An oil spill occurs when a vehicle, vessel, pipeline or drilling rig releases petroleum products into the environment uncontrollably. The first major oil spill on record happened when the Thomas W. Lawson schooner became beached in the Isles of Scilly in 1907, spilling 58,000 barrels of paraffin oil into the sea.
Oil spills can pose grave dangers to surrounding ecosystems. As oil floats on water, it blocks sunlight from getting through to plants and other wildlife below. The substance is also toxic and nullifies the waterproofing and insulating properties of feathers and fur, allowing it to kill animals via poisoning or hypothermia. And oil spills can impede private and commercial fishing, too, spurring economic problems.
Humans have taken a variety of measures to clean up oil spills, but a perfect method has yet to be found. A common first step is to set up floating booms to contain the loose oil, and then pump it up for storage. Chemical dispersants can break up oil into smaller, dispersible droplets, although they can also make oil more toxic. When oil spills reach shorelines, standard cleaning procedures involve a combination of manpower, construction equipment and vacuums. (Photo: Shutterstock)