The Four to Eight

by Paul Horsman

August 15, 2010

It is just after 5 o’clock in the morning.  I’ve just had a slice of toast and a cup of tea.  The decks are wet from a recent downpour that has cooled the air somewhat.  It is quiet, the ship and crew sleep.  The 4 to 8 is the best watch.  You get to see the sunrise and the sunset.  But just now it is the darkness just before the dawn – just the harbour lights and the occasional lightening flash in the darkness.

Yesterday a steady stream of visitors came to the ship.  Kieran Mulvaney, who is the co-ordinator of the expedition, and I took turns to welcome visitors and explain what we were doing there.  Then volunteers from the crew led tours around the ship – bow to stern, on the bridge, along the deck and down in the hold.  It will get busy again later today as the ship will be open to the public.

Kieran and I explained.  The ship was being provided as a platform from which scientists from different Universities and research institutes were going to undertake research to begin to try and answer the question which is on everyone’s minds – where is the oil?  And, more importantly perhaps, what is the oil plus a toxic mix of oil and dispersant chemicals doing to the environment?  A recent report produced by the administration spun a story that most of the oil had “gone” either through evaporation or dispersion.  This has been greeted with some incredulity not only by the people impacted by the spill, but also by many scientists.

The phase of seeing harrowing images of oiled pelicans and turtles appears to be over.  It is not likely that this expedition is going to find more.  Most of the wildlife killed will have sunk or been consumed.  No – what this expedition is aiming to do is find that which can’t be seen but can be measured.  Just because the oil is “out of sight” doesn’t mean to say it must be “out of our minds”.  We all must remember what happened here and ensure that our political leaders as well as the oil companies, that would rather continue business as usual, never forget.  

Tomorrow, the first team of scientists will come on board and we will take them to the Dry Tortugas where they investigate corals and take samples of sponges.  These colonial animals filter the water for their food and so they accumulate material in their bodies which makes them good indicators of what is in the water.  Following this first leg of the voyage, the ship then heads out towards the site of the Deepwater Horizon taking samples of plankton – the tiny floating animals and plants which make up the base of the marine food chain.  On board will also be mammal researchers to record any whales and dolphins.  A lot of research has been done in the Gulf on marine mammals and so there is baseline data against which to measure any possible impacts.

At the other side of the Gulf, scientists from Texas will join the ship and deploy equipment to try to assess the extent of any sub-surface oil either as underwater plumes or as so-called ‘dead-zone’ areas.  These are where the bacteria in breaking down the oil have used up oxygen in the water.  The Gulf is known for having seasonal dead-zones but it is possible that these could have been made worse as the environment deals with the onslaught of millions of gallons of oil and chemicals.  Finally submersibles will be used to look at the seabed and any possible impacts on deep water animals.

The research is likely to raise more questions than answers.  But this is the start of trying to see what the impacts of this spill have been.  It will take many months if not years before the full account of what happened here will be known.  In the meantime, we can call our government to account, we can stop the industry expanding and continuing as if nothing had happened.  We must continue to demand a shift from environmentally destructive energy sources to clean renewable energy.

As the sun begins to rise over Key West, I am reminded of what the CEO of one of the biggest US oil companies, Arco said before it was bought by BP, “Oil is a sunset industry, and the sun has gone down”. 

Sunsets can be spectacular, dramatic even.   But sunrise appears almost imperceptibly; one minute it is dark, the next a glimmer appears and, almost before you know, it is daylight and the sun fills the shadows.  Such is the expansion of renewable clean energy.  As the rapid and possibly dramatic decline of the fossil fuel industry is inevitable, the light of clean energy will fill all our lives.

Paul Horsman, on board the Arctic Sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico, is a long-time Greenpeace campaigner and an oil specialist. He is currently the campaign director for TckTckTck.

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