The Perils of War: The Environmental Impact of the Harbor’s Black Tears

December 23, 2016

When you visit the USS Arizona Memorial you can see the oil seeping from the sunken ship's ruptured hull. Even 75 years later, the wreckage of the great battleship continues to leak about eight quarts per day into the harbor. To locals, these are the Black Tears of the Arizona, a fitting name as the USS Arizona alone lost over 1,000 servicemen during the Pearl Harbor attack.

At its current rate, there’s still an estimated 540 years left until the oil from the wreckage is completely gone, but there’s a question as to whether the metal of the battleship will even last that long.

Products of the Oil Leakage

Right now, the leaking oil from the wreckage serves little more than a visual reference to the perils of war. It may have displaced some of the ecosystem, but generally, the conditions of the harbor weren't greatly affected by the oil that has leaked. But that may not always be the case.

Aerial view of Black Tears of the USS Arizona

Currently, the rate of leakage is slow and the environmental impact has been in focus since the mid-1990s, but there is evidence that something catastrophic could be on the horizon. A product of the constant spill, according to microbiologist Ralph Mitchell, is a type of bacteria that appears to feed on the oil itself. As it eats away at the oil, however, it also speeds up the corrosion of the sunken battleship.

As the vessel continues to erode away, especially at a quicker rate than normal, researchers like those at the National Institute of Standards and Technology warn of a potential disaster in the future.

A Corrosive Catastrophe?

Leaking at a slow rate, the spill can be controlled, but if the increased rate of corrosion continues, the spill could go from a steady leak to a sudden eruption. So close to Oahu’s coastline, a sudden rush of spilled oil would threaten the coastal ecosystem and even get in the way of normal naval operations in the harbor.

Though recognized as an important aspect and emotional punch of the USS Arizona Memorial, the black tears of the battleship have also been considered a potential worry for environmentalists.

Black Tears of the Arizona Memorial

Black Tears of the Arizona

What Can Be Done?

Since nothing has been done about it just yet, it may seem like a lost cause and whatever may happen will happen, but the potential risk posed to the Hawaiian shoreline is under constant observation. In late 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration updated its emergency plan in the case of a catastrophic oil eruption.

With the needed response in preparation, the USS Arizona Memorial can continue to be the proper commemoration of the sailors who gave their lives on December 7th, 1941. As a visitor to the memorial, you can observe the black tears of the Arizona with peace of mind and focus your attention on getting lost in the rich history that surrounds you at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

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