Anyone who lives near the coast can certainly understand the potential impact of a major oil spill, such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Though this is the largest oil spill in American history, there have been many others. And as long as we are dependent on this energy source, there will be more.
The damage done to the coastal ecosystem is severe and can affect an area for many years. Intertidal organisms are particularly vulnerable, not just from the initial toxic effects, but from the lingering presence of oil and its breakdown substances in the substrate.
Many years ago I had the opportunity to study marine life, particularly algae, in the Florida Keys. This area is now a National Marine Sanctuary, and it is a very valuable American treasure. Not only does it include ecologically important mangrove swamps and seagrass communities, but the sanctuary has the countryís only living barrier coral reef. This reef system is home to hundreds of species of fish, crabs, mollusks, echinoderms, and algae. And of course several species of coral are present, animals that slowly build the reef with their capacity to remove calcium carbonate from the water column. There are also several species of algae that can carry out this process of calcification.
Coral reefs are complex, biologically diverse, and vulnerable ecosystems. Nitrogen loading from sewage can result in algae blooms which can smother different life forms. Siltation from land erosion can have a similar effect. Water clarity is important because the coral have symbiotic algae living in their tissues which assist the coral animals in building the reef. Even global warming has had a negative impact on the reefs. The warmer ocean temperature causes the coral to release the symbiotic algae, a process called bleaching.
But if there is one major threat to coral reefs, itís oil pollution. Oil spills are devastating to these systems, and the results can be permanent. As we nervously watch the Gulf oil spill spread, one can imagine what a national calamity it would be if it reaches the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Even the dispersants that are sometimes used to break up oil spills can be very toxic to most marine life.
We are at a major turning point in our nation today. What kind of future do we want? If these coastal resources are valuable to us, and they should be, then we need to change the way we consume energy. Itís time to embark on new technologies, those that are environmentally safe and renewable. Otherwise, we face a dismal future, and the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be repeated elsewhere again and again.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.