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Oil Spills

Deep Water Horizon. (Cabell Davis, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

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.

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News & Insights

What happens to natural gas in the ocean?

WHOI marine chemist Chris Reddy weighs in on a methane leak in the Baltic Sea

A checkup for the oceans reveals threats to human health

The health of the world’s ocean is in serious decline—and human health is suffering as a result. A comprehensive report from the Monaco Commission and co-authored by several WHOI researchers investigates the impacts of ocean pollution and recommends actions to safeguard human health.

Forged in fire: WHOI recalls the Deepwater Horizon crisis

It’s been a decade since the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Frontline WHOI scientists face unprecedented challenges when called to respond to the largest accidental oil spill in history.

Fifty years later, the West Falmouth oil spill yields lasting contributions to remediation efforts

After 175,000 gallons of oil spilled from a barge that ran aground along West Falmouth Harbor, the contaminant has all but disappeared, save a small marsh inlet that continues to serve as a living laboratory for scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Rapid Response at Sea

As sea ice continues to melt in the Arctic and oil exploration expands in the region, the possibility of an oil spill occurring under ice is higher than ever. To help first responders cope with oil trapped under ice, ocean engineers are developing undersea vehicles that can map oil spills to improve situational awareness and decision making during an emergency.

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News Releases

Dissolving oil in a sunlit sea

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WHOI in the News

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From Oceanus Magazine

Sunlight and the fate of oil at sea

Danielle Haas Freeman draws on the language of chemistry to solve an oil spill puzzle

A toxic double whammy for sea anemones

Exposure to both oil and sunlight can be harmful to sea anemones

WHOI scientists discuss the chemistry behind Sri Lanka’s flaming plastic spill

Eight months after the M/V X-Press Pearl disaster in Sri Lanka, WHOI investigators talk about their research on the unique chemistry of the spilled plastic nurdles

Oil spill response beneath the ice

Successful test deployment of WHOI vehicle Polaris expands U.S. Coast Guard response to oil spills in the Arctic

WHOI scientist shares her perspective on ‘imminent’ oil spill in the Red Sea

As a major oil spill looms in the Red Sea, a WHOI physical oceanographer shares her insights on where the oil might go.