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Oiling accelerates loss of salt marshes, southeastern Louisiana

November 3, 2017

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill damaged thousands of km2 of intertidal marsh along shorelines that had been experiencing elevated rates of erosion for decades. Yet, the contribution of marsh oiling to landscape-scale degradation and subsequent land loss has been difficult to quantify. Here, we applied advanced remote sensing techniques to map changes in marsh land cover and open water before and after oiling. We segmented the marsh shorelines into non-oiled and oiled reaches and calculated the land loss rates for each 10% increase in oil cover (e.g. 0% to >70%), to determine if land loss rates for each reach oiling category were significantly different before and after oiling. Finally, we calculated background land-loss rates to separate natural and oil-related erosion and land loss. Oiling caused significant increases in land losses, particularly along reaches of heavy oiling (>20% oil cover). For reaches with ≥20% oiling, land loss rates increased abruptly during the 2010–2013 period, and the loss rates during this period are significantly different from both the pre-oiling (p < 0.0001) and 2013–2016 post-oiling periods (p < 0.0001). The pre-oiling and 2013–2016 post-oiling periods exhibit no significant differences in land loss rates across oiled and non-oiled reaches (p = 0.557). We conclude that oiling increased land loss by more than 50%, but that land loss rates returned to background levels within 3–6 years after oiling, suggesting that oiling results in a large but temporary increase in land loss rates along the shoreline.