News / USA

Gushing Oil Threatens Wildlife, Gulf Ecosystem

Aquatic life, birds vulnerable to toxic effects of oil

Raccoon Island, a protected bird breeding sanctuary south of Louisiana, is one of several islands being surveyed for oil debris.
Raccoon Island, a protected bird breeding sanctuary south of Louisiana, is one of several islands being surveyed for oil debris.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster comes during spring spawning season, an especially bad time for aquatic life making them extraordinarily vulnerable to the toxic effects of the oil itself, says Doug Rader, chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Now the same thing is happening with birdlife migrating to and from the tropics. Those that have completed their migrations in the Gulf region are nesting and are beginning to feed this year's crop of migratory birds."

As the oil gushes from the broken well head at the sea floor, Rader says it has the potential to contaminate each layer of the water column that, "directly exposes those animals to toxicity, at the surface including the very sensitive surface zones where not only sea turtles and marine mammals and sea birds can be oiled, but also where the highways for fish larvae exist. And then as it rains back into the abyss over a much wider area carrying toxicants back into the deep sea where ancient corals and other sensitive ecosystems exist."

Limited choices

One response strategy has been to use dispersants or anti-freeze-like chemicals to break the oil up into smaller globules.

Those particles mix more readily with water, and sink. Rader says dispersants are being sprayed from airplanes and - for the first time - pumped directly into the deep ocean unsure of its effects.

Aerial images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill taken from a US Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft.
Aerial images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill taken from a US Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft.

It is a choice, he says, between two bad options. While the chemicals may protect birds and other wildlife by dissipating the slick before it reaches shore, their toxicity in the Gulf could harm fish and other marine life.

Judith Dowell, a biologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and an expert on oil spill contamination, says it is important to understand the nature of the oil in order to predict its ecological effects.

"If a lot of it is very light material, it is going to vaporize. If a lot of it is heavy material, it may precipitate to the bottom. In the meantime, you have these medium molecular weight compounds that are dispersing within the water column. Until you can get some very accurate measurements of the depth of the slick and the geographical extent of the slick, it's not easy to do."

Widening threat

The slick threatens sensitive coastal wetlands, areas critical to wildlife.

Barrier islands and wetlands also serve to buffer towns on the coast from hurricanes and storm surges. Doug Rader with the Environmental Defense Fund says the spill may finally force coastal communities to put more adequate plans and safeguards in place to prevent an off shore disaster in the future.

Workers clean up oil along a beach at South Pass, La. May 11, 2010 near where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
Workers clean up oil along a beach at South Pass, La. May 11, 2010 near where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

"There are thousands of wells in the Gulf. There are 35,000 miles [56,000 kilometers] of pipeline in the Gulf," says Rader. "It is pretty clear that the status quo in terms of investment to prevent risk and to respond to events wasn't adequate and that some retrofitting of that entire infrastructure is necessary to be able to sustain the current level of production in the Gulf."

Rethinking offshore drilling?

Rader says the time is also ripe to rethink the wisdom of offshore drilling in favor of other energy options in the face of climate change.

"That going forward with a more balanced portfolio of energy sources that begins to address the global problem of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions and threatening coastal areas like coastal Louisiana by rising seas and intensifying storms has to be a piece of the mix."

Graphic depicting the Riser Insertion Tube method to contain oil leaking from the riser of the Deepwater Horizon Well.
Graphic depicting the Riser Insertion Tube method to contain oil leaking from the riser of the Deepwater Horizon Well.

To this end, on May 12, Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced long-awaited climate and energy legislation.

The bill covers a broad cross-section of the nation's top environmental and energy issues, from expanded nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration, to giving states veto power over drilling within 120 kilometers off shore if, in the language of the proposed law, "they stand to suffer significant adverse impacts in the event of an accident."

You May Like

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge More

Nigerian Islamic School Tries to Combat Boko Haram

Kaduna school headmaster teaches his students that what militants are doing is are doing is 'a total misunderstanding of the Islamic religion' More

University Trains Students to Advocate for Deaf People Worldwide

Program prepares graduates to advocate internationally for access to education, jobs for people with disabilities More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid