Gulf disaster: looking for answers in science

It seems the only certainty amidst the Gulf of Mexico environmental disaster is that nothing is certain. From the amount of oil continually pouring from the seafloor to British Petroleum’s use of chemical dispersants, this crisis has been anything but straightforward. As evasive, and at times downright misleading, as BP has been, the environmental impacts of this disaster are far from allusive. Just take a look at the photos on the Public Broadcasting Service’s News Hour site to get a sense of urgency surrounding this crisis.

The answers are likely not going to be found on BP’s press site. Since the accident, many in the scientific and environmental communities have been working on efforts to provide assistance to assessment, mitigation, rescue and restoration efforts. Scientific societies, environmental organizations, government agencies and institutions alike have been connecting to develop as many reliable resources as possible to assist scientists and natural resource managers in the region. Here is a sampling of these efforts:

The National Audubon Society (NAS) is collecting data to help in the recovery of bird populations and their habitats in the Gulf region (see above video). For example, citizen scientists and scientists in Louisiana have been working with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to collect data, which are available in graph and map form, on how many and what species of birds have been sighted with oil on them.

Defenders of Wildlife is tracking the damage the oil has caused to wildlife as well. As of this post, Defenders reported 997 birds, 400 sea turtles and 47 marine mammals confirmed dead, and 2,325 total wildlife impacted by the oil. The National Wildlife Federation is enhancing existing programs designed to protect coastal wetlands and the Everglades.

The Ecological Society of America has set up a data registry at in which anyone with information about prior ecological or environmental conditions along the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal ecosystems (LA, TX, MS, AL and FL) and other potential sites that might be affected in the future can upload metadata. The goal is build a database documenting ecological states and conditions before the spill; it is searchable by place and time, taxa or physico-chemical variables monitored, ecosystem type and others.

The Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) has developed an interactive library, searchable by keyword, that archives links, documents and images related to the impacts of oil on wetlands; anyone can add to this library. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has data on coastal monitoring and assessment available online. The U.S. Geological Survey has presented an assortment of satellite imagery, weather scenarios and resources from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on oil pollution impacts on birds.

Also, the National Science Foundation has announced the availability of rapid response research grants for Gulf of Mexico oil spill research. And the Consortium for Ocean Leadership has announced a research opportunity.

As for the spill itself, the U.S. Department of the Interior has combined information on the flow of the oil, including estimates on the plume from the Plume Modeling Team—a division of the Flow Rate Technical Group that was convened by Adm. Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard. At an estimated rate of 60,000 barrels per day, Alisa Opar from the NAS blog put the amount into perspective:

In one minute, the volume of crude that leaks is enough to fill 97 cars’ gas tanks. During a 5-minute shower, enough oil pours out of the broken pipe to fill 116 bathtubs. In one day, the crude would fill nearly 4 Olympic-size swimming pools. In one day, the oil seeping out is equivalent to 26,964,000 tall (12-oz) Starbucks lattes. It would take about 2.5 days to fill the 6,750,000-gallon reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The 60,000 barrels pouring into the Gulf each day are equal to ~1% of the 4,950,000 [barrels] of US crude oil produced each day.

From the Community: scientific information on the Gulf disaster and…
Plants and plankton, from the Christian Science Monitor.
Data collection
, from Nature News.
, from the Society of Wetland Sciences.
The effects of offshore drilling on wildlife
, from the Defenders of Wildlife.
Human health
, from Nursing School Blog.
Water column mapping
(and other science missions), from NOAA.
Crisis response
, by Google.
, from Wired Science.

UPDATE: The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) is featuring a special online issue covering the oil spill titled “Oil Spills: The Exxon Valdez and other Environmental Impacts” in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Another journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management has several featured articles under the theme “Managing and Responding to Oil Spills.”

Photo credit: duncandavidson

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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