The effects are far reaching and will be for some time. Oil will coat bird and mammal species feathers and fur breaking down their natural water repelling characteristics and leading to poisoning or death by hypothermia. The animals try to clean and groom themselves and end up ingesting a lot of oil in the process. If this does not kill them, the cool water can get through the coat’s natural defenses and allow them to freeze to death.
There will also be far reaching effects on the fish. Eggs and young fish can be damaged, aged fish can be tainted, working their way up through the food chain to larger fish and mammal species. There will also be devastating effects on the local fishing industry, tourism and other industries depending on clear beautiful oceans.
In birds, oil spills can impair birds’ flight abilities to forage and escape from predators. Kidney damage, altered liver function, and digestive tract irritation can occur because birds will ingest oil that covers their feathers as they try to preen. Most birds affected by an oil spill die unless there is human intervention. Marine mammals exposed to oil spill are affected in similar ways to seabirds.
Because oil floats on top of water, less sunlight penetrates into the water, limiting photosynthesis of marine plants and phytoplankton. This greatly affects the food chain in the ecosystem because there isn’t enough food for higher order consumers to feed on.
Oil spills also adversly impact air quality. As they reach the surface of water and land, crude oil and fumes will react with the air, forming gaseous hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds. “Inhaling volatile organic compounds and other hydrocarbons give us headaches, eye and throat irritation, dizziness, nausea and breathing difficulties” (Gulf Oil Spill). If these are burned from the surface of the water “they create nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, acidic aerosols and solid particulate matter soot” (Gulf Oil Spill). These too can cause a laundry list of problems, e.g., reproductive and neurological complications and cardiovascular problems.
Natural ongoing oil seeps have been putting thousands of barrels of oil per week/month into the oceans for thousands of years. The earth is actually pretty good at handling such things. On human scales, yes, there are noticeable, visable impacts that are perceived as devastating. As far as the earth is concerned, they are little blips in earth history.
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