The impacts of the BP Oil Spill have already been felt by the families of the men killed, workers who have gotten sick cleaning up the spill, tourists, fishers, and countless dead or injured wildlife. But the truth is that the catastrophic effects of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill may truly just be beginning. This oil spill is the worst in U.S. history by a long shot. The Exxon Valdez oil spill leaked about 250,000 barrels of oil total into Prince William Sound twenty years ago, and the area is still feeling the after effects. By comparison, the BP oil spill is leaking anywhere from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day according to conservative estimates. So what will be the long term environmental and ecosystem impacts? Here are the most likely:
Expansion of Dead Zones
The Gulf Coast experiences a seasonal “dead zone” in which wildlife cannot live during particular parts of the year. This dead zone is caused by algae, which blooms naturally in a polluted environment and helps to clean up the mess. However, the oil spill creates a much more toxic environment that may lead to an increase in the growth of this kind of algae. If this happens, fish and wildlife will not be able to inhabit areas of the gulf coast for a much longer period of time during the year and perhaps not at all. This interrupts the delicate gulf coast ecosystem and the impacts of a long term dead zone are not yet known, but they could be catastrophic.
Killing Off Marine Mammals
Because of the way the food chain functions, those at the top of the chain are typically the most affected by environmental pollutants. At each level of the food chain, the pollutants become more toxic. This means that dolphins, whales, and other large animals will be most strongly affected by the gulf coast oil spill. This can disrupt the ecosystem in disastrous ways. Not only will endangered or threatened species be killed; there could also be an overpopulation of food animals.
Threatening Smaller Animals
The oil spill poses a special threat to the smallest marine life, including plankton and shrimp. This means larger animals could starve, fishing could be destroyed, and the ecosystem could be dramatically altered or harmed.
The chemical dispersants used by BP to break up the oil spill are a trade secret, so experts have not been able to examine the contents of these dispersants and determine if they are safe and what their environmental impact will be. They may be a threat to the ecosystem.
The oil is already starting to wash up on marine wetlands. These wetlands are a vital part of earth’s ecosystem and are not found anywhere else. If they are destroyed, they are gone. These wetlands have already been made vulnerable by the impacts of development and Hurricane Katrina, and may be destroyed by the oil spill. The wetlands also act as a useful barrier to hurricanes and other natural disasters, so if the wetlands are damaged we may see a permanent increase in the severity of storms. Some biologists have noted that, immediately after the oil spill, the wetlands will actually look better than they do now. This is a result of the way the ecosystem work and is actually evidence that the wetlands are being harmed. A few years after this apparent improvement, the wetlands could be gone, or all wildlife inhabiting them could be dead.