Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.
Down here on the Gulf Coast, the rainiest region of North America, we’re used to waking up each morning to look at the weather.
These days, we forget to worry about whether we’ll get wet. Many of us start each morning, first thing, looking to see where the wind will drive the oil today.
The spill, painted in soft, pleasant blue on the official government trajectory maps, spreads to cover a larger and larger area of my computer screen each morning. Watching it metastasize day by day would be mesmerizing, like watching clouds turn into butterflies or beasts — if not for the little red x’s marking shorelines that will be slathered in oil.
The blob is mutating now, spawning new blobs that spin off each in their own direction. It’s even harder to predict which shore on the map will be struck with red crosses. But as the spill progresses, the certainty is that every shore, from western Louisiana into the central Panhandle of Florida, will be struck.
The quiet coastal island we call Petit Bois was hit yesterday. We say “Petty Boy” in our best Gulf Coast English. But the old French name must refer to that “little woods” of old slash pines that shelter the center of the island. Looking at it from a distance across Mississippi Sound, it looks like a clump of forest has broken free from shore and is adrift in the ocean.
Petit Bois wasn’t large enough to ever attract a bridge or development, so it has always seemed new and unexplored, no matter how often you visit. Long stretches of white beach are held together with flowering vines and turquoise dune grasses, surrounded with a thick beard of marsh and rippling underwater beds of manatee grass. The footprints belong to long-legged birds, turtles and an occasional raccoon.
I’m not ready to see it yet, but the folks who went out yesterday say the beaches of Petit Bois weren’t draped in black. They’re covered in a layer of deep rusty red, a dirtier version of the red crosses on the NOAA map. I’m told the stuff spreads sixty feet up the beach in places.
Describing this disaster and its unexpected impacts has become a macabre exercise. Even the tar balls don’t look like tar balls. One scientist walking Dauphin Island this week said she thought she was looking at big, spongy piles of fresh dog poo on the beaches. It was that thick, that consistency, that color.
They’ll clean the poo off the Dauphin Island beaches before the tourists return. The slobbering mess on Petit Bois will have to sit until someone remembers to look for that quiet, remote island on the edge of Mississippi Sound.
The outer islands of the Gulf Coast — Petit Bois, Dauphin, Horn, the Chandeleurs — do what they have always done for the mainland. They sacrifice little pieces of themselves, deflecting the muscle of the Gulf before it can smash into the big shore.
Petit Bois was hammered by Katrina. Many of the old pines died, and stand skeletonized on the horizon. But the marshes survived, and the underwater beds of manatee grass actually seemed to spread, as if the bottom of Mississippi Sound had been refreshed by that blow. The young pines grow. The islands, given time, recover — shoveling and reshaping the streams of coastal sand, ready to capture new gusts from the Gulf before they hit the mainland.
I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like this red stain on the beaches of Petit Bois. One hopes the island’s latest sacrifice won’t be too much.
(Image: Petit Bois Island. Image credit: B-Rich/Wikipedia through a Creative Commons license.)
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