Joel Achenbach explained the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in great detail in his book, A hole at the Bottom of the Sea. He explored what went wrong on the oil platform that exploded and what was done to seal the well at the bottom of the ocean. Achenbach also explored why we have so much oil off the coast of the United States and Mexico in the Gulf and he wrote, “The gulf has always lacked the deepwater circulation of open ocean. Bad circulation means lots of anoxic layers, dead zones, places where there’s so little oxygen that organic matter doesn’t decay. That’s great for the eventual creation of oil and gas fields.”
His quote is explaining the long history of the Gulf of Mexico and hinting at the dangers that lie in the future for the gulf. We are currently doing a lot of damage to the gulf, and not just from our oil explorations. Every day we send large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen into the gulf via the Mississippi river. Run off from farms and farm communities all along the river lead to a high level of nutrients in the water of the Mississippi river. Our fertilizer intended for our farms and produce eventually washes into the river and all the way down past New Orlean’s into the Gulf of Mexico. When the large amounts of nutrients reach the gulf we see massive algal and phytoplankton blooms that can be visible from space. When the blooms die off after absorbing all the nutrients they fall as a giant mat to the bottom of the ocean where they are slowly decomposed in a process that is very oxygen intensive. The process continues until the water has become depleted of free oxygen, meaning that shellfish, fish, marine mammals, and life in the affected areas of the gulf cannot exist. Life is smothered by the algal blooms the way that a fire is smothered by a large blanket. Oxygen is denied from the fire preventing it from continuing to burn, and oxygen is deprived from life inhibiting cellular metabolic functions.
This process in the past created situations where lots of carbon based life forms coagulated along the sea floor and became covered over by marine snow, dirt, and debris. Millions of years after the blooms first appeared on the ocean they are miles and miles below the sea floor in the forms of various hydrocarbon molecules. We have the ability through complex machinery to drill out the hydrocarbon shells of these million year old algal blooms, but our actions in the United States that feed into the gulf, and our actions in the gulf, put the region in a new type of danger.
Achenbach raises the question in his book of whether we should be pursuing oil in more remote and hard to reach places. We may have the technology, and we may develop the means to reach oil quickly and safely, but it is also possible that our actions and missteps along the way could be incredibly threatening to not just the survival of animals and ecosystems, but also to ourselves. Ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico is a complex ecosystem that we have come to dominate through new technology and ever advancing engineering. At a certain point it is worth recognizing the power we wield over the land, and asking ourselves if we should progress unchecked in our battle against nature to further develop the fuel for our relentless engineering and technological progress.