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Disaster Imminent for Sensitive Gulf Coast Ecosystems, Industries

April 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As high winds and waves push oil towards the shores of several states, Jeffrey Brown talks to Robert Twilley, professor of oceanography and coastal science at Louisiana State University about efforts to mitigate the environmental damage.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now to someone who studies the environment of the region closely.

Robert Twilley is professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. He’s also a science adviser to the state’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration.

Mr. Twilley, tell us first a little bit more about the Gulf coastline, the terrain and the wildlife that’s there. Paint the picture for us.

ROBERT TWILLEY, professor of oceanography and coastal sciences, Louisiana State University: Well, what are you hearing most about right now is off the coast of Louisiana, which is a delta. It’s built by the Mississippi River. It’s basically a muddy coast.

And it’s — it’s dominated by wetlands. And it’s a very fragile environment. As you move toward the east, you get into Mississippi, you get in the sea grasses, clear water. All along this area are some of the most productive shellfish, the oyster grounds in the U.S.

Then you move farther east, and you get into more sandy environments. This is one of your hotbeds of tourism. It’s one of the most fabulous places to visit and enjoy and recreate. And then you move farther into Florida, again, the same, more of a sandy environment.

So, you — you really have a very diverse set of habitats that both provide a lot of refuge for wildlife and also are really economic engines for a lot of activities, economically.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you look at that diversity, what are the keys that you look at to determine the extent of the damage? Is it the amount of oil, the type of oil, the length of time it sits there?

ROBERT TWILLEY: You know, I think the discussions leading up to my interview have been right on the mark related to the environmental impacts.

And that is trajectory. Where is it going to go? How much are we dealing with? You know, again, this is not a tanker with a fixed amount that has hit a rock or something, and then — and then floated into a very specific shoreline. We have got a very large coastline here. We have got very complicated currents, ocean currents that are — that are driven by wind.

A

nd we have — so, the trajectory of where this oil is going to go and how much oil we’re going to have over the next several weeks are all going to complicate any speculation right now as far as potential impacts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is the best way right now — you are involved advising folks down there — what is the best way to protect against the worst happening?

What kinds of things are under way?

ROBERT TWILLEY: Well, you know, one of the first things, of course, is, where will the oil that we have near our coastline make first contact?

And, again, as has been alluded to, we have a very strong southeast wind. Wind is one of the dominant factors that forces currents and — and where this oil will go. And then we have the countereffect of the river and what influence the river will have of actually pushing the oil back out.

And so we have been working with the physical oceanographers and working with the models and trying to point where it’s going to hit and what at those points we have as far as assets to maybe prevent, if we can, the — the movement of that oil farther inland. Do we have gates and weirs? Do we have pump stations? Do we — can we open diversion structures?

All of these are some possibilities of manipulating what small impact we can have to try to minimize the movement of that oil farther inland in our wetlands and bays and estuaries.

JEFFREY BROWN: And based on — on past experience and the kinds of things you are looking at now, what about long-term vs. short-term effects? What do we know about what causes long-term damage?

ROBERT TWILLEY: Well, one thing is, we’re not dealing with — we don’t — at — preliminary analysis in the School of Coast Environment here at LSU is that we’re not dealing with a toxic substance.

So, we’re not — what we are dealing with is, you know, hydrocarbons that biology made millions of years ago, and it hasn’t been processed. So, we’re dealing with things that are going to — really, their impact is going to be basically suffocating what they come in contact with.

So, you are going to see acute effects, because it’s basically going to suffocate the wetland areas, the soils, the ability of plants to breathe. You are going to impact nesting areas, and going to suffocate as we all — are very familiar in other oil spills the impact of oil on birds.

And, again, the key here is what the contact is, because it has to be contact. In some spills — after Katrina, we saw the plants actually responded fairly quickly. They have a mechanism where they can regrow after an oil spill.

But there are so many variables that set up that potential long-term suffocating effect, that it is pretty speculative right now, until we really know the volume and we know the extent inland that this slick is going to move.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Twilley of LSU, thanks very much.

ROBERT TWILLEY: Thank you.