Degrees of Disaster

Degrees of Disaster

by Jeff Wheelwright
     
 

Using the twice-damaged Prince William Sound in Alaska as his stage, nature and science writer Jeff Wheelwright describes what happens to the environment after a catastrophic assaulthow scientists try to measure the changes and how it is that nature reels and adapts. What happens to wilderness ecosystems when they are struck by environmental disaster? Prince William… See more details below

Overview

Using the twice-damaged Prince William Sound in Alaska as his stage, nature and science writer Jeff Wheelwright describes what happens to the environment after a catastrophic assaulthow scientists try to measure the changes and how it is that nature reels and adapts. What happens to wilderness ecosystems when they are struck by environmental disaster? Prince William Sound has experienced two events in the past quarter-century, the 9.2 earthquake of 1964 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Both the natural and manmade disaster are extreme examples of disturbances, and Wheelwright, in this rich ecological history of the Sound, provides many lesser examples. He shows that a healthy natural system is constantly in flux. Animal populations rise and fall; variability and patchiness are the rule. The factors that cause biological change are numerous and overlapping and often can't be sorted out in spite of the best efforts of scientists. But an ecosystem such as Prince William Sound readily recovers from disturbances in part because the disturbances are so routine. In the case of the oil spill, Wheelwright starts with the physical fate of hydrocarbons when they are released in the sea. He explains how scientists tracked the oil through its various marine transformations. He analyzes the shoreline cleanup program, showing how the cleanup was itself a disturbance and yet inferior to the natural cleansing by waves and weather. He appraises the biological effects of hydrocarbons on a range of organisms: from human exposure to oil, through that of seabirds, mammals, fish and invertebrates in the Sound, and lastly to the bacteria stimulated at the base of the food chain. Throughout Wheelwright illuminates the gap between the scientists' measurements of change and the public's understanding of disaster. Wheelwright gives special attention to the sea otter, the most appealing creature of the Sound. He recounts the otter's history, its shocking losses from the oil spill, t

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Are all environmental disturbances categorically destructive? Are all human efforts to compensate for environmental damage essentially helpful? Using as a tableau the massive 1989 oil spill created when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, science writer Wheelwright addresses these provocative questions with debatable logic and mixed results. Concluding that ecosystems are periodically buffeted by natural disturbances, and that the ecosystems often prove remarkably resilient, the author passes off human perturbations as largely insignificant. He also claims that efforts to clean up after such disasters often do more harm than good. The evidence Wheelwright presents leads one to question whether Alaskan wildlife would have been better off if the spilled oil had been left to dissipate on its own, rather than being removed by heroic, if often disruptive, efforts. However, his judgement that the consequences of the spill are unimportant does not convince, especially in such a statement as, ``I had the strongest sense of the oil being incorporated by the Sound, even embraced.'' Although Wheelwright demonstrates some of the tensions between science and politics, his dismissal of scientific studies that fail to support his point of view undermines his credibility. (Aug.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
Although this book focuses on the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the biota of Alaska's Prince William Sound, science writer Wheelwright also uses the Good Friday earthquake that devastated this area 25 years earlier to explore the broader concept of how ecosystems accommodate cataclysmic events. He describes the confusion of scientists and government officials when confronted with an oil spill of this magnitude; after viewing the sound and reviewing the data on the rescue/cleanup effort five years after the incident, Wheelwright questions the need for much of what was done. He details the effects of the oil on organisms ranging from bacteria to the sound's Native peoples, with special emphasis on sea otters. Wheelwright's sanguine views on ecosystem resiliency provide a pleasant counterpoint to the more commonly encountered doom-and-gloom predictions. While not so readable or clearly written as John Keeble's more general Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound (LJ 4/15/91), this book is recommended for libraries with considerable ecology collections.-Lynn C. Badger, Univ. of Florida Lib., Gainesville
Booknews
Wheelwright, a science writer, undertook a five-year survey of the area surrounding Prince William Sound in Alaska, interviewing over 100 scientists and government officials, to determine what happens to a wilderness ecosystem after both natural and man-made disasters, e.g. the earthquake of 1964 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Wheelwright looks at oil-tracking methods, shoreline cleanup programs and natural cleanup by waves and weather, and the fate of the sea otter. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Brenda Grazis
In recounting the aftermath of the "Exxon Valdez" disaster, Wheelwright considers two aspects of the spill. First, he considers the physical and biological consequences of 258,000 barrels of discharged oil, including natural mitigation mechanisms, chronic hydrocarbon toxicity effects, and the rebound of intertidal ecosystems. Second, he looks at the political battlefield. Operating in a climate of anger, frustration, and grief, and mindful of impending litigation, Exxon scientists amassed data downplaying the damage while government researchers presented data emphasizing the negatives; secrecy on both sides hindered impartial analysis by peer review. Although inadequate baseline data and natural variability of populations made demands for environmental restoration to prespill conditions unrealistic, and although oil spills in some minds do no long-term harm, Exxon assumed responsibility and, to appease public outrage, initiated aggressive action. This approach consequently confirmed that violent cleanup measures do more and longer-lasting damage than the oil does alone.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780671702410
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
08/01/1994
Pages:
352

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