Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The best of intentions

The following quote is from a review of the book, "Degrees of Disaster: How Nature Reels and Rebounds" by Jeff Wheelwright. It shows how man's attempts to help remediate the damage caused by a man-made disaster can sometimes make things worse.

"In this book I have argued that the ability of science to detect and measure hydrocarbons and their metabolites far exceeded science's ability to know what to make of those measurements," he concludes. "The measurements actually impeded understanding. There was the acute phase of the oil spill, which was soon over in the Sound, and now the chronic phase, whose events were unproved, most likely unprovable and diminishing fast into the background. That was the end of it as far as I was concerned. . . ."

Wheelwright's assertion of nature's resiliency confirms predictions made by federal oil-spill-response experts such as NOAA's Seattle-based Dave Kennedy and Jerry Galt. It borrows heavily from chief government scientist Bob Spies, a controversial figure for his skepticism of long-term damage claims. Some support from ecologists

The author's position gets some support from ecologists such as the University of Washington's Dee Boersma, who tracked spill damage in Alaska's Barren Islands. Boersma doubts claims that the more than 30,000 bird carcasses recovered suggested a total mortality in the hundreds of thousands, or that affected colonies will take decades to recover.

Boersma found a kill of murres in 1989, a 21 percent rebound in numbers in 1990-91, and minor increases thereafter.

"There is no scientific data to support these claims of long-term chronic effects," she said.

Jonathan Houghton, an Edmonds-based consultant for PENTEC who contracted first to Exxon and then NOAA to study the spill, thinks Wheelwright did a good job of laying out the scientific controversies.

As an example of surprises, Houghton said, the pressure-washed beaches he is monitoring are proving the slowest to recover, while the oiliest beach he watches, for unclear reasons, has the highest concentration of steamer clams.

What is the lesson? In the case of Mt. St. Helens, mankind's involvement in the restoration of the forest was remarkably successful in speeding up the recovery of that huge natural disaster. In the case of Prince William Sound, mankind's efforts to reverse the damage of a man-made disaster appear to have been ill-advised, possibly making the situation worse.

The lesson, I think, is that knowledgable restoration efforts, driven by mankind's needs for the products of nature (trees, fish, recreational wilderness, etc.) can help. Misguided efforts prompted by feelings of what seems more "natural" and an overwrought emotional reaction to a man-made disaster caused by an "evil" oil company can cost many millions of dollars and not be very effective - indeed, can even make things worse.

Mother knows best?

Does Mother Nature always know best? It seems in the case of Mt. St. Helens, mankind was able to speed up the process of reforestation by as much as a century.