Oil Spills and Nature’s Resilience

Faced with an oil spill of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon’s mag­nitude, nature is resi­li­ent and well-adap­ted to cope with the consequences–that is, provided we don’t try to clean it using meth­ods that will do more dam­age.

Matt Rid­ley, author of The Ration­al Optim­ist (and many of my favour­ite pop­u­lar sci­ence books), dis­cusses what we should remem­ber from pre­vi­ous oil spills, and what this means for the Gulf of Mex­ico in the face of yet anoth­er oil spill:

First, be care­ful not to do more harm than good. When the Tor­rey Canyon was wrecked off Corn­wall in 1967, spill­ing 120,000 tonnes of oil, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment not only bombed the wreck (and missed with one bomb in four), but sprayed 10,000 tons of deter­gents, which were much more dam­aging to mar­ine life than the oil itself, then bull­dozed the oil and deter­gents into the sand on some beaches where it per­sisted for longer than if it had been exposed to the ele­ments.

The mis­take was repeated in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 40,000 tonnes in Prince Wil­li­am Sound. Thou­sands of volun­teers were sent out to wash rocks with hot water, which helped kill lots of microbes that would oth­er­wise have eaten the oil.

Speak­ing of microbes, do not under­es­tim­ate nature’s powers of recov­ery. After most big oil spills, sci­ent­ists are pleas­antly sur­prised by how quickly the oil dis­ap­pears and the mar­ine life reappears. […] The Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmo­spher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion says on its web­site: ‘What sci­ent­ists have found is that, des­pite the gloomy out­look in 1989, the inter­tid­al hab­it­ats of Prince Wil­li­am Sound have proved to be sur­pris­ingly resi­li­ent.’ A sci­ent­ist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that ‘Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mex­ico are just wild over­re­ac­tions’. […]

This rap­id recov­ery was also a sig­na­ture of the last big Gulf rig spill, the Ixtoc 1 dis­aster off Mex­ico in 1979. Although the num­ber of turtles took dec­ades to recov­er, much of the rest of the wild­life bounced back fairly rap­idly. […] The warm waters and strong sun­shine of the Gulf of Mex­ico are highly con­du­cive to the chem­ic­al decom­pos­i­tion of oil by ‘photo-oxid­a­tion’, and are stuffed full of organ­isms that actu­ally like to eat the stuff – in mod­er­a­tion.

Rid­ley also notes how wind farms kill “far more rare birds per joule of energy pro­duced than oil does” and that the wind farm at Alta­mont Pass in Cali­for­nia kills more birds each year that the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill did (≈ 1,300).

via The Browser