18 Apr 2011: Opinion

One Year Later: Assessing the
Lasting Impact of the Gulf Spill

On the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the worst fears about the long-term damage from the oil spill have not been realized. But the big challenge is more fundamental: repairing the harm from the dams, levees, and canals that are devastating the Mississippi Delta and the Louisiana coast.

by carl safina

It’s been a year since the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico — so a little hindsight is now in order. Recklessness caused the worst unintended release of oil ever; lives were lost and permanently changed. By definition, we won’t know the long-term consequences until the long term. Scientific studies are ongoing. Some government findings are being held as potential evidence in court cases, distorting the usual scientific atmosphere that seeks understanding through openness. Frustratingly, as of now, many questions remain.

And there may be some surprises. Most people feared major die-offs of fishes and shrimp in the northern Gulf. But when areas closed because of oil were reopened to fishing, fishing was generally excellent. A season closed to fishing may have done more to help the fish than the oil did to hurt them.

Gulf Oil Spill
Getty Images
Researchers are still studying the ecological consequences of the April 20, 2010 Gulf explosion.
While the oil was flowing, fewer dolphins died than many had feared; it seemed they perhaps dodged the brunt of the oil. But in March and April of this year, newborn dolphins were washing up dead in high numbers in the northern Gulf — a very unpleasant surprise, but not unprecedented. Did the oil kill them? An unrelated infectious disease? Were they more susceptible to disease because of the oil? No one knows.

The Gulf is the only nesting area for Kemp’s Ridley turtles — the world’s most endangered sea turtle. Many turtles that washed up, including Kemp’s Ridleys, showed no visible signs of oil. Did fishing nets kill them? And of those that did die in oil, how many went undetected?

In other oil spills, a rough rule of thumb is that for every carcass found, nearly ten times that number go undetected. According to the New York Times, researchers are now dropping bird carcasses offshore to see how many will sink and how many will wash ashore, which may help them determine how many birds were killed by oil beyond those that were found.

And while most people did not get sick, a disturbing number of individuals — perhaps more sensitive or more exposed — continue to complain of significant health problems since the blowout and the spill.

The deep plumes have already dissipated, apparently eaten by the Gulf’s oil-adapted microbes. Yet some of that deep oil seems lodged in seafloor sediments, and, up to seven miles from the wellhead, it appears to have killed some deep-sea coral.

But was it, as was often said, “the worst environmental catastrophe in American history”? Well, no. Many people feared the blowout would kill the great marshes of the Mississippi Delta. Some even claimed it would kill
These poorly planned engineering debacles have cost Louisiana’s coast 2,300 square miles of wetlands.
off the whole ocean, or worse. But while the blowout wasn’t the ongoing ecological catastrophe that some predicted, there exist much bigger long-term problems we don’t fear nearly enough.

First, Delta marshes. The marsh itself (not the useless booms) stopped most oil reaching the Delta, absorbing it while preventing it from moving farther into thousands of square miles of marshes. By late summer, some of that was growing back — and yet in some areas, a lot of oil remains in marshes and in beach sand.

The Gulf’s problems did not start with the blowout. Since the 1930s, oil and gas companies have dug about 10,000 miles of canals through the Delta’s shady cypress swamps, black mangroves, and emerald marshes. Lined up, the channels could go straight through the Earth, with a couple of thousand miles to spare. They’ve brought saltwater that has killed vast tracts of coastal forests, while subjecting America’s greatest wetlands to steady erosion. These Delta-slicing channels cause banks to crumble, swapping wetlands for open water and creating prime conditions for hurricanes.

Upstream, dams and levees cut off the sediment that could help heal the erosion. The Mississippi River is the main source of the Delta’s nourishment. But levees built against floods, channels deepened for freight shipping, and the buzzing boat traffic servicing oil rigs has isolated the river from its own delta. So the heartland sediment that washes down the Mississippi now gets shot straight out into the open Gulf, rather than nourishing the Delta that depends on it.

Starved on one end, eaten at the other. These poorly planned engineering debacles have cost Louisiana’s coast about 2,300 square miles of wetlands out of an original 10,000. Marshland continues disintegrating at about 25 square miles each year. A lot of marsh remains, but the amount being lost
Some of BP’s damage money should be used to re-engineer the Delta's flow of water and sediment.
— and with it its wildlife, fisheries productivity, and recreational opportunities — is staggering. The vast marsh nurseries help the Gulf produce more seafood than any other region in the lower 48 states. Some estimates predict they’ll largely vanish by 2050.

All of this — all ongoing — constitutes the most devastating human-made disaster that’s ever hit the Gulf. It’s a chronic disease doing far more damage than the blowout ever will.

The solution: Use some of BP’s damage money to re-engineer the Delta’s flow of water and sediment, reuniting the Delta with its mother, the Mississippi, and letting the river revive America’s greatest wetlands.

The oil that got away was supposed to have helped power civilization, not spew waste and devastation. The blowout sent 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, but once there, the Gulf’s 660 quadrillion gallons of water has been continually diluting the oil. Meanwhile, though, society’s intended use — burning the oil and gas in our engines and boilers — is constantly concentrating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a thousand tons a second, billions of tons a year. That invisible spill is changing the world, forever.

And our everyday use of fossil fuels is altering both the atmosphere and the ocean. The journal Science last year published a series that summarizes already-observed changes to the world’s oceans and the implications for human health and food security. One of the scientists, calling oceans the heart and the lungs of the planet (because plankton produce half the oxygen humans breathe), observed, “It's as if the Earth has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.”

Carbon dioxide isn’t just warming the world; it’s turning seawater more acidic. Warmer, more acidic water is shrinking tropical reefs on which hundreds of thousands of species — and millions of people — depend.


Anatomy of the Gulf Spill: An
Accident Waiting to Happen

Oil Spill
The oil slick spreading across the Gulf shattered the notion that offshore drilling had become safe. A close look at the accident shows that lax federal oversight, complacency by BP and the other companies involved, and the complexities of drilling a mile deep all combined to create the perfect environmental storm.
The worst environmental disaster in history isn’t the oil that gets away. It’s the oil we burn, the coal we burn, the gas we burn. The real catastrophic spill is the carbon dioxide billowing from our tailpipes and smokestacks every second, year upon decade. That spill is destabilizing the planet’s life-supporting systems, killing polar wildlife, shrinking tropical reefs, dissolving shellfish, raising the sea level along densely populated coasts, jeopardizing agriculture, and threatening food security for hundreds of millions of people.

I in no way excuse either the people who caused the Deepwater Horizon blowout, or the total lack of preparedness. The Gulf blowout was, and is, a disaster. But the oil we don’t spill — that’s a catastrophe. And as catastrophes go, altering the heat balance and acidity of the whole planet dwarfs the Gulf blowout of 2010. I mean no disrespect to the people so horrendously affected by the blowout, but that’s my weighing of the facts.

POSTED ON 18 Apr 2011 IN Energy Oceans Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America North America 


While I understand the author's need to put oil pollution into perspective, I think we should be careful not to downplay the toll that the spill took on the livelihoods of local communities.

While its impact on the ecosystem remains huge albeit perhaps smaller than expected, the spill disrupted the lives of citizens who have often been local residents for several generations and show great attachment to the land.

The spill still has lasting consequences on the Gulf. It'll probably not wash away from the public's conscience for generations... Yes, we need to put into a broader perspective, but also keep a close eye on the lessons (supposedly) learned.

Luca Semprini

Posted by Luca Semprini on 21 Apr 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Carl Safina, a marine biologist, is president of the Blue Ocean Institute, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, a MacArthur Fellow and a Pew Fellow. His latest book, A Sea in Flames, which is about the 2010 Gulf oil spill, will be published this month. He is also the host of Saving the Ocean, a television series that will premier on PBS this spring. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about what is needed to save the bluefin tuna and how carbon levels in the world’s oceans threaten the survival of marine populations.



Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment
Movement May Ultimately Win

The fossil fuel divestment campaign has so far persuaded only a handful of universities and investment funds to change their policies. But if the movement can help shift public opinion about climate change, its organizers say, it will have achieved its primary goal.

Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean:
A Push into Uncharted Waters

As the U.S. and Russia take the first steps to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, experts say the harsh climate, icy seas, and lack of infrastructure means a sizeable oil spill would be very difficult to clean up and could cause extensive environmental damage.

Oklahoma’s Clear Link Between
Earthquakes and Energy Boom

Oklahoma officials this week said oil and gas activity was the likely cause of the stunning increase in earthquakes in the state. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Oklahoma geologist Todd Halihan talks about what has caused this growing problem and what can be done about it.

Why U.S. East Coast Should
Stay Off-Limits to Oil Drilling

It’s not just the potential for a catastrophic spill that makes President Obama’s proposal to open Atlantic Ocean waters to oil exploration such a bad idea. What’s worse is the cumulative impact on coastal ecosystems that an active oil industry would bring.

With the Boom in Oil and Gas,
Pipelines Proliferate in the U.S.

The rise of U.S. oil and gas production has spurred a dramatic expansion of the nation's pipeline infrastructure. As the lines reach into new communities and affect more property owners, concerns over the environmental impacts are growing.


MORE IN Opinion

Rachel Carson’s Critics Keep On,
But She Told Truth About DDT

by richard conniff
More than half a century after scientist Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of overusing the pesticide DDT, conservative groups continue to vilify her and blame her for a resurgence of malaria. But DDT is still used in many countries where malaria now rages.

In Clash of Greens, a Case for
Large-Scale U.S. Solar Projects

by philip warburg
Weaning the U.S. economy off fossil fuels will involve the wide deployment of utility-scale solar power. But for that to happen, the environmental community must resolve its conflict between clean energy advocates and those who regard solar farms as blights on the landscape.

Undamming Rivers: A Chance
For New Clean Energy Source

by john waldman and karin limburg
Many hydroelectric dams produce modest amounts of power yet do enormous damage to rivers and fish populations. Why not take down these aging structures, build solar farms in the drained reservoirs, and restore the natural ecology of the rivers?

Beyond the Perfect Drought:
California’s Real Water Crisis

by glen macdonald
The record-breaking drought in California is not chiefly the result of low precipitation. Three factors – rising temperatures, groundwater depletion, and a shrinking Colorado River – mean the most populous U.S. state will face decades of water shortages and must adapt.

Why U.S. East Coast Should
Stay Off-Limits to Oil Drilling

by carl safina
It’s not just the potential for a catastrophic spill that makes President Obama’s proposal to open Atlantic Ocean waters to oil exploration such a bad idea. What’s worse is the cumulative impact on coastal ecosystems that an active oil industry would bring.

Climate Consensus: Signs of
New Hope on Road to Paris

by david victor
After years of frustration and failure, a more flexible approach to reaching an international strategy on climate action is emerging – and it could finally lead to a meaningful agreement at climate talks in Paris later this year.

How Falling Oil Prices Could
Help Stop the Keystone Project

by jacques leslie
The U.S. Congress is preparing to vote on expediting the Keystone XL pipeline. But plummeting oil prices and opposition to other proposed pipelines for tar sands oil are upending the rationale for this controversial project.

A Conservationist Sees Signs of Hope for the World’s Rainforests
by rhett butler
After decades of sobering news, a prominent conservationist says he is finally finding reason to be optimistic about the future of tropical forests. Consumer pressure on international corporations and new monitoring technology, he says, are helping turn the tide in efforts to save forests from Brazil to Indonesia.

True Altruism: Can Humans
Change To Save Other Species?

by verlyn klinkenborg
A grim new census of the world’s dwindling wildlife populations should force us to confront a troubling question: Are humans capable of acting in ways that help other species at a cost to themselves?

A Blueprint to End Paralysis
Over Global Action on Climate

by timothy e. wirth and thomas a. daschle
The international community should stop chasing the chimera of a binding treaty to limit CO2 emissions. Instead, it should pursue an approach that encourages countries to engage in a “race to the top” in low-carbon energy solutions.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America


Photographer Robert Wintner documents the exquisite beauty and biodiversity of Cuba’s unspoiled coral reefs.
View the gallery.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.