New research by an Auburn University professor and other scientists found that significant changes on Alabama beaches have taken place in creatures too small to be seen by the naked eye. According to Professor Ken Halanych, those changes bear further study and could have big impacts that might not become apparent for years. Even if there isn’t any oil visible on the beaches, the researchers found a microscopic “community change” and hidden effects.
Professor Halanych and scientists from the University of New Hampshire, the University of California Davis Genome Center, and the University of Texas at San Antonio, published their work in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. They wrote in the paper:
Based on this community analysis, our data suggest considerable (hidden) initial impacts across Gulf beaches may be ongoing, despite the disappearance of visible surface oil in the region.
According to Professor Halanych, the long-term effects are unknown, but potentially dramatic. That’s because the organisms that lost ground after the spill form the base of the food chain. Professor Halanych pointed to the collapse of the herring population in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. That collapse, which did not occur until several years after the 1989 spill, has been traced to changes at the microscopic level. It was noted that “when you change the ecosystem, all these things have a ripple effect. Some of these effects can take years to develop.” There was a vast difference in the Valdez spill and the BP spill in the Gulf, the latter being much worse.
Patricia Sobecky, the chairwoman of the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Alabama, said the study sheds new light on a Gulf environment that many scientists contend has received too little attention. The work of Professor Halanych and others is important for establishing a baseline to track changes over time. While the presence of microorganisms attracted to hydrocarbons may have helped break down the oil faster, the questions now are – do those organisms remain and what will the effect be? That’s much harder to tell, according to Dr. Sobecky.
Other large-scale oil spills — like the Valdez — don’t offer a conclusive explanation because the environments are so different from the Gulf. It will take time to find out if the referenced study is on target. There is much more to learn about the short-term and long-term effects from the oil spill and there will have to be additional studies to find out as much as possible about what the future holds for the Gulf Coastal states.
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