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Oil Spills

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.

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News & Insights

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.

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.…

Oversight Hearing on “Ocean Science and Data Limits in a Time of Crisis: Do NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have the Resources to Respond?”

June 15, 2010 Christopher M. Reddy, Ph.D., Associate Scientist, Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution June 15th, 2010—Subcommittee…

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News Releases

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WHOI in the News

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From Oceanus Magazine

A Long Trail of Clues Leads to a Surprise About Oil Spills

Scientists followed evidence from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to discover an unexpected phenomenon.

Reassessing Guidelines for Oil Spill Cleanups

A new discovery could change the way officials approach oil spill cleanups.

To Track an Oil Spill

WHOI scientists are helping to develop a robotic underwater vehicle that can track oil spills and help responders mitigate damage in remote or ice-covered areas such as the Arctic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

Did Dispersants Help During Deepwater Horizon?

In the heat of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, U.S. government and industry responders had to make a crucial decision.…