Area of fishing closure due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Image: NOAA
It's really pretty hard to put a positive spin on what's happening down in the Gulf of Mexico, or really even see a good outcome, but in an interesting interview on the potential effects of the spill over at OnEarth fisheries expert Daniel Pauly from the University of British Columbia points out one small thing that may make cleaning up this spill easier than the iconic Exxon Valdez:WATCH VIDEO: Planet 100 - How to Clean An Oil Spill?
The temperature of the water is very high, so you can have a quick mineralization of the oil, and you can have also a quick evaporation of the most volatile components of the oil. Basically then you're left with the harder-to-process part of the oil, which the bacteria can get rid of in a few weeks or months. Normally when the coast is not touched, tropical waters can clean themselves up in a short time, whereas Arctic waters cannot because bacteria work slowly in cold waters. So for example, Pemex (Mexican Petroleum) had an explosion in the Yucatán Peninsula (in 1979). It did lots of damage, but within two or three years it was kind of gone.
Lots of the comparisons with what could happen in the Arctic and even Prince William Sound (where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989) are not appropriate for that reason. The acute symptoms are just as bad, though. An oiled bird is an oiled bird -- it dies. And an oiled landscape stinks, and that's exactly the same. But the bacteria's processing of the oil is much more rapid in the tropics, so nature is a bit more resilient.
But I must say that the sea grass and other coastal habitats are already stressed in Louisiana, so the oil will not be good for them. The whole system of estuaries and of banks is slowly losing ground in the Gulf. The oil may contribute to the roots of these sea grasses being wiped out, and then the banks where they sit transform into mud flats.
More on the BP Oil Spill:
Oil Spill-Fighting Fisherman Face Serious Health Risks (Video)
Booms Go Bust: BP's Oil Barriers Wash Ashore, Fail to Keep Out Crude (Video)
Oil Hits Louisiana Mainland - Exclusive First Photos & Video