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The terms oil sheen, plumes and tar balls entered the news as the oil began polluting coastal ecosystems within five states. Fishing grounds closed and fleets of fishermen turned to the oil recovery effort to generate income. The term loop current also became commonly used as newscast audiences were warned that these ocean currents could carry the oil away from the northern Gulf of Mexico, south to the Florida Keys and then out into the Atlantic.

The Deepwater Horizon was not the first major oil spill, but it was one more in a series of such disastrous worldwide events. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, remains one of the most tragic environmental disasters in U.S. history with an estimated 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the Alaskan waters. There have been many other spills worldwide. In 1979, the Mexican Ixtoc I oil spill released over 100 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In 1991, millions of gallons of oil were released into the Persian Gulf by Iraqi forces determined to slow the advance of U.S. forces into Kuwait. And in Nigeria, oil spills are very common due to an aging infrastructure, spillage, and sabotage.

The world consumes an average of 85 million barrels of oil per day, with the United States accounting for close to 20 million barrels. The demand for oil has led to drilling in increasingly challenging locations. Off-shore rigs, like Deepwater Horizon, drill deeper wells than ever before. Another rig in the Gulf of Mexico named "Perdido" can pump oil from multiple wells almost two miles below the surface while drilling for new ones.

On September 19, 2010 US Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen declared that the Deepwater Horizon well was "essentially dead", sealed by flooding cement into the gap between the well casing and the rock formation that surrounds it. Researchers are interested in how much oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, how much of the oil from the spill was recovered, where the remaining oil is located and how will it impact the environment. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be studied for years to come.

Now that the well appears to have been permanently capped, your team of interns has been asked to brief a panel of U.S. government agencies on the long term Earth system consequences to the Gulf region.


In October 2010, various agencies were suggesting that most of the oil had disappeared or that it had been collected. They were of the opinion that impacts to the Gulf had been eliminated or mitigated. Others said that just because the oil was not visibly present, it is still there, and that the full impacts from the spill cannot yet be measured. Your team has been asked by a congressional committee to provide predictions of the long-term impacts based on an Earth system science analysis. The committee also suggested you consider the impact of the Exxon Valdez and whether lessons from that disaster might be applied to this situation.

  1. Read and analyze the problem scenario:
    1. Discuss the scenario with your team
    2. Don't be tempted to start thinking about potential solutions or start looking for information.
  2. List hypotheses, ideas or hunches:
    1. Based on what you have read, what do you think will solve the problem?
    2. List your ideas, hunches, or hypotheses.
  3. List what you already know:
    1. Begin your list with the information contained in the scenario.
    2. Add knowledge shared by other group members.
    3. Record this information under the heading: "What do we know?"
  4. List what is unknown:
    1. Prepare a list of questions your group thinks it needs to answer to address this problem.
    2. Record your questions under the heading: "What do we need to know?"
  5. List what needs to be done:
    1. Develop a plan. List actions such as questioning an expert, getting data online, or visiting a library to find answers to the questions generated in step 4 above.
    2. Prioritize the question you are going to seek answers to, and then divide up the questions among your group members.
  6. Develop a problem statement:
    1. A problem statement is a one- or two-sentence idea that clearly identifies what your team is trying to solve, produce, respond to, research or find out.
    2. Record your problem statement.
  7. Gather information:
    1. Record your information and resources.
    2. Group members will gather, organize, analyze and interpret information from multiple sources.
    3. Exchange ideas, think about solutions; weigh alternatives; and consider the pros and cons of potential courses of action.
  8. Present findings:
    1. Prepare a report or presentation in which you and your group members make recommendations, predictions, or other appropriate resolutions of the problem.
    2. Be prepared to support your positions. If appropriate, consider a multimedia presentation using images, graphics or sound.

Note: the steps in this model may have to be completed several times. Steps two through six may be conducted concurrently, as new information becomes available. As more information is gathered, the problem statement may be refined or altered. Click here to download the Problem-based Learning rubric.

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