By Asha Kreiling
It’s hard to forget the disastrous explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that occurred on April 20th, 2010. The event seemed to occupy news broadcasts and web pages with tragic images of oil spewing nonstop for three months, spreading across thousands of miles of ocean and wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems throughout the Gulf of Mexico. It has been exactly two years now since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which is considered the largest and worst oil spill in U.S. history. Though the oil stopped gushing long ago and billions of dollars have been spent on cleaning the ocean and shorelines, the damaging effects of the spill have not completely faded.
For the most part, beaches along the Gulf of Mexico look clean. British Petroleum (BP) has touted its continuous efforts and commitment to restoring the environment and economy in the Gulf, but beneath the surface, scientists continue to uncover long-term impacts to Gulf eco systems caused by the spill.
Tar balls, sticky clumps of oil ranging from the size of a quarter to 8-inch balls, started washing ashore on Gulf beaches after the oil spill. Larger influxes of tar balls appear in the sand after heavy storms. These balls likely break off tar mats buried underwater and are pushed ashore by the tides. Microbiologists have found that the tar balls have high levels of dangerous bacteria and that contact with them is potentially harmful to both wildlife and humans.
In regions such as Bay Jimmy, Louisiana, oil has hardened into layers of asphalt-like tar over marsh land, preventing plants from growing back. The hardened oil is helping to accelerate coastal erosion by killing the vegetation in the marsh, while bird and fish populations have failed to return. In some areas of Bay Jimmy, thick, liquid oil still seeps out of the marsh two years after the spill.
Other concerns are of the persistent effects on marine- and wildlife. The spill killed hundreds of dolphins, thousands of birds, fish, and other animals. Today, while many species seem to be recovering, scientists have found that the high numbers of fish, crab, and shrimp they catch have various deformities. Fish are found with large open sores and mysterious black streaks, while shrimp are found with tumors or without eyes, and crabs are born without claws. These physical mutations never have been seen before, especially in such high numbers. Scientists attribute these deformities not only to the oil, but also to the different chemical dispersants used in the clean-up to dissolve the oil.
Coral reefs, which serve as shelters for fish and other organisms, have turned from brightly colored colonies to disintegrating brown skeletons. Deep-sea coral has been most damaged by the oil spill, and their recovery will be slow due to their slow growth rate.
During the past two years, drastic efforts have been made to restore the Gulf, to repair the severe damage of the historic Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and persistent effects on organisms and their habitats continue to be researched. The Gulf Coast has come a long way, but recovery is far from over.
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