Photo: Fisher lab, Penn State University
Deep-water corals keep good records, which come in handy in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Researchers from Penn State University discovered this week that the impact of the BP oil disaster on corals living in the cold waters at the Gulf of Mexico seafloor is bigger than predicted.
This study joins dozens of others on fish, dolphins and birds as part of the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a legal process that’s critical for tracking the damage that started four years ago at the bottom of the Gulf. Scientists first discovered corals coated in a brown substance only 7 miles from the now-defunct BP well in late 2010. The oil left over from the disaster is more difficult to find in the deep sea (in contrast to the coastline, where the occasional 1,000-pound tar mat washes up on shore), so scientists must look to corals for clues on how the marine environment was impacted. “One of the keys to coral’s usefulness as an indicator species is that the coral skeleton retains evidence of the damage long after the oil that caused the damage is gone,” said lead researcher Charles Fisher.
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Photo: Laronna Doggett
This week, as we recall the moment that the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef just off the coast of a sleepy Alaska fishing town 25 years ago, a similar scene unfolds on the other side of the country. Under heavy fog, a barge traveling through Galveston Bay, Texas, collided with another ship and leaked an alarming amount of oil into the bay from its 168,000-gallon fuel tank. Due to bad weather, the oil is spreading quickly and has been spotted as far as 12 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Response teams are busy trying to contain the oil on the water’s surface with boom and skimmers, but the damage has already been done. Spring is a crucial time for bird migrations in Texas, with an estimated 50,000 shorebirds and seabirds roosting at the Bolivar Flats Refuge only two miles from where the spill occurred. Our partners at Audubon and Galveston Bay Foundation are on the ground reporting a number of birds that have been found oiled. The surface oil also poses a threat to dolphins and turtles, which frequently surface in the bay. The endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles living in the Gulf nest almost exclusively on the coasts of Texas and Mexico.
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Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
Residents across the Gulf Coast breathed a sigh of relief last weekend as Tropical Storm Karen dissipated (and as an added bonus, the humidity dropped). But as many of us feared, the storm kicked up more oil in the Gulf as it passed, and a fresh batch of tar balls have washed ashore on Grand Isle, La.
This is an ugly reminder that oil still lurks offshore, and we have not yet seen the end of the oil’s impacts on the Gulf.
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NOAA recently released several photos of a dead sperm whale found in the Gulf of Mexico just a few months after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began. While NOAA’s scientists were unable to determine the cause of death, this story does serve as a very graphic reminder that more must be done to protect the marine life in the Gulf.
This whale is one of two dead sperm whales that have been reported in the oil spill area of the Gulf. Two whales may not seem like much, but sperm whales are a federally listed endangered species in the United States, and even a small number of deaths could seriously impact their population.
Sperm whales, which can live up to 70 years, can be found year-round in the northern Gulf, and they are especially common near the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was located. Sperm whales spend most of their time in deep water, diving to the ocean bottom to snack on giant squids and other ocean creatures. With all that diving throughout the water column, it’s possible the whales were exposed to oil or dispersants. The hustle and bustle of oil spill response activities can be equally harmful.
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Credit: National Marine Sanctuaries
As George Leonard wrote recently, planning for a stormier, warmer ocean is a daunting but important task. That’s already a reality for those of us living on the Gulf Coast, where sea level rise (compounded by coastal erosion) can almost wash away an entire community.
With near-perfect timing, another new study has just revealed that sea grasses can trap 2 to 3 times more carbon than a typical forest. The ocean, not just forests, can play a larger role than scientists previously believed keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Continue reading »