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,


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