“The Eye of Fire” in the Gulf of Mexico: Yet Another Warning from the Ocean | A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

What’s more impressive than a long, elaborate fireworks show? 

The OCEAN ON FIRE!

When that happens, it looks like the cauldron of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mount Doom.

An unprecedented phenomenon that was quickly dubbed “The Eye of Fire” formed in the Gulf of Mexico over the Fourth of July weekend, when a gas line ruptured and managed to catch fire underwater

How does that happen?!

Watching the video of raging flames spouting from the Ocean was like staring down a Satan/Cyclops.

The undersea gas line, stemming from a nearby drilling rig, operated by the national Mexican petroleum monopoly Pemex, burned for five hours. That is much, much longer than any fireworks spectacle, but not nearly as loud. 

Not loud in a literal sense, that is. It probably hissed like a gas grill heating up for an Independence Day cookout. But in a figurative sense, it was a deafening warning shot from the future of the Ocean.

“The Eye of Fire” is further proof, if such were needed, that the Gulf of Mexico is a mess. And by extension, so is the Ocean.

The Gulf of Mexico is where the first “Dead Zone” formed, a vast area so anaerobic that organisms other than algae cannot survive there. Annual inundations of fertilizer runoff from the sprawling Mississippi River watershed created the original Dead Zone. It has grown steadily, as years of farming and lawn care keep flushing petroleum-based nitrogen products from the brown water of the rivers into the blue water of the sea. 

Now, Dead Zones are forming, or very likely will form soon, in all similar embayments around the world: The Persian Gulf, The Bay of Bengal, The Mediterranean, Black, and Yellow Seas… Also, big estuaries, where freshwater meets salt, are actively deteriorating as marine environments: The Chesapeake, San Francisco Bay, the Guayaquil River in Ecuador, the Pearl River in China…

But the “Eye of Fire” phenomenon is more closely related to a different debacle in the increasingly dystopian Gulf of Mexico: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. The benthic zone in the region around that catastrophe continues to suffer its consequences—weird mutations and population reduction among our crustacean friends, for instance. The same is true of the littoral region, where beach-walkers must beware oil blobs in the sand.

As the nation’s terrestrial infrastructure erodes and collapses (most recently, condos in Miami; not long ago, an Interstate bridge in Minneapolis), the disintegration of the subaqueous bones of the energy economy do the same.

The cause of the “Eye of Fire” is unknown at this moment, but it is likely to follow the pattern of the myopic over-reach of the Deepwater Horizon operation, drilled at a depth too far. Pipelines everywhere face the same prospect of failure. A freshwater example is the decrepit and accident-prone Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac, which is facing long-overdue scrutiny and causing U.S.-Canada tensions that are ongoing at this very moment.

The fiery eye in the Ocean over the weekend sends the same message as the other disasters that preceded it, and which will follow: We H. sapiens must stop relying on chemical fertilizers and quit burning fossils, or the planet will not be able to sustain our species much longer.

Don’t take it from me; let the Ocean tell you!

Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics and Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.” Save 30% on the book with coupon E20RORDA.

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