For ocean conservation, this is a week of remembrance, concern, commitment, and hope.
It was one year ago, this Wednesday, that the Gulf of Mexico was rocked by an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil platform which signaled the start of an agonizingly drawn out event: the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. Over the course of three months, nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil spewed into the Gulf; killing sealife, invading fragile coastal wetlands, and leaving untold quantities of oil strewned over the bottom of the seafloor. And added to that was the questionable use of massive quantities of dispersants, forming a toxic soup that removed large quantities of oil from visible sight but could very well have done lasting damage to marine ecosystems at the micro level.
One year later, we commemorate this anniversary with caution and concern - and even a measure of guarded optimism. Dr. Carl Safina, who spent a considerable amount of time in the Gulf assessing the initial damage and the potential long-term implications for both the Gulf economy and ecology, said recently, "A lot of questions remain, but where we are now is ahead of where people thought we'd be. Most people expected it would be much worse." As reported in TIME magazine, like the microbes that saved mankind from marauding Martians in The War of the Worlds, oil-eating bacteria played a similar role in the Gulf, consuming vast quantities of oil.
"Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Texas A&M University traveled to the site of the blown well and found that microbes had digested much of the oil and methane that remained in the water," said TIME reporter Bryan Walsh. "By autumn, the levels were back to normal. 'It's very surprising it happened so fast,' John Kessler, an oceanographer with Texas A&M, told me earlier this year. '"It looks like natural systems can handle an event like this somewhat on their own.'"
But not all of the oil is gone and many scientists believe it will take years to fully assess the damage. What impact the dispersed or broken-down oil and trace elements will have on the basic building blocks of the Gulf ecology - the microscopic plankton, the larval fish and other sea creatures, the plantlife, and overall water quality - may not fully present itself for years or even decades.
It may well be that, unlike other areas of the world where major oil spills have occurred, the Gulf of Mexico may have a unique resilience. But it cannot be taken for granted. We must look at the dangerous method of deepwater oil drilling as an indication of the level of our oil addiction and realize that, as with a hardened drug addict, when our addiction-fueled actions become so desperate as to threaten ourselves and the world around us, then we must realize that we are at the edge and must pull back and chart a new and smarter course.
Earth Day 2011
Two days after the Gulf Oil Spill anniversary, comes a reason to celebrate and be optimistic for our future. Earth Day is April 22 and, from its beginnings in 1970, it has grown from a perhaps Woodstock-generation celebration of the planet to a sophisticated event designed to make young and old aware of our connection with the planet and ourselves.
It has grown into a network of individuals and organizations working together, at least for a brief moment each year, to bring greater awareness to environmental issues and to get something accomplished, no matter how small or how grand in scope. And that's where the optimism comes in.
Earth Day does not sugar coat or gloss over the global issues we face just for the sake of holding hands and singing Kumbyah one day out of the year. Through the Earth Day network and website, they work towards mobilizing people, particularly children, to take action. One of its key efforts is the Billion Acts of Green whereby people commit to doing something "green" to protect the planet. One less single-use plastic bag, one less lightbulb left burning, one less tuna or swordfish consumed in a restaurant - all can have a cumulative effect.
While Earth Day is only two days away, there is still time to check out the Earth Day Network website and see what events are taking place in your area or how you can get your local school or other organizations involved through the course of the year.
The leaders of Earth Day know it's just a day. What we do the day after - whether in the Gulf of Mexico or at your local beach - that's what counts for future generations and the planet itself.
Read more about the Gulf recovery. Visit the Earth Day Network.