Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stop with the "Oilcane" hysteria, already

Last week, a post here briefly touched on the potential impact a hurricane might have on the massive oil slick in the Gulf.  Now that Tropical Storm Alex has formed in the Carribean Sea, with forecasts showing a track into the Gulf of Mexico by early next week, media reports are breathlessly speculating on whether a storm might combine with the oil slick and create a completely new and historic ecological and economic disaster.

These reports and the speculation surrounding them are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.  I don't mean to insult anyone by calling them an idiot--I just felt the need to paraphrase Shakespeare while trying to calm a few razzled nerves.

We have had tropical cyclones blow through a massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico before.  Not once, not twice, but three times in the same year.  The year was 1979, and the oil slick was caused by the blowout of the Ixtoc well in the southern Gulf of Mexico in June of that year.  The well spewed as many as 202 million gallons of oil before being killed by a relief well in March of 1980.  In the interim, two named hurricanes--Bob in July and Frederic in September--blew through the Gulf.  The third storm was Tropical Storm Elena.  All three moved through or very near the slick, which spread from the southern Gulf all the way to the Texas and Louisiana coasts and also dropped tarballs and weathered oil patches as far east as Panama City Beach, Florida.

Bob was a Category I storm that formed very near the Ixtoc well itself and eventually struck the Grand Isle, Louisiana area on July 11.  Its path took it straight through the massive slick caused by the Ixtoc well, and there were no reports of oil ruining entire swaths of the coast or rendering them uninhabitable.

Tropical Storm Elena formed on August 29, also very near the Ixtoc well and growing oil slick.  It tracked northward and hit the Texas Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi on September 1.  Just like Bob, it went right through the slick and again, there were no reports of oil ruining entire swaths of the coast or rendering them uninhabitable.

Frederic was the worst of the bunch. This was a classic Cape Verde storm, forming off the coast of Africa, tracking west, entering the Carribean and tracking straight through the heart of the Gulf of Mexico.  It hit the Mobile, Alabama area with Category III force winds and devastated Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Dauphin Island, Alabama.  And, just like the two storms before it, there were no reports of oil contaminating the communities or rendering them uninhabitable.

There are three things you need to take away from this post:
  1. An oil spill in the Gulf combined with a tropical cyclone is not a baby duck.  We've seen it before, and things were nowhere near as bad as the speculation you might be reading in the press right now.
  2. The Gulf of Mexico is a massive, complex and amazingly resilient body of water, and so are the coastlines it washes upon.  The Ixtoc disaster remains the largest oil spill in the history of the Gulf and absolutely no one was talking about it until the Exxon Valdez spill ten years later.
  3. Today's mass media thrives on the creation of the sense of crisis and fear.  Without fear, uncertainty and doubt, you won't watch.  When you hear breathless reports about a potential oilcane destroying the Gulf and its coasts, remember that they're just trying to sell you toothpaste and Toyotas, the truth be damned.

Gimme some feedback in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Brave words. Some other people have criticised the media for stirring up public hysteria that has done nothing to help. They were promptly shot down in flames by members of the hysterical public who no longer believe anything their government or BP tells them. They are so angry that they only believe news that supports their anger. Wikipedia appears to be the only source of the real truth and has references. The hysterics will immediately claim that BP has paid them off. I think in a few months when the anger has subsided, people will wonder how this happened. It could be likened to the episode in US history when Orson Welles created a similar mass hysteria with his radio play about War of the Worlds. What is needed right now is a media that helps solve the problem instead of making things worse.

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