We haven’t posted about the Deepwater Horizon blow-out and spill. The folks over at the Maritime Texas and the gCaptain blogs have been doing a great job of covering the environmental disaster as it continues to unfold and we have had nothing to add. Now after more than a month of leaking oil, a few comments do seem in order.
What makes this major oil leak so disturbing is that we know so little about the effects of the release of large scale underwater streams of oil on the environment of the Gulf of Mexico and nearby waters. Only slightly less than a year ago, Texans were surprised to see up to 200 orca whales in the Gulf of Mexico. While orcas were know to swim in the Gulf, no one expected to see such a large number or so close to shore. Our lack of knowledge of orcas shouldn’t be a surprise. The orcas in the Gulf are classified as “offshore” orcas, meaning that unlike “resident orcas,” they stay primarily offshore. Offshore orcas were not even known to exist until 1988. It is safe to say thay we can have no idea what impact the underwater oil plumes will have on the newly encountered Gulf orcas or any other aspect of the complex Gulf environment.
This morning Julian Stockwin tweeted about a Newsweek article that speaks to how little we understand of the consequences of the continuing spill.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico falls into a distinct category from any other oil catastrophe; it’s the first blowout in history to release oil in such deep waters, nearly a mile below the surface.
As a result, scientists say, the impacts of this spill are likely to go far beyond the oiled birds and dead sea turtles, spoiled beaches and wetlands that we think of when we think “oil spill.” A substantial piece of the total impact is likely occurring under the sea, invisible (for now at least) but no less ominous than the more traditional shoreline effects. Far below the sea, the spill threatens organisms of all kinds and, indirectly, the ecosystem at large, though the extent of the danger is still obscured.
Oil on the surface of the ocean is a known quantity, says Ed Overton, an oil-spill expert at the Louisiana State University who is analyzing water, sediment, and other samples for NOAA’s scientific-support team. “It’s going to cause very substantial and noticeable damage—but it won’t take very long to find the marsh loss and coastal erosion and impact on fisheries,” he says. The effects of oil in the water column and at the sea floor, on the other hand, remains a mystery.