How Devastating Will the Oil Spill's Ecological Impact Be?

Birds, endangered turtles, and fisheries all at risk

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Oil continues to spill from the rig wreckage in the Gulf of Mexico. While many commentators are beginning to discuss the disaster's political fallout, the environmental impact is the more immediate concern to local residents and many in the public. Just how bad is this going to be?

  • 'The Bad ... The Worse ... The Ugliest'  David Kotok, chairman and CIO of Cumberland Advisors, surveys the situation at The Big Picture--it's not pretty. The "bad" scenario is that "Containment chambers are put in place and they catch the outflow from the three ruptures that are currently pouring 200,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf every day. If this works, it will take until June to complete." The "worse" scenario involves the oil "spew[ing] for months ... Damages by this time may be measured in the hundreds of billions. Cleanup will take many, many years. Tourism, fishing, all related industries may be fundamentally changed for as much as a generation. Spread to Mexico and other Gulf geography is possible." The "ugliest" would be if it took even longer: "The Gulf becomes a damaged sea for a generation. The oil slick leaks beyond the western Florida coast, enters the Gulfstream and reaches the eastern coast of the United States and beyond."
  • Surpassing the Exxon Valdez? "Depending on how long the well leaks," it could happen, writes Newsweek's David Graham. "BP is fabricating giant steel domes in New Orleans to place over the leaks. That process will take several days, and then the domes have to be placed using robots in poor visibility-a difficult process."
  • Ecosystem, Livelihoods at Risk  "The spill," writes entrepreneur-philanthropist D. K. Matai at The Huffington Post, "... threatens hundreds of species of wildlife and sealife, from birds to marine mammals and fish: including dolphins, shrimp, oysters and crabs. This will affect the livelihoods of the Gulf's local communities, some of whom are still recovering from the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005." Perhaps worse, as the slick spreads, it could hit the Florida Keys, "home to the only living coral barrier reef in North America, and the third largest coral barrier reef in the world."
  • The Catalogue of Creatures Affected  Jerry Remmers at The Moderate Voice goes over all the species wildlife officials are worried about, starting with "bluefin tuna, bottlenose dolphin, sperm whale, oysters, West Indian manatee and the Gulf manhaden." Then there are the land creatures, which include "about 5 million migratory birds [that] stop [in the area] to lay eggs and others to feed." Two endangered reptiles, "the loggerhead turtle and the Kemp's ridley turtle come to the gulf to feed beginning in May, and lay their eggs along the coast's beaches." The endangered diamondback terrapin and the alligator could also be affected through dwindling food supply.
  • Birds Particularly Hit, says Time's Bryan Walsh. The Gulf's shorebirds "are in their prime breeding season," and conservationists are horrified at the timing.
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