Alaska Sea Grant

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

You will examine the specifics of the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that dumped nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil, the biggest spill ever in U.S. waters. This is a very relevant, real-world, local Alaskan story that portrays the importance of ocean currents, but it also addresses many other complicating facets of ocean currents that require you to use your conceptual understanding of how water moves in the ocean find where the oil went and why.

Why did the oil drift where it did?

Investigate and answer the following questions:
Does crude oil float on the surface or sink?
Which drivers of ocean currents played the largest role in determining where the spilled oil drifted?
How did information about currents in Prince William Sound inform the clean-up efforts?
How did the spill affect humans and other animals?

After you investigate the oil spill and find answers to the above questions, your group needs to create a presentation addressing the four points below. You will be assessed using the Ocean in Motion Project Rubric that will be provided to you.
Your presentation should address the following:

  •  Which factors driving and directing currents (wind, tides, density (salinity/temperature) and topography) pertain to the Exxon Valdez oil spill? Why?
  • Were humans affected by currents, and if so, how?
  • How does the weather in the area of the spill affect the currents?
  • What technology pertains to studying the currents in the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

Background Information and Resources:

Weather at the time of the spill and afterward:
The first three days after the Exxon Valdez oil spill afforded nearly ideal weather for oil recovery.

Prince William Sound is a small inland sea in that it is wide enough to have appreciable horizontal cyclonic circulation. It is also a fjord in that it has basin depths to 700 m but is stilled at 180 m to the open ocean. The general circulation pattern is defined by a portion of the westward flowing Alaska Coastal Current on the Gulf of Alaska shelf that enters Prince William Sound through Hinchinbrook Entrance and transits the sound from east to west before exiting through Montague Strait and rejoining the coastal current. However, there is much variability in this circulation, especially in the transport through Hinchinbrook Entrance.

More information on Prince William Sound’s circulation

Map showing Bligh Reef and the spill location

NOAA Fisheries Office of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) Damage Assessment and Restoration

Map of where the oil went

The behavior of the oil

Radio show about currents in Prince William Sound



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