Given my ties to the good old Crescent City, I have to mention a sad (but not shocking) discovery that has recently been made off of the Gulf Coast. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig earlier this year led to one of the most disastrous oil spills of all time. Oil spills been relatively frequent over the last few decades, and while each one is an incredible affront to nature, this spill following was particularly bad because it came directly from the oil well, rather than a separate container.
Immediately after the spill, pictures began to surface of wildlife covered in black muck, struggling to stay alive (see Rachel Bernstein’s post on the fate of the brown pelican). At that time, there were not yet any signs of massive destruction to entire ecosystems near the oil spill. It was regarded as pure luck that we managed to escape this situation without damaging the environment even more seriously. Now it seems that what we’ve seen thus far may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Researchers on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship recently discovered large portions of dead underwater coral that appears to be a direct result of the recent oil spill. A mere seven miles from the original spill site, the coral appeared to have some brown, fluffy stuff coating its exterior. While the scientists are unsure what this substance is (it may simply be residue that has collected after the coral died), we can be most certain that this strange material is not supposed to be there.
Why is this important? As you may remember from high-school biology class, coral reefs are more than just boney-looking things that cut you when you go scuba diving. They host a wide variety of plants and animals and hold a diversity of life that is almost unparalleled in the rest of the ocean. Losing one of these large underwater networks would mean erasing literally thousands of years of natural growth.
There is a second, even more foreboding conclusion to take from these findings. Beyond the immediate, acute effects of the spill, these recent developments occurred over several months following this disaster. Who’s to say what other catastrophic consequences we will discover in the future?
With this in mind, I urge you to keep your attention to the media for news coming out of the Gulf coast. It is easy to allow these disturbances to fade away in our memories, but the natural world isn’t always fast-acting or easy to understand. Researching the environment takes time and patience and hard work, so we may have to wait a long time before we fully understand the impact of our actions.
NY Times – earlier coverage of the spill’s effect on coral reefs