Rational Optimist Matt Ridley: Nature Often Resilient in Recovering From Oil Spills


Oil spills are bad, but in a column for the Times (London) Matt Ridley argues that science shows that the natural world often recovers from the damage of oil spills with alacrity. As evidence, Ridley cites some lessons from previous spills:

First, be careful not to do more harm than good. When the Torrey Canyon was wrecked off Cornwall in 1967, spilling 120,000 tonnes of oil, the British government not only bombed the wreck (and missed with one bomb in four), but sprayed 10,000 tons of detergents, which were much more damaging to marine life than the oil itself, then bulldozed the oil and detergents into the sand on some beaches where it persisted for longer than if it had been exposed to the elements.

The mistake was repeated in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled about 40,000 tonnes in Prince William Sound. Thousands of volunteers were sent out to wash rocks with hot water, which helped kill lots of microbes that would otherwise have eaten the oil.

Speaking of microbes, do not underestimate nature's powers of recovery. After most big oil spills, scientists are pleasantly surprised by how quickly the oil disappears and the marine life reappears. This is true even in Alaska, where the sheltered waters, low temperatures and abundant wildlife conspired to make the slick damaging and persistent. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its website: `What scientists have found is that, despite the gloomy outlook in 1989, the intertidal habitats of Prince William Sound have proved to be surprisingly resilient.' A scientist who led some of the research into the Exxon Valdez says that `Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mexico are just wild overreactions'.

When the Braer went aground off Shetland in 1993 and spilled 85,000 tonnes of oil, storms quickly dispersed the oil, so the effect on most of the local wildlife was barely measurable. As one scientific report drily noted, after running through a list of undetected effects on birds, shore life and seabed creatures, `five otters were found dead in the oil spill area. However, three of these were killed by vehicles, one was recovered before the oil could have reached it and the cause of mortality of the fifth did not appear to be oil contamination.' (One of the road kills was allegedly caused by a television crew's car.)

This rapid recovery was also a signature of the last big Gulf rig spill, the Ixtoc 1 disaster off Mexico in 1979. Although the number of turtles took decades to recover, much of the rest of the wildlife bounced back fairly rapidly. `To be honest, considering the magnitude of the spill, we thought the Ixtoc spill was going to have catastrophic effects for decades', Luis Soto of the National Autonomous University of Mexico told a newspaper this year. `But within a couple of years, almost everything was close to 100 percent normal again.' The warm waters and strong sunshine of the Gulf of Mexico are highly conducive to the chemical decomposition of oil by `photo-oxidation', and are stuffed full of organisms that actually like to eat the stuff – in moderation.

Read the whole op/ed here. Read Ridley's superb article "Ideas Having Sex" in the July issue of Reason. I highly recommend, Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. And join Ridley on the first ever Reason Cruise this February.

Disclosure: I am proud to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of the book.