BLOG: Citizen scientists share oil spill knowledge

June 5, 2013 

The Deepwater Horizon received a total of five citations prior to an explosion on April 20, 2010, that caused a spill that lasted for 152 days.

The offshore oil drilling rig was built in 2001 in South Korea by Hyundai Heavy Industries. It drilled the world’s deepest oil well of 35,050 vertical feet at a depth of 4,132 feet of water 250 miles southeast of Houston.

Overall, the Deepwater Horizon’s safety record was considered strong - it was not on the watch list for the Minerals Management Service.

And yet, it was the site of the worst oil spill in the history of the United States, volunteer and “citizen scientist” Paul Doyle told a group gathered June 1 at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs. It's estimated nearly five million barrels of crude oil were released in the Gulf during that time.

Doyle is one of a team of 23 volunteers who spent six Saturdays learning about the effects of the oil spill three years out.

Those volunteers will, in turn, teach the community what they’ve learned - and they will do it in laymen’s terms.

Janet Densmore said sometimes the scientific data is hard to understand. But, the important thing to convey is that research shows the Gulf coming back - specifically in sea grasses, she said. The study, led by the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, explores the effect of oil and dispersant on grass shrimp and blue crabs. They have also conducted research on sargassum, a brown algae.

There is still a lot of concern voiced by residents about the safety of seafood, but volunteer Lauren Thayer said there are more sophisticated testing methods now that allow seafood to be tested before it makes its way to market.

Because there is a 65-year history of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, which worked on the citizen scientists project, scientists have a baseline to see how populations are affected over time.

There is also a study that indicates the use of dispersents - largely criticized at the time of the spill - helped keep the spill from causing more substantial damage.

Chris Snyder, director of GCRL’s Marine Education Center, said the citizen scientists project “worked out great.”

“having researchers and the public work together was a different approach,” he said. “It was an unknown … if they would stick.”

The volunteers did stick it out, and the free community event June 1 allowed them to showcase the information they’d learned. They’ll also be sharing that info at venues across the area during the coming year.

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