Long Term Effects of the BP Spill

Originally posted online June 15, 2010 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

In his paper titled “The Deepwater Horizon Accident,” James Shallenberger goes into great detail about the events leading up to the BP disaster, techniques to repair or close the well and ways to minimize current the effects and anticipated environmental impacts of the spill.

While we are inundated with horrific images of oiled animals and the immediate consequences to wildlife are indeed dire, there is reason to believe that the Gulf Coast’s natural systems may rebound relatively quickly from the initial effects of the spill.   Gulf of Mexico crude oil, in general, is enriched in light weight compounds that readily evaporate and dissolve in water.  The initial effects of spilled crude oil on wildlife are severe because oiling physically suffocates and reduces animal mobility, interferes with body temperature regulation, and light-weight hydrocarbons are more acutely toxic than heavier weight compounds.  However, weathering processes considerably and quickly reduce the toxicity of crude oil and the year-round warm climate and biologically productive environment of the Gulf region will aid in the break-down of oil (in contrast to the heavier Alaskan North Slope crude oil and colder climate associated with the Alaskan Exxon Valdez oil spill into Prince William Sound).

Typically, early life stages are more sensitive to toxic exposure than adults.  The resiliency of natural systems is tied to how quickly the surviving community members can reproduce and recruit their next generations.  The BP oil spill impacts will be most lasting for those populations that include long-lived organisms that reproduce slowly – like sea turtles, marine mammals, some birds – and for those with life history needs that make them unable to avoid exposure at critical periods to the persistent toxic substances found in oil spill residue, like those that live, incubate eggs, and forage within the intertidal zones of beaches and marshes.

Unfortunately, the economic and cultural effects of the oil spill may be as or more devastating, lasting, and far-reaching.  The human communities of the Gulf Coast, some with unique and deep-rooted local traditions that are intimately tied to the Gulf environment, will succumb to the immediate and near-term effects of the spill – and BP may never be able to sufficiently compensate for those loses.

James Shallenberger, P.G.
Senior Geologist/Ecologist

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