In this first installment of a two-part series, I talk to scientists about the devastation the Gulf Oil Spill may bring, and examine why the legacy of the Valdez spill left us underestimating the extent of damage such disasters wreak on wildlife. Image of a bird killed by oil leaked from the Exxon Valdez via Alaska in Pictures
If there's one thing I can say about the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf with near-certainty, it's this: You're underestimating how bad this spill is going to be when it comes to its impact on wildlife. Even if you're steeling yourself for heart-rending pictures of birds stuck in oil, for the news of dead animals washed up on shore -- it's going to be much, much worse than meets the eye. The Complicated Legacy of the Exxon Valdez
Yes, even with a surfeit of dire news continuing to pour in, many still don't have a handle on how bad this spill could be. To understand why, we turn briefly to the event that no article on the current crisis may be published without referencing: the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Even those barely old enough to understand why a ship was hauling 11 million gallons of toxic liquid from Alaska to San Diego when it happened can surely conjure up what that spill looked like, regardless: oiled-covered birds, dead, blackened sea otters on a beach, people with rubber gloves dropping grimy fish in bags.
Some 250,000 animals, from sea birds to orcas, perished from the Exxon Valdez spill. Which is, to be sure, a truly devastating number. Yet there's a legacy of environmental degradation left from the Valdez beyond what seems condensed into our collective memory as birds with their wings stuck together, and Big Oil behaving badly. Now that the disaster's successor has been anointed, of course, we hear all about how the Valdez's impacts have lasted 20 years: the 20,000 gallons of oil still believed to litter the shoreline, the problems with toxicity in fish populations, and so on.
Much of the damage wrought by the BP oil disaster will be more along those lines -- the deadliest impacts will take place in ways no photographer can easily capture. And it's possibly going to be more dangerous, further-reaching, and impact generations to come.
Image via the AP
Oil Spill 'Poster Animals'
But let's start with the more photogenic tragedies, as they'll likely become symbolic to the spill the way the sea otters and bald eagles did for the Valdez. Over the weekend, 20 dead sea turtles washed up onshore; they were named the disaster's first victims. The brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird, is also at great risk -- just taken off the endangered species list last year, it's particularly vulnerable now. Any animal that must come to the ocean surface is threatened: Scientists believe there are at least 400 different species in danger.
Birds are likely to be among the hardest hit aboveground -- conservationists note that this is the worst possible time for the oil spill to occur for birds, as many are currently mating, nesting, and stopping over here during migration. Seventy-five percent of all migratory birds in the US use the Gulf as a corridor -- and without help, most birds that come into contact with oil will die.
The Toll Below the Surface
And while the death toll for such oil spill poster animals will no doubt be sadly high, much havoc is likely to occur out of sight. Mike Beck, senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, explains that one of the most overlooked impacts will be on the Gulf's native oyster reefs, which are literally the most pristine in the world. "These Oyster reefs are of global importance," he says. Some 85% of oyster reefs worldwide have been destroyed from coastal degradation.
Those reefs, along with habitats like marshes, are looking to suffer the most from the oil, if -- but most likely when -- it reaches them. There's plenty of concern that the oil will destroy the already-stressed salt marshes, mainly because they're the front line of defense against storms.
These inner tidal habitats are also thriving ecosystems, and the encroaching oil could snuff them out. In so doing, it may create a "negative feedback loop," Beck says, in which the oil destroys marshland, lowers the overall resistance to storm surges, and thus brings about even more marshland destruction from erosion. This vicious cycle is already occurring, but the oil spill could dangerously accelerate it. The two biggest threats to communities -- both animal and human -- are the "loss of fish habitat, and loss of defense of coastline from storms." Both would mean disaster for the wildlife that relies on both for generations to come.