Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Understanding Society and Natural Resources

Science During Crisis: Two Examples

: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform catastrophically exploded and later collapsed into the sea, killing11 men and spilling over 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in US history (Mabus 2010; McNutt et al. 2012). Compared to other oil spills, Deepwater Horizon was unprecedented in its complexity and impact. At its peak, oil and tar balls contaminated the coastlines of all five Gulf states and led to the closure of 229,271 sq. km of federal waters to fishing (Mabus 2010). Response efforts included more than 47,000 personnel, 7,000 vessels, 120 aircraft, and the participation of scores of federal, state, and local agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations (Mabus 2010).

In contrast to surface spills such as Exxon Valdez in Alaska (1989) or the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969), the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred at depth – crude oil flowed from a broken drill pipe approximately 1,500 m below the surface of the water. The extreme depth of the spill introduced new challenges in both engineering and environmental conditions that had to be overcome. Response crews needed ships with remotely operated vehicles equipped with sophisticated sensors, cameras, and robotic arms to navigate the wreckage and access the well. Engineers had to rapidly devise new capping devices to kill the well, which were thwarted by the formation of gas hydrates – crystals of methane ice that only form at depth – clogging the devices during several deployment attempts. Oil spilled into the Gulf continuously for nearly three consecutive months, polluting a three-dimensional area that extended vertically from the seafloor to the surface, and laterally across the Gulf, impacting the people, the environment, and the economy of the region.

Science played a vital role in stopping and responding to the spill. Because of the extreme complexity of the disaster, researchers and engineers from across academia, the federal government, and the private sector were called on to contribute their expertise in fields such as oceanography, geology, underwater engineering, physics, public health, and ecology (Lubchenco et al. 2012). Teams of scientists and the leaders of major federal science agencies including the Department of Energy, the US Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were stationed at or near Incident Command centers established throughout the Gulf. Tactical science response efforts included geochemical “fingerprinting” of the oil, calculating the rate of flow from the broken pipe, and modeling the surface migration of oil using information on currents in the Gulf. The National Science Foundation awarded over 11 million dollars through its Rapid Response grants to research the spill.

Social science research was ongoing during the spill (April–September 2010), though it was fragmented, sometimes ad hoc, and largely peripheral to the engineering, toxicology, and ecological research that formed the core of the scientific response. While the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) mandated the documentation of human health, social impacts, economic impacts, and cultural resource damage, this work often lagged behind other NRDA needs. Later, in a post-incident review of science conducted during the crisis, Lubchenco et al. (2012) called for a “greater emphasis on social science data collecting including adequate baselines, to understand costs to the region and the nation of oil spill disasters” in the future.

During the crisis, the unplanned and sporadic nature of on-the-ground social science led to specific topics receiving significant attention. An example is the research on the psychological impacts of the spill. Grattan et al. (2011) and Morris et al. (2013) used a community-based participatory model to perform standardized assessments of psychological distress, comparing populations in communities directly and indirectly impacted by the spill. They found no significant differences: residents in both communities displayed clinically significant depression and anxiety. Abramson et al. (2010) focused on the impact of the spill on children in the region, and found heightened mental health distress. Lee and Blanchard (2012) found, interestingly, that community attachment associated with higher levels of anxiety and fear, based on data collected in three Louisiana parishes during the spill. During the spill, there were numerous calls for interdisciplinary approaches for dealing with the spill, its environmental and socioeconomic impacts, and the need to bolster resilience of affected communities (see for example Levy and Gopalakrishnan 2010). One significant response was scenario-building conducted by the Department of the Interior's (DOI) experimental Strategic Sciences Working Group (SSWG),

Fig. 3.2 A segment of one of the scenarios developed by the SSWG for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This segment shows the cascading effects of commercial fish and oyster bed closures (Department of the Interior 2012)

which analyzed the cascading consequences of the spill to inform decision-makers on near-term and long-term impacts (Machlis and McNutt 2010, 2011).

The SSWG was established quickly and included both federal and non-federal ecologists, social scientists, oceanographers, and other disciplinary experts. The SSWG worked extensively to create “chain of consequences” scenarios that included both biophysical and socioeconomic impacts (Department of the Interior 2010). Using the human ecosystem model (Machlis et al. 1997) as an organizing framework, and qualitatively assessing uncertainties, the SSWG created several scenarios and briefed DOI leadership on findings several times during the crisis. Figure 3.2 illustrates a small segment of one of the scenarios, focusing on commercial fishing and oyster bed closures. The numbers in the figure reflect the uncertainties associated with each consequence, with 5 being certain and lower numbers reflecting less certainty.

In September 2010, the spill officially ended when two relief wells enabled the well to be sealed. British Petroleum (BP), which had contracted the Deepwater Horizon platform, later committed $500 million in research funds to be spent over a 10-year period to study the aftermath of the spill. An additional $350 million from the $4 billion settlement between BP and the federal government was given to the National Academy of Sciences to establish a new program focused on human health and ecosystem science of the Gulf of Mexico to be spent over a 30-year period (Shen 2012).

Even with the tremendous efforts of the scientific community to deliver critical information to the response, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill highlighted the need to improve coordination between agencies and the scientific community for ensuring efficient, innovative, and thoughtful response to environmental crises. This necessarily includes coordinated social science. As one report stated, “there is no national lead entity coordinating the mobilization of science assets across federal agencies and within the broader science community”(Consortium for Ocean Leadership 2010). While the National Response Framework defines the responsibilities of each federal agency for responding to a disaster, lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon suggest that new and/or improved organizational structures are necessary to facilitate the mobilization of the scientific community to aid response, and this continues to be a fertile area for innovations in science policy (e.g., Nature 2010).

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics