Nature pays again for human error

I’ve heard a lot about the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the news over the last couple of months. It was just the other day that the official estimate of global economic damage was announced at £65.7 billion. That’s an astonishing amount! But if you look closer on a local level, just like every other oil spill, the damage it causes to the region’s wildlife is just as costly.

Black poison

The first image that comes to mind when I think of an oil spill is of oil covered birds being frantically cleaned by rescue workers. These images are shocking, but what is it that makes petroleum so destructive to wildlife? Lets take that oil-covered bird for example. Initially the oil will reduce its insulating ability making it much more vulnerable to changes in temperature and reduces its resilience in the water.  It affects its ability to fly and therefore ability to find food or escape if necessary. If that wasn’t bad enough, as the bird tries to preen itself it will undoubtedly begin to ingest the toxic oil. This can cause kidney damage, altered liver function and digestive tract irritation -meaning the bird will no longer be able to eat or drink!

Effectively, oil spills poison the marine habitat. Just like birds, other marine wildlife suffers from having its ability to forage or hunt and escape from predators greatly reduced. If that doesn’t kill them then ingesting the petroleum can prove fatal. Sea plants also die due to smothering and the oil reducing the amount of oxygen in the water.

Long term effects?

There has already been a great impact on the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. By 5 July, 1,844 dead animals had been collected, including 1,387 birds, 444 sea turtles, and 53 dolphins and other mammals. What the long term effects are going to be is hard to predict. According to some scientists, otters and other animals are still suffering nearly 12 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. And, after the 1974 oil spill in the Strait of Magellan, Chile there was no clean up of the shore and the oil was left to harden. If you dig below the surface the oil is still soft, yet animals are still living on the land.

What is for sure though is the need for US authorities and BP to take steps to stop the oil reaching the sponge-like marshland. This would make the cleaning process even more difficult.  People from all over America have begun doing their bit by sending absorbent materials like human hair and nylon stockings for use in soaking up the oil. Well that’s one way to do it!

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