Researchers Checking Field Sites Threatened by Oil Spill

Scientists are mobilizing to study the impacts of the oil spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform that is now reaching the coast of Louisiana.

Teams from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge were working today in the so-called bird's foot delta that surrounds the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the oil is supposed to first reach land. They are revisiting long-term study sites established to evaluate efforts to restore wetlands damaged by canals, drilling, Hurricane Katrina, and other factors.

In coming days, LSU researchers also plan to return to Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, where they have been observing the response of the marshes to river diversions. Sending sediment-rich water into the marshes helps create more land in the sinking delta.

The big worry is that the oil could kill wetland plants by preventing respiration or damage soils. The plants help prevent erosion, and their accumulating biomass after they die keeps the wetlands from drowning as the delta subsides. "My concern is a smothering of these ecosystems," says LSU ecologist Robert Twilley. "If you suffocate the soil, will you amplify the degradation of these ecosystems?"

Denise Reed of the University of New Orleans in Louisiana says that plants can cope with oil, up to a point, by putting out new leaves. "It won't be instant mortality for the marsh plants," she says. And if not too much oil covers the soil, microbes can do a good job of breaking it down. But she's not sanguine about the impact of the spill. "I think it's going to be pretty bad."

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