Strangers in a Strange Land: Finding a Black Wall of Hell
From all appearances, driving through neighborhoods and walking in the French Quarter on a Saturday night, life looks fairly normal in New Orleans. There are beads and drunks, cat callers and punks.
Maybe, I wasn’t sure what to expect, or where to find the pathos that would define this time in the Gulf, but what’s universally apparent is a sense of ‘what now?’ But what is the what? That’s the rub exactly. Life here is the water, and boats are extension of the body.
Today, we met with John Caruso from Tulane University, a deepwater fish biologist. I asked him some pointed questions about what he thought about the future of the gulf, and what the ramifications were for deep water ecosystems. What he feared mostly was the unknown — sure, we’ve seen pictures all over the place of distressed charismatic mega fauna — a term used sort of insipidly to describe the creatures with which humans empathize, because they anthropomorphize them. But animals that live in the deep — the ugly fish that make up the base of the food chain — what is their fate? And what are the long term affects on phytoplankton and zooplankton? And what is the long term affect of heavy microbial action depleting the oxygen in the water?
Dispersant, as we have learned, has been used by BP to hide the oil. Some say it is to increase the surface area of the oil so as to accelerate microbial action in breaking it down, though evidence for this isn’t scientifically based. What dispersant does beyond hiding the oil visually, is that it makes it stratify in the water column and release volatile compounds into the ecosystem. As Caruso says, in one case the dispersed oil went down 3,000 feet and 20 miles long. For an animal, this is a black wall of hell. Yes, this kind of thing pulls at my heart strings because I hate that thought of subjecting the wild kingdom to human made catastrophes that they can’t process — a point made by one the members of our delegation, Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director for Portland Audubon Society:
“Imagine choking on something that you can’t even comprehend.”
The media, and the government, for their part, are quick to say, “the oil is going away” and “was this whole disaster maybe overblown?” and that only 26% of the oil remains. I have a serious problem with their math here. One, how on earth could anyone make an estimation to any degree of accuracy especially when most if it is now below the surface? And the other thing that angers me is a crime of omission. Barely any of the oil is going away from human intervention or action; most of it is because of microbes. Microbial action is better in warm water than say, Alaskan waters, but that’s only surface deep. Water temperature drops dramatically with depth, and if we’re talking about dispersed oil in the water column up to 3,000 feet, it’s impossible and arrogant to make estimates like this. Critics say this being pushed by BP in order to mitigate how much this will cost them.
But what’s becoming apparent, after the cap, is that the damage done the we see in pictures is only part of the story — the real answers are unknown, residing in the unseen hinter land of the deep.
By Stiv Wilson