This is an article that may surprise you. I find that almost every Ode article has that affect on me. It's a phenomenal publication that I highly recommend reading or subscribing to. With no further ado, here's the piece:
The Gulf oil spill: How nature cleans up our mess
Scientists report that the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be dissolving far more rapidly than anyone expected. The New York Times reports that journalists “flying over the area spotted only a few patches of sheen and an occasional streak of thicker oil.” The BBC quotes Jane Lubchenko, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saying much of the oil had been “biodegraded by naturally occurring bacteria.” Both reports voice a certain surprise: "What we are trying to figure out is, where is all that oil and what we can do about it?"
We shouldn’t be surprised. Somehow we continue to underestimate the power of nature. Bacteria are much more powerful than chemicals when it comes to dissolving and absorbing oil. I remember visiting an oil refinery in Rotterdam, The Netherlands many years ago with a scientist who showed me that bacteria in the polluted, oil-drenched soil of the refinery were cleaning up the mess. As he said at the time, “When we close the refinery and leave this place and come back in a decade or so, nobody will be able to figure out from the soil that oil was spilled here.” Every human activity is met with a cleaning or healing response from nature. And yet we find it difficult to trust this response.
In 2000, reporters from the German environmental magazine Natur went on an expedition to the beaches of Brittany in France, which in March 1978 were seriously polluted by an accident on the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz. The Amoco Cadiz sank off the coast of Brittany and dropped 230,000 tons crude oil on the beaches. Just over 20 years later, the Natur reporters, accompanied by German scientists, spent hours digging in the sand without finding any trace of the oil pollution! A French biologist said, “When the disaster happened, we thought that nature would be spoilt for decades. However, even after six months there was hardly any oil to be found anymore.” Billions of bacteria, supported by the warmth of the sun, had cleaned up the mess.
After the Amoco Cadiz disaster, the Centre of Documentation, Research, and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution (CEDRE) was established in Brest, France. For the past 30 years, the institute has researched many smaller and bigger oil spills. The institute has concluded that clean up operations are generally more harmful than helpful. The chemicals used undermine the power and effectiveness of naturally occurring bacteria. It is also important that an oil slick is not dispersed, as bacteria can be more effective when the oil sticks together. CEDRE argues that the most effective human activity in clean up operations is shoveling polluted sand from the beach.
The Natur team also visited Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez caused a disaster in 1989. The Exxon Valdez lost 40,000 tons of crude oil. In 2000, just over a decade after the disaster, The Natur team concluded that the water and the soil in the area was clean. The team only found remnants of oil when they turned over stones on the sea floor. The scientists argue that the bacterial clean up takes longer because of the cold waters around Alaska. And that’s the good news about the Gulf of Mexico, which is known for its warm, hurricane-provoking waters.
The oil spill in the Gulf is a terrible thing, and is a warning sign for all offshore exploration. There are much better renewable alternatives. But in the meantime, we should be grateful that nature will quickly clean up our mess.
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