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Oil Spills

Deep Water Horizong. (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

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…

Five Years After Deepwater Horizon: Improvements and Challenges in Prevention and Response

April 29, 2015 Christopher M. Reddy, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution April 29, 2014—U.S. Senate Committee on Science, Commerce & Transportation Salutation Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Nelson and Members of the Committee: Thank you for the invitation to participate in the hearing, “Five Years After the Deepwater Horizon:…

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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

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.

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…

The Sun’s Overlooked Impact on Oil Spills

New findings by WHOI scientists could significantly change the way responders clean up oil spills in the ocean.