Three decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska’s coast faces an even bigger threat

For three days in March 1989, the oil — at least 11 million gallons of it, though some say much more — had lain like a still pool around the ship, virtually untouched by cleanup efforts. Now the storm clawed the oil across the sound’s tracery of rocky islands, into their infinite crevices, and ultimately over more than 1,000 miles of rich coastal wilderness.

The story isn’t over. Indeed, the tragedy of that coastal Alaska paradise is only deepening as it enters another, even darker act.

Experts at the time said a comeback would take decades, but that the spectacular biological wealth of these waters would return if given the chance, without another oil spill to knock it down. What they didn’t anticipate was a much larger, more diffuse threat. Changes brought by human emissions of carbon dioxide — warming and acidifying ocean waters — have proved as destructive as the spill, and they will not disperse, as the oil eventually did.

Hundreds of thousands of seabirds died following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, whole flocks of them rolled up into windrows on remote beaches by the sticky, emulsified oil.

Now that has happened again, this time without the oil, as long, stinking piles of dead seabirds wash ashore, apparently starved in anomalously warm Northern waters that no longer produce abundant food. But this time, on winter days at remote beaches, visitors are scarce and news coverage has been local and scant.

The climate crisis is too large, too diffuse, and is hitting too many places at once — everywhere, really — to produce the outrage that exploded when lovely animals choked on Exxon’s oil.

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