Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oil settling to the bottom


New evidence is confirming that the oil has not disappeared but is settling to the bottom and contaminating organisms there. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Aftermath

The oil has finally stopped flowing. We don't really know how much oil spilled, but its within the ballpark of 4.9 billion barrels, we're told. Some say it has been eaten up by bacteria, along with the dispersant. Conservatives say it's another environmentalist exaggeration, like climate change, evolution, and atomic theory. Some say it is dispersed throughout the Gulf and will continue to affect the wildlife in the deep ocean for a long time to come. I recommend reading this article from Julia Whitty of Mother Jones, who details some of the vulnerable wildlife of the Gulf ecosystem and points out that the glowy prognostications and public relations campaign by BP may not tell the whole story.

We lucked out in the Bahamas region because the winds all summer have been strong out of the East, pushing water into the Gulf and preventing large surface plumes of oil from entering the Gulf Stream. Our luck was apparently Texas' bad fortune, in that they had oil pushed onto their beaches and deeper waters.

I had an interesting discussion with a conservative friend this weekend who pointed out the standard talking point from conservative blogs (e.g. http://www.redstate.com/vladimir/2010/06/26/a-little-perspective-on-the-bp-spill/) that the amount of oil estimated to have spilled (4.9 million barrels = 206 million gallons; http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/thegreengrok/bpspillstats/graphics/oilbudget-noaa/image_view_fullscreen) would only fill 17.7% of the Louisiana Superdome, while the Gulf of Mexico has a volume of water equal to 550 million Superdomes. While it's easy to break down that statistic for how deceptive it is (the spill happened in one small section of the gulf, one gallon of oil can pollute many thousands of gallons of water when dispersed into it or spread on top of it, organisms magnify the oil up the food chain, and so on), he went further and expounded that deepwater drilling might be a lot better than shallow drilling because a spill won't hit land as easily and can be dispersed throughout the ocean.Not wanting to have a pointless shouting match at a 3 year old's birthday party, I left it with a "we'll just see what happens as we learn something about the effects of the spill."

We still have almost no data about what this spill has done to the ecology of the Gulf by affecting important plankton and animal populations (whales, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, seabirds, life at the deep scattering layer, Bluefin Tuna, and so on). Scientists will be studying this for decades, and I would be so happy if BP is right, but everything I've learned about chemistry, fragile ocean food webs, and sensitive long-lived animals at the top of those food webs tells me that this prediction that "the spill is over and everything will just go back to the way it was" sounds too good to be true. We can't go by what we see - beaches that are cleaned up or fish and shellfish that are still alive right now. The big question is what will there be in 10 years? Will parts of the food web fail or will certain species just disappear, like the herring in Prince William Sound did after Valdez? I can say with all honesty that I hope BP is correct, but I expect that they are almost exactly wrong.