Condemned to roll the same rock up the same hill for eternity, Sisyphus is the hero of the absurd task. Sick at heart, only Sisyphus could understand the challenge facing the residents of the Gulf Coast witnessing the encroachment of oil.
Visit your nearest salt marsh. Without getting stuck in pluffmud, examine the diversity of life that happens in one acre of marshland: spartina, periwinkle, terns, plovers, marsh wrens, crabs, egrets, diamondback terrapins, nests of bitterns, pelicans, oystercatchers, millions of microscopic organisms that feed and breathe in the ecosystem. On the Environmental Sensitivity Index, a measure of diversity and endangerment, salt marshes rank the highest score.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil off the Alaska coast. Many of us still remember the powerful pictures of oiled birds, fish and mammals. In contrast, pictures of the Gulf show mucky marshes, steeped in thick orange sludge, dying from the roots up. On the Pacific shores of sand and rock, oil could be scrubbed away, a tedious task residents of Louisiana and Alabama would be grateful to do. You cannot scrub the marsh. Oil coats and suffocates the fragile ecosystem and kills it.
The present Gulf calamity, says The Center for Birds of Prey executive director Jim Elliott, is also “unprecedented in magnitude and duration.” Each day yields thousands of gallons of oil and new variables, depending on wind, tides and currents. One possibly positive factor is the warmer temperature of the water. Oil in warmer water doesn’t tend to clump, some natural evaporation takes place. It will not be in the same state should it reach Charleston. But while damage may be less fatal than the plumes and sheens we see now, our marshes are at risk.
The 32 National Wildlife Refuges along the Gulf Coast that stand to be impacted are intimately connected to the marshes we know and love. That’s the way the world works. Hungry birds, whose hunting grounds are ruined, will come here looking for food. Brown pelicans and plovers suffering death and loss of nests will cease to grace our skies and shores. The oil surging beneath the surface and the consequent contamination of dolphins, crustaceans, birds, plantlife and fish will change the way we look at our saltmarshes forever.
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