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Gulf Oil Spill: Cycle A

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1). Oil spills can be very detrimental to marine life. For example: "Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water-repelling abilities of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements."

2). When an oil spill happens, it spreads very rapidly unless it is contained by something (like a boom or a boat slip in a harbor). The lighter (less dense) the oil, the faster it spreads out to form a very thin sheen. For example, gasoline spreads faster than a heavy black oil, such as #6 fuel oil. Faster currents and winds can make oil spread faster.

3). The way oil soaks into the ground depends on the kind of oil, the kind of ground it has spilled onto (e.g., coarse or fine sand, rock, mudflat, and so on), the kind of environment it spills into, and the weather at the time of the spill.

4). Dispersants are chemicals that are applied directly to the spilled oil in order to remove it from the water surface, where oil can be especially harmful. In the photo above, an airplane is applying dispersant to an oil slick

5). Mangrove forests, typically found along tropical seacoasts, are especially vulnerable to both oil spills and cleanup activities.

6). Hypoxia, or low oxygen, develops near the mouth of the Mississippi River every summer as a result of excess nutrients that are introduced principally via the Mississippi River. According to researchers who have been studying hypoxia for decades, oil could exacerbate this year's dead zone.

7). Deep water microbes appear to be feasting on the oil without oxygen depletion to the water.

8). The loop current may carry the suspended oil as far as Europe and the Arctic.


Scenario: 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.


Author: Robert Myers, IGES



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.



  • 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.

Individual Assignment

Sphere Group Study

During this cycle you will become "experts" in the relationship of individual spheres. You will need to study the resources listed under readings, discuss your key ideas in your sphere group discussion space, and then submit your group's work for a grade.

Go to the course discussion space to find out which sphere you are studying during this module.

Read the scenario.


First, submit your individual questions and prior knowledge about this event and Earth system science to your sphere group discussion space. Then prepare a document about your prior knowledge and upload it to ESSEA.


  • Review the Individual Reflection Rubric.
  • Read the scenario.
  • Discuss your ideas about the effect of this event on your sphere in your sphere group discussion space.
  • Prepare and upload your prior knowledge reflection document to ESSEA.
  • Complete the individual reflection rubric.

Deadline: Thursday, May 10 2012 11:59 PM (Eastern Time)
Upload Assignments
Team Assignment


  • Review the Group Sphere Study Rubric.
  • Describe your sphere in detail in the sphere group discussion space so you can share it with your Event Team next cycle. Refer to An Example of an ESS Analysis reading if you would like to review causal relationships.

Upload your group's most accurate analysis of the Sphere - Event interactions with reasoning and support to ESSEA and complete the rubric.
Deadline: Thursday, May 24 2012 11:59 PM (Eastern Time)
Upload Assignments

Assessment is unavailable

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

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.

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