The massive oil spill that was caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico has been dominating the world news for over a month now. Every day the total oil spill gets bigger as the world watches failed attempt after failed attempt at closing the well.

The estimates for the flowrate of the leaking well vary greatly, and as such the estimates for the total spill show a similar variance. What we do know is that every day the total spill gets bigger and bigger, until that hole is closed.

On television you keep hearing that this is going to be the biggest oil disaster in the history of the USA, but the media have a tendency to exaggerate (it sells). So to see how this oil spill compares to disasters from the past, here are the 10 worst oil disasters in history.

10. Amoco Cadiz – France – 1978 – 1.635.000 barrels

After a failure in the steering system of the tanker Amoco Cadiz, the tanker ran aground off the coast of France. All the oil leaked from the tanker and it proved hard to contain the problem. A lot of oil washed ashore and had to be cleaned away. Lots of it has left a mark in the environment, both on the shores as on the sea bed.

9. Castillo de Bellver – South Africa – 1983 – 1.850.000 barrels

The oil tanker Castillo de Bellver caught fire and broke in two off the coast of South Africa. Both parts ultimately sank to the ocean floor, with the majority of the oil still in its tanks. The spilled oil has had little effect on shorelines, and the environmental impact is regarded as minor.

8. ABT Summer – Off the coast of Angola – 1991 – 1.900.000 barrels

In May 1991 the tanker ABT Summer sank in the Atlantic Ocean, 1300 kilometers off the coast of Angola. An on-board explosion started the disaster and the tanker sank after a couple of days. The spilled oil never reached shore, and the environmental impact is commonly seen as minor.

7. Nowruz Oil Field – Persian Gulf – 1983 – 1.900.000 barrels

In 1983 there were several oil spills in this oil field in the Persian Gulf. These spills occurred during (and maybe even due to) the Iran – Iraq war. The war hindered the capping of the well. It took six months to cap the well, and massive amounts of (burning) oil in the Gulf were the result.

6. Fergana Valley – Uzbekistan – 1992 – 2.090.000 barrels

A leaking well, 500 kilometers from the city Namangan, in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan leaked a massive amount of oil. There's not a lot of information available about the cause of this spill, or the effects.

5. Atlantic Empress – Trinidad and Tobago – 1979 – 2.100.000 barrels

During a tropical storm the Atlantic Empress, a Greek oil tanker, collided with the Aegean Captain, another Greek oil tanker. It's one of the rare collisions between oil tankers, and by far the worst. The Aegean Captain was salvaged, but the Atlantic Empress suffered from fire and explosions and ultimately sank. Both ships lost vast amounts of oil, none of which ever reached the Tobagan shores.

4. Ixtoc I Oil Wells – Mexico – 1979 – 3.500.000 barrels

This well in the Gulf of Mexico was an exploratory well. The drilling platform suffered a blowout and collapsed as a result. The damaged well leaked oil in the Gulf at a rate of tens of thousands of barrels per day. Closing the well proved difficult and took 10 months to complete.

3. Lakeview Gusher – USA – 1910 – 9.000.000 barrels

In the early 20 th century a company drilling at Lakeview hit a high pressured oil field. The pressure turned out to be too high for the equipment to withstand and the well became a gusher. The well gushed out thousands of barrels of oil on a daily basis, and it took 18 months to bring the well under control.

2. Gulf War Oil Spill – Iraq – 1991 – 11.000.000 barrels

At the beginning of the Gulf War a massive oil spill occurred in the Persian Gulf. The commonly accepted theory of the cause is that Iraqi forces used the oil spill as a preventive measure against a landing of US Marines. The spill occurred from multiple sources. Reports show that the effect to the environment are extensive, because the spill had not been responded to.

1. Kuwaiti Oil Fires – Kuwait – 1991 – 1.000.000.000 barrels

Yes, one billion barrels of oil were spilled or burned in this disaster. By far the worst oil disaster in the history as we know it. The retreating Iraqi forces used the tactic of the scorched earth and destroyed oil wells and set them afire as they retreated. As many as 750 oil wells have been set ablaze, with a peak oil flow of six million barrels daily! It took eight months before all the wells were extinguished and capped. In the meantime, between 900 million and 1 billion barrels of oil had been spilled or burned.

Deepwater Horizon

The estimates vary greatly, but the spill is estimated to be between 500 thousand and 4 million barrels in total. The pessimistic estimate would propel this disaster right into the top 10. It's not the biggest disaster in the USA yet, but capping wells underwater has proven to be a difficult job if we look at some of the spills in the top ten.

As you can see, there have been far greater oil disasters than the Exxon Valdez, or the current status of the Deepwater Horizon, especially in quantities of oil involved. There are other factors in determining the effect of these disasters, but it's hard to keep them objective. Fact is that for a lot of the disasters we simply do not know the extent of damage that has been done to the environment, because the disaster took place in areas of the world either too remote or too uninteresting for wide media attention.

This list is not meant to diminish the severity of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Any disaster is one too many, and the effects on the environment are awful. Let's hope this well gets capped soon!