A Crude Awakening in the Gulf of Mexico

Scientists are just beginning to grasp how profoundly oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has devastated the region

The Gulf catastrophe will have far-reaching effects, which scientists have only begun to study. (Dave Martin / AP Images)
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Life seems almost normal along the highway that runs the length of Grand Isle, a narrow curl of land near the toe of Louisiana’s tattered boot. Customers line up for snow cones and po’ boys, graceful live oaks stand along the island’s central ridge, and sea breezes blow in from the Gulf of Mexico. But there are few tourists here this summer. The island is filled with cleanup crews and locals bracing for the next wave of anguish to wash ashore from the crippled well 100 miles to the southeast.

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Behind Grand Isle, in the enormous patchwork of water and salt marsh called Barataria Bay, tar balls as big as manhole covers float at the surface. Oily sheens, some hundreds of yards across, glow dully on the water. Below a crumbling brick fort built in the 1840s, the marsh edges are smeared with thick brown gunk. A pair of dolphins break the water’s surface, and a single egret walks along the shore, its wings mottled with crude. Inside the bay, the small islands that serve as rookeries for pelicans, roseate spoonbills and other birds have suffered waves of oil, and many of the mangroves at the edges have already died. Oil is expected to keep washing into the bay for months.

Even here, at the heart of the disaster, it’s hard to fathom the reach of the spill. Oil is penetrating the Gulf Coast in countless ways—some obvious, some not—and could disrupt habitats and the delicate ecology for years to come. For the scientists who have spent decades trying to understand the complexities of this natural world, the spill is not only heartbreaking, but also deeply disorienting. They are just beginning to study—and attempting to repair—a coast transformed by oil.

About a hundred miles inland from Grand Isle, on the shady Baton Rouge campus of Louisiana State University, Jim Cowan and a dozen of his laboratory members gather to discuss their next move. In the agonizing days since the spill began, Cowan’s fisheries lab has become something of a command center, with Cowan guiding his students in documenting the damage.

Cowan grew up in southern Florida and has a particular affection for the flora, fauna and people of the lush wetlands of southern Louisiana; he’s studied Gulf ecosystems from inland marshes to offshore reefs. Much of his research has focused on fish and their habitats. But now he worries that the Gulf he’s known for all these years is gone. “These kids are young, and I don’t think they realize yet how it’s going to change their lives,” he says of the oil. “The notion of doing basic science, basic ecology, where we’re really trying to get at the drivers of the ecosystem...” He pauses and shakes his head. “It’s going to be a long time before we get oil out of the equation.”

Cowan knows all too well that the Deepwater Horizon spill is only the latest in an almost operatic series of environmental disasters in southern Louisiana. The muddy Mississippi River used to range over the entire toe of Louisiana, building land with its abundant sediment. As people constructed levees to keep the river in place, the state began to lose land. The marshy delta soil continued to compact and sink below the water, as it had for millennia, but not enough river sediments arrived to replace it. Canals built by the oil and gas industry sped soil erosion, and violent storms blasted away exposed fragments of marshland. Meanwhile, as the flow of river water changed, the Gulf of Mexico began to intrude inland, turning freshwater wetlands into salt marshes.

Today, southern Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land each and every half-hour. Pavement ends abruptly in water, bayous reach toward roadsides, and mossy crypts tumble into bays. Nautical maps go out of date in a couple of years, and boat GPS screens often show watercraft seeming to navigate over land. Every lost acre means less habitat for wildlife and weaker storm protection for humans.

But for Cowan and many other scientists who study the Gulf, the oil spill is fundamentally different. Though humans have dramatically accelerated Louisiana’s wetlands loss, soil erosion and seawater intrusion, these are still natural phenomena, a part of the workings of any river delta. “The spill is completely foreign,” Cowan says. “We’re adding a toxic chemical to a natural system.”

One of the largest shrimp docks in North America, a jumble of marinas, warehouses, nets and masts, stands on the bay side of Grand Isle. In the wake of the spill, many shrimp boats are docked, and those on the open water are fitted not with nets but with loops of oil-skimming orange boom. The shrimp processing sheds, usually noisy with conveyor belts and rattling ice and voices sharing gossip and jokes, are silent.

One lone boat is trawling Barataria Bay, but it’s not netting dinner. Kim de Mutsert and Joris van der Ham, post­doctoral researchers in Cowan’s lab, are sampling fish and shrimp from both clean and oiled marshlands. The Dutch researchers are known for their tolerance of rough water. “Kim, she’s fearless,” says Cowan. “Man, she scares me sometimes.”


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