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ESA Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Data Collection Initiative

Gulf Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on April 20th, 2010. The explosion and consequent sinking of the platform lead to a spill of about 4.9 million barrels (780,000 m3) of oil exceeding the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as the largest ever in U.S. controlled waters. All ecologists knew the Deepwater Horizon disaster would impact the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and larger regions of Earth’s ecosystem in an unprecedented way. Its impact included obvious direct effects like oiled birds and degraded salt marshes and those more insidious such as the death of invertebrates and disruption of ecological and microbial processes.

Ecological Society of America (ESA) President at the time, Mary Power, a Professor at UC Berkeley, turned to the Society’s Student Section and acting ESA Student Section Chair Rob Salguero-Gomez, who in turn asked me, to help him. Rob and I confirmed to Mary Power that the ESA Student Section could make a major contribution to the assessment, evaluation, and recovery effort by constructing a searchable database of experts and a list of existing datasets on ecological conditions in and around the Gulf before the spill. This information would be made available online for all local, state, and federal agencies assisting with the cleanup and mitigation of impacted areas. Power then contacted Dr. Felicia Coleman, Director of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory and member of the ESA Rapid Response Team. Dr. Coleman was coordinating scientific response to the spill in her region, and told us that several agencies were already collecting data on the pre-oil spill conditions of Florida’s coastline and that an important piece of information was missing: a list of regional experts in coastal, river, and marine ecology and a list of all available ecological data collected prior to the disaster. Data on unaffected areas is crucial to ongoing and future damage assessment, mitigation and restoration over the coming months, years, and decades.   

President Power also contacted Mark Stromberg of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, who generously made their database software available to ESA to adapt for this metadata collection. Working together, the Society’s webmaster, Zaw Aung, and the Student Section leaders constructed the automated data registry webpage within ESA’s website. The webpage was set up to collect researchers’ contact information and metadata about the datasets (parameters measured, taxonomic data, spatial and temporal coverage, and the medium of the data (). After it was tested, the new ESA Data Registry page was distributed to ESA’s 10,000 members as well as to regional institutions, and publicized on listservs and various social media networks. E-mails began to arrive from all over the world offering their expertise in working in sites affected by oil spills. Scientists, consultants, private contractors, local student groups, among others, started submitting their contact information as well as their dataset information. Information submitted included vegetation and wildlife surveys, fish habitat, sediment compositions, land-cover imagery, and physical-chemical properties of coastal water, among others from various locations in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The list of datasets is available in open access format.

Jorge Ramos

The ESA community—including students, staff, many members and others—acted quickly to help those charged with addressing the disaster. I feel fortunate to have been part of this earth stewardship action with ESA, to have followed the founders’ principle of “promoting the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems”.

by Jorge Ramos, ESA Student Section Chair, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

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