Coral reefs damaged by Deepwater Horizon oil spill

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

It’s been almost two years since the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico began gushing oil after the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. These days, folks remark about the exaggerated reports of damaged and dead habitat and wildlife. After all, we’re eating the fish again from the Gulf and no more pictures of oiled birds and sea turtles dominate the nightly news broadcasts.

But a report released last week, to little fanfare, shows we’re not done with the effects of Deepwater Horizon. Scientists recently determined that a dead coral reef in the Gulf contains remnants of the oil from the months-long spew of petroleum into the ocean.

It’s horrifying to learn about the death of a coral reef. Coral reefs are called the “rain forests of the sea” because of the number of species they harbor. They cover only 0.07 percent of the ocean’s floor, but they are home to one-quarter of the world’s fish and marine species.

The creation of a coral reef is a complicated process and takes thousands of years. Yet with increasing sea temperatures a reality, coral reefs are already in trouble. They didn’t need any assistance with deterioration. The increased temperatures cause coral bleaching which could wipe out all coral reefs by the end of this century. Now Deepwater Horizon and other potential oil disasters may speed up the process.

The vibrant colors of the corals are actually caused by algae that feed the coral. High temperatures create stress, and the coral expels the algae. When this “bleaching” occurs the coral loses its color.

In 2009, I interviewed Patty Glick from the National Wildlife Federation  for a column I was writing on coral reefs and climate change. She spoke about the sensitivity of coral to temperatures at higher thresholds, even the one degree rise that has occurred over the past three decades.

“When bleaching occurs, it means the coral is starving to death,” Glick said.

And so now the scientists know for certain the oil from the Macondo well killed 86 percent of the 54 coral colonies in the reef in the Gulf. One of the scientists described site as a “graveyard.”

So far no other coral reefs have been found with this extensive damage, but it’s enough for all of us to be aware that the verdict on the damage caused by the oil spill is still not final. Joel Achenbach reports in his book on the oil A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea  that 26 percent of the millions of barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf did not evaporate and was not burned, skimmed or recovered.

Glick told me that coral reefs are “the sentinel for climate change. And in the Caribbean and Florida, we’re already seeing the signs.”

So much of it seems out of our own personal control, and perhaps it is. But we can continue to elect officials who won’t bury their heads in the armpits of big corporations, but who will pass laws and regulations ensuring oil companies practice safety above profit and who will stand up for climate change legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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