Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Louisiana Coast: Oil spills and more

By Larissa Graham, Long Island Sound Study Educator, New York Sea Grant

While in graduate school, NYSG's Long Island Sound Educator, Larissa Graham, traveled down to New Orleans to help rebuild the many neighborhoods that were damaged from Hurricane Katrina. Now, five years later, she’ll be returning to the Gulf coast; "This time we’ll be focusing on habitats, the home to wildlife and lifeline for much of New Orleans’ economy" she says. Graham provides a bit of background for those that are not familiar with the Louisianan coast in a recent post:

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, flooding the surrounding waters with crude oil. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil were estimated to have flowed into the Gulf before it was completely sealed this past September. During the cleanup process, 6.8 million liters of dispersant (think: soap-like substance) were used at depth and surface levels to break up the oil. The Deepwater Horizon incident was the largest oil spill to date—in the world.

Oil spill, from the sky.

After watching the news coverage, many individuals thought that drilling in the Gulf of Mexico should be stopped. But, that could also have a negative effect on the Gulf coast states’ economies. Did you know that ¼ of all of the US’s crude oil comes from the Gulf? And, Louisiana relies on oil for more than just the day-to-day luxuries of life. One out of every 13 Louisianans work on the drilling and production platforms off the coast. So, without the drilling off the Gulf a lot of people would be out of a job. We’d think that people in the two other major industries in Louisiana—fisheries and tourism--would be against drilling but, they’re not. Chances are someone in their family works in the oil drilling industry which makes the oil industry part of everyone’s livelihood (more on that later…).

Looking at the coast of Louisiana, you can see the effects of the drilling. Offshore is peppered with over 3500 production platforms (platforms that are pumping oil) and even more drilling platforms. Between those that are inactive and those that are supplying oil, there are an estimated 40 THOUSAND OIL WELLS in Gulf waters. And, to add to that, imagine all of the pipelines that snake underwater to transport oil to the shore.

ACTIVE oil wells off the Gulf coast.

At first, oil wells were drilled in shallow water (1,000 feet) but, since 1994, current technology has taken the drilling industry further offshore and now the machines can reach depths of 10,000 feet! Unfortunately, our technology for safety and preparedness has not come as far. The Deepwater Horizon well was at a mere 5,000 feet and think about the tragedy that surrounded and the trouble experts had capping that oil well.

As horrible as it was, the oil spill wasn’t the first problem that New Orleans has faced. We all know about Katrina—a devastating hurricane that filled New Orleans up like a bowl, leaving about 50% of households under 4 feet of polluted water. Now the Army Corps is building a 350-mile ring of levees around New Orleans that were designed to protect the City from 100-year flood levels. Will these walls be able to protect this City that was built below sea level? Only time will tell…

Besides the occasional hurricane, New Orleans has a tremendous rate of wetland loss. For those that don’t know, wetlands are extremely important as they serve as feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for thousands of wild animals—from crabs, to fish, to birds. Louisiana's wetlands make up about 40 percent of the wetlands in the States, but about 80 percent of the losses. They are disappearing at a rate of ONE ACRE PER HOUR.

Wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico formed over thousands of years. The plants trap sediment, new plants grow, more sediment is trapped, and so on and so on. Here’s the problem: sediment’s not washing into the wetlands anymore so, instead, it’s washing out. Why? It’s simple. Over the years, the Mississippi has been dammed, diverted, and altered so much that any sediment that does make it over the dams is flushed right out to the sea, passing the wetlands entirely. Yes, managers are working to fix this. They’ve shown that diverting the River to areas can replenish the wetlands. But, it’s hard to make big changes like that—and expensive.On top of wetland loss, the Gulf of Mexico has a “dead zone” the size of New Jersey moving around in its waters. A “dead zone” is an area where the oxygen levels are so low, animals cannot survive. It occurs from pollution that mixes with rainwater and washed into storm drains, rivers, etc. and, eventually, flows into the Gulf. The pollutants—nitrogen in particular from lawn and crop fertilizers—cause microscopic plants to bloom in the water. These plants grow and grow until they finally begin to die off. As they die off, they fall to the bottom of the water column, decompose, and rob all of the oxygen from the water column. We have the same problem in the western part of Long Island Sound and it is a nightmare to manage. But, we are lucky; we only have five states in our watershed (also called a drainage basin). The Gulf watershed consists of 31 states, amounting to 41% of the U.S.!

Again, there is management in place to try to solve this problem. An Action Plan has been created to devise a method of reducing nitrogen loading by 45%. The Plan is voluntary but at least it is a step in the right direction.

Diagram of hypoxia (or low dissolved oxygen) in coastal waters.

Don’t despair, there is some good news. Oil naturally seeps into the ocean every day. It’s estimated that about 17 million gallons seep into the Gulf, naturally, every year so Mother Nature has devised a plan to break down oil. After the oil spill, millions of microbes started “eating” the oil.

Researchers are still not sure what type of long-term effects the dispersants will have on the environment, especially since they were used at unprecedented amounts and depths. And, it’s unclear if there will be long-term damage to deep ecosystems but, almost six months later, it seems that Mother Nature has a good handle on the situation. The shoreline impacts have been a lot more limited than we all thought, the marshes are cleaning themselves—and regrowing, bird mortality was not as bad as expected (turtle mortality, however, is another story), and most of the impacted fishing areas are now open (yes, the seafood is safe to eat, too!).

But, like most areas in the world, the coasts and waters off Louisiana still could use a little help. And, that’s just what we’ll be doing this week. As you will read in the coming days, the problems in Louisiana are far larger than one person can solve but, like I always remind myself: Together, a lot of little actions can make one big difference.

See you on the Gulf Coast, y’all!!

1 comment:

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