Everyone loves a big dramatic story, and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico gave the media the opportunity to tell a whopper: the fiery explosion, the ever-growing estimates of how much oil was spewing into the gulf, and BP’s repeated failed attempts to cap the well. And who could forget the images of oil-slicked pelicans or dirty brown tar balls washing up on white sandy beaches or that endless loop showing oil gushing out of the wellhead at the ocean bottom?
But a news story requires a resolution, all loose ends tied up neat and tidy, and the oil rig disaster seemed to have obliged on that score as well. Just like that, almost three months after the accident, the well was capped, and the oil, we were told, was gone—all but 30 percent dissolved, dispersed, or consumed by bacteria, according to government officials. The gulf was again open for business, clean enough by August 15 for President Obama and his daughter Sasha to take a much-publicized dip in sapphire-blue waters off the coast of Florida’s panhandle, where the only thing that glistened on the water’s surface was sunlight. End of story; on to the next crisis.
The problem, of course, is that this representation, satisfying though it may be, is not quite accurate; it certainly is not the whole story. I know, because only twelve days after the President and Sasha took their swim—on the 100th day after the accident—I was in southern Louisiana, leading an eight-person Nicholas School team on a fact-finding tour of three coastal parishes. We went there to learn firsthand how the spill had affected the region’s ecosystems, economy, and communities and to explore potential research and outreach partnerships through which Duke could help local communities.
Despite the media and government reports to the contrary, I saw oil floating on the water and fouling large stretches of the marshes and bayous that make up the Louisiana coastline. But I also saw acres of marshland that were unaffected by the oil gusher, and I saw fish, an alligator, and lots of birds. It appears that, at least for the time being, much of the Louisiana coast has survived the Deepwater Horizon accident. But even though the immediate crisis appears to be behind us, the story is far from over. There have been reports of large quantities of oil on the ocean bottom. The long-term impact of all that oil on the gulf’s ecosystems and fisheries remains to be seen, as does the economic impact of the accident on Louisiana’s fishing industry.
Ripple effect: A wellhead hit by a barge spews oil into Mud Lake. Credit: Chris Hildreth
I went to Louisiana to get the lowdown on the oil-spill story. I left with another story reverberating in my head—a story in which the Deepwater Horizon accident does not take center stage but is only the latest in a cascade of disasters and chronic mismanagement since the 1950s that threaten an ecosystem and the way of life of a people with a unique cultural heritage.
My trip to the gulf was one of two eye-opening journeys I made this summer; the second was to the north Atlantic—to the coasts of Labrador, Baffin Island, and Greenland. Each is an environmental frontline in the balance. Each faces a conflict with an uncertain resolution.
Despite striking differences in the regions’ topographies, geologies, histories, and climates, the people who live in each are wrestling with a common quandry, one at the core of the modern environmental challenge. How can they—and, by extension, we—balance two noble but seemingly incompatible imperatives: to provide the land and resources needed to meet the aspirations of all peoples, while preserving the natural environment that sustains, and the cultural heritages that define us?
My visit to the communities of the bayous and barrier islands of Louisiana was bittersweet. The people who live and work there are proud and resourceful, warm and welcoming. But the wetlands and waters that are the foundation of their way of life, a culture unlike any other in the nation, are disappearing or being degraded—and this had been going on long before the Deepwater Horizon spill. The people of the bayous can do little about it. Their landscape is being changed by forces that operate outside their control—policies for flood control and navigation on the Mississippi River, the extraction of oil and gas along the coast, devastating hurricanes, and the slow but relentless sea-level rise associated with climate change.
The wetlands of the Gulf Coast encompass one of our nation’s most valuable ecosystems and constitute about 30 percent of America’s total wetlands. They provide a natural defense against hurricanes and habitat for a multitude of creatures critical to the region’s ecology and economy. Roughly 40 percent of the fish caught by commercial fishermen in the U.S. come from the Gulf Coast. The wetlands also support billions of dollars of infrastructure needed for transporting and refining the oil and gas extracted from the gulf. And the ports of New Orleans and south Louisiana handle more tonnage than any other port system in the world.
Unfortunately the wetlands of the Gulf Coast are disappearing at an alarming rate. While I was looking for oil, an offhand remark by Ricky Galjour, a knowledgeable and friendly fisherman and member of the Plaquemines Parish Inland Waterway Strike Force team who drove our boats, opened my eyes to the real environmental disaster of the gulf. We were cruising across Bay Jimmy, intently inspecting a crescent of heavily oiled marshes, when Galjour directed my attention in the opposite direction. “You see that water over there?” he said, pointing toward the middle of the bay. “That used to be land. Now it’s all gone.” Later he showed members of our team a five-year-old map. It showed an island, ironically named Big Island, in the very spot he had pointed out. Cat Island was gone, too. So were dozens of others.
I heard similar accounts of disappearing land, frequent flooding, lost jobs, and a vanishing way of life from parish officials, fishermen, community volunteers, environmental managers, marina owners, store clerks, and just plain citizens in each of the parishes our team toured.
My Duke colleague Curtis Richardson, one of the world’s experts on wetlands, who accompanied us on the trip, explained that the Gulf Coast is being hit with a quadruple whammy by human activities: The construction of dams, levees, and other diversions on the Mississippi River, built to improve navigation and flood control along the river, are starving the bayous and marshes of the replenishing silt they need to counteract natural erosion and of critically needed infusions of freshwater. In addition, oil and gas extraction are causing the wetlands to subside, making them more susceptible to erosion. Finally, climate change and related sea-level rise are causing more erosion. The result is a marshland with grass dying of saltwater poisoning. Once the grass dies, the underlying soil washes away, and what had been the site of vibrant human communities, fisheries, and wildlife becomes open water. Islands slip beneath the waves, as do fields where cows grazed and orange trees grew.
Ripple effect: Oily booms in the dying marsh grasses of Bay Jimmy. Credit: Chris Hildreth
By some estimates, we lose about one football field’s worth of wetlands from the Gulf Coast every forty-five minutes or so. Think of it: In the time it took Duke to play three quarters of its last football game, the Gulf Coast lost the equivalent of the field Duke was playing on. Now extrapolate that to the decades this has been going on and, unless we decide to do something about it, to the decades of the future.
State and federal governments have known about the plight of the Louisiana coast longer than most of us have been alive but have done precious little to turn the tide. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, President Obama has pledged to restore the state’s wetlands. But we heard a similar pledge from President Bush following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And a President can’t do it on his own; Congress still has to appropriate the money. And the Army Corps of Engineers has to change its management of the mighty Mississippi. And local officials, business owners, and homeowners in riverfront communities upriver have to sacrifice a little ease of navigation and a measure of flood protection to allow it to happen. It’s Swamp Politics 101, and the people and animals that call the bayou region home are caught in the crossfire.
The morning after ABC News and other national media outlets elatedly reported claims by BP and some federal officials that cleanup crews could no longer find much oil to mop up, I dipped a latex-gloved hand into a viscous, rust-orange streak of crude as wide as a county two-lane, in the remote backwaters of Bayou Wilkinson. On the same day, I saw large stretches of oiled marshes in Bay Jimmy.
There also were some surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland moments, so appalling we had to laugh—like watching a crew of three in a fishing boat using a jerry-rigged ShopVac to suck up oil along a huge expanse of oil-soaked marsh in Bay Jimmy. They were part of BP’s cleanup crew. After hours of work, they had vacuumed up one barrel of brown muck where even 100 barrels would have made little difference.
And then there was the time, heading back to our home base on a helicopter, when we happened upon a broken wellhead in the gulf that was spewing oil 100 feet into the air and over the nearby marsh while a Coast Guard boat sat helplessly by. Apparently a barge had run over the wellhead the night before. It reportedly took five days for the wellhead to be capped.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom, however. We found reason for hope: lots of folks dedicated to fighting against the tide, literally and figuratively.
We met Cindy Brown M.E.M. ’93, who heads The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Project. She’s leading efforts to restore erosion-slowing oyster reefs in offshore waters near the Jefferson Parish community of Grand Isle. We learned about some promising small-scale wetlands restoration projects from Jim Pahl, a former postdoctoral research associate at the Duke University Wetland Center, who heads applied research and management at the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration. And we met with Plaquemines Parish’s ambitious, seemingly indefatigable president, Billy Nungesser, who spearheaded the parish’s oil-spill cleanup efforts and has almost singlehandedly kept the plight of the region on the media’s radar screen for much of the year.
Most moving was our visit to the town of Dulac in Lower Terrebonne Parish, where we met Rebecca Templeton of Bayou Grace, a nonprofit grassroots organization, and Jamie Biliot, director of the Dulac Community Center. Together they are working to provide education, job retraining, and other essential social services to residents of five rural, largely minority bayou communities where many are out of work and the median annual income of those who do have jobs is less than $9,000. Because of wetlands loss, their homes are flooded out each time there’s a major storm. Life in bayou communities that have existed for more than 100 years is becoming untenable.
By the end of my third day in Louisiana, I was overloaded and exhausted. But I had a profoundly deeper understanding of the ongoing environmental challenges the Gulf Coast faces—not just the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but also the chronic, slow-moving challenges that rarely grab the media spotlight or galvanize the public the way a massive oil spill can.
Downsizing: expedition members, including Chameides, center, in yellow jacket, near Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, which has retreated approximately fifteen kilometers over the past decade. Credit: Jonathan R. Green
The day after I returned from the gulf, I repacked my bags and headed out for a two-week trip in the opposite direction—into the Arctic. As an environmental scientist, I knew to a certain extent what I’d find. Few places on Earth face such complex ecological challenges, and few have been studied or written about as extensively in recent years. The effects of global warming have been far larger here than elsewhere, and the warming is profoundly changing the landscape and the lives of the people who live here.
Nonetheless, I was taken aback and deeply moved by what I saw, especially along the Canadian coasts of Labrador and Baffin Island, where people cling to a hardscrabble life on a rocky landscape in an effort to keep their heritage alive.
The boulder-strewn terrain covered by a spongy mat of peat and tundra is breathtaking and eerily beautiful, and, to this visitor from North Carolina, completely inhospitable. The wind, even on a mid-summer day, is unrelenting; fog banks shroud the small coastal villages in a dense, damp, bone-chilling cloak of white; and there’s always the possibility of a fatal run-in with a bear.
It’s hard to believe anyone would choose to live in such a place. Yet some have: first (to the best of our limited knowledge) the Dorset Eskimos, then the Vikings, the Inuit, and, finally, the Basques and other Europeans, who arrived in Labrador in the 1500s, initially setting up seasonal camps to hunt whales and, later, cod—fishing both, eventually, to the point of collapse. The first permanent settlement by Europeans—mere toeholds in the rocky cliffs—didn’t spring up until the late 1700s.
The twentieth century has not been kind to the coastal villages of Labrador and Baffin Island. Many of the once-thriving fishing villages of the region are little more than ghost towns. The collapse of the whale and cod fisheries dealt a severe economic blow to the region and forced many to give up and leave.
Lost and gone forever: Town of Illulisat—Greenlandic for “icebergs”—no longer lives up to the name, left; Global warming has devastated the economy of Baffin Island, top right; polar bears stranded on Monumental Island off Baffin Island face starvation unless they brave the open ocean, bottom right. Credit: Alison Wright/CORBIS (left), Jonathan R. Green (top and bottom right)
Global warming also is taking its toll. The thinning of coastal ice is making wintertime transport of goods and people from town to town unsafe; for island villages like the one I visited on Battle Harbor, the loss of coastal ice has made it impossible for people to winter over because they can no longer get supplies from the mainland.
I found another poignant sign of global warming in Auyuittuq, a national park near the town of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, the fifth-largest island in the world. In Inuktitut the word “auyuittuq” means “the land that never melts.” Ironically, it’s a name that no longer quite fits, because the park is now a land that not only is melting, but melting faster and faster.
And then there’s the polar bear, arguably the poster child for the dire impact of climate change. However, in the villages I visited, the polar bear is a lot more than a symbol—it is an animal these people have hunted for millennia. Even today, despite concerns that melting Arctic ice could lead to the bear’s extinction, the Inuit are allowed to hunt a limited number every year in deference to their cultural heritage. The exception has engendered an international squabble: In the face of protests from foreign governments and nonprofits, the Inuit claim the right to hunt their traditional prey, and the Canadian government, siding with them, maintains its right to manage its own polar-bear populations. There are no easy answers to this conflict.
But while the Canadian government is siding with the Inuit today, perhaps the most devastating setback to these people came at the hands of that government. Ironically, it was done in the name of helping them. In the 1950s and ’60s, the government instituted resettlement programs, moving citizens from many of the remote Inuit villages to other, more accessible locales. The rationale was to be able to provide better services and help them assimilate into the Canadian mainstream. The upshot was the near destruction of Inuit culture. (I learned that a similar thing happened to the native people of Greenland at the hands of the Danish government during the same period.)
Eventually, in the 1990s, Ottawa recognized the serious problems the relocations had caused: the undue hardship they placed on the relocated and the chipping away of an important part of Canada’s cultural heritage. The government is now trying to make amends. It is providing funds to make it possible for the Inuit to move back to their native homes, at least during the summer, and in Hebron, it has erected a monument apologizing to the Inuit for the relocation program.
Showman: Guide Robert Joalie leads hike over the spongy tundra of Auyuittuq. Credit: William Chameides
Despite these hardships, the Inuit are a remarkably friendly and optimistic people. Two of the many I met were especially memorable. One was Robert Joalie, my guide on a hike over the spongy tundra of Auyuittuq. Joalie was a font of information about the local flora and fauna and had at his ready recall all the latest data on the warming trends on Baffin Island. But what made Joalie especially memorable was his irrepressible showmanship. As I later found out, there’s no mystery there—he had costarred with Jason Scott Lee in Map of the Human Heart, a 1993 movie about a cartographer who falls in love while on assignment to map uncharted regions of the Arctic.
Also memorable was Lisa Poole, who hosted a visit to the small Labradorean island of Battle Harbor. A Métis proud of her Inuit-Basque ancestry, Poole estimates that about 90 percent of the people on the island are of similar descent. She claims she can trace her parentage back to the 1700s. Her family lived in Battle Harbor until they were resettled in the 1960s. She now lives with her husband and children in nearby St. Louis, a village of about 400 on the South Saskatchewan River, traveling by ferry to Battle Harbor daily during the summer to serve as a tour guide.
Speaking with Poole, I was surprised to realize that I had come full circle from my visit to the Louisiana bayous and my conversation with Rebecca Templeton a couple of weeks earlier. The parallels were striking. For one, there is a common non-Anglo cultural connection. The heritage of Lisa Poole is strongly influenced by the Basque. Similarly, much of the Cajun heritage that Rebecca Templeton honors was first brought to the Gulf Coast in the 1700s by French-speaking Acadians who were forced to leave Canada when the region came under British rule.
There is also the environmental connection. In the bayou, the over-exploitation of the Mississippi River Delta and the extraction of oil and gas in the gulf are undermining the marshes upon which Cajun life is built and based. In places like Battle Harbor, overfishing and the subsequent collapse of first the whaling and then the cod fisheries have destroyed the villages’ economic viability. And climate change threatens to alter profoundly the Arctic ecosystems that sustain the lives and culture of the Inuit.
Finally, there is the commonality of purpose. Poole, Templeton, Joalie, and Biliot feel the tug of their heritage. It keeps them living in the place of their forebears and has led them to dedicating their lives to preserving that heritage. One could perhaps argue that in their lives we can see in microcosm the challenge of all humanity: meeting human needs without destroying the environment or sacrificing our cultural heritage. It’s a story of epic proportions. Depending upon what happens, including what we humans do, it could turn out to be a good, old-fashioned dramatic story with a happy ending or an environmental and human tragedy.
Chameides is dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Nicholas Professor of the environment.