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On Anniversary of Gulf Oil Spill, Science Has Insights for the Next Crisis

On Anniversary of Gulf Oil Spill, Science Has Insights for the Next Crisis
The 1979 Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico led to one of history's worst oil spills, totaling the equivalent of 3 million barrels. Image credit: NOAA

On June 3, 1979, an oil rig called the Ixtoc I exploded off the coast of Campeche, Mexico, triggering what at the time was the worst oil spill in history. Even today, Ixtoc is eclipsed in the Gulf of Mexico only by the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. Ixtoc's damage was observed for decades along the Texas coast, where experts at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute study the impact of the oil spill to this day and explore ways to contain the damage from future disasters.

"After Ixtoc, there was a terrible amount of oil on the beaches here, affecting tourism," said Ed Buskey, a professor of marine science, who holds the Bass Regents Chair in Marine Science. He also is the primary investigator for a major consortium studying the effects of oil spills and related clean-up efforts. Having come to UT seven years after the disaster, Buskey recalls that encounters with the tar balls left by the oil spill were inevitable even then, with the black substance showing up on the bottoms of shoes or bare feet after almost any walk on the beach.

"I came here with two small children, and I remember when we first would take them to the beach, everybody would have to bring baby oil and rags, because kids couldn't help but sit on the sand and get tarballs on their swimsuits," he said. "To this day, there's a sort of asphalt-like substance, every once in a while, when you get a big storm that's probably Ixtoc oil. It's still out there."

Among the few positive effects of disasters like Ixtoc are that researchers can use them to learn how to better prepare for – or prevent – the next crisis. Here are three lessons from the trenches that Texas-led research and monitoring efforts have brought to light.

Know the Enemy

The research consortium Buskey leads, the Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies (DROPPS) initiative, involves scientists from eight institutions working to understand the ways oil breaks up in ocean waters and interactions between oil and living things, especially organisms at the base of the food chain that feeds up to humans.

One of the most exciting parts of the project, Buskey believes, has been its success in helping to improve the models that groups like the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can use to guide decisions in the midst of a crisis.

"With an oil spill, when it's happening, everything is chaotic. Every morning you have to get up and decide: What should we do now?" Buskey said. "No matter what, it's going to be a terrible impact on the environment, so the goal is to minimize the damage as much as possible based on the best information."

A core goal is to keep oil out of sensitive habitats and away from coasts, but how? Is it best to mechanically remove the oil? Use a chemical dispersant to help clear the oil? Light the oil on fire and burn it off at the surface? That depends on variables ranging from weather to ocean currents to the distance of a spill from shore to the amount of oil in the spill. Even the types of bacteria found in the surrounding waters can play a role, since many microbes will consume harmful components in oil.

Members of DROPPS include scientists and engineers who were able to improve the information disaster response teams have to make decisions based on new details like the motion of oil under various conditions, the amount of water residing in drops of oil found in a plume deep under the sea and the ways oil interacts with tiny organisms such as plankton.

"The worst possible thing that can happen is that oil comes ashore and affects sensitive habitats," Buskey said. "We've been trying to provide better information to inform a model like this so that first responders can make their decisions based on that information."

Researchers are finding red drum fish like these suffer cardiovascular and neurological damage from even minimal exposure to oil.

It May Be Worse than It Looks

After an oil spill, news coverage makes visible the mass die-offs of fish, as well as images of people kept from the fishing they rely on for their livelihoods. Now research by Andrew Esbaugh is shedding light on another fish-centered drama that unfolds under the public radar.

Esbaugh, an associate professor of marine science at the UT Marine Science Institute, is co-principal investigator of a research consortium called RECOVER, which looks at how oil affects specific fish in the Gulf of Mexico that are critical for both U.S. fisheries and the Gulf ecosystem. It turns out even small amounts of oil, too little to kill a fish like red drum even in its larval stage, can harm fish over the long run, weakening their cardiovascular systems, harming their development and causing delays that leave them more vulnerable to predators and less able to catch their own prey. Even neurological problems result, leading the fish to take potentially deadly risks.

"The analogy we use is fish act like they're drunk," Esbaugh said. "They become less social. They're more likely to move away from their group and become bold, leaving a protected habitat for an unknown habitat where they are alone."

In a nutshell, oil doesn't have to kill animals to keep them from performing as they usually would to stay alive or grow old enough to reproduce. 

The ARK's Oiled Wildlife Facility provides a place where oiled animals are cleaned with everything from Dawn detergent to mineral oil to mayonnaise, before they rest, recover and are returned to the wild.

The Response to a Crisis Can Leave a Legacy

In 1979, oil reached the sensitive marshes and beaches where birds and turtles nest, what Buskey calls the worst-case scenario. Once this happens, many clean-up efforts do more harm than good, but there are still ways to rescue living animals covered in oil, with the help of certified staff who are trained in this type of recovery.

UT is home to an animal rescue and rehabilitation operation that provides just this service—and many others. In fact, the Amos Rehabilitation Keep, or ARK, was named for its founder, oceanographer Tony Amos, who arrived at the Marine Science Institute shortly before the Ixtoc disaster. In a 2015 interview with The Alcalde, Amos recalled starting the ARK after seeing birds and sea turtles coated in oil from that spill.

In his quarter century with the facility, Amos led an operation that went from rescuing just seven sea turtles in its initial year to now serving on average 1,500 animals annually. They include seabirds, raptors and turtles, many of them harmed by fishing lines, cold winter temperatures and other dangers besides oil.

Amos' death in 2017 came just weeks before the most recent oil spill the ARK team responded to in order to rescue animals. That October, ARK volunteers helped spot any oiled birds or turtles to refer to trained ARK staff to help recover and rehabilitate on site.

"From what Tony started initially, it's really grown, and I think that's good both for the community here and for us at the University," said Jace Tunnell, director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve based at the Marine Science Institute, which houses the ARK and works with about 100 volunteers. "At the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, we're saving these animals, and that connects with people."

Tony Amos, founder of the ARK animal rehabilitation keep at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, with a rescued sea turtle in 2015. Credit: The Alcalde
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