- Evening, Weekend & Online Programs
- ALUMNI RELATIONS
- GIVING TO LAKELAND
- ABOUT LAKELAND
Lakeland magazine recently sat down with Kathy Rath Marr '76, chair of Lakeland's natural sciences division and professor of biology, Paul Pickhardt, assistant professor of biology and Greg Smith, associate professor of biology, to discuss the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP well has been capped for weeks, but these Lakeland faculty feel it's too early to predict what lasting damage has occurred to the region's food web and the physical environment inhabited by the region's plant and animal life.
The Deepwater Horizon, located 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, erupted after an April 20 explosion, killing 11 workers and gushing an estimated 53,000 barrels (nearly 2.3 million gallons) of oil per day before it was capped at the end of July. A complete cleanup is nearly impossible, and the oil may likely have dire long-term consequences for the region's food web. The food web is the totality of all possible feeding relationships of organisms in an ecosystem. It is a more accurate model and description than a single food chain.
"You can clean up big areas, but you can't get every droplet that's going to wash ashore," Rath Marr said. "It will clog pores of plants that allow sunlight and gasses to move back and forth. It will destroy the coral reefs, and that's where the real life is. Fish come in there to feed or breed, and by clogging those coral reefs, it's a death sentence for a lot of organisms.
"The Exxon Valdez spill (1989) had long-term repercussions that didn't show up for years, but that was nothing compared to this. This is just horrendous."
Media images of oil-coated birds being cleaned with dishwashing liquids tells only part of the story. The long-term impact will be dictated by the spill's effect on the smallest organisms at the base of the food web.
"The smallest organisms can't cope with oil in their system and they just die," Rath Marr said. "You can't wash the shrimp, the crabs and the tiny fish those larger fish are feeding on them. If shoreline birds are eating oily fish, they're going to die. If you disrupt the overall food web, that's going to impact things further up the ladder."
The base of the Gulf's food web has already been directly impacted, Pickhardt said, with organisms dying or changing, for example.
"They're finding more dead turtles, but trying to determine if that was a result of the oil spill is tough," Pickhardt said. "You have to look at diets of the turtles. If what they eat is killed, they won't do as well."
Another concern is if oil settles at the bottom of the Gulf, it could kill bacteria that break down organisms, thus disrupting the process of recycling nutrients.
Any contaminants affecting the microbial processes in the sediment and water could change oxygen demand, nutrient cycling and carbon dynamics on the most fundamental levels.
"If that changes, it re-sets everything," Pickhardt said. "It could completely change the fundamental nature of the food web, not just for a long time, but potentially forever."
Pickhardt has had contact with members of the U.S. Geological Survey early response team working in the Gulf states. To capture the best possible picture of the area prior to the impact of the spill, they collected data on habitat and aquatic vegetated areas in the region prior to the spill hitting land. The data is important in determining the long-term damage caused by the spill, and could be used during litigation.
"This wasn't a pristine system to start," Pickhardt said. "The Mississippi River pours nutrients and toxins associated with agriculture into this region, and there was a huge dead zone prior to this spill already."
Assigning blame is a challenge with any spill, added Smith. There is never any one cause for anything, and there are natural fluctuations in populations of any species.
"When we start talking about ecology, there are so many interconnected pieces, and we don't understand all the connections between the moving parts of an ecosystem," Smith said. "How do you account for an event over a short-term period? The more 'before' information you can have, the better, but it's tough to get money for an extensive 'before' study."
While the situation is tragic for the area, it presents a tremendous learning opportunity for scientists and also for students, like those enrolled in Lakeland's environmental science course. Pickhardt and Rath Marr hope it will generate discussion about the kinds of resources used in the U.S. "We need to get students to realize we do have an oil-based economy and so much of their current lifestyle revolves around using that natural resource," Pickhardt said.
Rath Marr wishes tragedies like the BP spill would lead to changes.
"The more we depend on oil, the more we have to drill, and the more we drill, the higher the likelihood there will be an accident, which increases the odds of a spill," she said. "They should have had better stop gap measures in place. This is something that never should have happened."