Scientists Discuss the Potential Impact of the Bp Gulf Oil Spill

Right now the only thing protecting southeast Louisiana from the gulf oil spill is the Chandelur Island chain – and that is not a comforting thought. It is  discomforting for area residents that have been forced to watch the seeming futility of cleanup attempts, that the real threat may lie much further inland than many people realize. The problem is that once the oil slick reaches and moves beyond the islands, which may happen as soon as around May 22, 2010, the real damage will likely begin. That is not to make light of what has happened to this point, nor is it to be overly alarmist, it is a tragic reality.

Predictions as to what may or may not happen once the oil slick makes its way closer to the contiguous 48 states were extremely difficult to make initially. Nobody had a true idea of what size the slick would be because nobody knew how quickly or to what extent the leak could be stopped. Nobody knew for sure exactly what or  how much could be burned off if authorized, absorbed, or otherwise removed speedily. Now all anyone knows is the problem is about to get more complicated.

According to Ron Kendall who leads the Texas Tech University Department of Environmental Tooxicology, the best case scenario is still very bad, and there are currently three different scenarios the slick may play out.

The first scenario is the “best case” scenario, which keep in mind is still very bad. Because early samples of the oil showed that it is relatively non-toxic, it is possible the oil will make its way into estuaries and nurseries and just kill off all the vegetation – temporarily. Once the initial damage is done new shoots grow back and balance is returned on its own. The downside is that even though vegetation may be rebound quickly, bivalves, fish and all the wildlife on the impacted area will not be spared and Louisiana’s $2 billion commercial fishing industry is on hiatus well into the future.

Scenario number two plays out a bit worse. All of the above negatives from scenario one remain in play with vegetation still rebounding, but distressed. The distressed marshes the oil slick reaches are destroyed. Scientists are careful to point out that a healthy marsh has incredible recuperative powers, but marshes that are constantly stressed are far less likely to rebound.

They point out that since hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many marshes have not only been stressed to the point that they are slowly disappearing, but many small marsh islands have already disappeared. It may not seem significant, but that contributes to throwing off the balance of a marsh which is a stressor. Reed stated that when it comes to an already stressed marsh. “Once you lose the vegetation, it’s gone. Gone to open water.”

If the spill is not quickly contained and vegetation is coated with oil multiple times, they will not be dealing with death of the shoot, but rather the entire plant. When the vegetation is gone there is nothing to hold the soil together. That is the death of marsh in a nutshell.

The worst – or currently believed to be worst – case scenario is of the “damage so bad it is still felt for generations” theme. This scenario is nearly impossible to predict, and while it can vary in severity, the threat is very real. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1. The problem is mother nature does not follow the schedule man tries to put her on. The June 1st date is merely a tag affixed to nature by man to remind us that we are in the general neighborhood of when hurricanes may occur. They can pop up earlier or later, it is for nature to decide.

If a hurricane does occur in the gulf prior to a fairly extensive cleanup the results will be disastrous by all projections. What would effectively happen is that rather than regular precipitation and wind being the problem, there would be the collateral damage of what can best be described as tar balls pelting everything in its path.

If – and if is a huge word here – but if that were to happen it is not only the marshes that are ruined, it is whatever is living on the land that is ruined as well. Cleanup efforts would be Herculean tasks. Buildings would be coated, streets would be unsafe for normal transport making cleanup efforts even more difficult, and even trees may die off if they are sufficiently coated with the slime. If the soil is breached there could be damage to well water, vegetation may die off and the soil could be unfit for planting for a timetable no one can truly accurately predict.

In short, it could potentially be so destructive the area becomes uninhabitable in many regards. Please keep in mind however that with this scenario, it is the most extreme worst case view. This is the ultimate fear, and while it is not the most likely, it is a somewhat remote but real possibility. It is impossible to predict to what degree damage would be felt because it is impossible to predict how much oil might be present and swept up into a system, and even how strong and organized a system may be.

The key factor to stemming damage is time. The swifter the cleanup goes, the less damage that will be realized. The problem is finding an effective means of actually carrying out a swift cleanup and then getting it implemented.