The Dead Zone

The brown pelican sits helplessly on a small ellipse of fouled sand, its feathers a matted cinnabar of sludge. It's waiting to die. This elegant and ungainly bird has become the most visible symbol of the pervasive ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf, the stretching, fragile shores and wetlands ravaged by an insidious release of oil that will not be contained.

The environmental damage we have wrought, locally and globally, in our rapacious quest for oil — no longer easy oil, but what is now referred to as "exreme oil" — is beyond the pale. The disasters now stand like dark, infamous monoliths: Santa Barbara, 1969, 3 million gallons; Amco Cadiz, 1978, 68 million gallons; Atlantic Empress, 1979, 88.3 million gallons; Ixtoc I, 1979, 140 million gallons; Nowruz, 1983, 80 million gallons; Odyssey, 1988, 43 million gallons; Exxon Valez, 1989, 10.9 million gallons; Gulf War, 1991, 252-336 gallons. Plus the minor spills, tankers run aground, and the ubiquitous tar balls and slicks dotting the world's oceans and shores, assaulting habitat, reminders all of an energy policy grown lethal and anachronistic.

But there is also something taking place beneath the Gulf's surface that may be far more menacing to the environment than the aggregated oil pervading the wetlands and marshes of the Gulf Coast.

What is now undisputed is that there are vast underwater plumes off the Coast comprised of micro-particles of aerosolized oil, methane gas, and toxic dispersants, a mist so fine that it is all but invisible to the naked eye. The droplets neither rise nor sink but are suspended in the water. One plume, detected by scientists using sophisticated equipment, is 22 miles long, six miles wide and 3,000 feet thick.

The impact on the marine animals who swim hundreds of feet down — benthic sharks, crabs, zooplankton like jellyfish, communities of shrimp, worms, marlin, snapper, grouper and bluefin tuna — has yet to be determined, but the loss could be catastrophic and seemingly invisible. The bluefin tuna alone has been fished commercially to the brink of extinction in the North Atlantic and the Gulf is a known spawning ground. And there is the damage done to the phytoplankton that live throughout the water column as well as those critters that exist near the bottom such as sand perch, soft-bottom fish and deep sea corals.

Some have opined that an outcome of the discharge of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf waters could create an enormous dead zone caused by a phenomenon known as hypoxia or oil-caused eutrophication. It is an area so depleted of oxygen that all marine life suffocates, resulting in an ocean floor that is a virtual graveyard of dead organic matter and carcasses.

In 2004 the U.N. Environmental Programme reported 140 dead zones worldwide, areas that could not support marine life due to depleted oxygen. That number today is estimated to be more than 400, the largest being some 27,000 square miles. The irony of the Gulf oil spill is that the microbes that consume the oil, on the surface and below, also consume huge quantities of oxygen.

Try and imagine the Gulf, its way of life, its generations of fishermen, the ancillary businesses and residents, the millions of birds, the abundant marine life, the once pristine waters and shores, all rendered if not uninhabitable, a mere shadow of what it once was. Stories will be told of the waters and the land and the people, before the summer of 2010, like some Cormac McCarthy tale describing a time before ash and gray skies, and those who remember will grieve.

Much of the debate today laments the fact that the oil companies, while developing ever more advanced technologies for deep-water drilling, have yet to develop commensurate systems in case of accidents. But that begs a much larger question: Why have we not begun, years ago, a massive national discussion about sources of energy that are not burdened by the ruinous environmental consequences inherent in oil, its importation and its politics (we send billions of dollars to regimes who are not our friends)?

While it may sound flip to say, oil is so 20th century. It is a truth yet to be fully grasped. Another energy revolution is on the horizon — not if, but when — one that will be shaped by a completely new construct apart from oil and coal.

Certainly our children's children will study the pictures of dying sea turtles, oil-saturated pelicans and gulls and crabs and dolphins, stare up at brown skies and suffer extreme weather, and they will wonder how we, the ostensible stewards of our planet, could have let this happen. Of course, there will be no good answer. We should have begun much sooner, but we didn't. We knew, yet we will insist that we didn't.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes opinion columns for the Daily Tidings. He can be reached at

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