May 6, 2010
Every day the news just seems to get worse. We went from estimates of no oil spilled after the drilling platform fire to 1,000 barrels a day to 5,000 barrels a day to “who knows?” guesses of up to 100,000 barrels a day. (If that turns out to be the true rate, Deepwater Horizon would have become the worst oil spill in U.S. history days ago). What will be the effect of all that oil on sea life?
Seabirds: We all remember those iconic images after the Exxon Valdez disaster, birds coated in oily goo. Well, that goo can be deadly. When covered in it, birds lose their ability to regulate their temperature and can develop hypothermia and die.
Sea turtles: Some have already washed ashore covered in oil. The four species that live in the Gulf are all threatened or endangered and can’t stand to lose more of their small number.
Shrimp, oysters and other shellfish: They can’t swim away and can become contaminated with oil and the dispersants used to clean up the mess. Contaminated areas have been closed to harvest (but don’t worry about eating the Gulf seafood that does come to market; most of the region is still clean).
Fish larvae and plankton: These microscopic organisms can be killed by the oil spill. This is a big worry as the plankton is the base for the oceanic food chain, and the larvae are supposed to become the fish that we eat in years to come.
Whales and dolphins: Oil can damage skin and eyes, and the marine mammals can become sick from breathing in fumes or from eating contaminated fish.
The damage may not be limited to the Gulf’s waters and coast. Scientists now warn that the “loop current,” which channels water from the Gulf east towards Florida and then north into the Gulf Stream, is moving towards the massive slick and could move oil to the Straits of Florida in a week and then up the U.S. East Coast. (And then there’s the upcoming hurricane season to worry about.)
In what seems to be the only bit of good news lately, BP announced yesterday that they had capped one of the three oil leaks, though that would not alter the rate of flow. Meanwhile, the company continues to work on the creation of a dome to cap off the leaks.
Finally, I recommend watching the animation below, which nicely details what happened and how the possible solutions could work.
(This post was included in Scientia Pro Publica 29, where you’ll find more great science writing.)
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