It's hard to get a straight answer on the effects of the Gulf oil spill amid all of the headlines, hearsay, and word of mouth tidbits from a friend of a friend of a friend. But we managed to track down an expert who gave us not just one answer, but four detailed, honest responses to questions that we have all been wondering for nearly nine months now.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, world-renowned oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of the 2009 TEDPrize, is currently leading an expedition to the northern Gulf of Mexico to study areas affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. Her goal for this trip is to identify areas where the Gulf's ecosystem could recover what it lost. Dr. Earle took time out of her trip to answer some of The Huffington Post's questions in an exclusive interview:
Q. Eight and a half months later, tarballs are continuing to wash ashore Gulf beaches, and reports are still surfacing of areas fouled with oil from the spill. These are just the areas we can see easily -- is the situation similar or even worse in the depths of the waters, or has the ocean taken care of much of the pollution on its own?
A. The sudden release of five million barrels of oil, enormous quantities of methane and two million gallons of toxic dispersants into an already greatly stressed Gulf of Mexico will permanently alter the nature of the area. Certain microbes flourish in the presence of oil and methane-- this is good news for them, but bad news for the diverse, complex microbial systems that are killed by these toxic elements in both shallow and deep waters. Places change over time with or without oil spills, but humans are responsible for the Deepwater Horizon gusher -- and humans as well as the corals, fish and other creatures are suffering the consequences.
Q. Have the cleanup efforts been adequate, and if not, who should be considered responsible -- BP or the government?
A. There is no way to "adequately clean up" the consequences of the blowout any more than you can uncook an egg. Most of the efforts succeeded in magnifying, not diminishing the impacts.
In some ways, we are all responsible for this catastrophe. Our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value encourages drilling without taking into account the costs to the ocean, even without major spills.
Nonetheless, the thousands of individuals who have done their best to protect areas that escaped oiling and have attempted to clean up areas damaged by the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon well deserve recognition. However, we need to hold accountable those who authorized massive applications of toxic dispersants, especially at 5,000 ft depth, as well as those who allowed beaches to be upended, scraped, bulldozed and otherwise altered to give the appearance that the oil magically disappeared. Deployment of hundreds of miles of booms did little to contain the oil but did succeed in creating hundreds of miles of oily trash now contaminating landfills.
Q. In your opinion, how devastating has the disaster been on marine life in the Gulf, and how likely is a recovery?
A. This is a difficult question to answer given that most of the Gulf of Mexico has never been seen, let alone explored or assessed concerning marine life. Additionally, decades of pollution, coastal manipulation, overfishing and use of highly destructive gear have already significantly stressed life in the Gulf.
A recent survey of all known records indicated the presence of more than 15,000 kinds of creatures living in the Gulf, but thousands more are likely to exist, especially in deep water, not counting microbial forms. Some of these creatures are more tolerant than others of the toxic elements in the oil, methane and dispersants. Yes, the Gulf is permanently altered, but recovery will come from designating large protected areas - or "hope spots" - that are known to be breeding, feeding, and nursery areas for fish, shrimp and other sea life, allowing creates to thrive. This includes fully protecting the drifting forests of Sargassum seaweed that provide safe havens for sea turtles and young fish, as well as seagrass meadows, deep water coral reefs and shallow oyster beds, and the range of mini-mountains crowned with coral that stretch along the northern Gulf 75 to 100 miles offshore.
Q. In light of the massive tragedy that is the Gulf oil spill, what is the biggest glimmer of hope you see in the region?
A. The greatest tragedy will be if we fail to learn from this disaster and to take seriously the need to find alternatives for fossil fuels.
But, there are several reasons for hope, starting with human ingenuity and spirit. We have the power to do things better, the will to go beyond just surviving and find solutions when motivated to do so.
Certainly the resilience of nature is a major reason for being optimistic. The Gulf will never again be the way it was before the spill, but life will prosper, with ecosystems and human societies morphing into another kind of Gulf of Mexico.
I share with Jane Goodall these and another reason for hope, and that is the hope that comes from children, whose future depends on actions we take now. Children provide incentive to not waste this disaster, to recognize that it was preventable, not inevitable, and to change course accordingly. Humans are the only creatures with the ability to dive deep in the sea, fly high in the sky, send instant messages around the globe, reflect on the past, assess the present and imagine the future. Deep sea creatures may live as long as we do and some may know the world has changed since they were hatched, but they do not know why and they do not know what to do about it. We do. That's cause for hope.
Throughout the expedition, the team has been sharing video and photo updates, which you can find on National Geographic's Newswatch blog.