The oil spill in the Gulf Coast, which will stand as a monument to human stupidity and greed, could possibly completely devastate the ecosystem–turning it into something else entirely.
If the flow is soon staunched, affected populations should rebound from losses in a few years, and even sooner if the oil stays at sea long enough to be churned by waves and consumed by microbes. Ecosystems will stay intact.
But if oil flows continue, plant and animal populations may be pushed to species-level tipping points, their numbers so low that replenishment is impossible. When this happens, food webs change. Some remaining species become more common, and others less. Disruption favors low-level opportunists that rush into newly open niches. Local ecosystems tip. If that keeps happening, an entire region can tip.
What does that mean? Its means the fish might go away. Or the shrimp. Or some of the plants. Or all of the above. It’s impossible to know right now. Adding insult to injury, as the article points out, is that overpollution has already stressed the Gulf ecosystem, meaning the oil spill might be the straw that breaks the camels back.
Unfortunately, the Gulf is already stressed by fishing and pollution. Mississippi River dams and levees have altered water and sediment flows that historically nourished the delta. In the last 50 years, some 1,500 square miles of wetlands have vanished. Sea-grass losses range from 12 percent to two-thirds. Researchers have reported changes in species compositions, and growing areas of vegetation “patchiness,” a pattern considered symptomatic of stressed systems verging on tips.
“The system is already becoming degraded,” said University of New Orleans ecologist Denise Reed. It’s too soon to know if local systems will tip, but “oil could push a marsh that’s already hanging by its fingernails over the edge,” she said.
Especially vulnerable are sea grasses and marshes in the western Gulf, home to a fishery worth $2.4 billion annually. The western Gulf has few beaches, which would allow oil to be cleaned with relative ease as it washes ashore. It lacks the barrier islands that line northern and eastern shores, calming waters and slowing the oil’s advance. Louisiana’s scalloped coastline could soak oil like a sponge.
The worst part of it all is that, at the present time, it looks like it might take weeks to stop the oil from leaking. Meaning we’re probably going to see some terrible, permanent effects and soon.
What’s the most mind-boggling about this disaster is that it illustrates an unbelievable lack of foresight. Oil pipelines have exploded before. Offshore rigs have leaked before. There is, in fact, technology available to make shutting off undersea valves quite simple. They are, in fact, required by law in Norway and Brazil. Alas, though, they are not required in the United States. So what could have become a manageable accident has become an unmitigated disaster.
All because the folks running the show were too stupid to put existing safeguards in place.