May 31, 2010

Decades later, how has the ecology of coastal Saudi Arabia recovered from the largest oil spill in history?

As the Deepwater Horizon spill progresses, I've been tracking down the science that has been done as a result of other large spills, particularly the monitoring of ecosystem damage and recovery. It's a mixed bag, apples and oranges in some cases, largely dependent on the communities affected, the extent of the spill, the cleanup effort and the environmental/species composition of the affected area.

I went straight to the biggest first, the Gulf War oil spill, which started in January of 1991 and ended up leaking 11 million barrels of oil (one barrel = 42 gallons) into the Persian Gulf, which eventually washed up on to the shorelines of the area, invading the beaches, salt marshes and mangrove forests. In 2001 and then again in 2008, Dr. Hans-Jörg Barth of the University of Regensburg reported on the ecological effects of the spill, which are apparent to this day.


"But as long as our forests stand, as long as trees march down to the sea or climb the wind-swept ridges of the Alleghenies, its dark plumy crown, its grand, rugged trunks, the strong, sweet, pitchy odor of its groves, and the heavy chant of the wind in them will stand for something that is wild and untamable and disdains even to be useful to man."
-Donald Culross Peattie, regarding the defiant pitch pine.

May 30, 2010

There is such a thing as too much news on a Sunday morning

I have to say, I'm very impressed with the rhetorical acrobatics, the marvelous mid-air twists and turns of Bp's spin doctors. I particularly like the claim that they successfully injected mud into the well, but were not successful in stopping the flow of oil. Really, they're trying very hard folks... to make it sound like they're trying very hard.
As John pointed out this morning, this is important: This is not the only spill happening right now, and it's certainly not the only one in the past month.
I think I need a nice long walk to clear my head. I've been stockpiling info for the past couple of weeks, really trying to piece this mess together. I'd like to share some of it when I have the time.
Here's a good summary of what's happening right now with the spill, including this bit:
At least two more oil spill cleanup workers have been hospitalized after feeling ill on the job, according to local shrimpers who are assisting in the recovery effort along the Gulf Coast. The workers complained of nausea, headaches and dizziness after low-flying planes applied chemical dispersants within one mile of operating cleanup vessels.
I have a feeling we'll be hearing more health concerns during the continuing cleanup.

May 29, 2010

Turtle transplant

Found a box turtle in the parking lot of the community today and drove him out to the Chattahoochee River Natty Rec Area. Hoping he doesn't find his way back to the asphalt anytime soon.

May 26, 2010

Dispersing agent

The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. And the King will say, I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me! And the King will answer them, Truly, nine crew members on the platform floor and two engineers died during the explosion. The King will answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me. The king will answer them, I tell you with certainty, The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume. The king will answer them, I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant [they seemed], you did for me. And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, oil penetrates up the structure of the plumage of birds, reducing its insulating ability, and so making the birds more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and much less buoyant in the water. It also impairs birds' flight abilities to forage and escape from predators. As they attempt to preen, birds typically ingest oil that covers their feathers, causing kidney damage, altered liver function, and digestive tract irritation. This and the limited foraging ability quickly causes dehydration and metabolic imbalances. Hormonal balance alteration including changes in luteinizing protein can also result in some birds exposed to petroleum. Most birds affected by an oil spill die. And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me. And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as dispersed oil droplets infiltrate into deeper water and can lethally contaminate coral. Recent research indicates that some dispersant are toxic to corals. And the King will make answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Because you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, 189 dead sea turtles have been found along Gulf of Mexico coastlines. And the King will say, will reply, will answer: “Truly, verily, in truth – Amen! I say to you. Whatever ye have done to the least of these, the humblest of my brothers, my sisters, my brethren, no matter how unimportant they seem(ed), ye have done.” And the King answering shall say to them, Verily, I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me. And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me. And the king will answer and say to them, Verily I say to you, it could take the ecosystem years and possibly decades to recover from such an infusion of oil and gas. The King will answer them, 'Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. And the king answering, shall say to them, Verily I say to you, on Tuesday May 18, 2010, BP chief executive Tony Hayward insisted the environmental impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be very, very modest. But the King will answer them, In solemn truth I tell you that in so far as you rendered such services to one of the humblest of these my brethren, you rendered them to myself.

May 4, 2010

A letter to my conservative friend

In light of the very real and very dangerous anthropogenic environmental disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico, I’m writing in hopes of engaging you in a conversation regarding some previous generalizations you’ve made about environmentalists and the environmental movement in general, if we can even still call it a singular philosophical effort.

You’ve decried environmentalism for the arrogance of its proponents and echoed the claim of many others that the planet can take care of itself. If Michael Crichton could be indicted for one crime against fiction it should be for the idiot words of his idiot self-manifestation as a genius, Ian Malcolm, and punished by being forced to hear the phrase repeated by everyone who ever has. Of course the planet will go on. Of course life finds a way. That’s not really the question. The question that most environmentalists are interested in answering is who or what is responsible for how the earth and its systems, biological and otherwise, are changing. This is the first time in the history of the earth that changes to the extent at which they’re being recorded can, in most cases, be directly attributed to an inhabitant of the planet.

You underestimate our power as a species. We’re not just another primate in a long line. We’re the pinnacle of animal intelligence with a thirst for knowledge and dominance, and why not sate that impulse, who or what could possibly stop us? We have reshaped the very face of earth with massive tools, bending the forests and waters to our every whim, constantly reinventing and refining our perceptions with each passing age gaining more and more freedom for the individual. We are no longer beholden to any god if we so choose. Call arrogance by its proper name; call it humanity.

May 3, 2010

Drill, baby, drill!

One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting on the white sands of the Alabama Gulf coast building a sand castle with my little brother. We jumped in and out of the surf, stood in the waves until the sand washed away from under our feet, chased crabs, and dug clams. We played outside until our noses and shoulders were a shocking pink and our mother made us go indoors. Some nights my father would buy fresh seafood from a local fisherman and we’d eat until our pants were too tight. The other nights we’d go to a local family restaurant and eat even more.

Every year since that vacation, I've gone to the Gulf coast at least once every year for the past 35 years. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I get up early and walk on the beach at sunrise, watching the horizon over the water gradually turn a vivid pink. I sit out by the surf for hours, listening to the dull roar of the waves meeting the sand. I walk barefoot on sand that looks like sugar, watching birds flit in and out of the water. I visit nature preserves, wetlands, and barrier islands to hunt for unique plants, animals, and shells. During my long years as a pretty strict vegetarian, I always made an exception on my Gulf trips to gorge on shrimp and scallops. After all, as Bubba in Forrest Gump said, "shrimp are fruit of the sea" so maybe I wasn't cheating too much.

Many years ago while staying at a small cottage on a barrier island, I got up early, poured a cup of coffee, and headed down to the beach to watch the sun rise. I saw a woman rooting around in the plants in between the buildings and she frantically gestured to me as I walked by. She was holding a tiny loggerhead sea turtle hatchling; it had become confused by the hotel lights and instead making a beeline straight for the water after clawing its way out of its shell, it had headed towards the bright streetlights that are only supposed to guide people. I picked it up and held it, a tiny creature that fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. It seemed so fragile. Yet, the species has been around for 150 million years and survived the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. That moment, holding a sea turtle in my hand, contemplating the link between me and this ancient seafaring creature, was the beginning of my true interest in biology and the interaction between all living things.

Because I love the coast, its creatures, and the seafood so much, I have watched in growing horror as oil spills out of the deep sea well in the Gulf and towards the fragile coast. I wish I had time to visit just once more before oil coats my favorite spots, kills the wildlife, and ruins the seafood industry. Now, instead of planning for my next trip to loaf on the beach, eat, and relax, I'm now planning a trip to clean up oil. Just before starting to write this post I read an article about how some experts are expecting the oil to not only impact the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and western Florida, they're now mentioning a much wider impact. Some are saying the oil is creeping near the Gulf Stream, which will whisk the oil all along the entire Florida Gulf coast, then around the peninsula to the eastern seaboard.

I don't understand the technical issues involved in the oil industry, but I do know that no amount of oil we get from wells in the Gulf will ever make up for the environmental and economic disaster unfolding before our eyes. This spill has the potential to decimate the fishing and tourism industries for years, not to mention the impact on the critical wetland estuaries and coastal ecosystems. Is drilling offshore, with the potential for more disasters in other coastal areas that rely on seafood and tourism, really worth it? Before this accident I was fairly ambivalent about offshore drilling. After all, we need oil, and getting it domestically is better than buying it from the Middle East. But this accident has pushed me from ambivalence to fervent opposition to an industry that has shown so little foresight and planning to deal with this accident. No plan B. No plan C. No plan D. The corporations responsible for this are flailing wildly in the dark. Their lack of planning and disdain of regulations designed to prevent accidents like this will be in my mind for years.

In the end, BP, TransOcean, Halliburton, and other oil contractors aren't going to pay the price for this disaster. We will.