Columns

Dear Science

What Do Oil Spills Do to the Ocean?

  • comments (10)
  • Print

Dear Science,

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is freaking me out a bit. Why did this happen? What are the ramifications? What is this oil spill going to do to the ocean? What is it going to do to the supply of shrimp cocktail at weddings? Over the weekend, I was at a wedding in California, and a man held out a tray of shrimp cocktail and some napkins and said, "You better enjoy these now because you won't see many over the next few months. Probably the next few years." I asked why. "The oil spill."

I imagine this is going to be about more than shrimp at weddings and swimming beaches in Florida.

Lover of Oil-Free Oceans

The pictures from space of the spill, with ominous swirling arms of oil reaching to the coast, riding on the crests of waves, tell a part of the story. A large part of the cleanup effort will go into eliminating the appearance of the oil on the surface. The goal with such efforts is more PR—about eliminating the ominous images from our eyes—and less environmental salvage. This is a catastrophe of the lowest order—predictable, inevitable (due to greed and avarice), and fundamentally unfixable.

Crude oil is the decay of things that died a long time ago—the end product of millennia of digestion (biological and chemical) in the absence of oxygen. The resultant chemical brew carries the taint of previous life—with all manner of complex organic compounds close enough to their living doppelgängers to wreak havoc on the still mortal. Best characterized are the cohort of nasty tricyclic aromatic compounds that kill the hearts (literally) of living things—from mammals to insects and microbes (shrimp included). Polychlorinated biphenyls are concentrated into the tissues of aquatic animals, disrupting reproduction, tearing into livers, and promoting cancer. These chemicals persist in the environment, handing off from one organism to another in the food web. This is the start, not the end, of the list.

More familiar to us is the replacement of aquatic birds' and mammals' natural oils with the toxic brew. Forty years ago, images of oil-soaked waterfowl sparked the first Earth Day and fueled the modern environmental movement. And the petrol industry's efforts at "remediation" remain focused on the surface. Detergents will be liberally sprayed over the spill, breaking the oil into smaller pieces until it sinks below the surface—out of sight and mind. Booms and skimmers will possibly keep some sandy beaches white. The vaunted oil-eating microbes are in their infancy as a practical technology and frequently die before they do much oil consumption. The poisoning of the food chain will be unabated—perhaps even accelerated by these efforts. But that damage is slower, deeper, insidious, and easier to deny.

Sourly Yours,

Science

Send your science questions to dearscience@thestranger.com.

 

Comments (10) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Fenrox 1
Soooooo, What are the long term effects? EVERYTHING GETS TAINTED AND DIES? Maybe this column needs to be a bit longer.
Posted by Fenrox on May 12, 2010 at 1:25 PM · Report this
2
You forgot to mention that as the scale of the disaster sinks in the party in power will get screwed in this November's elections.
Posted by Lying about whose fault Katrina was is BITING YOUR ASSES on May 13, 2010 at 6:50 AM · Report this
3
That was extremely weak Golob. This is a massive catastrophe with huge consequences and the best you can come up with is 3 vaguely poetic paragraphs about how oil kills shrimp hearts. How sad. I couldn't help thinking it sounded just like the crap Charles spews.

How about something useful? Tell us a little about how the disbursants work and whether they're a good idea or not. Tell us how it happened (as much as we know for now) and how to avoid things like this in the future. Tell us something useful instead of a Maudede style philosophy rant.

You can do better.
Posted by Root on May 13, 2010 at 7:15 AM · Report this
4
As for shrimp at weddings, you should know that 90% of shrimp consumed in the US is imported. About 1/3 of the imports are wild, mostly from ecologically damaging bottom-trawling in the tropics, while 2/3 come from mangrove-destroying farms. The sad fact is that you will see MORE imported farmed-shrimp cocktails than ever, as the foreign farms (especially in Thailand) are currently ramping up to replace what is left of the wild Gulf shrimp fishery.

If you must have shrimp, look for seasonally available local delicacies, such as spot prawns, now in season in the Pacific NW.
Posted by elaineinballard on May 13, 2010 at 10:18 AM · Report this
5
In short, crude oil and dispersants are POPs. Persistent Organic Pollutants and also biocides. It will cause an undetermined dead zone in the Gulf which may spread through the Keys and up the East coast on the ocean bottom and certainly on the coasts. Nasty on the sand. Deadly to the coastal plant and animal life and ocean life nurseries. Probably not as bad as Chernobyl. Decades if not centuries before it stabilizes.
Posted by tombaxter on May 13, 2010 at 12:58 PM · Report this
emma's bee 6
I agree this was a disappointing column from Golob. PCBs are wholly man-made, not spewing from the ocean floor.

The damage from the PAH exposures to sensitive coastal environments will be devastating even without invoking that organic bogeyman.
Posted by emma's bee on May 13, 2010 at 7:01 PM · Report this
7
yes--def disappointing. What about the notion of torpedoing the oil tube, collapsing it so that the flow stops or becomes nary a trickle?
Posted by don't buy from BP on May 15, 2010 at 2:36 PM · Report this
8
Boycott BP!!!

Remember, our current fucked up ecomony was created by the G.W. Bush Administration. The Obama Administration is sadly stuck with cleaning up this insurmountable mess.
And the Prince William Sound Oil Spill of '89? During the George H.W. Bush Administration.

Time to hold Big Oil and all their oil-soaked cronies financially and environmentally responsible for their greedy corporate ills.
Posted by aunt bee on May 17, 2010 at 2:56 AM · Report this
9
I read yesterday that they are seeing huge plumes of oil underwater and the surface doesn't begin to show the amount of spooge belching from this debacle. Seize BPs assets and throw the bastards in jail. They made $6,000,000,000 in profits the first 3 months of this year. They couldn't spring for another Blow out valve. $500,000
Posted by SPLITSHOT on May 17, 2010 at 2:32 PM · Report this
10
Okay, how's this, guys. The spill is NEVER effectively dealt with. Oil and methane create a permanent, coastal dead-zone that surrounds the southern coastal states up to the eastern seaboard and the north-eastern coast of south america. This kills off all marine life, including the coral reefs off Florida and the shell-fish beds that serve as a natural breakwater for the other coastal states. Hurricanes, no longer slowed by the presence of these natural barriers, now move further inland, depositing sea-water, dispersants and oil on local crop land and contaminating drinking water, effectively salting the earth. Most of these states are rendered unlivable.

This is later used successfully to argue that there is no need to regulate the oil companies in any capacity, and a massive expansion of off-shore drilling is subsidized by the taxpayers.
Posted by maxbell on May 17, 2010 at 8:42 PM · Report this

Add a comment