Dr. Jerald Schnoor, the Allen S. Henry Chair, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa and the Editor of the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology is calling on Gulf researchers to consider submitting their scientific articles about the oil spill to ES&T. Schnoor was an associate editor for the journal in 1989 following the Exxon Valdez spill, and similarly invited research articles following that disaster.
In an open access editorial, Schnoor considers the differences of the events, and the underlying cause.
Every oil spill is different, and that’s what makes emergency preparedness so difficult. In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, emergency response was handicapped by jurisdictional quandaries, and that has proven to be the case again. In Prince William Sound, 2000 mi (3200 km) of shoreline were contaminated, and the plume traveled up to 500 miles (800 km). The high energy tides (15 ft [4.6 m]) caused skimming and burning the oil spill to be difficult, and it drove oil deep into some beaches. Cold water in Alaska caused oil to biodegrade more slowly and caused fisheries to have lower rates of reproduction and slow recovery times.
The BP Gulf of Mexico spill is the first to emanate from 5000 ft beneath the sea. It is the first to make major use of dispersants at the source of the leak, and it is the first to result in a major submerged plume. The vast area potentially impacted by the spill is also unprecedented. Already it is 16,000 sq. mi. (41,400 km2) of sea surface covered by oil slick and 46,000 sq. mi. (119,000 km2) of area closed to fishing (roughly the size of Pennsylvania). Obviously, it’s imperative that the oil discharge be stopped and stopped soon before the spill contaminates the entire Gulf.
...Assessing the damages is tricky and highly site-specific. If the Gulf oil spill continues to stay mostly at sea, it will affect more open-water fisheries and less shoreline habitats and spawning than previous massive spills. The use of dispersants could prove to be a brilliant decision that broke-up the spill and allowed biodegradation of billions of tiny droplets more easily. Or it could be a disaster that served to submerge the plume, spread it into the Loop Current, and transport it to the ecologically rich Florida Keys. When the plume is submerged, it is no longer subject to volatilization and photodegradation, important processes in the weathering of the oil, which could further delay recovery. When millions of gallons of dispersants are used, it is yet another toxicological stressor on ecosystems
No energy source comes without risks and environmental impacts, but our addiction to oil is particularly vexing because of the energy insecurity it fosters. Our addiction is largely one of liquid transportation fuels for driving more and more miles each year. If we could solve our overdependence on cars and trucks, we would solve our addiction to oil.
...Years ago, I said, “The oil spill at Prince William Sound was caused by human error and was largely preventable. We hope to learn from these disasters so we do not have to relive them” (Environ. Sci. Technol. doi: 10.1021/es00013a600 [1991, 25 (1), 14]).
Just repeat the refrain. But add a real plan to end our oil addiction.
Jerald L. Schnoor (2010) The Gulf Oil Spill Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP doi: 10.1021/es101727m