Forms of Marine Pollution: Oil Spill

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Our oceans and marine life are fighting a losing war on many fronts in the form of various types of pollution.

The introduction of destructive compounds which are normally not part of the environment is known as pollution. Marine pollution is usually a direct cause of something that was done on land. Pollution is categorized into two groups, nonpoint source pollution and point source pollution. Point source pollution can be tracked back to one main source, while nonpoint source pollution can be tracked back to many smaller sources. Runoffs from farms and ranches, septic tanks, cars, trucks, and boats are the main causes of nonpoint source pollution. The main sources of point source pollution are usually caused by farms, ships, oil and chemical spills, and discharge from water treatment systems and factories. “Some scientists have discovered that some of the medications that our bodies cannot fully digest are ending up in the water and in turn are ending up in the seafood that we eat” (

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The most widely known form of point source pollution is the oil spill. Any spill of oil products that can pollute the environment is considered an oil spill. Regardless of the amount of oil that was released, any introduction of oil into an environment is considered an oil spill. The term oil spill also refers to the negative side effects that the oil has on the living organisms in the environment. Oil products include gasoline, diesel fuels, jet fuels, kerosene, hydraulic oils, and lubrication oils, many of which contain a compound called hydrocarbons. There are many forms of hydrocarbons, such as paraffins, isoparaffins, aromatics, cycloalkanes, and unsaturated alkanes, which are all detrimental to the environment and to those who live in it. Other components of oil include elements like carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen. When an oil spill occurs, the water gathers at the top of the water in small groups, because water is a good dispersion agent. Sometimes oil spills occur on land, but this does not mean that it will not reach a source of water. The oil can seep into the ground and eventually could reach a groundwater. This type of pollution can be easily prevented, if the spill occurs on a paved area, or an area above natural clay or another geological barrier. There are many ways that an oil spill can affect the environment and the people and animals that rely on it. Through direct skin contact, which causes irritation and can sometimes be absorbed into the body, the fumes coming from the spill are dangerous if inhaled, and oil can be ingested as a result of contaminated water. Oil spills can also affect people through contaminated sea food, it can disrupt recreational activities on any affected body of water, it decreases property value, it changes the environment visually, and it can negatively affect the environment.

Dead zones, or hypoxic zones, are a form of nonpoint source pollution that is caused by damaging algal blooms. When a large group of algae decomposes, they take all of the oxygen out of the water around them, making a biological desert where nothing can live. These areas are known as dead zones. Any overgrowth of an algal bloom is considered harmful. Even though not all algae are toxic, any overgrowth of them can be damaging to the environment. The toxins algae produce can sicken and kill people and animals and make the water unsafe to drink. For an algal bloom to survive it needs sunlight, slow moving water, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Algal blooms can get nitrogen and phosphorus naturally, but they can also get it from things like fertilizer, which causes a surplus of algae. The dead zone in the Mississippi Delta is a great example of fertilizers causing surpluses of algae. This dead zone appears every summer and is about the size of the state of New Jersey. It is caused by fertilizers being washed into the water by rain which flow into the Mississippi Delta. This is the second largest dead zone in the world. Animals that live in dead zones either move to a different area or they die. Dead zones can occur naturally or by human interference, but the ones people make seem to be larger than the ones that occur naturally. Dead zones are particularly common on the eastern coast of the United States, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

Marine debris is any solid material that is produced and deposited or abandoned into the marine environment. This is one of the most widespread forms of pollution that is damaging our oceans today. Storm drains, sewers, and recreational activities are the main causes of the trash that ends up on our beaches. Though most bodies of water have some sort of trash in them, not just the beaches. Many objects, such as abandoned fishing gear, can entangle, injure, and drown wildlife and damage peoples` personal property. “Some birds and fish have been known to eat microplastics and even some larger pieces of plastic. There are some chemicals in these plastics that absorb toxins fairly easily, making them even more dangerous for marine life” (Forbes. Not only does marine debris harm wildlife and property, but it also disrupts the navigation process for both humans and wildlife.

A result of large amounts of marine debris are ocean gyres. Ocean gyres are large systems of circulating currents. The North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, the North American Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre are the five major gyres plaguing the seven seas. Ocean gyres are formed by marine debris that has been corralled by ocean currents. These ocean gyres create patches of concentrated trash in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most famous patch in the ocean. “The most well-known garbage patch is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is somewhere in between Hawaii and California. We know that it is made of microplastics that resemble soup” (Parker. These patches are slow-moving groups of microplastics, which cannot be seen by the naked eye. Patches in the ocean come in various shapes and sizes, and because of ocean currents are always changing in some way. All the plastic that travels through our oceans cause serious health risks for the marine animals and their environment. There is so much plastic in the North Pacific that it would take sixty-seven ships a whole year to clear out only one percent of the plastic in that area.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters long and can be harmful to the ocean and the animals that live in it. A majority of the plastics that are in our oceans are not biodegradable, that means they can stay in the ocean for hundreds of years, getting smaller and smaller. There are large knowledge gaps about microplastics, like how much there is, where it comes from, and what damage does it do. “Even though there has been plastics in our oceans for over fifty years, we still do not know much about microplastics, how much is in our oceans, where the largest amounts are, and the extent of the damage it does to marine life” (Löf. Since microplastics are so small, they are nearly impossible to remove from the ocean.

The most surprising form of pollution is sound pollution. Sound pollution is caused by ships, sonar devices, oil rigs, earthquakes, and other similar things. This type of pollution can disturb migration patterns and causes stress on marine life. “Sound pollution has not been fully researched by science as of yet” (Clark. Another source of sound pollution is a result of the search for oil in the ocean. In previous decades, explosives were used to find oil, but now we just use air guns and sonic mapping. These air guns are used in groups of forties and are shot in ten second intervals. This system of locating oil is similar to echolocation, the air goes back and forth along the ocean floor for weeks at a time. The air pressure creates bubbles that expand and contrast creating acoustic energy that reflects off the underwater structures. Companies then use this information to identify the most likely places that fossil fuel can be found. The only drawback of this search, other than the possibility of an oil spill, is that it fills the surrounding area with a lot of sound. A fantastic example of an animal that is affected by sound pollution is the whale. Whales use sound to communicate with each other and use sound for navigation. Usually whales migration and feeding grounds are in shallower areas where it is usually the noisiest. If whales cannot hear each other then they miss mating and feeding opportunities. “Some whales were found hiding behind large rock formations in an attempt to escape the noise” (Clark. One group of scientists collected and tested the hormone levels in whale poop to determine stress levels. They tested poop from before, after, and during the 911 attack. The stress levels were found to be lower after the event when air and marine traffic dramatically decreased. A comparison was made between whales that live in the southern and the northern hemispheres. In the southern hemisphere, where commercial shipping traffic has decreased dramatically in recent decades, the southern white whale has increased in population by seven to eight percent a year. But in the northern hemisphere, the white whales, who live in very similar habitats, only have a population increase of two or three percent a year. “Sound pollution is like a nonstop Jimi Hendrix concert for these whales and other marine life” (Clark. Not only whales are affected, but other animals too, such as fish, shrimp, and squid. In comparison whales are much more tolerable to noise pollution than fish are. Fish are moving out of noisier areas, which affects fishing, and fish that are born in these noisy areas have lower survival rates than those born in areas that have less ship traffic.

We have been dumping trash and polluting our oceans since the time of the Roman Empire. People are now realizing that we cannot just dump trash into the ocean and forget about it. Our actions have consequences and many groups have started taking steps to insure less trash ends up in the ocean, but this will not fix the problem completely. It is up to all of us to even begin to clean up our oceans, a feat that might take generations to complete. Then again it did take us generations to get to this point.


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