It happened in the Gulf of Mexico. Something went wrong and there was an explosion on the oil rig. Try as they might, the experts couldn't stop the geyser. For 10 months, it spewed oil into the open ocean. Over 4 million barrels. Wildlife was devastated. The fishing industry was ruined. The beaches were covered in crude. Luckily, a naturally occurring micro-organism that eats oil was able to clean it up. Three years later, everything was back to normal. You couldn't even tell there had been a disaster.
Sounds like an optimistic fairy tale from the future, doesn't it? Well, it's not. The year was 1979 and it really happened.
It is called Ixtoc 1 and is deemed the world's second largest off-shore oil disaster ever, second only to Saddam Hussein's Persian Gulf disaster. But as far as unintentional oil disasters go, it's number one.
From the Seattle Times...
In terms of blowouts, Ixtoc 1 was a monster — until the BP leak, the largest accidental spill in history. Some 3.3 million barrels of oil gushed over nearly 10 months, spreading an oil slick as far north as Texas, where gooey tar balls washed up on beaches.
Surprisingly, Mexican scientists say Campeche Sound itself recovered rather quickly, and a sizable shrimp industry returned to normal within two years.
Luis Soto, a deep-sea biologist, had earned his doctorate from the University of Miami a year before the June 3, 1979, blowout of Ixtoc 1 in 160 feet of water in the Campeche Sound, the shallow, oil-rich continental shelf off the Yucatán Peninsula.
Soto and other Mexican marine scientists feared the worst when they examined sea life in the sound once oil workers finally capped the blowout in March 1980.
"To be honest, because of our ignorance, we thought everything was going to die," Soto said.
The scientists didn't know what effects the warm temperatures of gulf waters, intense solar radiation and other factors from the tropical ecosystem would have on the crude oil polluting the sound.
Sounds quite familiar. Keep reading.
In the months after Ixtoc 1 was capped, scientists trawled the waters of the sound for signs of biological distress.
"I found shrimp with tumor formations in the tissue, and crabs without the pincers. These were very serious effects," Soto said.
Another Mexican marine biologist, Leonardo Lizarraga Partida, said the evaluation team began measuring oil content in the sediment, evaluating microorganisms in the water and checking on the biomass of shrimp species.
As the studies extended into a second year, scientists noticed how fast the marine environment recovered, helped by naturally occurring microbes that feasted on the oil and degraded it.
Perhaps due to those microbes, aquatic life along the shoreline in Texas had returned to normal within three years — even as tar balls and tar mats remained along the beaches, sometimes covered by sand, according to Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist at Harte Research Institute of Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.
"We were really surprised," Lizarraga said. "After two years, the conditions were really almost normal."
The Gulf currents and conditions of the Ixtoc 1 spill helped. Unlike the BP blowout, which has spewed at least 5,000 barrels of oil a day, and perhaps many times that, at depths near 5,000 feet, the Ixtoc 1 oil gushed right to the surface, and currents slowly took the crude north as far as Texas, killing turtles, sea birds and other sea life.
"I measured 80 percent reduction in all combined species that were living in the intertidal zone," Tunnell said.
While that was severe, Tunnell noted natural oil that seeps from the seabed releases the equivalent of one to two supertankers of crude in the Gulf of Mexico each year.
"It's what I call a chronic spill," Tunnell said. "The good side of having all that seepage out there is that we've got a huge population of microbes, bacteria that feed on petroleum products in the water and on shore. So that helps the recovery time."
So, does this mean the Gulf is going to be okay in a few years? I don't know. They didn't use dispersants back then (as far as I know) and the oil is deeper than it was at Ixtoc 1. But, it is in the same Gulf of Mexico with the same micro-organisms as Ixtoc 1. And, if the top kill effort is a success, it will be about half the amount of oil.
So, there is still a chance we can get out of this mess in a relatively short time. I was very happy to read this article as I was thinking the Gulf of Mexico was ruined for the rest of my lifetime. It might be, but at least I have hope now that it might be okay in a few years. It made me feel a lot better about the whole situation and so I thought I'd share it here. I hope it makes you feel a little better too.
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