This Friday, April 20, will mark two years since the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused vast quantities of crude oil to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
But despite the size of the spill, "the natural recovery is far greater than what anybody hoped when it happened," said James Morris, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina. "The fears of most people -- that there would be a catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem in the Gulf -- never materialized."
Morris is the director of USC's Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, which has a field laboratory on the South Carolina coast in what is widely recognized as the most pristine estuary in the United States -- North Inlet. A wetland essentially untouched by development, it serves as an invaluable resource for understanding the effects of climate change. More than 40 years of daily data -- temperature, sea level, salinity changes, and the like -- augment the hundreds of research papers based on studies in the area that have been published since the institute was created in 1969.
For the past year and a half, Morris has served on a National Research Council committee tasked by Congress to assess the effects of the spill on the Gulf's ecosystem. He's been impressed with the recovery of the area's ecology.
"The fisheries have come back like gangbusters," he said. "One of the interesting findings was that after the oil spill, bait fish populations collapsed, and predator populations boomed. The reason was that there was no fishing pressure on the top predators because people stopped fishing after the spill. So the predator fish populations rebounded, and they grazed down their prey."
"The marshes that I saw actually looked very good," he added. "And I was taken to the worst by officials who wanted to impress us that the damage was really significant, and that you could still find oil in the marshes. And you can still find oil in the marshes, but the greatest damage to the place where they took us was from the trampling by the reporters, scientists, and agency people tromping around out there looking for damage."
"There's some evidence that perhaps there are some lingering problems, but it's not entirely clear," Morris said. "For example, there's ambiguity about whether there's been an effect on species like dolphins. Some people will remain forever convinced that dolphins are washing up because of this spill, but in a recent report that NOAA just released, the dolphin mortality was unexplainably high leading up to the spill. So before the spill, the dolphin mortality was higher than normal, and it's been higher than normal since the spill."
In the face of dire predictions since the early days after the oil spill, Morris has been measured in his response. "There was a time when a simulation model of the currents was released, showing how a loop current in the Gulf got caught up in the Gulfstream, and how the Gulfstream carried whatever was in the loop current all the way up the East Coast," Morris said. "And people here just started to panic. It was crazy."
Interviewed by TV reporters at the time, Morris said "they showed me this model, and asked me why I wasn't concerned about it. And I told them that the stuff was going to degrade long before it got here."
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