In the 3 months since the Deepwater Horizon blew up and oil began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have been trying to understand the magnitude of the gusher’s ecological impact.
So far, there is no consensus on the matter. Some believe the gulf has largely avoided an ecological disaster. Others say that the spill has pushed already damaged ecosystems to the brink.
Take those ghastly pictures of oiled birds, for example. Officials say they’ve found only 1,200 of them, a fraction of the 35,000 that were discovered after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Of course, officials only count the birds they find. Some scientists believe the number is much higher.
“It’s an instinctive response: They’re hiding from predators while they recover,” Kerry St. Pé, told the Washington Post. Pe, who oversees a marsh protection program, added “They plan to recover, and they don’t. They just die.”
What about coastal marshes, whose oil-stained shores make regular appearances on the evening news? “The marsh grasses, the canes, the mangrove are dying,” Robert Barham, secretary of the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries told the Post. “There’s visible evidence that the ecosystem is changed.”
But the National Audubon Society’s Paul Kemp disagreed. According to him, the impact of the spill was small by comparison to the marsh’s existing problems.
“We have a patient that’s dying of cancer, and now they have a sunburn, too,” Kemp said. “What will kill coastal Louisiana is not this oil spill.” (It’s) what was killing it before this oil spill,” he explained, citing erosion and river-control projects.
There is also disagreement about the presence of “plumes” of dissolved or submerged oil offshore. Some scientists claim to have found underwater oil many miles from the gusher. But an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said his agency found significant submerged oil only within 6 miles of the well.
“Right now,” John Valentine, a gulf researcher told the Post, “we should be more impressed by what we don’t know than what we do know.”