Oil Spills and their Impact on the Environment

Today’s Guest Blogger is Wes Tunnel, Ph.D. , marine biologist who has studied oil spills and their impact on the environment. For over 40 years he has helped develop the National Spill Control School. Dr. Tunnell, is Associate Curator of Malacology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Associate Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and Professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Dr.

Studying oil spills is not something many scientists do as a planned area of study for their advanced degree. Unless they are at a university near a major spill, they likely will not get engaged in studying oil spills unless one happens “in their back yard.”

That is exactly what happened to me early in my career as a marine scientist, and it is what happened to many scientists across the northern Gulf of Mexico last year (2010) with the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill.

Gulf Coast Oil Spill

I first had the opportunity to start learning about oil spills and their effect on the environment in the mid-1970s when our university received a grant to develop the first oil spill training program in the United States.

It took about two years of gathering information and interviewing people for the leaders of this program to establish the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (then called Texas A&I University at Corpus Christi). The week-long classes established for the School included specialists lecturing on the biological, chemical, and physical aspects of oil and its impact on the environment, and it also covered aspects of policy, law, social impacts, clean up techniques and strategies, and a whole realm of related topics. Attendees would see newly created movies, as well as vintage ones of previous oil spills, and they would get field experience in working with booms, skimmers, and other clean up techniques.

However, for me, this was all just book learning, and I had always been a proponent of hands-on, field oriented biology for the best understanding of any topic.

Well, on June 3, 1979, when the Ixtoc I oil well blew out in the southern Gulf of Mexico, it looked like I might get that chance. By early August, the predicted 60-day movement of oil proved true as South Texas beaches were coated for over 150 miles between the mouth of the Rio Grande to north of Port Aransas. The oil ranged from 5 to 10 yards in width and 3 to 15 inches in thickness along this entire stretch of coast. It was sickening, and I thought our beloved beaches would be ruined forever.

Working with funding from NOAA, we ran 13 transects along the length of Padre Island from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande.

These extended from the third sandbar offshore to the upper extent of the intertidal zone. Since we knew the oil was coming, which often is not the case, we were able to do pre-spill samples before the oil arrived and then post-spill samples after it arrived.

In general, we found reductions in numbers of organisms (not numbers of species) by 80% in the intertidal zone (area where the waves wash the shore) and 50% in the subtidal zone (offshore bar and trough zone, where the waves are breaking). Although this news was devastating at first, we were pleased to find out that the beaches had recovered fully in about 2.5-3 years. A combination of fast weathering of oil (biological, chemical, and physical break down of oil) and fast reproductive abilities of most beach organisms allowed for this quick recovery.

John W. Tunnell, Jr. Ph.D.

Although this story of impact and recovery is much more complex than what is related here, we did not have sufficient funds to track the exact timing or impact, since research funds were cut off. This is typical of many large spills, so we don’t have the kind of information to answer many of the question that were flying last summer. The commitment of BP to fund the Gulf Research Initiative at $500 million total, or $50 million per year, over the next 10 years should greatly help our knowledge of dealing with and understanding future spills. Funding from NSF, NOAA, EPA, and other federal and state agencies should add to this knowledge also.

Learn more on oil spills and their impact on the marine environment from Dr. Wes Tunnel at his lecture on Monday, August 29 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

One thought on “Oil Spills and their Impact on the Environment

  1. I was genuinely astounded to learn what you presented! Not only is it so profound yukky, but also it’s happening near our home!
    Peg Bobbitt

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