Re: Obama saying a "hurricane could be 'helpful' dispensing the oil in the Gulf."
Funny you should mention it ... I woke up this morning thinking about my college days (LONG ago!) when I learned about what I went on to teach, about oil spills. This spill in the Gulf IS particularly troubling to me, maybe because I "know too much". Saying that it is "the worst environmental accident in the US" is, I'm afraid, an understatement, because I can see it having global impacts ... none of them good. The type of oil spewing in the Gulf is "crude" composed mainly of hydrocarbons, sulpher, nitrogen, trace metals, and other components which all have potentially deadly effects.
The level of damage depends on three main factors. One is weather. Not only are we headed into temperatures in summer which have the worst potential effects, but hurricanes can be a major factor in spreading the damage, so NO, Mr. President, hurricanes do NOT "help" in any way. Maybe you would like to put it "out of sight, out of mind", but that ainna gonna work! The other two are specific biological effects, one being short-term, and the other long-term. The effects of this spill will not "go away" in either our lifetime, nor our grandchildren's. That REALLY pisses me off! Sorry about the graphics.
Short term biological effects cause direct kills at the site of the spill due to coating and asphyxiation, and contact poisoning. Away from the spill, water soluble toxins affect delicate larvae, and destroy these vulnerable food sources. Think about that.
Long term effects which are not necessarily "direct", but are secondary, include the destruction of sensitive juveniles and their food sources, reduced resistance to disease and other stresses, the ingestion of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), and interference with reproduction. Egg production is reduced and behavioral mechanisms change, causing the inability to locate a mate, throwing spawning time out of sync. There are many long term subtle changes that cause chronic long-term biological damage. Chemical controls by metabolites (metabolic waste products) can't be sensed by veligers (immature free-swimming forms of many crustaceans, mollusks, and shellfish found in the water column). This will affect a myriad of species which humans depend upon for their livelihoods (food sources). Getting to spawning grounds is controlled by chemicals, as is predator avoidance for many species.
Factors that influence the impact of an oil spill include
- the type or toxicity of the oil spilled (crude=horrible),
- the volume spilled ... over 45 days and counting??? Go figure...
- the physiography of the area which in this case includes waters a mile deep, as well as shorelines, tidal zones, mudflats, and many especially "sensitive" areas,
- weather conditions at the time of the spill (and counting Mr. President!),
- the life forms and community types in the area (how about ALL types?),
- the season, with spring and summer bringing about the worst impact because of the abundance of larvae and reproduction rates being at their highest,
- previous exposure of the area to oil which is "dumped" everyday by boats,
- exposure to other pollutants which can combine with the oil and intensify the negative effects, and
- how the spill is treated.
Once oil is released, some is dissipated by evaporation, some constituents go into solution, and some is absorbed onto particle surfaces and then carried to the bottom to be incorporated into the sediment. This is where MUCH of the Valdez oil still sits many years later and continues to impact the sediment dwellers, many of which form the bottoms of food chains. And oh yes, we put much of the Valdez oil there by "cleaning" the shores with high pressure sprays that forced the oil "out of sight, out of mind". Some is ingested by organisms including phytoplankton which ingest about 20% and form the bottom of food chains for organisms in the water column. Some get degraded by microbes, which is an aerobic process so increases oxygen demand. When I last checked, it took all the oxygen available in 350,000 gallons of water to degrade just one gallon of oil. How many gallons of oil have already spilled? The resulting lack of available oxygen in the water can lead to massive fish kills washing up on shore, just to mention one of MANY effects stemming from low oxygen levels in the water. Has this happened on any of our shores yet, Mr. President? Care to go for a swim or eat in the local seafood restaurants in Louisiana while you're visiting?
Ocean currents, both deep and surface, and all in between, will mix with the oil and carry it EVERYWHERE eventually. Even if we had a way to cap the leak today, it would continue to haunt us socially, biologically, economically, aesthetically, and yes, I get very emotional about it. I had hoped that in my retirement, I could "forget" about knowing such things, but I find no such relief. I could go on upsetting myself, thinking about what it will do to my favorite playground, the coral reefs, and knowing that it was a human-induced disaster makes me all the more frustrated at this situation and the state of the environment, and our President's lack of action has made this exponentially more disastrous by the minute.
Time to find some Kleenex...
Dr. Carol Moreau holds a doctorate in Marine Science, with specialty in Reefs.