oil spills every year. Oil slicks are difficult to control or contain and even more challenging to clean up. Once formed, an oil slick becomes an unpredictable phenomenon. It might end up spreading, migrating, thinning or thickening, moving towards land or further out to sea. An international community of activists, organizers, and technical developers has formed to identify, manage, and eliminate the devastating oil slicks.

The fate of an oil slick is determined by many factors, including local and regional weather, ocean currents, tides when near a land mass, the relationship between air and water temperature, the chemical composition of the crude or refined oil, wind direction, and the presence of icebergs. Humans must intervene with tracking devices, booms, absorbent materials, and chemical treatments.

Oil slicks can be diverted or captured using floating booms. These are mechanical blockers that loop around the edges of the slick and possibly squeeze it away from land or relegate it to a controllable area. Sometimes slicks are lit on fire to burn them off. Other times, the physical barriers bring them to an area where they can be removed with sorbent booms. Using absorption or adsorption, the booms catch some of the oil manually. Most of it will be disposed, but some may be re-refined to use as fuel.

Not surprisingly, oil slicks cause untold damage to algae, seaweed, plant life, fish, birds, sea mammals, shellfish, and the soil and rocks on beaches. Oil sticks to everything, creating multiple mortal hazards. It can prevent dolphins or whales from breathing, drown birds that can't swim away, or intoxicate fish and animals that drink or eat it. Sand and rocks may need to be dug up and thrown away if oil seepage makes them impossible to clean. Even years after an area has been hit with an oil slick, the ecosystem shows evidence of the disaster with lower biomass and fewer species.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Glasshouse — On Jun 18, 2010

@ Amphibious54- The Deepwater Horizon disaster is actually the second large oil slick to foil U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico this year. While the Deepwater Horizon slick is the largest in U.S. history, the one that formed off of Port Arthur, Texas in January was also large.

The Port Arthur incident was the result of the oil tanker Eagle Otome colliding with a smaller vessel in the Sabinne Neches waterway. In this accident almost a half million gallons were released into the water. Only about half of the oil spilled was recovered, dispersed, or has evaporated.

They say the environmental impact from this oil slick will be minimal, but who knows how long it will take for the rest of the oil to evaporate. Hopefully the spills this year are not a sampling of what is to come.

By Amphibious54 — On Jun 18, 2010

For all of the oil spill that happen every year, few make headlines unless they are very large. However, like the article stated, oil slicks can be spread very far by the currents; affecting a larger area than the spill zone.

The Exxon Valdez spill happened over twenty years ago and there is still oil washing up on the beaches around Prince William Sound and the Katmai Coast. A special report by MSNBC published around the 20th anniversary of the spill stated that there is still approximately 20,000 gallons of toxic crude floating around in the water. It is decomposing at a very slow rate, and could still pose problems to local wildlife populations for decades to come.

I wonder what the outcome will be from the oil slick floating around in the Gulf of Mexico?

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