Oil Spills and Nature’s Resilience

Faced with an oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon‘s magnitude, nature is resilient and well-adapted to cope with the consequences–that is, provided we don’t try to clean it using methods that will do more damage.

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist (and many of my favourite popular science books), discusses what we should remember from previous oil spills, and what this means for the Gulf of Mexico in the face of yet another oil spill:

First, be careful not to do more harm than good. When the Torrey Canyon was wrecked off Cornwall in 1967, spilling 120,000 tonnes of oil, the British government not only bombed the wreck (and missed with one bomb in four), but sprayed 10,000 tons of detergents, which were much more damaging to marine life than the oil itself, then bulldozed the oil and detergents into the sand on some beaches where it persisted for longer than if it had been exposed to the elements.

The mistake was repeated in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 40,000 tonnes in Prince William Sound. Thousands of volunteers were sent out to wash rocks with hot water, which helped kill lots of microbes that would otherwise have eaten the oil.

Speaking of microbes, do not underestimate nature’s powers of recovery. After most big oil spills, scientists are pleasantly surprised by how quickly the oil disappears and the marine life reappears. […] The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its website: ‘What scientists have found is that, despite the gloomy outlook in 1989, the intertidal habitats of Prince William Sound have proved to be surprisingly resilient.’ A scientist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that ‘Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mexico are just wild overreactions’. […]

This rapid recovery was also a signature of the last big Gulf rig spill, the Ixtoc 1 disaster off Mexico in 1979. Although the number of turtles took decades to recover, much of the rest of the wildlife bounced back fairly rapidly. […] The warm waters and strong sunshine of the Gulf of Mexico are highly conducive to the chemical decomposition of oil by ‘photo-oxidation’, and are stuffed full of organisms that actually like to eat the stuff – in moderation.

Ridley also notes how wind farms kill “far more rare birds per joule of energy produced than oil does” and that the wind farm at Altamont Pass in California kills more birds each year that the Deepwater Horizon spill did (≈ 1,300).

via The Browser