Oil Spill Having Catastrophic Impact on Ocean Ecosystems

The TEDx conference on the Oil Spill in Washington, D.C. featured a full-day of world renowned speakers on oil science, conservation, and the future of energy. During the day’s discussions, one powerful statement seemed to come through: the decision to use oil dispersants, which are themselves highly toxic derivatives of oil, may have been misguided. While the dispersants helped break up some oil and may have prevented oil from slicking some wetland and other important coastal ecosystems, they are also creating a toxic ocean soup that can’t be separated into disparate parts. The oil, dispersants and sea in areas of the Gulf of Mexico are now like permanently mixed salad dressing. As a result, oil now can’t be manually scooped out, and the dispersants and oil mix will be absorbed into all nodes of the ocean ecosystems, creating catastrophic impacts for ocean wildlife.

Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue

Sylvia Earle, who has been called “Her Deepness” by The New Yorker and a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, has logged more than 6,000 hours underwater and led more than 50 ocean expeditions. Earle said the actual Gulf of Mexico, which is the 9th largest body of water on earth, has received less attention than the coastal marshes. She showed a video of coral birth, illustrating the diversity and complexity of the ocean ecosystems within the Gulf. The Gulf’s Flower Garden Banks and underwater salt dunes provide important habitat. The Ewing Bank is a key habitat for whale sharks, and other areas provide key mating grounds for blue fin tuna, now an endangered species.

On the oil spill, Earle said it won’t be long before the loop current will pick up the oil and dispersants and move them up the East coast and towards the Gulf Stream, and then eventually towards the critical Sargasso Sea, a “floating golden sea.”

While we now have Google Earth, space observation systems, and other powerful ocean monitoring tools, she said we’ve gotten these great tools only “because we’ve burned through all our assets. It took billions of years to produce these fossil fuels.” These fossil fuels have also “driven us to a magical crossroads of understanding” — whether we use this new understanding to chart a more sustainable path using renewable energies is still not certain.

Learn more about Mission Blue, and watch an earlier TED talk on one of their expeditions.

Susan Shaw, Marine Environmental Research Institute

Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and head of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, said the dispersants will have a major impact on marine life. Worldwide, oceans now function as global pollution sinks, and more than 1/3 of all ocean mammals are in danger of going extinct. Each ocean animal is already loaded with chemical compounds. To study this, Shaw has been working on a program, Seals as Sentinels, a region-wide eco-toxicological investigation, which has looked at a range of chemicals in seals. She found that brominated flame retardants are among the most hazardous chemicals found in seal tissue. Flame retardants are used “in everything” in the U.S. (Shaw joked that at least the seals won’t catch on fire anytime soon).  

Even among the U.S. human population, chemical compounds are found at a much higher rate, some 10-40 times higher, than in Europe. “We have looser regulations than the E.U. In the U.S., most chemicals aren’t regulated properly. Each year, an additional 20,000 new chemicals are created and go through mimimal review process before they are released and used in products.”

Shaw actually jumped into oil slicked-Gulf of Mexico water wearing only a wetsuit in an effort to understand the effects firsthand. A few days later, Shaw got a wretched sore throat. From her view, she saw a “web of death as you go down the water column.” Shaw said someone decided that it was a case of wetlands vs. oceans and decided to save the wetlands by using ocean-based dispersants — up to 2 million gallons of Corexit. She said clean-up workers haven’t been passing out on boats because of heat stroke, as has been reported by officials, but because of the toxic fumes that come off of Corexit.

“Corexit is the most toxic line of dispersants. It gives off volatile petroleum fumes.” She said direct human exposure to Corexit 9527, the formula that has been used the most, “causes internal bleeding.” Now that BP has run out of 9527, the 9500 formula is now being used. “These dispersants break down lipid membranes, making it easier to pass through skin and organs in wildlife.” Shaw added that “Corexit has also been known to cause birth defects and mutations.”

The Gulf of Mexico includes 33 wildlife refuges, where protected wildlife will be impacted. “Corals will get hit hard. Corexit inhibits coral fertilization by 100 percent.” Plankton and plankton eaters, piscivorous fish, and other fish species will face catastrophic impacts. “For fish, when Corexit hits their membranes, it will feel like they’ve got pnemonia.” For air breathing mammals like dolphins and whales, the problem will be every time they come up for air they will breathe in toxic Corexit fumes. “It’s like a chemical pnemonia.”

Shaw said the U.S. needs to change its lifestyle and move towards an alternative energy system. Learn more about her research.

Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

Dr. Carl Safina, a prominent ecologist and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, said the use of dispersants means that “we can’t clean, touch, or deal with this huge mess. We can’t suppress what’s going on.” Dispersants have been used to “hide the body” of the oil spill.

Safina thinks the spill will be catastrophic for marine life. He got very emotional talking about a dolphin seen by a fisherman. Apparently, the dolphin was spurting oil from its blowhole. “The dolphin came up to the boat, which they apparently never do, as if to ask for help.”

He called the spill a “hemispheric issue that will have enormous biological effects.” Safina was highly critical of the “lack of response plan and equipment,” saying that booms aren’t made for use in the open ocean. “Booming a bird colony doesn’t do it. Birds make a living by diving in the water in search for food.” Instead, ecologists should just “destroy their nests so they don’t come back for a year.” He also said it was great that birds are getting cleaned, but then they are sent back to the oil slicked ocean. “It’s like cleaning up someone coming out of a burning house and then sending them back in.”

Safina was highly critical of BP, arguing that “this was not an accident, but negligence.” He had strong words for the Mineral Management Service (MMS), saying it “failed” and was the result of a “culture of deregulation.” This is just an example of “government bought out by big private enterprise. The regulatory failures were much like those that caused the financial crisis.”

He concluded that people are “still lighting things on fire for energy,” using the same stone age-energy technology. Calling for a move towards renewable energy, Safina said “energy is always a moral issue.” 

On moving towards a new energy system, Mike Tidwell, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the 4,000 oil rigs in the Gulf that access some 32,000 wells, a “galaxy of wells,” can be replaced with more efficient offshore wind farms. In fact, the state of Virginia just concluded that its offshore wind capacity could provide energy for 3.6 million cars. Reid Detchon, UN Foundation, called for a shift in subsidies towards renewable energy. Jigar Shah, Carbon War Room, and founder of SunEdison, said “50 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be profitably eliminated with today’s technology.” Klaus Lackner, Earth Institute, Columbia University, said we can use “synthetic trees” to strip carbon from the air.

Also, of interest: Google is using its data management capabilities to support crisis response in the Gulf of Mexico. Peter Geineke, Google Data Engineer, said Google is “building tools to surface near-real time data.” Google aims to collect and publish all relevant data sets, enabling ecology researchers to share and mash-up data. “Some data isn’t available or hasn’t been made available,” Geineke added.

Lastly, the X Prize announced a campaign to raise $10 million and create a new contest for a fix for the oil spill clean up. “We are looking for clean-up and bioremediation innovation. In contrast with other X prizes, this one will be dynamic.” The X Prize is still looking for ways to frame the prize. E-mail concepts to francis@xprize.com

Go to the TED Oil Spill Web site to learn more and watch videos.

Image credit: Extent of oil spill as seen via satelitte, mid-May 2010 / NASA

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