On April 20, Deepwater Horizon, an offshore-drilling platform located forty miles off the coast of Louisiana, exploded. Initial estimates suggested a subsequent leak was dumping 1,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. The official estimate was soon upped to 5,000, but based on a plume of oil discovered underwater far from the spill site, some scientists believed the actual rate of the leak could be many times that. (More recent measurements suggest that the true number may be up to 60,000 barrels, or 2.5 million gallons, per day.)
In testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, oceanographer Sylvia Earle A.M. '56, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '93 expressed concern about the tendency to calculate the gulf's, and the entire ocean's, value in narrow terms, seeing it as little more than a source of commodities such as fish, oil, and natural gas. "Life in the sea, after all, supports the basic processes that we all take for granted: the water cycle, the oxygen cycle, the carbon cycle, and much more," she told the committee.
"With every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, we are dependent on the existence of Earth's living ocean.
"Most of the heavy lifting concerning these benefits," she said, "is accomplished by microorganisms—bacteria, phytoplankton, zooplankton. Headlines lament oiled birds, turtles, dolphins, and whales, as they should, but where is the constituency concerned about oiled copepods, poisoned coccolithophorids, proclorococcus, diatoms, jellies, pteropods, squid, larval urchins, the eggs and young of this year's vital offspring of tuna, shrimp, and menhaden?"
Many of these species, Earle continued, will be left largely on their own to cope with the spill, as well as with the thousands of gallons of toxic chemical dispersants that "make the ocean look a little better on the surface—where most people are—but make circumstances a lot worse under the surface, where most of the life in the ocean actually is."
Earle issued a list of recommendations to the committee, including an end to the underwater release of chemical dispersants, an accurate survey of the magnitude of the spill, increased protection for gulf species, and increased investment in research vessels to study the gulf.