A thick brown substance spills into a harbor killing thousands of animals... nope its not oil, its not even toxic, this environmental disaster is brought to you by molasses - yes, molasses.
Some reports are calling it the worst environmental disaster that Hawaii has seen. It is too early to tell for sure, but the roughly 230,000 gallons of molasses that recently spilled into Honolulu Harbor, just a few miles from Waikiki Beach, have already caused thousands of fish and other marine organisms to die. This is apparently the largest number of fish deaths ever recorded in this area. Unfortunately, this may just be the start of the problems.
Two of the most informative online reports I found were from nbcnews and abcnews. The molasses, which should have made its way safely to a ship in the harbor for transport across the pacific, apparently leaked through an old section of pipe that was supposed to be shut off. It is, however, unclear exactly why this happened. And, it seems that there is nothing to be done as far as clean up other than wait and let the ocean clean itself up.
As many of the reports point out, the molasses itself is not toxic, and will eventually dissolve and disappear. It is also unclear how long "eventually" is. It will depend on various factors including the temperature of the water and size/shape of the bay which controls how fast water from the outside ocean gets in and out. One thing we do know is that that much sugar is an all you can eat buffet for many types of bacteria. While most bacteria aren't harmful themselves, when they have that much food they tend to grow very rapidly and use up all the oxygen in the water suffocating all the animals in the area. This is the same basic thing that can happen when too much fertilizer from our lawns or even sewage runs off into rivers or lakes. The process is called eutrophication. Hawaiian officials were also warning surfers and swimmers to avoid the area as the massive fish kills could attract sharks.
So, what should we expect? Short answer - more animals will likely die as microbial populations bloom and use up precious oxygen in the water. The longer answer is that we really don't know. In much the same way that the bacterial response to the recent Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was unpredicted and surprising, we really have no good way of knowing exactly what the outcome will be. I'm guessing that no one has ever dumped tons of sugar into a harbor to see what would happen. We certainly have a marine microbial drama (not to mention an incredibly unfortunate environmental disaster) to keep our eyes on.
Hawaii News Now has a video clip which includes video taken by a diver of the molasses coated bottom and the death it is causing, here if you care to see what the brown muck and dead animals look like.