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BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill - Lesson Learned

September 4, 2011

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon/BP MC252 drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico caused the rig to sink and killed 11 workers. As a result, oil began leaking into the Gulf creating the largest spill in American history to date.

Oiled turtle is recovered from Gulf of Mexico by NOAA Scientist

Over the course of 87 days an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf. Although research continues to determine the full extent of the damage, we know that this spill impacted wildlife, habitats, fishing communities, and commerce along the large coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida.

 

Impacts to Wildlife

Sea turtles and marine birds were some of the first wildlife affected by the oil as they live and feed in the surface areas where floating oil collects. Marine mammals such as dolphins and whales are other affected species, as they must come to the surface to breath. Oil accumulated on the skin of animals can make it difficult to breath and move in the water. Oiled birds can lose the ability to fly, dive for food, or float on the water which could lead to drowning. Oil also interferes with the water repellency of feathers and can cause hypothermia under the right conditions. Ingested oil can kill animals immediately; more often it results in lung, liver, and kidney damage which can lead to death. Extensive efforts to prevent more extensive wildlife impacts, rescue and rehabilitate oiled animals, and investigate possible long-term effects of oil exposure are ongoing. (Source: USFWS)

Fisheries

Fish, shrimp, and shellfish are integral to the food web of the Gulf as well as the economic health of the region. To minimize human exposure to potentially unsafe seafood from the spill region, more than 80,000 square miles of commercial and recreational fishing grounds were closed while scientists investigated the impact of the spill and clean-up efforts on these organisms. After careful research on the presence of chemical and microbial contaminants in species from all levels of the food chain, portions of the region deemed safe by FDA and NOAA scientists were re-opened to fishing. Once again, Gulf fisherman have access to valuable fishing grounds and consumers and fish sellers are protected knowing that only safe seafood is entering the marketplace from this area. Ongoing monitoring continues to insure safety of seafood and changes in the Gulf habitats. (Source: NOAA Keeping Seafood Safe)

Habitat Impacts

The Gulf of Mexico is a diverse ecosystem incorporating deep-sea ocean ridges and trenches, mid-depth banks, barrier islands, beaches, and estuaries. As currents and winds spread the oil from the mile deep spill site, all habitats of the ecosystem were at risk of contamination. Estuaries and coral reefs are some of the most sensitive areas in the impact zone as they provide protection, feeding areas, and nurseries for a large diversity of species. NOAA has been involved in extensive research to map and understand this system prior to the spill (See: Ocean Explorer) and now in the aftermath. This information will be valuable in calculating the full impact of the spill and the long-term effects on this rich ecosystem.

Education Connection

The newness of the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill limits the number of educational products designed to investigate and teach about impacts to the Gulf ecosystem. Ongoing efforts are being undertaken to develop lessons, media, and resources for educators to use in their teaching to help students and the public to better understand this event. The materials provided with this collection present the facts surrounding the spill and ongoing research, monitoring, and restoration efforts. More general education products from previous spills are provided to help educators present the concepts of human impacts on the ocean, oil specific impacts, spill clean-up, and the effects of toxins on natural environments. This site will be updated periodically as more information becomes available.

Responding to a Disaster

 

This activity was developed specifically to explore the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Mobile Bay and the surrounding waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Students play the role of oil spill response team members and consider the characteristics of oil spills, path of spilled oil, potential impact zones, and spill clean-up techniques in planning their response.

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