Legacy of an Oil Spill: 10 Years after the Exxon Valdez Symposium web site
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the most egregious accident to damage ocean waters, but "only one of many, many changes, the mass majority of which are incremental, invisible, sometimes irreversible ... and together quite insidious," according to Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University.
"In general, we are ignorant about many of the changes, we are in denial about some, and we are definitely complacent about the consequences," Lubchenco told about 300 biologist, researchers and government officials gathered at the Egan Center Tuesday to kick off a four-day symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of the oil spill.
Over the next three days the conference, sponsored by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, is expected to draw about 600 participants. Presentations scheduled include scientific studies of salmon, herring, marine mammals and seabirds affected by the spill.
Lubchenco gave the keynote address on "The State of the World's Oceans." She suggested that the lessons learned in the Exxon Valdez disaster have broad applications to all the oceans.
She outlined five legacies of the spill: an awareness of the dangers of complacency, a new ethic that emphasizes prevention, new knowledge about the effects of an oil spill, creation of partnerships between federal and state officials and Native people, and protection of critical coastal habitat.
"This legacy is indeed impressive," she said. "But unless it is complemented by comparable awareness, ethics, knowledge, partnerships and action on a larger scale to address a full suite of threats, little real progress will be made in the long run.
"The real potential legacy of EVOS is to apply the lessons that have been successfully learned to date much more broadly," she said.
It is difficult to understand what is happening in the oceans today because, just as in Prince William Sound when the oil hit, there is not much baseline information, Lubchenco said. And much of what happens is invisible.
But it is clear that what is happening in the oceans is "a direct reflection of activities that are happening across the land," she said.
"We are modifying our oceans and indeed all of our planet faster than we can monitor the changes or understand the changes," she added.
She pointed to eight documented global changes that indicate something enormous is happening. She said:
* Globally, two-thirds of the major marine fisheries are fully exploited or depleted.
* The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution, mostly from burning fossil fuels.
* The world population uses more than half of the available surface water on the planet, which effects water flow to estuaries and bays.
* Between one-third and one-half of the entire land surface of the planet has been modified through urbanization, deforestation and agriculture practices.
* The amount of nitrogen dumped into the environment has more than doubled since the beginning of the century. All of it can't be processed out of the atmosphere and locked into the soil naturally by plants. The nitrogen ends up in rivers and streams or deposited in the ocean, where it ends up fertilizing excessive algae growth.
* The planet's biodiversity has changed dramatically and the world is about to enter the sixth massive extinction event, such as the one that killed the dinosaurs, but this will be the first caused by human behavior.
* In the past 50 years, about 50 "dead zones" - coastal areas with oxygen-depleted water - have been discovered around the world. She said agriculture, livestock practices and industrial activity are to blame.
* More than 50 percent of the coastal mangrove forests have been destroyed.
* Reporter Natalie Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org