WASHINGTON, D.C. – Some of America's best scientists are helping develop an innovative scenario-building technique to plan environmental and economic recovery from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, according to an article in this week's Science.
Shortly after the April 2010 spill, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar created an inter-disciplinary Strategic Sciences Working Group of scientists from federal, academic, and non-governmental organizations to develop a science-based assessment of the long-term effects of the spill on the ecology, economy, and people of the Gulf of Mexico.
The results of the working group are designed to provide information useful to decision makers, resource managers and other professionals developing and managing the existing response plans--such as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) leaders and staff. The results are not designed to replace or direct these pre-existing procedures.
The first results of the working group are outlined in the Science essay, “Scenario-Building for the Mississippi Canyon 252/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” to be published in the magazine on August 27. The essay was co-authored by Dr. Gary Machlis, Science Advisor to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S Geological Survey. Dr. Machlis serves as Lead Scientist on the Working Group, and Dr. McNutt oversees the group's activities.
The focus of the Science article is the scenario-building technique. The scenarios in the article are considered preliminary results and have already changed since the article was written based on new information on parameters such as flow rates and time periods, which have changed with events in the Gulf and continuing research by scientists. The technique, however, is helping to identify possible policies and actions to reduce negative impacts of the spill and speed up and sustain the recovery process.
“We are treating the ecology, economy, and people impacted by the spill as a whole,” emphasized Team Leader Machlis, “and our challenge has been to understand what is happening and what might happen from that broad perspective.”
One scenario in the Science article examined how long-term decline of plants, particularly in the wetlands, is a probable consequence of the spill, and if extensive, could impair both fisheries recovery and resistance to hurricane damage, with further consequences from the re-release of “sequestered” oil. Other scenarios dealt with impacts upon the oyster fishery, health issues of workers, impacts on the tourism industry, and more.
“Team members come from many scientific disciplines, with experience on oil spills and other environmental events, and many are from the local region”, said USGS Director McNutt. “All of those on this DOI team have worked hard to understand the long-term impacts—what we call ‘cascading effects' –of the spill and opportunities for sustainable recovery.” (The team includes modelers, ecologists, oceanographers, social scientists, and other experts.)
The group first met in Mobile, Alabama for five intense days in May 2010, for scenario-building based on expert opinion and the available scientific literature; the group will reconvene in New Orleans in September.
Since its first session, the working group has briefed the Mobile Unified Command, Department of Interior officials, NRDA staff, and others involved in Gulf restoration and recovery.
Secretary Salazar has directed the group to continue its work. Scenario-building sessions of the working group will continue at the September meeting, and additional, updated scenarios will be prepared. Work will be ongoing at least through the fall. Hence, it is a “work in progress.”