The total impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico can’t be quantified without accounting for how the spill affected ecosystem services provided by the Gulf. That includes trying to quantify the cost of increased storm damage due to wetlands losses, according to a new report from the National Research Council.
But a lack of baseline data about ecological conditions, as well as an incomplete understanding of complex ecosystem interactions make establishing the full scope of damage difficult.
Capturing the entire range of impacts will also require more data on human and economic factors. The report emphasizes that many services may have enormous value despite being difficult to measure, and that such services should be given adequate consideration in evaluating restoration options.
The people who live and work in the Gulf region depend on ecosystems for services such as food and fuel, flood and storm protection, and tourism and recreation. Damage to natural resources could impair these services, leading to social and economic impacts that may not be apparent from an assessment of environmental damage alone.
In a 2011 interim report, the authoring committee introduced the concept of an ecosystem services approach to damage assessment, which requires an understanding of the environmental impacts from a disruption, the resulting decrease in goods and services, and the cost of those losses to individual communities and society at large.
Currently, state and federal resource managers tasked with providing timely assessments of damage use a process called the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which is authorized under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and measures impacts in ecological terms such as the number of fish killed or acres of wetland destroyed. As a result, restoration activities usually focus on replacing individual resources. But the impacts of environmental damage extend beyond individual resources, the report says.
In the final report, the committee illustrated how this approach might be applied to coastal wetlands, fisheries, marine mammals, and the deep sea, each of which provide key ecosystem services in the Gulf.