One Year Later, Oil Spill’s Impact on Gulf Not Fully Understood

Released: 4/15/2011 11:15 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
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Newswise — One year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, 2010, two Cornell experts comment on the known and unknown impacts to wildlife – in the air, on the land and in the sea.

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John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, comments on the spill’s effect on birds and the need to restore ecosystems.

Fitzpatrick says:

“The oil did not cause the catastrophic mortality of birds that we might have seen had the winds and tides carried oil into all the major islands where colonies of birds raise their young. Thousands of birds were heavily oiled, and we know now that probably tens of thousands more were affected by smaller amounts of oil that couldn't be seen from a distance but were visible in the high-definition video footage acquired by the Lab’s video crews.

“At the breeding colonies where our crews worked, nearly all the young birds and a huge proportion of the adults had at least some oil on them. Even these small amounts of oil can be harmful. The oil can be ingested, it can ruin the waterproofing and insulation properties of feathers, and can cause birds to spend energy cleaning their feathers at the expense of finding food or caring for young. These health effects couldn’t be measured, of course, so we won't ever really know the total mortality from this spill.

“Looking ahead, we have to ask how many more additional problems that birds and our natural ecosystems can endure. We have to commit ourselves to preventing any recurrence of such a calamity, because next time we might not get this lucky. True recovery means not only responding to the spill, but fundamentally changing the way we do business in such resource-rich areas. We need to restore long-term ecosystem functions to the spectacular ecosystems of the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Delta, because these functions are essential for people as well as for one of America’s richest concentrations of wildlife.”

Note: A video with footage of the breeding bird colonies affected by the oil and a video about restoring the Mississippi River Delta are available at

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Scientist Christopher W. Clark, an expert on whales and bioacoustics and director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, comments on studies of marine life after the spill.

Clark says:

“Despite the proximity of the Gulf of Mexico to the coast, we have a very poor understanding of its marine life and ecosystem. In the ocean, one of the best ways to study whales and fishes is by listening for them – something that our Bioacoustics Research Program has been doing for more than 30 years. Last summer after the oil spill, our researchers worked with NOAA to deploy 21 underwater recording devices on the Gulf seafloor from Louisiana to South Florida.

“By the middle of July, these units were in position and recording the sounds of sperm whales, Bryde's whales, pilot whales and dolphins. Some units recorded sperm whales calling 24 hours a day, every day. Others near the Florida panhandle recorded up to 20,000 vocalizations suspected to be of Bryde's whales, a very poorly studied species thought to number only 15 to 40 individuals in Gulf waters.

“The data are now being compared to maps of the oil's spread across the Gulf of Mexico to find out if whales altered their behavior in response to the oil-covered water. Our scientists will present their findings to NOAA in an interim report on May 11. The recording units remained underwater for five months after which we replaced them with new units to continue recording. Monitoring will continue through at least this summer, and we hope to find support to continue monitoring for the next several years to understand the effects of the spill.”