Byline: by Michael Hanlon SCIENCE EDITOR
A FEW names stand out as symbols of Man's profligacy and carelessness in the environmental hall of infamy. These must include Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez -- huge oil spills that led not to massive loss of human life, but, we are told, to ecological destruction on a scale never before seen.
To this list we must now add 'Deepwater Horizon', the huge BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico which exploded on April 20. Since then, around 10-12million litres of crude oil have been gushing every day from the broken wellhead, a mile down on the seafloor. Despairing environmentalists, together with politicians and scientists, say that this has led to the greatest ecological disaster in U.S. history with thousands of tonnes of oil set to ruin the pristine shores of the Gulf, kill millions of seabirds, fish and marine mammals, and decimate the lucrative fishing industries of America's swampy underbelly.
Already, green campaigners have pointed to the spill as yet another sign that modern Man's dependency on oil amounts to a Faustian pact with an evil subterranean devil; not only does oil wreck our climate when it is burned, releasing warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its very substance amounts to a prehistoric poison unleashed by our demonic technologies.
But the truth is that when it comes to oil spills -- and other environmental disasters -- history tells us something very puzzling and counter-intuitive.
Despite the appalling pictures beamed onto our screens -- the oilcovered seabirds, the grim tides of dead fish, the blackened beaches and disgusting oozing mess at the water's edge -- Nature has seen that, usually within a year or two or even less, places affected by oil spills have returned more or less to normal, the disaster forgotten.
Indeed, many experts now believe that if left to run their natural course, it is likely that the effects of even the worst disasters are nullified.
How can this be? Are oil spills really less bad than we have been led to believe? Certainly, our attempts to deal with them can often cause far more havoc and destruction than the spills themselves.
In March 1967, the oil tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground off the Scilly Isles en route from the Gulf to Milford Haven. As the ship foundered and started to break up with its 120,000 tonnes of crude leaking into the Atlantic, the world faced its first major oil-spill disaster. A huge slick was heading for the holiday beaches of Cornwall. First, the RAF bombed the stricken tanker, in an effort to burn off the oil. Most of the bombs missed and the effect was to accelerate the rate at which oil leaked into the sea.
Next, 10,000 tonnes of industrial-strength detergents were sprayed on the oil by teams on 42 ships in an effort to disperse it all. These chemicals had little effect on the slick, but they poisoned millions of marine organisms and probably caused far more damage to the ecosystem than the oil itself.
At one point, huge drums of detergent were simply poured onto the beaches around Land's End in the hope that, should the oil wash ashore, this would keep the sands clean. At Sennen Cove, huge quantities of solvent were ploughed into the sand -- meaning that the oil was held in situ for months.
There is no doubt that the oil from the Torrey Canyon was toxic and killed a lot of animals, as well as being unsightly. But experts are now convinced that the best solution, short of pumping the oil off the tanker before it could escape or otherwise trying to contain it, would have simply been to do nothing.
According to Dr Simon Boxall, an oceanographer and …