Abstract

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker grounded on Bligh Reef, spilling North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Tracking the geochemical fate of this spilled oil has revealed, in addition to weathered products from the spill, minor oil residues on beaches from a distinctly different source. By using carbon isotopic compositions of whole-oil residues as a principal method of identification, we found that the δ13C values of Exxon Valdez oil (one sample) and its residues (eight samples from six islands) average -29.3 ±0.1‰. In contrast, the non-Exxon Valdez residues (15 samples from 12 localities) have an average δ13C value of -23.8 ±0.1‰. This tight distribution of carbon isotopic values suggests a single event to explain the non-Exxon Valdez residues. This event likely was the Great Alaska Earthquake of March 27, 1964. This quake and the subsequent tsunami destroyed asphalt storage facilities at the old Valdez town site, spilling asphalt (δ13C = -23.6‰) into Port Valdez fjord. From there the asphalt apparently advanced south into the sound. Thus, the possible connection between two Alaskan catastrophes, separated by 25 yr, is found in the minor oil- like residues that continue to mark the two events on the beaches of Prince William Sound.

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