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WHOI Unveils Website on its Role in Gulf Oil Spill Research


May 2, 2011

One year after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is unveiling a new multimedia website, Science in a Time of Crisis. The site features scientists and engineers who continued the WHOI legacy of oil spill research by providing an objective insight into the immediate and potential impacts of the historic event, which took 11 lives and released millions of gallons of oil and gas into the Gulf over three months.

Science in a Time of Crisis provides an inside look at how people at the institution mobilized to provide the Obama Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Geological Survey and other groups responding to the spill with invaluable research and leadership capability in investigating the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill and how to deal with deep water spills in the future.

Within days of the start of the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, WHOI scientists, engineers, technicians, and administrators were among those called upon to help with the response. More than 100 people from the institution, utilizing a wide range of equipment, vehicles, and vessels, have participated in the research effort since the accident on April 20, 2010.

In a series of comprehensive videos, which include interviews with many of the scientists and engineers involved, the website presents a picture of the spill’s events and impacts through a range of WHOI’s scientific and technical capabilities: estimating flow rate; mapping Gulf currents; modeling the deep-water plume; visualizing the oil; studying the critically important oil/bacteria relationship; tracing the dispersants; studying impacts on the Gulf’s deep-water habitats. All of this work was possible only because of the expertise and technology developed at WHOI over many decades for basic research in ocean sciences.

“WHOI’s good work in response to the oil spill is testimony to the world-class work we do here regularly,” said WHOI Trustee Robert James, who, along with his wife Anne, made a generous donation to WHOI to fund the project. “The nation needed a deep bench of scientists with relevant experience and the technology to get the job done. Our nation is fortunate that WHOI made these people and tools accessible to study the spill. Our job now is to communicate to the world the depth and breadth of WHOI expertise across all disciplines.”

One video focuses on four generations of WHOI scientists who have studied the 1969 spill of 189,000 gallons of No. 2 home heating oil into Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Their work on Buzzards Bay produced the longest and most detailed study of an oil spill in history. Today, the research is widely considered to be the most important baseline study that scientists have for assessing the long-term effects of oil spills in marine environments. Since then, WHOI has played a role studying other major oil spills over the years.

Another details the efforts of WHOI scientist Rich Camilli and WHOI engineer Andy Bowen to produce the most direct measurement of the disaster’s flow rate and provide invaluable information for the response efforts. And another video follows Chris Reddy, Camilli and others as—utilizing a novel mass spectrometer and the underwater vehicle Sentry—they confirm the existence of a 22-mile-long underwater plume of hydrocarbons that gushed from the wellhead.

The website, which can be accessed at horizon, also features a timeline of the spill and its aftermath and a technology slideshow, and related resources. The site links to the “Oil in the Ocean” website (, a comprehensive source for information on WHOI research related to natural and human-made sources of oil in the ocean.

Bob James emphasized that in addition to uncovering data that shed light directly on the oil spill, the work also has yielded a lot of other data that could provide insights into many other areas of study. WHOI scientists acted with “alacrity and responsibility in realizing that a lot of ancillary data gained in their work could be of further use if mined properly for the good of research,” he said.

“Our scientists had the presence of mind to take comprehensive samples and lay out a plan to analyze data for the sake of science and the scientific method,” he said. “We will learn things from that collateral data that could help us answer many other scientific questions.”


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment.