Anticipatory Anxiety; Fear of the Unknown

The Gulf of Mexico, also affectionately known to some as the “Mediterranean of the Americas” is in the forefront of most of our minds for the last three months.  The painful images of oil spewing from the earth create a striking and eerie parallel to watching blood gushing from a mortal wound.

We can only hope that today, July 16, 2010 is truly the end of this spill that tragically began with a fatal explosion on April 20th.  The Wall Street Journal’s front page displays two pictures side-by-side; the first is of the oil freely gushing from the well.  The second is with the new cap in place and there is no obvious oil to be seen.

This has been an extremely unsettling and terrifying three months.  The reason that these feelings are so deep and painful is that this is a two level disaster.  The surface level is what we see; the birds covered in oil, the tar balls, the closed businesses, and the black stained water.  These images alone fill us with sadness, anger and disgust.  What makes these feelings so much worse is what we do not see; under the surface of all of this is the fact that nobody seems to have any idea of what is really going on with the spill.  This creates anticipatory anxiety; the worst kind.  There is nothing to do about what we don’t know and that creates fear.

Here are some facts about the spill: According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Gulf region covers approximately 600,000 square miles.   The marine shoreline measures almost 4000 miles and the gulf itself measures approximately 995 miles east to west and 560 miles north to south.  Its deepest point is approximately 14,383 feet or 2.72 miles.  It contains approximately 643,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water (that is a “quadrillion” or a thousand trillion).  There are areas in the Gulf that are “dead”; in other words, the oil has taken the oxygen from the water and therefore life is unsustainable.

One barrel of crude oil contains 42 gallons of oil.  A refinery in the US averages production of 19-20 gallons of gasoline from each barrel.  The remaining gallons yield residual fuel oils, and jet fuel among other products.  In 2008, the United States consumed about 137.80 billion gallons (or 3.28 billion barrels) of gasoline, about 3% less than the record high of about 142.35 billion gallons (or 3.39 billion barrels) consumed in 2007.

Things we do not know about the spill include how much oil actually has contaminated the waters of the gulf.  I have seen estimates from 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) to 60,000 barrels (2,520,000 gallons) per day.   This means that at least 37,380,000 gallons of oil have spilled into the gulf at the very minimum.  It is possible this number exceeds 100,000,000 gallons.  The scary thing is nobody actually knows the real figures.

The people who live in the area are suffering.  Most of them work in fishing or tourism and their very livelihoods are ruined.  The long term economic impact for them and where they will live remain to be unanswered questions looming like thunderclouds above their heads.

In addition to this, we do not know what the impact will be on the environment.  On July 5, the Washington Post reported that the official toll of bird deaths related to the spill is about 1,200.  The article notes that “this, too, has been called into question. Officials can only count the birds they can find, and many think a number of oily birds have sought refuge in the marshes.”

Nobody knows what this will do to the marsh lands and shoreline in addition to other areas that will be contaminated.  In my own research regarding this, reading different “expert” opinions, there is absolutely no consensus.  Some seem terrified of the short and long-term implications to the environment and others seem to feel this will have a mild impact.  The following quote from the article sums this disaster up the best.  John Valentine, who studies the gulf from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, is quoted as saying, “we should be more impressed by what we don’t know than what we do know.”

We should be upset and scared about this.  It is normal to feel that way. The key is to accept that and know the feelings will be there.  That helps to control them.  From there, you are best off staying busy, taking care of yourself, spending time with loved ones, participating how you can in the clean up efforts, and finding a healthy way to express your feelings.

Let’s all rejoice in our own and our planet’s resilience and hope this new cap works and that this is at least the conclusion of this phase of the disaster.

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