On April 20, 2010, the worst environmental calamity in U.S. history exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. As its scale became apparent, the Cornell Lab dispatched a video crew and several science journalists to Louisiana. Their mission is to document the full, behind-the-scenes stories involving the rich biological diversity along the Gulf shores and what a huge oil-drilling accident reveals about longer-term threats to this unique ecosystem. We expect to be covering this story for months, well after it becomes too old and familiar for the evening news.
As oil continues to spew and spread through the Gulf of Mexico, the Lab is being called on for both facts and opinions relating to the disaster. At this writing, the most unnerving feature continues to be that we cannot yet estimate how far-reaching its biological effects will be, let alone the scale of its economic impacts. Essential facts are emerging daily. How much oil will eventually be released into the high seas? How far away will coastlines and biological systems be affected? We already know that oil has damaged oyster beds, sperm whale pods, bluefin tuna spawning beds, sea turtle beaches, migratory shorebirds, and waterbird colonies, but at what scale, and over how many generations? Can we ever measure accurately the accumulated effects of this disaster?
Amid these uncertainties, some essential facts are important to bear in mind. The Gulf of Mexico teems with life all year. During spring, hundreds of millions of birds migrate northward across it, and many of them stop to replenish themselves at the very shorelines now blackened by oil. News reports feature hopelessly oiled birds being rushed to soapy “rescues,” but let’s not fool ourselves. The biology of birds tarred at sea by crude oil is well known—a few are found on shore and given a reprieve by well-meaning rescuers, but most will die, horribly and anonymously, outside our reach. Birds are tough creatures when it comes to facing natural hazards—after all, those that could not survive storms, droughts, floods, and fires through the millennia long since died out without leaving descendants. But birds were never built to handle environmental onslaughts of the scale we humans have thrown at them. In the 1800s we exploited many to extinction. In the 1900s we ransacked their habitats with wholesale conversion and industrial pollutants. Now, in the 21st century, we confront birds with burgeoning oil spews of unprecedented scale unleashed at the peak of nesting season, and dead center in the pathway of an enormous annual migration. Pelicans, skimmers, terns, gulls, and shorebirds that breed in Gulf Coast marshes and estuaries are paying the most visibly obvious price.
Everyone needs to acknowledge, however, that doomed birds laden with oil are not, themselves, the story. Rather, they play the familiar role of canaries in this coal mine. Blackened pelicans and oil-soaked plovers are messengers for a much larger story that is far more difficult to see or comprehend, much less measure. Birds have always been effective communicators to humans, and today is no exception. Oiled birds represent the headlines for myriad untold catastrophes currently already unfolding at burgeoning scale: mass deaths, reproductive failures, population crashes, and food-web collapses affecting thousands of species within the Gulf ecosystem. Events like this can have ecological effects that may last decades, or perhaps much longer. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we are still learning about how populations and ecosystems respond to such unnatural disasters. Even as we decry this calamity and call for caution against new ones, we need to avoid empty hand wringing. Our chief priority must be to mobilize the process of learning from the reality now upon us.
The Deepwater Horizon gusher was generated by 21st-century technology, but it symbolizes the 19th-century ethics we continue to apply when environmental protection contradicts energy exploitation. Although we cannot yet know the eventual scale of its biological and economic costs, we should for once agree that we must assemble, and never again forget, all the fundamental lessons of this disaster. The unthinkable is possible, and must be planned for in advance. As we assess risks versus rewards, as we fully audit the true costs of energy exploration and extraction, we need to incorporate and properly mitigate the enormous risks and costs of disasters like Deepwater Horizon. With just one planet to steward and only one chance at this game, all of us should ponder whether some natural systems are just too complex and valuable to risk losing, regardless of what temporary energy boost lies beneath them.
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