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Broadcasting Science

Deepwater Horizon spill shows how the internet accelerates reporting of the science of disasters

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
October 18, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 42

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard (both)
Workers clean the oil-slicked Alaskan shore after the Exxon Valdez oil spill (left) in 1989; in 2010, crews attempt to put out the postexplosion blaze on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard (both)
Workers clean the oil-slicked Alaskan shore after the Exxon Valdez oil spill (left) in 1989; in 2010, crews attempt to put out the postexplosion blaze on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

There’s perhaps no better way to illustrate how information technology has changed the climate and culture of science over the past three decades than by examining the reactions to a series of similar environmental disasters.

On June 3, 1979, when the Ixtoc 1 oil well, run by Mexico’s national petroleum company Pemex, exploded in the Bay of Campeche, 126 million gal of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan Peninsula in one of the biggest oil spills in history.

Ten years later, on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound, in Alaska, dumping 11 million gal of oil into remote, pristine waters.

Cut to April 20, 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers and spilling about 185 million gal of oil.

These spills’ scientific and public information legacies couldn’t be more different.

Compare the Environmental Protection Agency’s complex website devoted to the Deepwater Horizon spill—with its press releases, videos, and options for public comment—with its historical archive of the Exxon Valdez spill, about which EPA issued just four press releases.

Two years after the Ixtoc 1 spill, no scientific papers characterizing that disaster had been published. Fewer than two dozen papers concerning the spill had been published two years after the Exxon Valdez incident. The Deepwater Horizon spill, by contrast, is the subject of more than a dozen papers published in the six months since the explosion.

News coverage also shows a similar pattern. Numbers of articles in newspapers and magazines have increased dramatically with each new event. In the case of Ixtoc 1, a Google news archive search turned up fewer than 200 news articles from 1979 to 1989. A search for Exxon Valdez from 1989 to 1999 yielded about 25,000 articles. The number of news articles covering the Deepwater Horizon spill has topped 50,000 in the past six months. Even allowing for the increasing availability of online archives over the past three decades, the differences are stark.

Factors such as geography and money played a role in how scientific information about these disasters spread. Prince William Sound is an isolated area, and although scientific and cleanup teams were dispatched immediately after the tanker ran aground, access was difficult. And in the case of the Ixtoc 1 disaster, which shares many similarities to the Deepwater Horizon spill, little money was available for research after the spill.

But the most obvious difference in 2010 is the Internet and the culture of information that’s sprung up around it. Immediately after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, scientists turned to blogging and press conferences, reporting their results from cruise ships as they sampled tainted waters.

For example, David Hollander of the University of South Florida announced in a press release that his team’s chemical analyses showed that oil taken from underwater plumes in the Gulf matched those from BP oil samples (C&EN, Aug. 2, page 12). On Sept. 6, Samantha Joye, a marine sciences professor at the University of Georgia, Athens, described in her blog how her team had discovered thick layers of oil covering the bottom of the ocean near the oil well.

And earlier this month, Kim Anderson, a professor in the department of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University, announced in a press release that her lab had discovered that levels of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico near the spill were up to 40 times as high as normal levels.

It’s unusual for scientists to broadcast preliminary results so widely, given the strict embargoes of many major science journals. But, notes Timothy Crone, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University, the urgency of a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill has allowed for more flexibility.

“I viewed it as my responsibility to release my best information to the media, couched with caveats regarding uncertainty,” he says. Crone quickly went on to publish the first independent peer-reviewed assessment of the spill’s magnitude in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1195840; C&EN, Sept. 27, page 14).

Indeed, Science has already published five papers of the Deepwater Horizon spill, including studies of gas-consuming microbes and of the underwater oil plumes generated from the spill.

Brooks Hanson, deputy editor of physical sciences for Science, noted in a statement: “Many of the papers we publish have implications for public policy, including some areas where policy actions are ongoing and in some cases urgent (for example as has been the case with SARS and swine flu, and more recently the Gulf oil spill). In such cases, we work to release research results promptly so that ongoing research can benefit from the papers and data.”



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