Marcia McNutt on Uncertainty in the Flow

In the days and weeks after the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, teams of scientists worked quickly to determine the exact nature and flow rate of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, managed the scientific response.

Marcia McNutt

McNutt says that scientists played a critical role in the response effort. “We never ordered BP to do anything. There were no lawyers involved. If there had been, there’d still be oil spewing into the Gulf today.” This allowed them to manage numerous scientific and technical uncertainties, and rely on the current science on hand. “We had no analogy to a blow-out one mile deep,” notes McNutt. “No research had been done on this, so we had to rely on every technique possible.”

Under the constant threat of hurricanes, researchers needed to manage conflcting evidence around the exact amount of oil flowing in the Gulf of Mexico, and conflicting opinions around the adverse impacts of applying dispersants to break up the oil.

It will be years before the full impact of the spill will be understood. Among them, scientists still don’t know the long-term ecological consequences of deploying large quantities of dispersants at the well head rather than at the surface. In addition, there might be large amounts of oil trapped on the ocean floor that could be “remobillized” in storms.

There is some good news to come from managing all of this uncertainty. McNutt revealed that the massive spill has led to the formation of an industry consortium ready to quickly and effectively respond to the next oil disaster, wherever that might be in the world.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

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