April 20, 2010, is a date that will never be forgotten by people who care deeply about wildlife and the habitat on which it depends. On that date, the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, unleashing a flow of oil that gushed unabated for months, fouling the sensitive ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, affecting birds and other wildlife and habitats in ways that may take decades to understand. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States.
Now, looking back a full year later, what effect has this oil spill had on Gulf Coast ecosystems, and what lessons can we gain from this environmental tragedy?
Most researchers agree that the Gulf oil spill could have been far worse. “We didn’t see as much oil coming ashore as we had feared,” says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “A few thousand birds got heavily oiled, but for the most part, the nest colonies did end up producing young.”
But Fitzpatrick cautions against being overly optimistic. “We probably won’t ever be able to fully measure the impact of this event,” he says.
A video team from the Cornell Lab’s Multimedia Program spent six weeks in the Mississippi Delta after the spill and documented many of the more subtle impacts of the oil that might have been missed from 500 yards away.
“Our close-up HD videos revealed oil droplets all over the beaks, mouths, feet, and body feathers of thousands of birds,” says Fitzpatrick. “Imagine the amount of energy those birds expended trying to rid themselves of that tenacious oil, spending entire days preening. The long-term impacts of these energetic costs alone are probably huge, and we don’t know how
ingesting oil and toxic chemicals will affect the birds’ future reproductive success.”
The thought of the catastrophic devastation that might have unfolded had the winds and tides and storms behaved differently during the oil spill is a cautionary image we should all take away from this disaster. The Mississippi Delta is one of the richest, most productive environments on earth, a place where half a continent’s worth of water spills into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing soil and nutrients to the vast river mouth, creating an irreplaceable nursery for a myriad of organisms. Had powerful winds pushed more of the oil into the sensitive coastal marshes, estuaries, and breeding colonies, the losses could have been staggering.
All of this reminds us how fragile the world is. Humans have caused numerous extinctions during our time on the planet. We need to do a better job of protecting the ecosystems and species that remain.
“Human society as a whole has a choice right now of whether we want to try to live side by side with functioning natural systems or just keep wrecking them, keep having them disappear,” says Fitzpatrick. “We can’t bring back the Passenger Pigeon and the Dodo and all of the other animals and plants we’ve lost around the world. What we can do is decide we want to try to live with those that are left. Life for us will be more fulfilled, safer, and better if we can just figure out how to live on an ecologically stable planet.”
One of the best ways to trace our effects on natural ecosystems is by studying birds. Whether you’re evaluating the impact of the Gulf oil spill or some less visible contaminant or disease, birds are often the first things to be visibly affected.
“Birds give us a barometer—a sensitive measuring device through which we can study and gauge our impacts,” says Fitzpatrick. “The more we study birds—especially ones that are declining—the more we realize that they’re declining because of specific things we’re doing to the landscape, and we can adjust our behavior accordingly.”
To view a new film and other material about the Gulf oil spill produced by the Lab’s Multimedia program, visit our website at www.birds.cornell.edu/spill.