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Viewpoint: The Oil Spill, One Year Later

Cornell Lab director John FitzpatrickOne year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick discusses what we learned, and what we can take away from it.

Q: What is your reaction when you look back at footage of birds videotaped along the Gulf Coast by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s team during the oil spill?

A: It hit me that this event took place at the mouth of one of the world’s mightiest rivers. What that river produces, down through the Mississippi Delta and out into the Gulf, is literally one of the world’s richest living systems. That northern gulf is a paradise of creatures from the microscopic up to the size of a pelican and a Great Blue Heron. And we have to remember that the birds are only the thin outer edge that’s visible to us. Those images remind me of the myriad organisms and whole systems living underneath those birds. They are why the birds are there in the first place. All those organisms and systems were also affected by the oil.

Q: Now, one year later, what’s the understanding of how the birds were affected by the oil?

A: We feared a genuine catastrophe, and had the winds, tides, and storms conspired against those colonies of birds, it’s possible that we could have seen truly catastrophic mortality. We didn’t see that. Thousands of birds really did get heavily oiled, but for the most part the bird colonies actually did end up surviving and even producing young.

But what also emerged is that the oil did have really widespread impact at levels that are outside the human perception when we look at them from 500 yards away. It actually wasn’t until our crew returned from the field and looked very closely at the high-definition images that we realized that at the breeding colonies we filmed, almost all the young birds and a huge proportion of the adults had oil on them, even if small amounts. And we noted that a lot of the oil droplets were around their mouths, and even inside their beaks, so they obviously were ingesting it. The health effects of this cannot be measured.

So the idea from afar that only a few hundred birds really got badly oiled turns out to have been a false sense of security. Tens of thousands of birds, perhaps more, were affected by this oil. The amount of energy they ended up having to expend preening that oil, and the reactions they had to having feathers that weren’t working right, mean that they were devoting an enormous amount of their summer to this nuisance. It must have affected their energy levels, and ultimately their ability to migrate and potentially their ability to even stay alive. So we actually can’t know for sure what the total mortality was from that event, measured over the whole year.

The question is how many additional problems can these populations endure and still persist through time? We take away habitat, we take away opportunities for breeding, we take away their food, and then we add oil spills. Just how much of this can these habitats and organisms take before the system itself collapses?

Q: The images shown on national news were mostly of heavily oiled birds. If the vast majority of birds weren’t affected to this degree, does that distort the impact that the oil had?

A: Our team also filmed heavily oiled birds, including very close-up images of several heavily oiled pelicans, suffering and struggling, and with huge dignity trying desperately to live. As scientists we try to think mainly about populations, not so much about individuals. But quite frankly, looking right into the eye of a bird suffering from our mistake as much as those pelicans obviously were, makes all of us realize what we ought to owe these birds as individuals.

Q: What about that larger scale of populations and species? How is the world doing?

A: One thing we humans have to acknowledge at this point: There is no place on earth right now that is not affected by the presence of humans and the ecological impacts we have had on this planet. It does not stop there. We have to come to grips with the fact that we’ve imposed perturbations so big that our impact is now widely regarded as the sixth major extinction in the history of the planet. Before humans evolved, there were five major points when life on earth was challenged by extrinsic events, by chemical changes, or by impacts from asteroids and comets. Five different times, huge proportions of the species on earth suddenly disappeared.

The sixth major extinction is underway right now, and unlike the previous five, this one is caused by one of the species that lives on earth, namely us. Hundreds and hundreds of species are known to be gone because of our impact. The actual number is no doubt tens of thousands, because we didn’t even know them before they went extinct. We are causing significant ecological instability on this planet, and the question we must face is, how far is this going to go?

Are we going to come to grips with this at all? Could we actually begin to slow down our impact, and finally halt the impact? Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can—now—to achieve a position of balance in which we humans are living stably side-by-side with those natural systems and species that are left? There is no doubt that the world will be a more joyful place if we can do this.

Q: How do we do that?

A: Well, first we need to have every culture of the world recognize that this goal represents both a responsibility and an opportunity for us. We need to embrace as a species the idea that we’re going to try to live side-by-side with the systems and the species that are left. Secondly, as we move toward that vision, we need to be able to measure how we’re doing. And the amazing thing about birds is that they give us this opportunity.

The more we study birds, especially birds that are declining, the more we realize that they’re declining because of some specific things that we’re doing to the landscape. Amazingly enough, we can fix those things and, lo and behold, the birds come back! There are now dozens of great examples. The Kirtland’s Warbler, a bird that was reduced to a couple hundred birds in northern Michigan, is now numbering in the thousands because we discovered what was going wrong. (It lives in a habitat that needs to burn regularly, and it lives in a habitat in which cowbirds were overrunning it because of widespread agricultural practices.)

So we’ve recognized that we humans do have the capacity to jump in and start managing systems in a way that mimics what the natural system was doing. Once we do this, the birds rebound spectacularly. We do have options to actually improve landscapes, not just make them worse.

Q: But if you’re talking about extinctions of thousands of species, will you be able to find out in time what’s going wrong for all of them?

A: The great thing about birds is that they give us a chance to measure how we’re doing in keeping natural systems whole, and we can actually extend this idea to the entire planet. Birds are so observable and easy to count, and everybody loves watching them, that we’re beginning to realize we can measure in real-time how we’re doing by asking people to report what they see to citizen-science projects on the Internet. Because birds are such sensitive indicators of the health of the environment, we have the opportunity, through watching birds, to measure our effects, to adjust our choices, to decrease the amount of damage we’re doing, and to watch the planet recover, system by system, as we learn the tricks.

So just getting people to watch, and count, and record natural things out their back window, and the idea that we can multiply this by millions across the world, means that we actually are moving toward a system in which we can measure, monitor, and adjust. We can in fact have a brand new relationship with the planet in which we’re using birds to adjust our behavior and make the place healthier.

This idea—that just by observing nature you can end up taking part in the reparations of the damage we’ve produced—is an enormously empowering and exciting opportunity for humankind and its relationship with the planet.

Q: Were citizen-science participants involved in monitoring birds after the oil spill?

A: Yes—and the key is that they were monitoring birds before the oil spill too. Every day people from around the world report their bird sightings to eBird.org, and this creates a real-time, continuously running record of the health of bird populations. Gulf Coast birders had already been counting birds in their region, and by continuing to monitor birds during and after the spill, they’re helping provide a record to government agencies and BP to assess the damage. Without the initial baseline data, we would not have been able to say what the effects of the spill were. Baseline data on wildlife is rare, and in this case, birds are giving us some of the best environmental indicators available.

Q: How does this tie in to your work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology?

A: If there’s one basic thing that the Lab stands for it’s the idea that we have an opportunity to make a difference in how the world is going to be in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years. The differences that we can make are brought about by the fact that as humans, we are fundamentally curious. We watch. We observe. That’s fundamentally what science is. We’re curious about how nature works, we’re curious about how it’s doing. And the more we look, the more we watch, the more we understand. The Lab is built around the idea that to fix systems, to rescue species, to bring back ecosystems, we need to understand how they work. And if we’re going to bring back things that are disappearing, we need to understand what went wrong.

We can actually figure out what’s going wrong, figure out what the human impact is, change the impact, and watch the system rebound. The Lab’s role in global conservation and biodiversity is to engage in science, to engage in close scrutiny about how nature works, but also to do that using hundreds of thousands of other people to help us.

And of course, birds are fun to watch at the same time. This means that we can even take in personal rewards on a daily basis as we contribute information to the broader good, which in turn creates entire continent-scale solutions.

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