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Researchers can't predict long-term Deepwater impact on ocean
Written by Daniel   
Thursday, 17 June 2010 17:08

From ARS Technica

As oil continues to flow into the gulf of Mexico from the exploded Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, people are beginning to wonder what the effects of the spill will be in both the long and short term. Unfortunately, many scientists, even experts in the field, have precious little in the way of answers. According to a recent panel at the World Science Festival, given how much we use the ocean, we aren't learning about it nearly fast enough.

The marine researchers on the panel lamented our lack of knowledge about the ocean's natural state, which keeps us from tracing the effects of even large and relatively common disasters like oil spills, often leaving us uncertain about why certain reefs or species are dying or becoming overpopulated. The panel only had guesses as to what will happen, and expressed hope that the most recent spill will be an impetus to learn more about the ocean's ecosystems, not only to understand human effects but to develop ways to protect the habitats.
The pieces of the oil spill puzzle

So far, Deepwater Horizon is not the largest oil spill in history. To win that honor, it'll have to best the Ixtoc I oil spill of 1979. Ixtoc I spewed 138 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico between the day it exploded and when it was finally capped ten months later. Deepwater has already beaten the more recent Exxon Valdez spill, with 18 million gallons estimated as the "best case" to Exxon's 11 million.

It would seem that, by this time, scientists should have a reasonable handle on how oil spills affect the ocean, and what steps can be taken to minimize damage and clean up . Both the Exxon Valdez and Ixtoc I spills have been studied extensively—Google Scholar turns up over 24,000 results on searches for the two, with 23,000 on Exxon Valdez alone.

The issue, as the World Science Festival panelists pointed out, is that we still don't know enough about the normal conditions in the ocean (especially when it comes to the deeper parts) to figure out how these events affect it. As a result, we are still painfully unsure how to react. Of the thousands of papers about the Exxon Valdez spill, many mention that their conclusions are limited because their experiments had few, if any, control subjects to study.


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