Camarillo, Calif., April 20, 2012 – As the nation observes the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, a national panel of researchers is offering a new understanding of what happened, how to manage such events in the future, and why existing tools were inadequate.

Dr. Sean Anderson, Associate Professor of Environmental Science & Resource Management at CSU Channel Islands (CI), created and co-led the team of 22 renowned scientists in constructing the first complete conceptual model for understanding the Deepwater Horizon and how such spills should be handled in the future.  Their findings are published in the May issue of the journal Bioscience in an article entitled, “A Tale of Two Spills: Novel Science and Policy Implications of an Emerging New Oil Spill Model.”  The group’s work was funded by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), a research center of the of the University of California, Santa Barbara, supported by the National Science Foundation.  The Center uses data-driven, cross-disciplinary research to address important issues in ecology and delivers that information to researchers, resource managers and policy makers.

The Deepwater Horizon panel of scientists, co-led by Dr. Charles Peterson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, argues that a fundamentally new approach to the study of deepwater oil spills is needed. 

“The old model assumed that oil would simply float up to the surface and accumulate there and along the coastline,” said Anderson, a co-author of the article.  “That model works well for pipeline breaks and tanker ruptures, but it is inadequate for this novel type of deep blowout.”

The panel highlights major gaps in scientific understanding that must be addressed in order to successfully confront the modern oil spill, in an age where drilling has moved into deeper water. 

This new model for how an oil spill unfolds and where the resulting ecological impacts occur emphasizes that the vast majority of the oil is retained at depth.  This calls into question the effectiveness of dispersants, which were used profusely in the Deepwater Horizon.

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, hot oil and natural gas erupted from the seabed and were rapidly emulsified and dispersed due to the physics of the pressurized oil jetting from the tip of the wellbore. 

“Much of that oil never got to the surface, or ever could have gotten to the surface, calling into question the value of dispersant use at depth,” said the third co-leader Dr. Gary Cherr, Director of UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab.  “We have generally hailed the use of (chemical) dispersants as helpful, but really are basing this on the fact we seemed to have kept oil from getting to the surface.  The truth is much of this oil probably was staying at depth independent of the amount of surfactants we dumped into the ocean.  And we dumped a lot of dispersants into the ocean, all told approximately one-third of the global supply.” 

Had the authors’ newly-proposed oil spill model been in use, responders would have proceeded in a different manner.  And in those critical early weeks and months of the unfolding spill, they could have focused greater attention on the ecological communities most in harm’s way.

Anderson and his colleagues are continuing to work on understanding various aspects of the spill individually and as a group.  In addition to this synthetic overview research, Anderson is also in the early phases of new experiments with fellow researchers to conduct toxicity tests on animals at depth in the deep ocean with oil and dispersants. 

Anderson also has involved CI students in research and recovery projects related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  He and his students just completed their sixth year of wetland restoration work in coastal Louisiana.  This work began post-Hurricane Katrina, but gained new importance after the Deepwater Horizon blowout. 

“The Gulf Coast has become something of a living lab to explore the effects of human activities on the coast,” Anderson said.  “The more work we do there, the better equipped we are to handle such disasters here in California.  We all love the coast, but if we don’t start getting smarter about our activities in the coastal zone, and truly understanding the consequences of our decisions, the Deepwater Horizon will become less cautionary tale and more of a hold-on-to-your-hat forecast for the near future.”

Read the full article in Bioscience at http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/resources/Peterson.pdf.  Additional news releases on the article can be found at http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/120412_researchers_call_for_a_new_direction_in_oil_spill_research.html.

Learn more about the Anderson lab at http://faculty.csuci.edu/sean.anderson/

Learn more about NCEAS at http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/.

Contact Dr. Sean Anderson, Associate Professor of Environmental Science & Resource Management at CI, at sean.anderson@csuci.edu, 805-437-2732 (office), or 805-732-2732 (cell).

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