The Spill—An Oily Blemish on the Face of the Sea

Elliott A. Norse, Ph.D., President, Marine Conservation Biology Institute

As I write, squeezed in an uncomfortable seat on a jet on route to Tokyo that is now approaching Bristol Bay, Alaska, thousands and thousands of gallons of crude oil are gushing out of pipes nearly a mile deep, polluting the Gulf of Mexico.

A large formation of porous rock deep under the sea, where oil was trapped, is rapidly draining itself of hydrocarbons into the waters above. In all probability, it took these hydrocarbons millions of years to change from oils produced by marine plankton and other ocean life into petroleum, and perhaps millions more to migrate though microscopic pores in a layer of sandstone or limestone until they were stopped by some barrier to their movement, salt or shale or another rock layer too impermeable for oil to penetrate.

So in the geological blink of an eye, hydrocarbons from the time of early mammals or dinosaurs are jetting into the water column, rising to the surface, forming reddish floating clots, threatening marine life not so different than those which generated them eons ago.

The BP spill happened when something—a pressure surge, perhaps—exploded the colossal semisubmersible drilling rig Deepwater Horizon on April 20.

Eleven people lost their lives in the explosion, a tragic industrial accident, although one whose human death tool was smaller than the West Virginia coal mine disaster that killed 21 people not many days earlier. But unlike some industrial accidents, the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill is harming far more than those who died or injured in the blast. In the Gulf of Mexico, the worst is yet to come.

Somehow, even 17 days later, it’s not clear to me whether the spill happened when the explosion occurred, or two days later, on April 22—Earth Day—when the burning Deepwater Horizon sank. The newspapers at the time of the spill told of the missing people, not of an oil spill. But since Earth Day, an oily blemish has been growing in the Gulf.

The blemish is ugly and toxic. The oil’s especially dangerous to certain kinds of marine life, in the open Gulf and in the marshes and beaches inshore.
But many thoughtful people are worrying whether the cure might be worse than the disease which BP—formerly British Petroleum—bestowed on the marine life and people of Louisiana, the Gulf states, the USA and the world.

Our desire to make the blemish disappear might be even worse than the blemish itself. Chemical dispersants are toxic. Burning the oil will kill marine life as well. Twenty-one years ago, Exxon’s solution to the vast windrows of Exxon Valdez oil sliming rocky intertidal beaches was to apply chemical dispersants and to steam clean the rocks. Vast numbers of seaweeds and animals that would have survived the oil were cooked and poisoned to death. But at least those lifeless rocks were clean!

I worry that, in their haste to make the ugly stain in the Gulf go away, so we can resume the drunken consumption of oil without troubling ourselves to think about the consequences of our thirst, BP and government agencies will focus on cosmetics to make the ugliness go away, not on the harm to marine life and those who depend on it.

As odd as it sounds, the best strategy might be to stop the gusher as soon as possible, let nature take its course with most of the oil and work very hard never to do this again.

What could the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill do?

Most members of the public worry about “wildlife” (meaning big air-breathing vertebrates) and what happens when the oil comes ashore. For now, let’s start examining what happens to animals of the open Gulf, far from the shore.

At sea, the oil could harm animals in waters near the surface. This includes species that come to the surface to breathe, such as loggerhead sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins (remember Flipper, who lived in a world full of wonder? Now his family is living in a world full of oil).

Also at risk are the planktonic stages of many marine species that float within inches of the sea surface, ones marine biologists call neuston and pleuston, such as the eggs and larvae of bluefin tunas and the exquisite larvae of blue crabs, so beautiful that they are called zoeae, meaning “life” in Greek. And it includes animals that contact or penetrate the sea surface from above: seabirds such as northern gannets (quite amusingly called garrets in one network telecast!) and brown pelicans, which only recently recovered enough to be removed from the US endangered species list.

Interfaces are where important things happen in nature, and the interface between the sea and air is both where oil collects, and where a great deal of biological activity occurs.

Not a happy coincidence….

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