Worst Oil Spills In History

Workers clean up the aftermath of the BP oil spill in Florida in 2010. Editorial credit: Lorraine Kourafas / Shutterstock.com.

10. Amoco Cadiz, 1978 (1.6 million barrels)

On March 16th, 1978, a large crude oil tanker, the Amoco Cadiz, owned by the United States company Amoco, sunk in the waters of the English Channel after being hit by a heavy wave under stormy weather conditions. The impact caused irreparable damage to the tanker, triggering the breakage of the oil tanker into three parts and its sinking. This released 69 million gallons of oil into the sea. Over 20,000 sea birds, 9,000 tons of oyster, huge populations of fishes, echinoderms, and crustaceans, were lost as a result of this disaster. Fishes caught by fishermen also exhibited ulceration and tumors. This oil spill disaster was estimated to have caused a loss of $250 million USD to the fishing and tourism industry.

9. Castillo de Bellver, 1983 (1.8 million barrels)

On August 6th, 1983, a Spanish oil tanker, the MT Castillo de Bellver, carrying nearly 250,000 tons of light crude oil caught fire and sank in the Saldanha Bay off the coast of South Africa. The cause of this fire was unknown but the rescue workers managed to rescue the crew of the ship before it sunk into the ocean, 40 kilometers from the nearest coast. Luckily, however, though large volumes of oil were spilled into the ocean, the currents carried the oil seaward, causing little harm to the beaches. The animal casualties resulting from this disaster was also low and the worst fate was met by about 1,500 gannets who were badly oiled from this oil spill disaster.

8. ABT Summer, 1991 (1.9 million barrels)

On May 28th, 1991, an oil tanker, the ABT Summer, bound for Rotterdam from Iran with 260,000 tons of oil in storage, met with a disaster that led to a massive oil spill of about 1.9 million barrels of oil into the Atlantic Ocean. The oil tanker suddenly caught fire and exploded and burned for three days before sinking in the ocean. The incident took place 1,300 kilometers off the coast of Angola. Since the oil spill was far off from the coast, it was believed that the ocean waters would soon dilute the oil and hence oil cleaning efforts were not launched on a large scale to clean up the oil spill.

7. Nowruz-Persian Gulf, 1983 (1.9 million barrels)

The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s witnessed several oil spills in the Persian Gulf. One of the worst oil spills occurred in 1983 when an oil tanker crashed into an offshore oil platform in the Persian Gulf, destabilizing the oil platform and triggering the release of about 1.9 million barrels of oil into the sea. The raging war between the fighting factions halted remediation efforts and it was not until seven months after the oil spill that the exposed oil well was capped to prevent further release of oil into the Persian Gulf. The capping event of the oil well resulted in the death of 11 people.

6. Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan, 1992 (2 million barrels)

The oil spill in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, also known as the Mingbulak oil spill, was one of the largest terrestrial oil spills ever to be recorded in history. The oil spilled out from an oil well in the valley as a result of a blowout and continued to burn for two months. 35,000 to 150,000 barrels of oil were lost each day and a total of nearly 2 million barrels of oil had been lost by the end of the disaster. The oil spillage stopped by itself and efforts were made to prevent the spread of spilled oil over larger areas by the construction of dykes around the disaster site.

5. Atlantic Empress, 1979 (2.1 million barrels)

On July 19th, 1979, one of the worst oil spill accidents in history occurred when two oil tankers, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, collided with one another to release nearly 88 million gallons of oil into the Caribbean Sea. The ships collided off the coast of the island of Little Tobago and soon after the collision, the Atlantic Empress caught fire while the Aegean Captain, though catching fire in its bow, was towed back to safety. 26 crew lost their lives in the disaster and the Atlantic Empress, after burning for over a fortnight, finally sank on August 3.

4. Ixtoc I, 1979 (3.3 million barrels)

Large numbers of Kemp’s sea turtles, fishes, crabs, mollusks, and other aquatic and semi-aquatic species were lost to one of the worst oil spills in history. The oil spill occurred on June 3rd, 1979 when an exploratory oil well in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico suffered a blowout, releasing nearly 140 million gallons of oil into the sea, severely affecting the aquatic ecosystem of the region. The oil also affected Mexican shorelines and even reached the shoreline of Texas by the action of water currents. Large scale disaster management operations were launched by the Mexican and American governments to contain the oil spill, cap the oil well and save the vulnerable animal victims of the disaster.

3. Deepwater Horizon, 2010 (4 to 4.9 million barrels)

On April 20th, 2010, an oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon Rig located on the Mexican Gulf and operated by British Petroleum (BP), experienced a blowout that killed 11 people and injured 17 others. The oil that started spilling out from the oil well underneath the rig on the ocean bed soon started polluting large areas of the ocean causing huge distress to marine life and dealing death blows to large populations of aquatic and avian species, many of them on the endangered list. Over 4 million barrels of oil were released into the sea over a period of 87 days and there were reports that even after the capping of the well on July 2010, oil continued to be spilled into the ocean. 16,000 miles of coastal land was affected by this disaster which witnessed the participation of large numbers of common people engaged in saving the animal victims of this disaster and cleaning up the oil spill.

2. Gulf War Oil Spill, 1991 (6 to 8 million barrels)

The Persian Gulf oil spill of 1991 was one of the worst oil spills in history. It was unfortunately caused by the deliberate act of man rather than accidental spillage. The loading of between 5 and 10 million barrels of oil (as much as 300 million gallons of oil) into the Persian Gulf was initiated by Iraqi soldiers retreating from Kuwait as a revengeful war tactic. The soldiers set fire to several oil wells in Kuwait’s deserts and opened the valves of oil rigs and wells owned by Kuwait that spilled huge volumes of oil into the Persian Gulf. This thoughtless action spoiled vast tracts of coastal habitat in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and had catastrophic effects on marine populations of several rare and endangered species.

1. Lakeview Gusher, 1910 (9 million barrels)

The Lakeview Gusher was an accidental oil spill that occured in California in 1910. Over the span of 18 months, a staggering 9 million barrels of oil were released. The leak occurred as a result of unsafe drilling practices that allowed for oil to leak out. Despite recuperation efforts, less than half of the total 9 million barrels of oil that were spilled were able to be salvaged.

Worst Oil Spills In History

RankOil SpillYearCountryBarrels Spilled (Millions)
1Lakeview Gusher1910United States9
2Gulf War Oil Spill1991Kuwait6 to 8
3Deepwater Horizon2010United States4 to 4.9
4Ixtoc I1979Mexico3.3
5Atlantic Empress1979Trinidad and Tobago2.1
6Fergana Valle1992Uzbekistan2
8ABT Summer1991Angola1.9
9Castillo de Bellver1983South Africa1.8
10Amoco Cadiz1978France1.6

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