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A bird covered in oil after a 1997 oil spill off the California coast
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Resources for Teaching About Oil Spills

Marine and coastal ecosystems are greatly affected by oil. As soon as oil has spilled into the ocean it starts to spread out over the sea surface. At first it is one single slick of oil, covering large areas of the sea surface quickly. Wind and waves can cause the slick to break into several parts. Some of the oil sinks to the ocean floor, while most of it stays at the surface. If the oil on the surface has burned, the residue will often be dense enough to sink to the bottom. Some ocean microbes can break apart certain types of oil. After a while, the oil floating in the ocean starts to break down forming balls of tar which wash up on coastlines.

Oil is a danger to marine life - including plants, animals, algae, and many small microbes. Seabirds are in danger of becoming covered with spilled oil since the slick is at the surface of the ocean where they live. Oil-filled feathers can make birds unable to fly and, if oil covers their downy feathers, the birds will get cold. Marine mammals like dolphins, seals, and whales are also in danger of becoming covered with oil since to take a breath of air they must come to the ocean surface. Many other animals are affected by oil spills too such as turtles, fish, clams and oysters. Oil can be toxic to animals if they inhale or eat it.

The resources listed below include content and classroom activities for educators who wish to address oil spills and the effects of oil spills with students.

Last modified May 13, 2010 by Lisa Gardiner.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF