Monday, August 30, 2010

Wetland restoration: How should success be measured?

What should you measure when trying to determine if a wetland restoration project has been successful? This poster, presented at the Ecological Society of America meeting this year, shows some of our latest findings on that topic (click on the poster to see a larger version). If we only look at emergent plant characteristics, then restoration seems to be successful. If we incorporate water, soil, and aquatic plant and animal characteristics, then the restoration sites appear to be very different from the reference area.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What are the real long-term impacts of the oil spill?

It's been interesting to watch the pendulum of public opinion swing in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the weeks immediately following the spill, worst case scenarios involving oil entering the loop current and death to the Atlantic Ocean were headlining the news (and my facebook friends' status updates). Now, following the NOAA report on the fate of the DH oil, public opinion seems to have swung in the other direction - common headlines now laud the rapid recovery of the marshes and the "disappearance" or "capture" of the spilled oil, and some articles and commenters even go as far as ridiculing those scientists that still worry about long-term impacts of the oil. (Note: I realize that facebook updates or comments on online articles are not representative of public opinion as a whole - these observations are simply qualitative food for thought.)

Most likely, the actual outcome of the spill will fall somewhere between these two extremes, but the truth is that no one really knows what the long-term impacts will be. Although some components of wetlands may take decades to recover, other features may recover more quickly. A recent article in the Palm Beach Post highlighted some of the debate about the trajectory of wetland recovery, but every scientist who expressed worry about long-term recovery (including me!) has a lot more questions than answers. Impacts and recovery are complex, long-term processes, but that doesn't make a good sound bite.

It is dangerous to think that wetland recovery from the spill will be easy - that makes it seem like there are no consequences of massive oil spills. It is also irresponsible to hype up worst case scenarios and create panic, which ultimately hurts local economies by scaring off consumers like tourists.

So what will the real long-term impacts of the oil spill be? No one knows for sure, but it's our job as scientists to try to find out and adapt our management and conservation practices in accordance with the most recent scientific findings. That's a pretty boring sound bite, isn't it?