Bracing For Disaster In The Gulf Ecosystem

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico has begun to make landfall in Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands. Nancy Rabalais, director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, says the spill's effects on the larger Gulf ecosystem could last for years.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

A bit later in the hour, we're going to be talking about outside-the-box ideas, literally, for tackling the Gulf oil spill, and if you have an idea for an engineering stop, how to stop that crude oil from leaking out or help clean it up, give us a call, our number, 1-800-989-8255. Or tweet us, @scifri, or drop us a comment at our website, at sciencefriday.com. We'll get to those in a minute.

First, we're going to talk about some of the oil from that Deepwater Horizon leak having already reached land, New Harbor Island, Louisiana, where people don't live, but plenty of wildlife certainly do. And while there's been a lot of focus on the bigger organisms - the birds, the shrimp, the fish - how is the spill likely to affect the smallest organisms in the Gulf at the bottom of the food chain? Or the not really very flashy-looking marsh grass and other organisms that call home there.

Joining me now to talk about it is Nancy Rabalais. She is director of LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. NANCY RABALAIS (Executive Director, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium): Thank you very much. It's good to be here.

FLATOW: Can you give us an idea of where that oil spill might be lapping up there, at this point?

Ms. RABALAIS: Well, it is on the eastern side of the delta, and it is in Breton Sound, inside the Chandeleur Islands. It's oiled the islands, as well, and it's gotten into the marsh grasses. And I understand some globules of oil are starting to come in on Mississippi beaches, as well.

FLATOW: And what is the impact on the ecosystem there?

Ms. RABALAIS: Well, the oil, heavy enough oil coating on marsh plants will kill the marsh plants. And depending on how heavy the coating is, it could take a while for those wetlands to recover.

It's a very critical time for the marsh grasses right now because they're in their spring growing period, and so any toxicity that would set them back right now would be, you know, be very bad for the rest of the year.

And those wetlands are, of course, you did talk about the larger wildlife, the fish, but they are the nursery area for many of the juvenile fish and the larvae of important commercial species like the brown shrimp, as well. So the wetlands are a critical habitat.

FLATOW: Is it possible to clean up a salt marsh?

Ms. RABALAIS: There are ways that you can clean up the salt marsh, but sometimes it's more damaging than just leaving it alone. An oil spill, I have some experience with from Texas - if you could get in and clip the plants and use some of those absorbent pads, then you could get some of the oil out. Very often, though, you end up trampling the marsh and creating more damage than if you just left it alone.

There was some burning of the marsh in that particular spill and other spills, and that's really not good. You end up killing the marsh plants instead of just getting rid of the oil, and the oil doesn't burn completely, anyway, because it's in a wet environment.

So sometimes, if you can get to it easily without trampling the marsh, then getting it out of there might be beneficial, but sometimes we make more damage than we intend to.

FLATOW: Now, we're not at the Armageddon state of the Gulf ecosystem by any means yet, are we?

Ms. RABALAIS: No, we are not, nor even the Snowmageddon that Washington, D.C., had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, we'll find some media word for this yet, too. Oil spill's not good enough anymore, is it?

Ms. RABALAIS: No.

FLATOW: We have to find something to be a little bit more dramatically descriptive.

Ms. RABALAIS: Well, this one certainly is noteworthy, to say the least. It's putting out over 200,000 gallons a day, right now - and that may be a real estimate, it may be a low estimate. And I just did some quick calculations, we're getting close to four million gallons of oil right now that have come out of that spill.

FLATOW: Wow. So what point does it become an Oilmageddon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RABALAIS: Oilmageddon. Well, the Exxon Valdez was about 11 million. The Ixtoc well that blew out in the lower Gulf of Mexico, in the Bay of Campeche, was 173 million. So, depending on how long it leaks and where the oil goes, you know, it's hard to say what the number's going to be, but we may approach it, depending on the ability to cap off the well or drill a secondary well, or the many things they're trying out there.

FLATOW: What are, you know, as someone who spends a lot of time in the marine environment, as a scuba diver, someone who likes the beach, I'm always aware of the plankton in the water.

Ms. RABALAIS: Right.

FLATOW: And you never hear anybody talk about how this stuff would - you hear the shrimp, the grasses, but what about the little phytoplankton, the plankton in the water that's at the bottom of the food chain?

Ms. RABALAIS: Right. Well, one of the things is, of course, the sheen is very toxic, and the phytoplankton live in the surface waters. So they will be -their growth will certain be inhibited, either from the oil just keeping the sunlight from getting to the phytoplankton so that they can grow, or more likely, from the toxicity of the oil itself. And as you mention, it is the bottom of the food chain.

Now, the next step up would be zooplankton. They migrate from the surface to the bottom, and so they're up usually in the upper water column during the night, and they go to the bottom during the day for protection, anti-predator protection. So those would also be affected.

Some of the other plankton, which are the larval eggs and the larval fish, are like the phytoplankton, zooplankton, they just kind of move where the currents take them. And those definitely are exposed to the toxic components.

FLATOW: What about the chemical dispersant that they're spraying on the oil. Is that toxic?

Ms. RABALAIS: Yeah, dispersants are themselves toxic. It does break up the oil, sometimes creating more toxicity in the process, but you do get rid of the visible oil, anyway.

Now, you haven't asked me about my favorite animals, which are the worms that live in the sediments at the bottom.

FLATOW: Hey, Nancy, how about the worms that live in the sediments at the bottom?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RABALAIS: Well, we don't quite know what is going on on the bottom out there, right now. Our research vessel, The Pelican, is out there taking sediment samples, probably looking for oil, but hopefully, they'll bring back some mud so I can see what kind of animals are living there.

So those are the other animals that form the base of the food web for the brown shrimp to eat, the red snapper, the animals that depend on the bottom for feeding.

FLATOW: And when you say bottom, how far down? Would it be going down all the way to that well at the bottom, at 5,000 feet, or are you talking shallower water here?

Ms. RABALAIS: I would expect that some of the oil will fall to the bottom out there. I'm expecting, though, that much of the mousse and the globules that are coming in shore will fall into the shallower water - because they'll be more weathered, and as they get weathered, they're going to get heavier, and they're going to start to sink.

FLATOW: And your worms, at what level do they live?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RABALAIS: Everywhere.

FLATOW: Is that right? Can they go down that deep?

Ms. RABALAIS: Yes, from the very near shore in the estuaries, all the way to the deep ocean, yeah.

FLATOW: And that tremendous pressure down there.

Ms. RABALAIS: Yeah, that too.

FLATOW: Wow, so they're pretty resilient.

Ms. RABALAIS: They are.

FLATOW: Except to the oil spill.

Ms. RABALAIS: They are. They - I have done some studies of the effects of oil in what's called produced waters from the wells, on the animals that live in the sediments, and it can be very toxic. Once you get some distance away from the discharge, whatever it might be, then there is - you get back to a background level of these animals.

FLATOW: And how long can you expect it to remain in the sediment or in the grass there?

Ms. RABALAIS: We've seen, you know, many years of oil still coming out of the sediments in the marshes, same thing with the Exxon Valdez. It's still coming up from the cobbles. The Ixtoc oil that landed on Texas beaches, we would still get on erosion events lots of oil still coming to the surface. So several years, at least, maybe longer, depending on how deep it gets into the marsh grass.

FLATOW: And you can't go out and clean the marsh grass like you can a pelican.

Ms. RABALAIS: No, not quite the same, and, you know, we're really poised with lots of volunteers right now to do bird cleaning and things like that, and a lot of people poised to put booms up to keep the oil from getting to these fragile habitats. So really, the best prevention - or the best solution is from keeping the oil from getting into the marshes and, of course, capping that well off.

The Ixtoc went nine months without being capped off. So - but yeah, we're up against a different scenario here.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to talk a little bit about that more, right after we're done speaking with you, but so you sound a bit hopeful. You have to be optimistic.

Ms. RABALAIS: Yeah, you have to be. Louisiana has lived with oil and gas development for a long time, and we, you know, have fishers who fish part of the year and work the oil field part of the year. There is a long-term effect on the wetlands of Louisiana and the offshore waters, but with - regulations keep getting stricter and stricter. I guess I was surprised that something like this happened.

FLATOW: And of course, you keep losing real estate to the ocean?

Ms. RABALAIS: Yes, yes. We've lost a lot of marshland over the years, and Hurricane Katrina broke up a lot of marshes. It takes a while for those systems to recover after hurricanes, and now they're getting oiled.

FLATOW: And we just heard a forecast that this should be a very intense hurricane season.

Ms. RABALAIS: Oh, gosh, I don't like to hear that because I'm a director of a marine laboratory on the Gulf, so...

FLATOW: So this is like a double whammy if the hurricanes come.

Ms. RABALAIS: It could be. It could be. It would - yeah, it would certain move that oil around in a direction we're not sure what it would be at this point, depending the direction from which the hurricane comes.

FLATOW: And if the bad - the bad months for hurricane season are the end of July and in August. We certainly hope that this oil stops by then because that would be really moving the oil around.

Ms. RABALAIS: Certainly, yeah, and I hope the first hurricane doesn't come until November.

FLATOW: Well, you know, as they say, from your mouth to God's ear, something like that. We'll hope for you, then, and we hope for everybody in Louisiana and all along the Gulf Coast that this really plays out a little less Oilmageddon than we hear that it might be happening.

Ms. RABALAIS: Yes, well, thank you for the concern. There are many citizens along the Gulf Coast who appreciate that.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

Ms. RABALAIS: Okay, my pleasure.

FLATOW: And have a good weekend, and we'll be keeping our fingers crossed for you.

Ms. RABALAIS: Okay, thank you.

FLATOW: Nancy Rabalais is the director of LUMCON. That is the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and she was joining us by phone from there.

We're going to take a break, and we're going to talk about the oil spill, get you up to date on what's happening. We want to hear what you think should be done, maybe your own high-tech way, 1-800-989-8255. Leave us a tweet @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, or go to our website at sciencefriday.com, and add a comment there about thinking out of the box about how you might clean up this oil spill or a different way of capping off that runaway oil well. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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