Three decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska’s coast faces an even bigger threat

Climate change is damaging ecosystems that never had the chance to recover.


With the blustery wind of an overnight storm still blowing, our helicopter bucked and lurched above rows of froth on Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Swift-marching ranks of waves were driving oil away from the Exxon Valdez, the supertanker still held by a rock it had hit three days earlier.

For those three days in March 1989, the oil — at least 11 million gallons of it, though some say much more — had lain like a still pool around the ship, virtually untouched by cleanup efforts. Now the storm clawed the oil across the sound’s tracery of rocky islands, into their infinite crevices, and ultimately over more than 1,000 miles of rich coastal wilderness.

We landed on the first rocky beach we reached. Oil was ankle-deep. Our pilot pulled a dead cormorant out of the black muck. I stuck my hand into the oil, and my colleague, a photographer at the newspaper where I was a young reporter, took a picture.

As the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill clicks by, I had the disquieting experience of seeing that photograph again. This time, it was displayed as a historic icon. Like a piece of the Berlin Wall, which fell the same year, it belongs now to the story of the past.

A Sandpiper that got stuck on a barrel with waste oil leaking from it in Nome, Alaska.
Ashley Cooper/Corbis via Getty Images

Except the story isn’t over. Indeed, the tragedy of that coastal Alaska paradise is only deepening as it enters another, even darker act.

Experts at the time said a comeback would take decades, but that the spectacular biological wealth of these waters would return if given the chance, without another oil spill to knock it down. What they didn’t anticipate was a much larger, more diffuse threat. Changes brought by human emissions of carbon dioxide — warming and acidifying ocean waters — have proved as destructive as the spill, and they will not disperse, as the oil eventually did.

In my 20s, I reported on the futile and ultimately destructive $2 billion beach cleanup demanded by an enraged public and paid for by Exxon, at that time the world’s third-largest company. I watched scientists and volunteers gather dead wildlife, filling freezer trucks. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds died, whole flocks of them rolled up into windrows on remote beaches by the sticky, emulsified oil.

Now that has happened again, this time without the oil, as long, stinking piles of dead seabirds wash ashore, apparently starved in anomalously warm Northern waters that no longer produce abundant fodder. But this time, on winter days at remote beaches, visitors are scarce and news coverage has been local and scant.

The climate crisis is too large, too diffuse, and is hitting too many places at once — everywhere, really — to produce the outrage that exploded when lovely animals choked on Exxon’s oil. That spill was a singular, discrete disaster for the sound. But the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just keeps increasing every year.

Thirty years ago, I first made my mark as a writer describing oiled tide pools where, in better times, we used to discover intertidal organisms to study, play with, and eat — we would pick a pot of mussels to steam over a beach fire. Some tidepools were smothered by oil; others remained clear under a sickly sheen, but poisoned, the creatures within blanched.

Now, tidepools where I took my children have emptied again. Within the last few years, all the sea stars of this Alaska coast sickened and dissolved into slime — all of them — victims of a disease that apparently moved north because the water had warmed.

Where a small rocky island hosted a blizzard of nesting birds, spring is quieter now. In another generation, perhaps the spot will not be known as a seabird colony at all.

That’s how it has gone with the herring. In the sound, their spring spawn created a joyous circus of life, as birds, marine mammals and other fish fed on astounding, flashing schools that were miles long. The males’ milt clouded the sea. They seemed to fertilize the entire coast.

But after the oil spill, herring began showing up with deformities. A few years later, they didn’t come back. Thirty years later, they still have not returned in numbers adequate for a fishery, or to feed those crazy collections of wildlife that used to gather for the spring feast.

Why didn’t the herring come back? Ecosystems confound simple questions. Where are the mussels and sea stars? Can all this be repaired? Can we get back the abundance of my youth, or the greater abundance of generations before me?

We cannot know what will live on these shores 30 years from now. Nature always changes and always adapts. But one lesson seems clear: Under the assault of repeated destabilizing shocks — an oil spill, a changing climate — natural systems become poorer.

A rich, complex community of life established on these shores after ice receded 10 millennia ago. It probably takes a period of stability that long for the relationships of a many-channeled food web to develop. At my life’s halfway point, I’ve watched this place long enough to see how human errors and appetites could break its system of life, and to feel the urgency of addressing the carbon crisis, which I believe will happen. But the dream of recovery, climate stability and a newly healthy ecosystem — that vision may lie beyond the horizon of living generations.

Writer Charles Wohlforth, a lifelong Alaska resident, began his career in a small coastal town before covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster for the Anchorage Daily News. He is the author of 12 books. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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