Saturday, June 5, 2010

Oil Spills Kill

The photos are gutwrenching. Those of us who value the lives of wild creatures and who are concerned about wetlands are anguished by what we are witnessing. We knew already how fragile those wetlands, deltas and marshes were, but this oil spill disaster will cause a mass destruction and depletion of species in the Gulf of Mexico the likes of which we have never seen. But the sickening pictures of crude-covered, gasping pelicans show only what we can see with the naked eye. What we cannot see is equally worrisome and troubling.

Oil spills kill. It's as simple as that. What is really happening to the birds, reptiles, crustaceans, amphibians, fish and mammals? It's not just the oil on their feathers, wings or shells; the oil is doing significant internal damage as well.

No, it is not a pretty picture at all.

Here then a little "Oil Spill 101" in order to fully understand what is happening to the wildlife in the Gulf. As hard as it may be to read, these are the facts (thanks in part to Wikipedia for helping me to explain this):

External Damage and Effects

Oil penetrating up the structure of the plumage of birds reduces its insulating ability, making the birds more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations. Birds also become much less buoyant in the water. Furthermore, oil impairs their flight abilities to forage and escape from predators.

Internal Organ Damage

As oiled birds preen (in a desperate attempt to clean themselves), they ingest the oil that covers their feathers, which causes digestive tract irritation, kidney damage and altered liver function. This (and the limited foraging ability) quickly causes dehydration and metabolic imbalances. Moreover, hormonal balance alteration can also result in some birds that have been exposed to petroleum.

Unfortunately, most birds affected by an oil spill die without human intervention at this point. Marine mammals exposed to oil spills are similarly impacted—insulating abilities are reduced, which leads to body temperature fluctuations and hypothermia. Ingestion of the oil causes dehydration and impaired digestions.

Loss of Life at the Organic Level

All levels of marine life and habitat are jeopardized when a significant maritime oil spill occurs. Because oil floats on top of water, less sunlight is able to penetrate the water, which in turn limits the photosynthesis of marine plants and phytoplankton. Ultimately, this adversely affects the food chain of the entire ecosystem.

You could say that the damage to the food chain, or ecosystem, is both a "top down" and a "bottom up" phenomenon—not only do the birds and mammals that live on or near the water suffer physiologically from contact with the oil, even the tiniest organisms that depend on sunlight to thrive are choked off under the dark, sunless waters. It is, therefore, the death of the entire infrastructure.

From the largest predators to the tiniest microscopic organisms, maritime oil spills are utterly devastating.

Environmentalists, ecologists and animal lovers alike, we are all venting our outrage, because what we are witnessing in the Gulf these days is a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. I do not believe I exaggerate.

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