Changing Planet

Five years after Deepwater Horizon

Juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtle oiled in the Deepwater Horizon spill. Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Blair Witherington.

By Kat Diersen, The Society for Conservation Biology’s North America Policy Program

Five years ago today, just before dawn, I was kneeling in the pristine white sand of a beach in the Florida panhandle, digging up a loggerhead sea turtle nest.  Normally this sort of thing is discouraged. After all, most sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act and it is a federal crime to disturb their nests. Federal and state wildlife officials go to great lengths to protect these nests from harm by hapless beachgoers and their pets.  But on that morning five years ago I was part of a team working to systematically locate as many sea turtle nests in the Florida panhandle as possible and translocate their precious contents to a storage facility halfway across the state.

As I gingerly lifted each individual egg out of the nest and slowly, carefully lowered it into a specially designed cooler, it was hard to wrap my mind around the necessity of disturbing this beautiful and intact habitat.  But 200 miles southwest of me, oil was gushing into the ocean from a well underneath what remained of the Deepwater Horizon rig.  The explosion that cost eleven people their lives and would ultimately unleash over 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico had taken place one month earlier on April 20, 2010.  Nobody knew when the well would finally be capped.

Neither, at that time, did anyone know how far the oil would spread.  The Louisiana Coast was already being blackened by it and some models were predicting it could spread as far east and south as the Florida Keys.  It was feared that if the oil made it to the Florida panhandle, it would suffocate sea turtle nests or coat hatchlings as they emerged and struggled towards the surf.  There was a real risk that the spill would wipe out an entire generation of Gulf Coast leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles.

For loggerheads, which are genetically distinct from their relatives on the east coast of the US, the loss of all or most of a generation could have had serious effects on the broader population.  State and federal wildlife officials decided that the risk to the species was too great, and mobilized an unprecedented effort to translocate as many of the marine turtles as possible from their nests on the panhandle to a release site off of Cape Canaveral.  So there I was.

The Deepwater Horizon well gushed oil for 87 days before it was finally capped. Oil did eventually wash up on the beaches of Pensacola and a bit farther east, but mercifully much of the panhandle was spared the worst effects of the spill.

Nevertheless, the environmental impacts of the spill and dispersants used in subsequent cleanup efforts are stunning in their breadth and scale.  Over a thousand miles of coastline were ultimately oiled.  Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands were choked by it, causing death of trees and grasses that sped up the already rapid erosion of the Louisiana coast.  Oiled birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were collected for rehabilitation by the thousands.  Fish die-offs on scales never before reported were documented.  In the years since the spill, deformities and birth defects have been noted in almost every commercially consumed fish and crustacean species and studies have found high levels of carcinogens and other toxic substances in the bodies of dozens of marine species and the eggs of coastal birds.

Yet despite the unprecedented ecological destruction caused by the spill, much remains unknown about the scope of current impacts and the risk of future harm that could result from the millions of gallons of oil and dispersants still floating in the Gulf or resting on the sea floor.  In the most recent congressional hearing on the effects of the spill held on April 29, scientists testified that the research conducted to date is not nearly sufficient to fully assess the effects of the spill.  Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts said, “Today, I can’t say how much oil is still on the Gulf of Mexico floor. I can’t say how toxic it is. And I can’t say whether or not it’s negatively affecting the Gulf.”

Oil on an Alabama Beach years after the spill.  © Glynn Wilson, 2013.
Oil on an Alabama Beach years after the spill. © Glynn Wilson, 2013.

The scientists called for more baseline ecological studies of Gulf habitats to better understand the impacts of the spill, as well as more research into the environmental effects of the dispersants used in the cleanup.  They noted that financial support to meet important research needs was critically lacking and that both government and the private sector should direct funds towards these efforts in order to help repair the ecology of the Gulf and to increase preparedness in the event of a future spill.  They also pointed to a need for increased communication between scientists and incident responders in future spills.

Just last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a searchable online tool containing data from every different environmental study conducted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.  It’s called DIVER– Data Integration, Visualization, Exploration and Reporting, and it contains thousands of downloadable datasets on individual species, water chemistry, habitats, soils, and much more.  The goal of this massive data source is to help provide scientists, managers and officials responsible for recovery with the information they need to help restore the ecosystems of the Gulf Region.  New data will be added to the site on a continuous basis.  DIVER is an impressive resource, but as scientific experts repeatedly claimed, it is not enough.

Recovery from the worst marine oil spill in history is far from complete, and its impacts will stretch far into the future. Evidence of oil leaking from parts of the original well structure was reported as recently as January 2013 and apparently no one can say with certainty that the well is capped for good.  Yet just this past April, almost exactly five years after the spill started, federal regulators have granted a Louisiana-based oil company permission to drill a new well just three miles from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Five years later tar balls still roll up onto beaches around the Gulf.  Five years later, former marsh ecosystems and coral reefs remain lifeless and population numbers of many marine species have yet to recover.  Five years later, much remains to be done, and cannot be done successfully if funding and support are not made available to continue and strengthen research efforts in the Gulf.  Government and those responsible for the spill have a responsibility to support that research so that five years later, the Gulf of Mexico can really begin to recover.

For more information on similar issues, please visit the Society for Conservation Biology’s website.

By Kat Diersen, The Society for Conservation Biology

April, 2014. What remains of Cat Island, a once-thriving seabird nesting site off the Louisiana coast.  Photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin. © Times Picayune.
April, 2014. What remains of Cat Island, a once-thriving seabird nesting site off the Louisiana coast. Photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin. © Times Picayune.
The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) is an international professional organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity. The Society's membership comprises a wide range of people interested in the conservation and study of biological diversity: resource managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, and students make up the more than 4,000 members world-wide. The Society was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 8, 1985. Find out more about the inspiring history of the Society for Conservation Biology.
  • Nancy DeLong

    If governments would back the infrastructure for green energy these disasters wouldn’t happen any more. A spill like Deepwater Horizon in the Arctic would be at least ten times worse.

  • Gary Miller

    Rev.8:8-9 8 When the second angel blew his trumpet, something like a large burning mountain was hurled into the sea. A third of the sea turned to blood, 9a third of the creatures living in the sea* died, and a third of the ships were wrecked.

    * [8:9] Creatures living in the sea: literally, “creatures in the sea that had souls.”

    Rev.16:1,3 The Seven Bowls. 1I heard a loud voice speaking from the temple to the seven angels, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of God’s fury upon the earth.” 3* The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea. The sea turned to blood like that from a corpse; every creature living in the sea died.

    * [16:3–4] Like the first Egyptian plague (Ex 7:20–21). The same woe followed the blowing of the second trumpet (Rev 8:8–9).

  • Alie

    As long as govenments are profit hungry which boils down to money. Nothing will be done. They do not want to lose any of their funds! Stiffer laws/fine should have been put in place decades ago!!

  • Jackie Robinson

    The oil companies should be paying through the nose for the clean up ! If they do not suffer the consequences of their actions then they’re going to keep doing the same thing: building oil wells Which can still devastate environment. I don’t understand why they ars not continuing with funding for the cleanup??? Is it not their responsibility to clean up their mess?!! FYI: The Canadian government just gave shell the go ahead to drill n the Artic. The closest rescue station is a thousand miles away. Unbelievable more than just irresponsible!

  • Angelic Schmoople

    “Green” energy is a whole different can of worms on account of the manufacturing of green energy products at this time. There’s a lot of toxic stuff going into solar cells, for example, and a lot of production of solar cells has shifted to non-OECD countries because it can be done more cheaply there due to more lax labour and environmental regulations.
    If E&P firms and their subcontractors paid better attention to safety protocol, an accident like Deepwater Horizon would have never happened. Unfortunately, BP’s safety record… for lack of a better way of putting it, could simply be better. If these firms cannot see the environmental damage and loss of life being caused by these disasters as a reason to amp up safety culture in their firms, maybe the sheer amount of money that they’re spending in fines and remediation will inspire them to do so.

  • Jan Hegner

    I totally agree with Nancy DeLong. If the US would spend on green infrastructure, what we spend on Defense, we would be way farther along in solving the carbon problem and Deepwater may have never have happened. A spill in the Arctic would be a 100 times worse.

  • martine noel

    I was just thinking the same thing Nancy , maybe it’s time for the great powers to be using natural energy, like wind or even solar power those source of energy ..regardless of the financial cost , now that the damage is done …

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media