Ecology:Oil Spills By Maham Khan


Oil spills are a byproduct of human activities in which oil is leaked from pipelines, shoreline facilities and ships. Surprisingly, the largest contributors to oil spills are not ships and tankers which carry a lot oil, but more like cars, boats, machinery and industrial plants. The oil most likely first affects the terrestrial ecosystem on land and eventually spills into the aquatic ecosystems as well. Oil spills have a great impact on the sustainability of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Oil spills are very harmful to ecosystems around the world. When oil spills reach forests or other wetlands, plants and grasses absorb the oil, which can damage the plants and eventually lead to an unsuitable area as a wildlife habitat. Oil spills also affect the economy because it can disrupt recreational activities in or near the water and beaches. Eventually the oil reaches the sea. Oil spills pollute the sea, leading to harmful impacts on marine life and ecosystems.Oil spills often kill marine mammals such as dolphins, seals, whales, etc.This can affect them from both internal exposure to oil because they might inhale or ingest the poisonous chemicals and external exposure through eye and skin irritation. Oil can also coat feathers and which will reduce the ability of birds and mammals to maintain body temperatures, causing them to die of hypothermia.

Oil spills

When an oil spill happens, response teams have to evaluate the spill to see which method to use. To do so they have take into account the time since the spill, the particular environment,the weather conditions and the type of oil that has spilled. After an oil spill happens the primary objectives are to speed the degradation of unrecoverable oil, reduce the impact on marine life and prevent the spill from reaching shore. One method to recover oil spills are using dispersants. Dispersants are a chemical agent that is used to break up an oil slick into small droplets. Even though this doesn’t completely remove the spill, smaller sized oil particles can be biodegraded more easily. Dispersants work most effectively when used within 1-2 hours of the spill. Another method is to use booms and skimmers.The slick is contained with booms and recovered with floating skimmers or burned off. Skimmers float across the surface and suck up oil contained by booms and deliver it to storage tanks in nearby vessels.Booms and skimmers are less effective when used in high seas and high winds.

Kuwaiti Oil fires

Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy(FSDS) is about meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations. It is about improving the standard of living by using resources efficiently, conserving the environment and protecting human health. It requires the integration of environmental, economic and social priorities into programs and policies and requires action at all levels--governments, industry and citizens. Over the past years the FSDS has helped Canada decrease its greenhouse gas emissions. Many threats to air quality have also been reduced but there are still many threats to ecosystems around the world.

Invasive species can completely throw ecosystems out of balance.Invasive species have many negative impacts on the area they invade. One is the loss of habitat. Some invaders can physically alter the habitat in addition to destruction. Some invasive species, such as the Burmese python, annihilate local bird and mammal species. Invasive species also negatively impact the sustainability of ecosystems.

Human activities and Biodiversity

Human activities also affect the sustainability of ecosystems. Human activities cause water pollution occurs when water is contaminated with foreign substances and chemicals that are harmful to plants, humans, and animals. Pollutants tend to speed the degradation of water quality which will make it more difficult to sustain water quality. This is also an economical barrier because it costs a lot of money to clean out the ocean. Some pollutants also consume lots of oxygen in the water, not leaving enough for sea life and that leads to a population decrease in certain species. With this many pollutants, it is getting harder to sustain the ecosystem to help species survive.

Water pollution

Humans also fish too much in certain areas causing an unbalanced ecosystem. Over fishing impacts the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem negatively because it can disrupt the food chain and cause less diversity in the ecosystem as well. By lowering the population of fish, the food chain is disrupted because animals like, otters, walruses, seals, sharks, etc. depend on fishes as food. Fishing is important to economies around the world. Some communities have fishing as their main source of labour and revenue and it will be affected as well if the population of fish goes down. Also, wildlife habitats are being destroyed because of human activities every day.

Example of overfishing

Construction and deforestation play a big role in destroying animal habitats. It also leads to pollution and unclean air because of the decrease in trees. Additionally roads and fences that we build prevent animals from getting to where they need to. An increase in human population means a decrease in animal population because habitats will be destroyed to make room for more human residential areas. This also takes up land for their food and shelter and the ecosystem can be destroyed.

illegal deforestation

There are many things an ecosystem needs to thrive, one of them being biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of life in the world or a certain ecosystem/environment. Biodiversity is important because all the animals and living organisms depend on each other to survive(food chain). Biodiversity boosts the productivity of ecosystems because each organism, no matter how big or small, has a role to play. For example, more plant species means a variety of crops. Also more biodiversity means better natural sustainability for all life forms. A healthy and productive ecosystem means protection of water resources, pollution breakdown, contribution to climate stability and many more natural services.

Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration

The main thing most living organisms need is oxygen. Oxygen is a byproduct from plants doing photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants make their own food. To make food plants need carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. Co2 from the air passes through the stomata (small pores) in the leaves. Water is collected from the roots of the plants and sunlight is absorbed by a green chemical in the leaves called chlorophyll. The sun’s energy is used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is then released into the air as a byproduct. In a cellular respiration, the energy is transferred into sugar. For that, it requires oxygen. Cellular respiration happens in all living things, like humans. They eat plants and use the plant’s energy (the sugar) to change it into carbon dioxide (which they exhale), water for hydration and energy for cells.

Photosynthesis process

Oil spills can impact the amount of oxygen in an ecosystem. Oil spills can prevent plants in the aquatic ecosystem to do photosynthesis because the oil can possibly block the sunlight from getting to the plants, and sunlight is extremely important for photosynthesis. In terrestrial ecosystems photosynthesis is also disturbed because oil spills are soaked up by the plant roots, making the plants weak and unable to produce oxygen. Human activities cause pollution and ruin the air which makes it harder for plants to survive. Oils spills destroy plants so herbivores, marine or terrestrial, will have difficulty finding food. This will cause an imbalance in the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. If oil spills prevent plants from doing photosynthesis, there will be no glucose or oxygen for cellular respiration. An ecosystem needs a balance of plants and animals, and other organisms to stay healthy.

Spheres of the earth

All the factors an ecosystem needs to survive, all come from different spheres of the earth. The lithosphere(earth), atmosphere(air), hydrosphere(water) and biosphere(living organisms). The lithosphere is the solid outer section of Earth, which includes Earth's crust (the thin layer of rock on the outer layer of Earth), as well as the underlying dense, and rigid upper part of the upper mantle. The lithosphere is where life on earth exists. The atmosphere is the layer of gases surrounding the earth and is contained with earth’s gravity layer. The main gases are nitrogen, oxygen and argon. All living organisms need oxygen to survive and plants need carbon dioxide to do photosynthesis. The hydrosphere is the total amount of water on a planet and this includes water in all forms, solid, liquid or gas. The hydrosphere includes water that is on the surface of the planet, underground, and in the air. All living organisms depend on this sphere to survive. Finally the biosphere is the layer of earth where life exists. This includes all ecosystems and living organisms within it. The biosphere includes living organisms in the atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. These four spheres help keep balance in the environment and ecosystem.

abiotic and biotic factors

A healthy ecosystem has abiotic and biotic factors. Biodiversity is one component for healthy ecosystems because all living organisms have an important role to play to help keep the balance in an ecosystem. Oils spills ruin the balance of ecosystems. Biotic factors are living organisms in the ecosystem. Some examples are animals, plants, fungi and other similar organisms. Biotic factors are usually part of the biosphere and are capable of reproduction. Abiotic factors are nonliving chemical and physical elements in the ecosystem. Some examples are soil, water and minerals. Abiotic factors are usually part of the atmosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere. Abiotic and biotic factors affect biodiversity. Species depend on abiotic and biotic components to successfully grow and reproduce to keep the population in balance. For example, plants need proper sunlight and soil to do photosynthesis successfully. When there is a harmful factor or a factor is missing, the success of that species is limited and it might even lead to population decrease.

Some other things that can lead to population decrease are forest fires, earthquakes, water and droughts. Fire destroys homes, wildlife habitats, timber, and polluting the air with carbon dioxide emissions. This can ruin the food chain because many animals will die, and some will even have to migrate to other places which will also ruin the balance of an ecosystem. Also, heavy rain can cause floods and can cause smaller organisms to die and this will also ruin the balance of the ecosystem because every organism has an important role in each ecosystem. Droughts can also easily wipe out species because water is essential to most living things. If a drought lasts too long it can easily wipe out a whole ecosystem. Additionally, high scale earthquakes can create mountains and animals that can’t live on mountains will have to migrate to more suitable habitats. This will also kill many animals. There are also population limiting factors in ecosystems. Because of climate change, wetlands are disappearing, causing water scarcity in animal habitats. Most species depend on water, and without water the animal population will decrease or stay limited. Different animals all have certain needs and can not survive in certain environments.


All ecosystems need plants to survive and most plants need healthy soil. Oil contamination affects the soil physical and chemical properties. Oil contamination increases the soil pH up to 8.0. Also when oil from a spill finds its way to soil, the roots from the plants attempt to absorb the oil, which clogs the roots, causing the plants to die. Mining methods, like strip mining can exploit soil by digging excessively to reach ores and minerals, without thinking too much of it. You wouldn't think that farming would affect soil too much. But nowadays farmers add a bunch of unnecessary nutrients and chemicals to the soil in the form of fertilizer and pesticides, which prevents the microorganisms in the soil from producing nutrients naturally. Construction also causes soil to blow away and get wasted. Mining ruins landscapes and habitats in terrestrial ecosystems. Construction for human uses destroys many terrestrial habitats.

Man spraying harmful pesticides onto the crops

Water quality

Ecosystems need clean water for the animals to survive but there are many human activities that lower water quality. Water pollution occurs when water is contaminated with foreign substances and chemicals that are harmful to plants, humans and animals. Pollutants tend to speed the degradation of water quality which will make it more difficult to sustain water quality. When farmers spray pesticides on the crops, some of the chemicals can blow away and fall into the water, lowering the quality of it. Polluting the water with garbage can be harmful to the marine animals and other organisms in the aquatic ecosystem. Oils spills pollute water very much and the oil is also hard to recover sometimes.

Oil sits on top of water and blocks the sunlight and some oxygen from entering the water. When the animals die due to lack of water and oxygen, all the toxins from their body are released into the water, lowering the quality. Polluted water has negative effects on ecosystems. If marine animals drink polluted water, they can die and create an imbalance in the ecosystem. Oil spills can prevent plants from doing photosynthesis leading to a lack of oxygen in the aquatic ecosystem


Created By
Maham Khan


Created with images by julie gibbons - "Oil Spill Face" • PublicDomainPictures - "leaf green macro"

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