Today marks the two-year anniversary of the deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The resulting underwater oil spill transfixed the nation’s attention, with daily (even hourly) live reports from national television stations, print and internet outlets, and radio programs.
For those having trouble visualizing what tens of thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the ocean each day looked like, there was a live feed accessible online. When BP finally sealed the well on July 15, 2010, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. Our long national environmental nightmare was finally over.
Or was it? Several recent research studies suggest that the environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill are still with us. One study recently in the news documented the presence of the oil in Gulf of Mexico zooplankton. Zooplankton, little floating animals, play a central role in aquatic food webs, and one study found chemical residues tied specifically to the Deepwater Horizon spill in Gulf zooplankton. The implication: Oil from that spill is now contaminating an important food source for predatory fish, and that chemical contamination may extend further into the sport and commercial fisheries so important in this region.
Another study, this one headed by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), showed that, in Barataria Bay, Louisiana (a location that received heavy and prolonged exposure to oil during the spill), the resident dolphins are underweight, anemic, and have symptoms of lung and liver disease. While these symptoms are consistent with exposure to oil, they have not been specifically linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
A third study documented the impact to a very small, remote ecosystem: deep-water corals that live 1,300 meters below the ocean’s surface. Deep-water coral colonies that were closest to the oil spill exhibit signs of stress and tissue damage, while colonies farther away appear intact and thriving.
While these aren’t the types of news stories that generate widespread interest, hourly televised updates, or the ominous feel of the oil cam, they are exactly the types of studies that will ultimately define the long-term impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Resource protection certainly means addressing immediate threats: oil-covered birds, washed-up tar balls, fish consumption advisories. But it also means painstaking research to determine and understand the long-term impacts to resources, long after the camera crews have moved on to the next big story. Unfortunately, for places that are supposed to be protected from environmental damage—such as Gulf Islands National Seashore, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breton and Delta National Wildlife Refuges—the real story may just be beginning.
Find information on the Park Service’s response to the oil spill on their website.