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Atmosphere, Biosphere, Energy, Hydrosphere, Oceans



The Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded on April 20, 2010 resulting in the immediate loss of human life and in oil spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico. Estimates varied as to just how much oil spilled into the Gulf as well as the potential impacts this disaster would have on the people and habitats of this region. As of August 2010, a Washington Post article stated that approximately 205.8 million gallons were spilled. President Obama called the spill "a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

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.

The U.S. Government immediately imposed a moratorium on Gulf Oil drilling as it looked at safety issues regarding underwater drilling. Now many are calling for an end to plans for such drilling in the Arctic. Those concerned say a comparable spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic and predict that drilling is certain to gain momentum as the ice melts in the Arctic region. Based on your expertise gained from analyzing the Gulf Oil Spill, the EPA panel concerned with the Arctic drilling issue wants your recommendations.


Date: 9/5/2010

Scenario Images:

Deepwater Horizon Site
On 20 April 2010, while drilling at the Macondo Prospect, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 crewmen and lit a fireball visible from 35 miles (56 km) away. Video. Image Courtesy NOAA.

Cleaning Up
Skimming was one technique used to collect spilled Deepwater Horizon oil. Many of the Gulf fisherman used their own boats to help with the clean-up. Video. Photo Courtesy

Cleaning Up After the Spill
Many birds, turtles and other marine life had to be cleaned up after the spill. Pelican cleaning video. Image Courtesy NOAA.



A NOAA Site Detailing Oil Spill Information (Cycle A)
This site provides a great deal of oil spill information, e.g.:
* Oil spill experts conduct surveys from the air to map and predict where the oil is going and to visually follow the spill.
* Scientists are making observations to predict the impacts of the oil spill.
* NOAA's National Weather Service provides weather forecasts to help predict the oil's trajectory and to plan the response effort


Encyclopedia of Earth: Ocean Oil (Cycle A)
OCEAN Oil is a peer reviewed collection of scientific information and educational resources about the Deepwater Horizon disaster and its broader energy and environmental issues.


NOAA's List of Deepwater Horizon Information Resources (Cycle A)
Two pages of links to various oil spill sites. Very inclusive.


Oil Into The Sea (Cycle A)
The National Research Council's book "Oil Into the Sea: Inputs, Fates and Effects" by the National Academy Press describes the impacts of petroleum in marine environments.


The Science of the Spill (Cycle A)
A site sponsored by NSF and others on the Gulf Oil Spill. This is one multi-faceted site to include water quality data for download. Click on Links and Resources.


Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: from the encyclopedia of earth (Cycle B)
A thorough story about the oil platform, explosion, extent of damage along with economic impacts.


Deepwater Horizon Response (Cycle B)
"Due to the high level of interest in the on-going oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is featuring data from the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the states of Florida and Louisiana related to the spill, its effects, and the cleanup effort."


Google Oil Resources (Cycle B)
This Oil Spill resource page lays out many resources.


Mapping the Oil Spill by NOAA (Cycle B)
" is a new online tool that provides near-real time information about the response effort. Developed by NOAA with the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of Interior, the site offers you a "one-stop shop" for spill response information."


Other Oil Spills in the Gulf of Mexico (Cycle B)
"The largest oil spill in North America occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The 200-foot-deep exploratory well, Ixtoc I, blew out on June 3, 1979, in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, releasing 10,000 - 30, 000 barrels (0.4 - 1.2 million gallons) per day for nine months. Nearly 500 dispersant air sorties were flown in Mexico.Manual cleanup in Texas was aided by storms."


Where Is the Oil? (Cycle B)
This connection is included so as to pose additional questions. For example: is the threat over; where did the oil go; and what hazards does it pose, if any?


Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Cycle C)
A good site with video of scientists discussing the impact. Click on FAQs for a synopsis of pertinent information.


Louisiana Department of Education Oil Spill Rsources Guide (Cycle C)
"In an effort to ensure that teachers, families and students have access to instructional tools and up-to-date information, the Louisiana Department of Education is providing these website links that provide satellite images, general information, tips, activities and lesson plans on the scientific and environmental impact of the oil spill."


Sample Investigations:


NOAA Classroom Activites and Lessons (Cycle A)
Information and activities for students and teachers who'd like to learn more about oil spills or hazardous chemical accidents. There is something here for every level.
Difficulty: beginner


Resources for Teaching About Oil Spills (Cycle A)
From Windows To The Universe. Contains background information on the impacts of oil spills and links to many activities.
Difficulty: beginner


The Drill on the Spill from The New York Times (Cycle A)
"In this lesson, students consider the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and related cleanup efforts. They then design and execute experiments to learn more about the effects of oil spills, and apply their findings to the coastal communities in the gulf region. Finally, they explore the economic and political impacts of the oil spill as well as the technological progress toward stopping the leak."
Difficulty: beginner


Using Maps to Evaluate Environmental Issues (Cycle B)
From NOAA, contains..."instructions and materials for an exercise in which you (or your students, if you're an instructor) plan a protection strategy for a coastline threatened by an oil spill--just as responders to a real-life spill must do. You can follow these instructions yourself, or use them to present the exercise to a class."
Difficulty: beginner


Using Real Time Data to Determine Oil Spill Clean Up Response (Cycle B)
"Students will use real time data and interactive wind map to predict the direction of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Students will learn how to read wind barb measurements and how to use the COOS interactive map. Students will research oil spill clean-up techniques and develop a plan to respond to a hypothetical oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."
Difficulty: beginner


Graphing Changes in Marine Environments (Cycle C)
" of the marine life occupying a section, or quadrat, of Mearns Rock (a boulder in Prince William Sound, Alaska, that was oiled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez oil spill).
Difficulty: beginner


NOAA's Recovering from An Oil Spill (Cycle C)
From NOAA's Ocean Service Education, a project to address how an ecosystem recovers from an oil spill.
Difficulty: beginner


Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation Answers Oil Spill Questions (Cycle C)
Ranger Rick explains what happened and what kids can do to change things.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Structure and function in living systems
        • Populations and ecosystems
        • Diversity and adaptations of organisms
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal health
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Natural hazards
        • Risks and benefits
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Chemical reactions
        • Conservation of energy and increase in disorder
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Interdependence of organisms
        • Matter, energy, and organization in living systems
        • Behavior of organisms
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal health
        • Personal and community health
        • Natural resources
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks.
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