I’m beginning to feel like something of a jinx. I go to the Antarctic Peninsula every austral summer and invariably while I’m there ships run aground, or sink. I slink into the U.K. for an anticipated 48 hours and an erupting volcano shuts down 8 million travelers. And the very week that we are putting the finishing touches on a new film, two years in production, about the complex relationship between man and the sea in southern Louisiana … catastrophe strikes the Gulf of Mexico, impacting many of the fishermen, conservationists and activists featured in it. (Not to mention my several Chilean friends who are still leading efforts to clean up their coastline and get people back in homes before winter arrives down south.)
Just how bad are these recent seeming-catastrophes?
Even as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano belches anew (yesterday its drifting ash shut down airspace over Ireland and Scotland, nothing like the damage done by cancellation of 100,000 flights while I was there) by comparison to past blasts it remains a small burp.
How small? In 1815, on the island of Sumbawa (in today’s Indonesia), a volcano named Tambora sputtered and coughed for nearly two weeks before blowing 24 cubic miles of lava into the sky, opening up a crater more than three miles wide and a mile deep. More than 120,000 people died, largely because everything around them – vegetation, marine life – was smothered by ash causing crop failures and epidemics.
Sixty-eight years later, Krakatoa spewed just 3.5 cubic miles of molten rock and ash; Vesuvius 1.4 cubic miles and Mt. St. Helens, in 1980, 0.3 cubic miles. Each of those was considered major; Iceland’s recent burp was just that. Yet it shut down all of Europe for six days, impacting the world’s economy to the tune of between $2 and $3 billion.
Similarly, as the Times reports this morning, the ongoing spillage in the Gulf of Mexico are – for the moment – far from record-setting. (Its list includes the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqis during their retreat from Kuwait in 1991 and the Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil before it was stopped. The Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons is the biggest spill since.) Of course we won’t know for some weeks/months to come just how much the Deepwater Horizon will leak into the ocean.
But as winds and currents for the moment are keeping much of the leaking oil from washing ashore in the Gulf States – though trade winds may very well carry the spillage around the southern tip of Florida and eventually up the Atlantic coastline – there is a kind of creeping “out of sight, out of mind” mentality in the mainstream press.
Not so dissimilar from the attitude towards offshore drilling itself, until a couple weeks ago. If you can’t see the rigs from shore, they must not be a problem. If the majority of the now-spilling oil doesn’t come ashore but stays out to sea, disaster has been averted. Unless of course you’re a dolphin, whale, mollusk, seabird or fishermen, whose lives and livelihoods depend on a clean, healthy ocean.