Helen White Publishes on 10 Years of Scientific Insights from Deepwater Horizon Spill
The associate professor of chemistry and environmental studies was part of a team that wrote a review article in Nature, documenting the discoveries related to the largest single accidental release of oil and gas into the ocean.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest single accidental release of oil and gas into the ocean. Over 87 days, oil, gas, and dispersants impacted 11,000 kilometers of the ocean’s surface and 2,000 kilometers of coastline. Haverford College Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Helen White, who had already been researching the long-term impacts of historic oil spills beginning with her graduate work in Oceanography at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that focused primarily on the 1969 West Falmouth oil spill, has been studying its ramifications for 10 years.
As part of an NSF RAPID grant to assess the impact of the spill on deep-sea coral communities, she was one of the early researchers to arrive in the Gulf following the spill. In the years since Deepwater Horizon, she and 25 of her students have returned to the site of the spill nine times. White has participated in research cruises to examine the deep sea, as well as annual oil sample-collecting expeditions that have yielded insights into the persistence of oil in coastal environments.
In the latest issue of Nature, White and her colleagues from WHOI, Florida State University, University of Southern California, and the University of California, Santa Barbara commemorate the 10th anniversary of the spill with a review article documenting related scientific insights gained from the last decade of research.
“Some highlights of what we learned relate to how oil and gas is released at depth at high pressure and low temperature,” said White. “The importance and speed at which sunlight alters the chemical composition and physical properties of oil at the sea surface has been reconsidered, and we have gained new insights into the role of microbes in degrading oil in the presence of chemical dispersants, and the impact that a spill can have on organisms living in both coastal and deep-sea environments.”
White has played a role in several key discoveries related to the spill, including research into deep-sea coral damage, the long-term persistence of the dispersant chemicals used to break down the oil in the Gulf, and the role that microbes play in the degradation of oil. Haverford students collaborated with White on all aspects of this work, which culminated in the use of some of their research in the litigation against BP, the operator of the well site.
“Haverford students have worked long hours at sea, in the field, and in lab, presented talks and posters at conferences, co-authored manuscripts, and been invaluable thought partners throughout the process,” said White. “The Deepwater Horizon spill has had important scientific, political, and legal ramifications. Research in the aftermath of a disaster presents some unique challenges. I am incredibly grateful to the students for their invaluable contributions to the science of the spill and to the well-being of our research group throughout what were some stressful situations not typically experienced in undergraduate research groups.”
One current challenge is translating the discoveries made in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill into spill-response recommendations for the future. White’s recent Nature paper explicitly calls for policymakers and regulators to use scientific findings and recommendations to drive their response. It also points out the need for integrated analytical platforms and data synthesis across fields in spill science, as well as for response teams and researchers to work together to better understand the environmental impact of future spills in real time.
“There have been numerous discoveries made related specifically to this spill, and scientists have learned a tremendous amount of information about the northern Gulf of Mexico,” said White. “However, we know no two oil spills are the same, and our intention with this review is to provide an outlook for the next oil spill, wherever it may occur.”