Today, as news of the discovery of a 22-mile plume of oil droplets is revealed in a report in the Journal, Science the first leg of the Greenpeace expedition on board the Arctic Sunrise ended. The scientists, Drs. Jo Lopez and Chuck Messing from Nova University, have spent much time underwater collecting specimens of sponges and recording what they have found in the Dry Tortugas National Park off Florida.
There are no obvious visible signs of oil here and whether or not there have been some more subtle or sub-lethal impacts will have to wait until the samples have been analysed. And, although the corals of the Florida Keys have suffered greatly from a range of human impacts and continue to do so, it seems likely that the Keys may have got off lightly from this oil spill – we will have to wait and see.
This is just the end of the first stage of the expedition and as Jo and Chuck leave the ship with their samples and head off to conduct their ongoing investigations, they are replaced by Professor Caz Taylor from Tulane Univeristy and Sue Rocca a researcher from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
The Arctic Sunrise will now head towards the site of the Deepwater Horizon and en route, Caz Taylor will take plankton samples. The plankton consists of millions of small animals and minute plants which drift with the ocean currents (plankton comes from the Greek word planktos meaning drifter) and forms the base of the marine food chain. Much of the plankton is made up of the young or larvae of fish, crabs and lobsters as well as many shellfish and Professor Taylor is going to focus particularly on the larvae of the blue crab. This animal is widespread and is eaten by other crabs and fish, as well as itself eating other animals, it is, therefore a good indicator of the state of the marine environment. However, the data will be available for other researchers to investigate the possible impacts on the larvae of blue-fin tuna, red snapper and other ecologically or economically important animals.
Meanwhile Sue Rocca will lead an aerial and boat survey of cetaceans, whale sharks and turtles in the region of the Deepwater Horizon site. In the Gulf of Mexico over the years, much work has been done on these animals and so there is good baseline data from which to discern any possible impacts of the spill.
While this work continues, the argument is simmering between independent scientists and those either funded by BP or the authorities about how much oil remains. The mapping of the 22-mile underwater oil plume by a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is strong evidence that much oil remains in the sea and will continue to have serious impacts. A most telling comment came from Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer from Florida State University who told Congress in prepared testimony that “I expect the hydrocarbon imprint of the BP discharge will be detectable in the marine environment for the rest of my life - the oil is not gone and is not going away anytime soon.”
At the same time as the Arctic Sunrise heads out on this next phase of the expedition, another Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza is in the North Atlantic challenging the oil industry to really move beyond oil – two ships working on one big problem – the environmental consequences of society’s reliance on one of the most polluting and dangerous substances – oil.
I too have left the Arctic Sunrise, but I will continue to follow this expedition, working with all those involved and reporting on what is going on. We must never forget what happened here and we all need to ensure the lessons are learned. Globally we are a mass movement. Millions of us have done and will continue to demand and take action to end the hydrocarbon age and move to the clean energy age. It is all up to each and everyone of us. I for one will not stop until we have achieved our goal – and as I watch the sunset for the last time from Key West – I am reminded of the inevitability of the end of the age of oil and the dawning of the low carbon age.