Pristine Prince William Sound before March 24, 1989

Prince William Sound was pristine before March 24, 1989, compared to other places in the world.  What influenced Alaska near Prince William Sound before the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill? Native residents, historic mining and commercial development, exploration by Russians and Americans, as well as the 1964 earthquake, were of note.

Charles Wohlforth’s Exxon Valdez oil spill book The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth gives insight into Prince William Sound.  We’ll provide some highlights.  Read it all for stories about the place, the politics, the ecosystem, and the people.

Native Residents

Three centuries ago the Chugach people ruled Prince William Sound.  The people now are called Chugachmiut and speak Alutiiq.  Like the Alutiiq on Kodiak Island, their villages grew smaller or disappeared because of Russian influences.  Watch the videos This Sod House, What’s in this Midden?, and Jewelry Alutiiq Style, to better understand Alutiiq culture influences during the late 1700’s and 1800’s.

Tectonic Subsidence

A massive earthquake in 1984 lasting 4 minutes dropped Aialik Bay 6 feet.  Towns, for example Chenega, were destroyed by multiple waves.  Evidence suggests that a similar magnitude earthquake occurred about 900 years ago.  It is estimated the coastline may have subsided as much as 300 feet over the past 15,000 years.

Ecosystem Abundance

Rick Steiner describes pristine Prince William Sound in a short video (1989 interview).

Development & Politics

Wohlforth writes about an intriguing effort by American developers to monopolize Alaska resources in Prince William Sound.  This story, detailed in Wohlforth’s book chapter titled Catalysts for Conservation, describes the conflict.  Even though the events took place in 1910 the similarity to concerns today is striking.  As Wohlforth said, President Roosevelt’s speech hasn’t lost its inspirational ring.  Here it is:

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on.  Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.

Thank you, President Roosevelt.

Frontier Scientists is counting down to remember the 30th year since the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

By Liz O’Connell