Restoring America's Delta
Birds of the Delta
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Deepwater Horizon: One Year Later
A year has passed since the start of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster—the largest accidental oil spill in history. Over a span of five months, a total of more than 170 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico and swept toward the fragile ecosystem of the Mississippi River Delta and adjacent Gulf Coast.
It's still too early to measure the full extent of the oil's impacts on Gulf Coast waters, beaches, and saltmarshes, to the region's economy, or to its millions of birds. In this video, Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick summarizes what we do know, and reflects on our obligation to restore this national treasure's health. Below the video, you'll find other resources about the spill, its aftermath, and the way forward.
"We do have options to actually improve the landscapes, not just make them worse," Fitzpatrick says in the video. He's referring to a major effort to restore the vital but disappearing wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta. To learn more about this important opportunity to restore the Delta, watch our video.
One year on, we take a look at what we've learned about the oil spill's effects so far and what we can do moving forward (click to expand each description):
The effects of such an immense spill on nesting birds were not as catastrophic as they could easily have been, thanks in part to the distance of the well from the coast as well as the amount of oil that was dispersed and sank instead of forming slicks. However, dispersed oil entered the ocean food chain in unknown amounts and may continue to have effects on food supplies for many years—long-term ecological monitoring is essential to understand these effects and to learn more about the advisability of using chemical dispersants in future spills. Direct deaths of birds from oil exposure are still being determined—researchers are beginning studies that will help estimate the number of birds that died but were never found. Our own high-definition video footage makes it clear that thousands or tens of thousands of seabirds, shorebirds, and wading birds were exposed to small amounts of oil that would have been undetectable from a distance or without the use of high magnification. These birds would suffer from increased energy requirements, toxic effects of the oil, and decreased waterproofing abilities, but their ultimate fate is impossible to determine. Only through long-term monitoring of populations can we get an idea of the degree of these indirect impacts from oil.
Even before the BP oil spill, the Mississippi River Delta was in crisis. In the past 80 years, more than 23,000 square miles of wetlands have been lost from this vast region. The two main causes are the containment of the Mississippi River, which keeps sediment from rebuilding the marshes, which are constantly sinking; and canals and oil and gas pipelines that cut through the bayous, funneling salt water into the brackish and freshwater marshes, killing the vegetation, and increasing erosion. Land loss in the Delta is one major reason why Hurricane Katrina had such devastating effects on New Orleans—there simply wasn't enough land in between the city and the open Gulf to lessen the storm surge. The size of the problem is huge, but the solution is fairly straightforward: sediment-laden waters must be diverted from the channelized Mississippi River and allowed to flow through the marshes once again. If there's one ray of hope to come from the BP oil disaster, it's that the damages can be put to use in healing the Delta's ills, making the land more resilient not just to oil spills but to other threats as well. Organizations including Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, and Ducks Unlimited are pushing forward on this issue. Because we believe that the only way to begin to return the Mississippi River Delta to a healthy condition is with this sort of holistic approach, we prepared a short film (24 minutes) that helps explain how the Delta came to be, what its ecological and economic value is, and the general approaches that can be taken to repair it.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster happened in part because of insufficient environmental oversight—widely reported examples included BP not having enough spill-response material in the Gulf, lacking the technological skill to quickly stop the spill once it started, and including in their disaster-response plan ways to safeguard walruses and killer whales, which do not live in the Gulf of Mexico. Last summer, the spill served as a reminder of the continuing need for environmental regulation, and many politicians and the public called for stricter rules to prevent future disasters. For example, official documents including the Mabus Report to the President recommended that 80 percent of the fines assessed from Clean Water Act violations be channeled into restoration of the ecological health of the Delta. But by the end of the year the nation's economic problems had reclaimed the spotlight. As government budget battles fixate on spending cuts, it's imperative to remind our politicians that environmental protections cost far less than environmental disasters.
Ask virtually any scientist working to understand the spill's ecological effects and they're likely to name one major obstacle: baseline data. Whether the focus is birds, whales, or other animals, scientists have only partial knowledge of what the Gulf was like before the spill. Like pencil marks on a door frame recording your children's height as they grow, baseline data tell us where we were, so that we can understand what has happened since. They're a crucial piece of the scientific method, and they can only be collected ahead of time, through monitoring programs. Unfortunately, monitoring work is easy to undervalue, right up to the point where a major change such as an oil spill happens. Then the data become priceless—but only if we've collected them. You can help by supporting the funding of ecological monitoring. And you can help directly by getting involved in citizen science. Programs in which you serve as the eyes and ears of scientists—programs like eBird, NestWatch, and FeederWatch—allow data collection at a scale that simply can't be achieved any other way. Even if you don't live anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, your observations are valuable as a part of the baseline that we may one day need just as much.
As much as oil disturbed life along the Gulf Coast, much more of it remained at sea where it threatens ocean life. In the darkness of the ocean, the best way to study animals is by listening to them—something that our Bioacoustics Research Program has been doing for more than 30 years. Working with NOAA, our researchers set up 21 underwater recording devices along the Gulf Coast seafloor from Louisiana to South Florida. By the middle of July, these units were in position and recording the sounds of sperm whales, Bryde's whales, pilot whales, and dolphins. Some units recorded sperm whales calling 24 hours a day, every day; others near the Florida panhandle recorded up to 20,000 vocalizations suspected to be of Bryde's whales, a very poorly studied species thought to number only 15 to 40 individuals in Gulf waters. The data are now being compared to maps of the oil's spread across the Gulf of Mexico to find out if whales altered their behavior in response to the oil-covered water. Our scientists will present their findings to NOAA in an interim report on May 11. The recording units remained underwater for five months after which we replaced them with new units to continue recording. Monitoring will continue through at least this summer, and we hope to find support to continue monitoring for the next several years to understand the effects of the spill.
The Cornell Lab has produced science-based, broadcast-quality media to support groups working to restore the Mississippi River Delta, including the Common Ground Initiative led by Audubon, the Environmental Defense Fund, and National Wildlife Federation. Our media are also being used by the Louisiana state government, private foundations, and national and regional conservation organizations to raise awareness of wetlands loss and influence conservation decision-making. For example, we are providing our videos to the State of Louisiana Master plan effort for restoring the Delta’s wetlands, including screenings for the Science and Engineering Board and Education and Outreach Boards, and the Framework Development Team.
In the year since April 20, 2010, more than 4,000 bird watchers in Gulf Coast states have submitted 119,132 bird checklists to eBird, a year-round citizen-science project that monitors birds around the world. During the height of the spill, eBird added the capability to report oiled birds directly to our databases, and participants filed nearly 900 checklists with oiling information. eBird is the only year-round data set that is free and available to everyone. This makes it ideally suited to being used by local, state, and national organizations when prioritizing clean-up efforts and restoration of critical habitats. Organizations that use eBird data include Audubon state chapters, National Audubon Society, Louisiana State University, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative went into action last fall, eBird data collection was a central part of the monitoring protocols put in place by Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to standardize the measurements of its effectiveness.
We can answer your frequently asked questions, give ideas about how you can help (whether you live near the Gulf or not), and provide links to more information and plans for the future. We've also prepared a series of in-depth videos that help you understand the vital ecosystems of the Mississippi River Delta.