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Oil Spills

Deepwater Horizonicon-caption
Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. (US Coast Guard)

Oil in the Ocean

The systematic study of oil in the ocean is relatively new to science, but since the late 1960s it has grown to encompass almost every area of oceanography.

Because oil is not a single substance, scientists face a number of challenges when it enters an environment as complex as the ocean. Crude oil and many refined petroleum products are a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals, each one with a distinct set of behaviors and potential effects when released into the marine environment. Some of these substances differ only in the location or orientation of a single carbon atom on a long molecular chain involving dozens of atoms.

Despite this, even chemicals with nearly the same molecular structure can behave very differently once they enter the water, atmosphere, sediments, or an organism. As a result, scientists who study oil in marine settings often say that every spill is different and find that they must ask a unique set of questions every time they focus on a new location or event.

To learn more about WHOI's oil spill research efforts, visit the Oil in the Ocean website.