Thursday, July 1, 2010

Chicken Little the Sky is Falling

Chicken Little is a children’s story that chronicles the tendency of humans to blow out of proportion the effect of events, or in the worst case, completely invent a disaster where none exists.

For decades now we have been told by environmentalists that we are killing the earth and each ecological disaster is described in cataclysmic terms of doom and despair. But, the historical record tells a different story and there is mounting scientific evidence of the earth’s incredible capacity for recuperation and the restoration of its ecosystems after even the most violently destructive events. Moreover, natural disasters of many varieties have demonstrated destructive powers that eclipse human-caused ecological disasters.

Take, for example, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State on May 18, 1980. Within a three minute time span, one cubic mile of earth was blown off the side of the mountain in a pyroclastic explosion that leveled 230 square miles of old growth forest. 300 mph winds with temperatures approaching 1200 degrees melted glaciers creating volcanic debris flows called lahars that dumped as much as 400 feet of hot mud over the landscape for miles. Spirit Lake rose 200 feet in a matter of minutes and the heat depleted the entire lake of oxygen and all life in the lake died. This catastrophic event literally destroyed an entire ecosystem in a matter of minutes. Immediately, we were inundated with the reports from scientists who said the area would never be the same again and that biological recovery was unlikely within our life times.

Now, 30 years later, our scientific understanding of ecological recovery has been turned upside down. Scientist documented elk, bears, and other critters returning to Mt. St. Helens within days of the blast. On the newly formed Pumice Plain that was covered with 250 feet of 1200 degree sterile volcanic pumice, prairie lupine was found growing within weeks. This was soon followed by insects, then other plants, and soon after that, other animals. Frogs thought to only be able to live in the shade of old growth forests thrived because the tadpoles flourished in the sun-drenched ponds and lakes. Virtually, every prevailing pre-1980 theory about ecological disaster recovery was debunked by the events that took place in the Mt. St. Helens ecosystem within the first ten years following the eruption.

There are countless places in the United States that were once considered to be permanently scarred by human activities such as market hunting, grazing, mining, and timbering. Many of these places assumed to be ruined forever now actually qualify to be Congressionally designated wilderness areas “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Wilderness Act of 1964)

As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues unabated in the Gulf of Mexico, let us consider the historic impact of oil spills on similar ecosystems. And let us also consider the fact that oil seeps naturally into the ocean and often times at amounts much greater than man-made spills. A 2009 study by the University of California at Santa Barbara concludes that natural oil seepage off the coast of Santa Barbara alone has been occurring at a rate of 20-25 tons per day for hundreds of thousands of years. There is abundant evidence that natural oil seepage into the oceans worldwide each day exceeds all the oil spilled by man.

But somehow society has been trained to think that natural disasters are okay; it is only man-caused disasters that harm the environment. The fact is that ecosystem damage or alteration is independent of the cause of the change.

I happened across a story the other day in the Washington Post (In gulf oil spill’s long reach, ecological damage could last decades, June 6, 2010) about an oil spill in Gulf of Mexico and what scientists had learned from it. What amazed me the most is that the Ixtoc 1 oil spill is the largest oil spill on record and it happened in 1979. I had never heard of it, have you? The Ixtoc 1 well was in Mexican waters in the southern Gulf of Mexico and was the result of a blowout in 150 feet of water. The Mexican national oil company, Pemex, tried to plug the well with drilling mud and then steel and lead balls. They then tried to contain the spill with a cap dubbed “The Sombrero.” Only, after 290 days of spillage, were they able to complete the drilling of a relief hole and cement in the well to stop the spill, but not until 138 million gallons of oil flowed into the gulf. According to, “Although it is one of the largest known oil spills, it had a low environmental impact.”

The Washington Post story went on to say, “Ecosystems can survive and eventually recover from very large oil spills, even ones that are Ixtoc-sized. In most spills, the volatile compounds evaporate. The sun breaks down others. Some compounds are dissolved in water. Microbes consume the simpler, "straight chain" hydrocarbons -- and the warmer it is, the more they eat. The gulf spill has climate in its favor. Scientists agree: Horrible as the spill may be, it's not going to turn the Gulf of Mexico into another Dead Sea.”

Clearly, the Deepwater Horizon spill will significantly alter the ecosystem and damage some life forms and life styles for decades to come. Other critters will only be impacted for the short term. More importantly, we have learned from historical spills and clean up efforts. We know that the marshes of Louisiana are much more sensitive to damage from oil than beaches. We also know that after the Cadiz spill off the coast of France in 1978, it was a mistake to scrape off the oil infested top of the marches. They never recovered. As the Post article says of the Louisiana marshes, “Although many scientists and officials have warned that the marshes are in danger, one scientist who has studied oil spills in Louisiana marshes said that these wetlands are generally able to recover if human intervention doesn't make the situation worse.”

Americans are not a patient lot and we tend to worry most about only those things that affect us directly. The Ixtoc 1 disaster did not affect us; the Deepwater Horizon spill does impact us. The similarities between the two events from a technological and ecological stand point are striking. And, there is much to be learned from that experience and others. If we take a longer view of the event, maybe we can all agree that much work remains to be done, but the sky is not falling.

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