Step 1: Learn about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
Overview: In April 2010, the largest accidental oil spill in the world’s history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded. For months scientists tried to contain the spill to protect fish, wildlife and communities along the Gulf shore. No one was sure how much oil was spilling into the Gulf during this time or how to fix the well to stop oil from fouling Gulf waters. But a small non-profit organization called SkyTruth used satellite imagery to estimate the size of the spill. News media reported these results to the public and government officials, and eventually government scientists calculated the true size of the spill. In July 2010, almost 3 months after the oil well exploded, BP managed to cap the well and stop the spill.
In this activity you will look at the same satellite images used by SkyTruth to track the oil spill, measure its growth over time, and calculate the volume of oil leaking into the Gulf. You will also read newspaper articles documenting how SkyTruth and university scientists made a difference, and explore how satellite information and input from citizen scientists can help address environmental disasters.
At 10 pm on April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drill rig, 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded. Flames from the 14 story high rig leapt even higher into the air and the onboard crew headed for lifeboats or dove into the water for safety. Eleven of those crew members didn’t make it. They perished as the enormous rig burned. It took almost two days to extinguish the flames and by then, the drill rig had begun to drift and sink.
Soon, another tragedy emerged: crude oil was gushing into the surrounding Gulf from the now “blown out” wellhead submerged under 5000 feet of water. Technologies in place at the wellhead to prevent oil from pouring into the water in case of emergency weren’t working. Engineers were going to have to find new solutions.
To learn more about how safety measures at the wellhead failed, view the multimedia presentation “Investigating the Cause of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout” by the New York Times.
The problems now became twofold: fixing the wellhead to stop the flow of oil and protecting the Gulf of Mexico’s vulnerable fish, wildlife, and coastal communities from the rapidly spreading oil. As engineers struggled to develop and install technologies to cap the well over coming weeks, oil continued to spill into the Gulf. Cleanup crews tried to contain the oil at the water’s surface with absorbent booms to keep it from flowing onshore into coastal wetlands that nurtured young fish, shellfish and shorebirds. Airplanes dropped chemicals that dispersed the oil into tiny droplets, hoping that doing so would reduce the oil’s toxic impact. But the oil continued to spread.
To see where and when oil reached the coast, view the interactive presentation “How much oil is on the Gulf Coast” by the New York Times.