The end of March marked the 30th anniversary of one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in living memory. It was on March 24, 1989 that the Exxon Valdez, a 300-meter-long oil tanker, grounded on a spot 65 km off the Alaskan coast and spilled 37,000 metric tons of crude oil.
The impact was immediate and vast: 2,100 km of Alaskan coastline was affected, with a section of about 320 km deemed to be the most heavily impacted. Although it is not the biggest spill in the world in terms of volume—the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill holds the current record—it is estimated to have been the deadliest to wildlife. The location where the accident happened was a rich habitat for species such as salmon, seals, and sea otters. And responding to the spill was difficult because the area was inaccessible other than by helicopter, seaplane, or boat. Despite cleanup efforts, it is estimated that approximately 250,000 birds, 1,800 sea otters, 300 seals, and 22 orcas died as a consequence.
I remember watching the news on TV with my family. I was a teenager at the time and recollect being both shocked at the scale of the incident and saddened by what I then understood to be its environmental impacts. It’s a distant memory now, and one that younger generations will not possess, but lessons have been learned. The incident sparked not only improvements in tanker construction, navigation technologies, and crew training, for example, but also important changes to environmental regulation such as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
For many in my generation, the image of the helicopters hovering over the many miles of Alaskan coastline will be reminiscent of two other events that decade that had catastrophic environmental impacts. One was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine 33 years ago, where tons of highly radioactive material was released into the atmosphere, contaminating nearby towns and eventually drifting over the rest of the Soviet Union and into Europe. The other was the methyl isocyanate release from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, owned by Union Carbide, which is now a subsidiary of Dow. Around 600,000 people were exposed to the deadly gas; as many as 16,000 people died and thousands of others suffered disabling injuries. The site remains contaminated with hazardous material 35 years later.
Turning to brighter anniversaries, there is, of course, the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the periodic table this year. And there will be another significant commemoration this summer. In July, we’ll celebrate 50 years since the Apollo moon landing, the first manned mission to reach Earth’s natural satellite. Less well known is the fact that it is also the 60th anniversary of the first human-made object to reach the surface of the moon. The first spacecraft to make contact was part of the Soviet Union’s Luna (Lunik, in Russian) 2 mission almost precisely 10 years earlier. Both Luna and Apollo were a “giant leap for mankind” as well as for space science exploration. Such exploration continues to yield a wealth of chemical information that is contributing to our understanding of the past, present, and future of Earth and the universe around us.
However, the Apollo landing has not really meant “a giant leap for womankind” as, of the more than 500 people that have been into space, only 11% have been women. The world was set to mark a new milestone there with the first all-female spacewalk, outside the International Space Station on March 25 to install new batteries. Unfortunately, NASA decided to cancel just days before citing lack of spacesuits in the right size. Safety comes first, of course, but I’m disappointed that such a historic moment had to be postponed. I hope for not too long, however. The time is ripe to celebrate.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.