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Disastrous BP Oil Spill 'Flattened' Microbe Biodiversity in Gulf

Oceans
An oil-stained beach in Florida following the Deepwater Horizon spill. Geoff Livingston / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order striking a conservation-minded oceans policy that former President Barack Obama signed in the wake of the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.


A week later, a new study of microorganisms in shipwreck sediment found the BP spill could still have a profound impact on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, raising fresh alarm about the long-term consequences of any approach to U.S. coastal waters that emphasizes energy extraction over sustainability.

"At the sites closest to the spill, biodiversity was flattened," study lead author and University of Southern Mississippi microbial ecologist Leila Hamdan told The Guardian. "There were fewer types of microbes. This is a cold, dark environment and anything you put down there will be longer lasting than oil on a beach in Florida. It's premature to imagine that all the effects of the spill are over and remediated," she said.

The study, published in Scientific Reports Thursday, looked at shipwrecks because they provide a hard surface, something rare in deep sea environments, acting as artificial reefs where life can flourish. There are 2,000 historic wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico and the researchers examined seven of them.

They found oil residue on two wrecks close to the spill, a German U-boat U-166 and the 19th century wooden sailing ship known as the Mardis Gras Wreck, and noticed reduced biodiversity on those sites compared to other, unimpacted sites.

In fact, researchers found that the unimpacted wrecks had markedly different microbiomes than the surrounding area, while this was not the case on the more impacted wrecks. However, they noted it was possible that the lower depth of the impacted wrecks also played a role.

Researchers took their samples in 2014 but said it was likely based on their observations that deep ocean environments were still impacted by the spill four years later.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, 11 to 30 percent of which is still unaccounted for, according to the study. In its immediate aftermath, the spill coated seabirds and cost the fishing industry in the area $94.7 million to $1.6 billion, The Times-Picayune reported.

But Hamdan told The Guardian that the spill's impact on microorganisms could mean it has even greater, long term impacts on the Gulf food web, since they form its foundation.

"We rely heavily on the ocean and we could be looking at potential effects to the food supply down the road," she said. "Deep sea microbes regulate carbon in the atmosphere and recycle nutrients. I'm concerned there will be larger consequences from this sort of event."

And if Trump succeeds in opening 90 percent of U.S. coasts to offshore oil drilling, this sort of event could become more frequent.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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