The Gulf Oil Spill, Five Years Later

Deepwater Horizon oil spill
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill approaches the coast of Mobile, Ala., May 6, 2010.

Five years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Drilling Platform caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the tragic death of 11 crew members. The Macondo blowout, as the incident came to be known, released oil unabated into the ocean for 87 days and is believed to be the largest accidental marine oil spill ever. Economic hardship, ecological damage, and a great deal of legal and public relations hand-wringing followed, and many issues remain unresolved. What was learned from the incident?

The depth and intensity of the Macondo spill caught not only regulators but scientists off-guard. The spill effectively began a whole new branch of science: the study of oil, hydrocarbons, and dispersant chemicals in deepwater environments. In an effort to break up the oil, dispersants were used in unprecedented volume and with great reluctance.

Environmental scholarship five years after the Deepwater Horizon spill

The dispersants continue to be the subject of much debate, as instead of settling in the sediment to be broken down by hydrocarbon-eating bacteria, dispersed oil hovers in the water column in microscopic drops. Dispersed oil spreads farther though the deepwater environment, is harder to remove, and will linger longer until (hopefully) it is chemically degraded. On the other hand, dispersed oil cannot clump up and foul birds or marine mammals, and it will not foul sensitive coastal environments. It is still unknown which process is worse.

Another legacy of the spill response has been extensive coastal modification. In a desperate attempt to keep oil slicks out of sensitive systems, sand berms were built, water flow into inlets was restricted, and inland sources of freshwater were diverted. The problem is that coastal environments such as wetlands need a constant flow of water, so restricting or diverting water might be just as bad as the oil. The impacts might even be worse as these modifications are permanent, while dynamic coastal systems rely on constant changes to thrive. There is no way to say what would have happened without these modifications, but the damage to coastal systems from water loss is measurable.

There may be one silver lining from the Macondo disaster. Ocean conservation has often received short thrift in public awareness, compared to images of slaughtered rhinos and burning forests. The 2010 spill brought the suffering of the oceans to the attention of the public, and hopefully stirred more awareness of marine environmental risks. Arctic drilling plans are now subjected to greater regulatory scrutiny, a sign of greater policy engagement. Alas, while research continues, the final ecological costs of the disaster may never be clear.

JSTOR Citations

Champions for Oceans Look for Good to Flow from Misery

By: Timothy M. Beardsley

BioScience, Vol. 61, No. 5 (May 2011), p. 420

Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Science

BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA: Dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico

By: Charles W. Schmidt

Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 118, No. 8 (AUGUST 2010), pp. A338-A344

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)

Artificial modifications of the coast in response to the "Deepwater Horizon" oil spill: quick solutions or long-term liabilities?

By: M Luisa Martínez, Rusty A Feagin, Kevin M Yeager, John Day, Robert Costanza, Jim A Harris, Richard J Hobbs, Jorge López-Portillo, Ian J Walker, Eric Higgs, PatriciaMoreno-Casasola, Julio Sheinbaum and Alejandro Yáñez-Arancibia

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Vol. 10, No. 1 (February 2012), pp. 44-49

Ecological Society of America

James MacDonald

James MacDonald received a BS in Environmental Biology from Columbia and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University, spending 4 years in Central America collecting data on fish in mangrove forests. His research has been published in scholarly journals such as Estuaries and Coasts and Biological Invasions. He currently works in fisheries management and outreach in New York.

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