Slow-motion disaster

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For about three months last year, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the subsequent oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico were the biggest news stories in the United States, claiming more ink than the troop surge in Afghanistan, the earthquake in China, or the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. Journalists constantly pressed scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats for data they didn’t have and predictions they couldn’t, in good conscience, make, but the lack of dependable information didn’t keep the media from reporting the story over and over again.
Then, on July 20, 2010, BP operatives managed to put a cap on the wellhead that stayed in place and, on Sept. 19, punched into the well casing from the side and plugged it permanently with concrete. Somewhere in the Gulf, 205 million gallons of crude oil and 50,000 tons of gaseous hydrocarbons were still drifting toward a final resting place, but with a cork in the well, the news machine moved on to other, more saleable stories.
As the news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon incident faded, the first extensive information on the effects of the spill began to emerge. Dr. Samantha Joye, a marine biologist at the University of Georgia, and her colleagues reported deposits of thick sludge on the ocean floor as well as concentrations of dissolved hydrocarbon gases suspended at depths of 3,300 to 4,300 feet. The sludge has killed most of the bottom-dwellers it settled on, and Joye and her partners expect that the dissolved gas will lead to persistent depletion of oxygen as bacteria use oxygen to consume the gas.
At about the same time, a team working for Dr. John Kessler at Texas A&M University reported that their samples show a drastic decline in methane concentrations in the Gulf since last summer, the result of accelerated bacterial action, according to the researchers. By the end of December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was reporting that workers in and around the Gulf had picked up more than 8,000 birds that had been disabled in one way or another. About half of these birds had oil on their feathers; the other half showed no outward signs of oil but may have been poisoned by swallowing it. More than 5,000 of them were dead when found. The most frequent victims were brown pelicans.
The Gulf’s a big place, and there’s little doubt that the birds that were recovered are only a tiny fraction of the number that died as a result of the oil spill. Still, the numbers fall far short of the catastrophic losses many biologists feared as ducks, geese, and other water birds came south for the winter. Likewise, losses among sea-going turtles seem to be smaller than many observers had expected. Between January and March 2011, more than 80 bottlenose dolphins were found dead along 200 miles of the northern Gulf coast, possible victims of the remaining oil, but some marine biologists suspect that unusually cold water may have been the actual cause of death.
So the good news is that the death of the Gulf as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill has been greatly exaggerated. There is much research yet to be done, and longterm impacts on elusive species like whales and the large pelagic fishes may not surface for years, but it seems that the Deepwater blowout, like the Ixtoc I blowout off the east coast of Mexico in 1979, hasn’t had the dire ecological effects that spills in places like Alaska’s Prince Williams Sound caused.
I guess that means we can go back to business as usual. The temporary suspension of offshore drilling has long been rescinded; the Department of the Interior has published a new set of guidelines for drillers, and as the price of crude rises with another round of unrest in the Middle East, BP and the other offshore operators can get back to the perennial search for record profits.
Business as usual is the real problem on the Gulf. Between the blue water of the open ocean and the dry land of Louisiana and eastern Texas, there is a belt of coastal wetlands that may be the most productive in North America. They are the nursery that supports one of the continent’s greatest fisheries — the commercial catch in Louisiana alone generates $2.3 billion a year; the recreational fishery is worth more than three times that. Something like 13 million ducks and geese winter on these marshes, and the marshes help protect cities like New Orleans and Biloxi from hurricanes. Ironically enough, they also shield infrastructure like the storage facilities and refineries that are crucial to the offshore oil industry.
The deepwater channel that runs up the Mississippi from the Gulf to New Orleans has stopped the river’s wandering ways. Once upon a time, the mouth meandered back and forth along the coast, dropping sediment for a few centuries in one place, then moving to another. Deprived of this periodic recharge of silt, the marshes have settled, allowing saltwater to invade. When the saltwater touches a freshwater plant — from cypress to maidencane — the plant dies.
At the same time, the fabric of the marsh has been tattered by canals from the ocean to the mainland, some of them for navigation, many more for oil and gas pipelines. These conduits allow seawater to penetrate far into the freshwater vegetation, where it opens brackish bays and lets the ocean in.
It’s been estimated that 1,900 square miles of coastal wetland along the Gulf have been lost in the last century, and at current rates, another 700 square miles could disappear by 2050. That’s what business as usual costs.
Some disasters are impossible to ignore. They come at us with a roar and a ball of fire and insist on action. Over the thousands of years of human history, they’ve often ambushed us, but after we recover from the shock, we nearly always rise to the occasion.
Others come at us in slow motion. They lull us into a false sense of security, disappearing into the background of daily life. We get used to them and sometimes even convince ourselves we can live with them. They’re the ones we have to watch out for.♦
— Chris Madson is editor of Wyoming Wildlife. He is also a freelance writer and photographer. Contact him at

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