The role a melting glacier played in the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster
In the wee hours of March 24, 1989, the channel connecting the Alaskan port of Valdez with Prince William Sound was riddled with icebergs shed from the deteriorating Columbia Glacier, a massive river of ice that had begun breaking apart only a few years earlier.
With an inexperienced third mate guiding the massive, oil-laden tanker, the Exxon Valdez swerved out of its designated shipping lane to avoid the ice. It was a standard maneuver carried out hundreds of times before.
But this time, on this night, before the third mate could correct course, the tanker careened into the rocky outcropping of Bligh Reef where it ultimately released roughly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound.
That such a catastrophe might happen was not news to the company.
Beginning in 1975, the U.S. Geological Survey warned Exxon and its co-investors in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System — including companies now part of BP and ConocoPhillips — that the glacier was becoming unstable.
What was triggering the glacier to drop icebergs at such a ferocious and ultimately disastrous pace was unclear at the time. But some scientists, even then, were beginning to look at climate change’s role.
In 1978, a news article in the scientific journal Nature reported that the USGS was “concerned that the glacier could, as a result of changing climatic conditions, experience a ‘drastic retreat’ which might result in … a major hazard to shipping.” Similar accounts of the USGS warnings appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, among others.
In the decades following the accident, as Exxon publicly questioned the risks climate change posed both to society and its own operations and assets, a growing number of glaciologists identified climate as a factor in one of world’s largest and costliest environmental disasters.
While glaciers grow and retreat over decades and centuries, most of the planet’s glaciers are now shrinking at unprecedented rates, leading scientists to conclude with confidence that a changing climate is the culprit.
“There is no question now that climate change is responsible for both the initial breakup” of the glacier, due to decreased precipitation in the region and its “continued retreat due to higher global temperatures,” said Wendell Tangborn, a retired USGS geologist who studied the Columbia Glacier in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2015, the Energy and Environment Reporting Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Los Angeles Times documented the complicated relationship Exxon (today known as Exxon Mobil) had with climate change science, risk and disclosure during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The website InsideClimate News also published an investigation into the company’s early climate research.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the earliest and most devastating examples of the risks posed by a changing climate, many scientists now say — one that ultimately resulted in the polluting of a pristine sound, the destruction of local fisheries, and cost Exxon a total of $3.4 billion through 2008 in cleanup costs and court settlements.
A number of factors, including an inebriated captain who had retired to his stateroom, an overworked crew and lax regulatory oversight, led to the accident. But it was the icebergs from the deteriorating glacier that created the treacherous conditions that forced the ship to veer off course.
This story is the result of dozens of interviews with scientists, government officials and oil industry employees, as well as a review of documents obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Coast Guard, National Archives, National Transportation Safety Board, Vanderbilt University, University of Alaska and the Exxon Mobil Historical Collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History.
For the two decades following the Exxon Valdez disaster, the company worked quietly to safeguard its operations and infrastructure against steadily rising sea levels and thawing permafrost. Yet in public, it vociferously fought regulations and policies that would have limited fossil fuel emissions while publicly questioning the science behind climate change.
Investigations into the company have been launched by attorneys general in California, New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere concerning its disclosure of climate risks to shareholders for the last 40 years.
Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesman, challenged The Times and Columbia’s findings as false and misleading, and said in an email that on the issue of the glacier, there is no “causal link between the Valdez oil spill and climate change.”
In another email, Jeffers said the accident was one of the most investigated incidents in American maritime history, generating numerous lawsuits, trials, jury verdicts and court decisions. None of the parties in those cases, he said, accused Exxon of failing to disclose “the alleged risks associated with the accident that you assert.”
“As we have stated many times, Exxon Mobil believes the risk of climate change is real and warrants action,” Jeffers said.
The trail that led to the Exxon Valdez disaster began in 1968, when Humble Oil, one of two companies that would eventually consolidate to form Exxon, discovered a massive reservoir of crude oil in the Alaskan Arctic.
To get some of those 25 billion barrels to customers in California and elsewhere in the western United States, Exxon and its co-investors joined forces to build an 800-mile-long pipeline stretching from the oil field in Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.
The port of Valdez was chosen as the endpoint of the pipeline mainly because it was considered “ice-free,” meaning it did not freeze during the winter, and was therefore safe for oil tanker traffic, according to an environment impact assessment at the time.
To reach the open waters of Prince William Sound, oil tankers had to traverse a narrow channel called the Valdez Arm and bypass the Columbia Glacier, which in the 1970s was considered stable.
But a year into construction, on Aug. 25,1975, a glaciologist for the U.S. Geological Survey created a stir with an appearance on the NBC nightly newscast.
“Valdez was picked as a pipeline terminus because that bay is open year round,” said Tom Brokaw, the network anchor introducing the segment. But, he added, “that may not always be the case.”
The glaciologist, Austin Post, told viewers the glacier was likely to begin a drastic retreat resulting in “a massive ice pack moving out into Prince William Sound.”
In other words, it was a major threat to the oil tankers navigating the Valdez waters.
Government regulators and the oil industry took note. The U.S. Coast Guard, which was responsible for shipping safety in Prince William Sound, began studying ways to prevent icebergs from entering shipping lanes. In one case, they suggested erecting a system of nylon cables to hold the ice back. But that plan and others were ultimately rejected as too costly or unworkable.
Post’s predictions “stirred the stockholders and the pipeline company, and the problem came rattling down the whole chain and landed on my desk,” Richard Reger, a geologist contracted by Alyeska to look into the situation, recently recalled.
In December of 1975, Post and his boss, Mark Meier, the chief glaciologist at USGS, flew to Anchorage to meet with high-level executives at Alyeska and its member companies.
Abraham Mookhoek, Exxon’s representative at the meeting, was “quite vocal and appeared to be genuinely impressed with the problem,” Meier wrote in a memo after the meeting. Mookhoek was a naval architect who had experience in iceberg-choked waters.
But other company officials were less sure.
“You know, there is nothing definite,” William Fisken, an Alyeska official, said at a public forum the day after meeting with Meier and Post. “It is like trying to forecast an earthquake.”
Between 1977 and 1980, the USGS spent $1.3 million trying to figure out what would happen to the glacier. A team led by Meier and Post photographed it from the air and used radar to probe the glacier’s interior.
What they found was concerning: The glacial edge had become so thin and pocked with horseshoe-shaped recesses that “[i]rreversible, drastic retreat of Columbia Glacier is inevitable,” Meier wrote in a memo.
The USGS put the glacier on “hazard watch.”
Three years later, in December 1983, the glacier began its predicted retreat.
In August 1984, Meier met again with representatives from Exxon and other oil companies at a Coast Guard office in Valdez.
He told the oil company representatives that 10 million tons of ice — a weight equivalent to about 27 Empire State Buildings — was falling off Columbia Glacier every day. That figure, he told them, would only increase over time.
Meier and Post, like most glaciologists at the time, knew that glaciers were sensitive to changes in climate.
“Glaciers advance and retreat in response to subtle, persistent changes in climate,” Meier wrote in a USGS paper in 1985. “Thus, glaciers are indicators — perhaps the most sensitive in nature — of climatic change.”
“Mark realized really early on that there’s a connection to climate change, as early as the 1980s or earlier,” Shad O’Neel, a USGS glaciologist who worked closely with Meier and Post, said in a recent interview. (Meier and Post both died in 2012).
Glaciers like Columbia, though, respond to climate change less directly than alpine, or landlocked glaciers. Known as tidewater glaciers, Columbia and its brethren exist in rocky valleys and stretch all the way down to the ocean.
The Columbia Glacier, one of several glaciers in southern Alaska named for East Coast colleges, stretched over a long and deep body of water, its edge resting on a wall of submerged rock that it had created by pushing the earth forward over the centuries as it flowed down Columbia Bay toward Prince William Sound.
That rocky ridge, Meier and Post theorized, worked like a gate keeping the glacier from spilling into the Sound. But if the glacier began to thin or retreat as a result of years of reduced snowfall or warming temperatures, the downward pressure from ice and snow on the surface would ease, making it unstable. The likely result, they said, was that the iceberg’s edge would slip off the wall into the water, uncorking a deluge of ice and icebergs into the shipping lanes out of Valdez.
Once that happened, the glaciologists predicted, nothing could stop it. The glacier would recede, spewing a relentless torrent of ice and bergs — some as large as 1,500 feet wide and 200 feet tall — into the water.
When Columbia started its drastic retreat, scientists began to look for a trigger.
In 1996, seven years after the Valdez disaster, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, an independent citizens’ group funded by Exxon and the other Alyeska oil companies, set in motion an “ice monitoring project” that sought, in part, to address the role climate played in the glacier’s retreat.
A team led by retired USGS officials, including Post and Tangborn, concluded in a 2000 report that a combination of natural and human-induced climate change — a 25-year decrease in precipitation, warming temperatures and, in particular, an increase in nighttime lows — all likely contributed to the retreat.
They also pointed to other evidence suggesting that climate change caused by human activity played a role, including a decrease in Alaskan permafrost thickness and an “unprecedented” loss of mass in several other tidewater glaciers.
Tidewater glaciers take centuries of snow and cold to grow, but only a few decades of milder climate to retreat, said USGS’s current Columbia expert, O’Neel. If climate were stable, then the vast majority of the world’s tidewater glaciers would be advancing.
“But it’s the opposite,” O’Neel said, noting most tidewater glaciers are in retreat. “So climate change has to be a factor.”
Jeffers, the Exxon Mobil spokesman, noted that the USGS’s website on the glacier still says that climate fluctuations “perhaps” triggered the glacier’s retreat. He also pointed to a paper, published two years before the accident, in which Post and Meier questioned the significance of climate change in the movement of tidewater glaciers, suggesting its influence was “dubious at best.”
Tad Pfeffer, a noted glaciologist at the University of Colorado, says it would have been normal for scientists back then to be less than definitive about the cause of a tidewater glacier’s retreat, given all the complex natural forces at play.
What is clear to Pfeffer and his colleagues, he said in an email, “is that, one way or another, ultimately climate change is the cause of Columbia’s retreat.”
The ice in the channel connecting Prince William Sound and the port of Valdez was a particular hazard on the night of March 23, 1989.
Earlier that day, two tankers, the Brooklyn and Arco Juneau, had to deviate from their shipping lanes to avoid ice. “It was some of the thickest ice I have seen in that area,” the chief mate of a passenger ferry later told the National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
At 9 p.m., after sunset, the Exxon Valdez departed from Valdez, her belly full of oil.
Radar spotted ice ahead, and Capt. Joseph Hazelwood ordered the ship to leave its lane to avoid the icebergs. “Once we’re clear of the ice out of Columbia...” Hazelwood radioed to the Coast Guard, “we’ll give you another shout. Over.”
That was a maneuver carried out hundreds of times by other ships in the narrows, without incident.
But instead of waiting on the bridge, Hazelwood left his third mate in charge and retired to his quarters, tipsy from what he would later say were “two or three vodkas” he had earlier that evening. Hazelwood declined an interview request through his lawyer, Michael Chalos.
The third mate never maneuvered back into the shipping lane, and the tanker slammed into the rocks of Bligh Reef.
The resulting oil spill was an unprecedented disaster — both environmentally and for Exxon’s bottom line and reputation.
Exxon spent billions of dollars in cleanup and litigation costs. The accident forever linked the company’s name to images of the oil-splattered seals, otters, and bald eagles killed by the spill.
Today, the Columbia glacier has receded more than 12 miles from its position in 1980, and has lost about half of its thickness, according to a 2014 NASA report. Scientists estimate it is has contributed to nearly 1% of global sea level rise.
It is no longer a menace to tanker traffic.
Katie Jennings contributed to this report.
The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism is supported by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times.
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