Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unhappy Anniversary

What do we have in the Gulf of Mexico one year after the hugest oil spill in memory, courtesy of BP et al?

That tragedy is the ill and declining health of the Gulf of Mexico, including the enormous dead zone off the mouth of the Mississippi and the alarmingly rapid disappearance of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, roughly 2,000 square miles smaller than they were 80 years ago. Few here would take issue with the commission’s question, but the answer to it is far from resolved.

Eclipsed by the spill’s uncertain environmental impact is the other fallout: the vast sums in penalties and fines BP will have to pay to the federal government. In addition to criminal fines and restitution, BP is facing civil liabilities that fall roughly into two categories: Clean Water Act penalties and claims from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, whereby state and federal agencies tally the damage caused by the spill and put a price tag on it. This could add up to billions, perhaps tens of billions, of dollars.

It doesn't seem like a year -- mainly because of the time it took to cap the gusher. But it seems that there's something worse happening to our oceans, of which the spill is but one contributor:

That CO2, of course, leads to global warming and climate change, as well as what’s called ocean acidification, which might be thought of as oceanic global warming and is a greater catastrophe than any spill to date. The oceans absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, creating carbonic acid. Since the start of the industrial revolution we’ve added about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the oceans, which are 30 percent more acidic than they were a couple of hundred years ago.

This acidification makes it difficult for calcifying organisms — coral, snails and oysters and other mollusks, and more — to build shells and skeletons sturdy enough for them to survive. Many of these are on the bottom of the food chain and, as they begin to die off (we’ve already seen massive oyster declines on the Pacific coast), the effects trickle up. Acidification has already wreaked havoc on coral reefs, on which about 25 percent of all marine life depends. By the end of this century, Safina says, the ocean will begin dissolving coral reefs — unless we make a big change in our fossil-fuel use.

If acidification endangers marine life leisurely, fishing does it quickly. Around 70 percent of global fish stocks are fully or overfished, and 30 percent have collapsed, which means they produce less than 10 percent of their original capacity. Commercial fish catch has declined by 500,000 tons per year since 1988, not for lack of effort, money or technology — in fact because of those factors — but for lack of fish. The danger becomes dual, says Danson: “If you’re overfishing at the top of the food chain, and acidifying the ocean at the bottom, you’re creating a squeeze that could conceivably collapse the whole system.”

Why does it feel that Cormac McCarthy was all too prescient?

1 comment:

Erika said...

I'm thinking more along the lines of "Soylent Green." If we collapse our food chains, we'll only have each other.