The Challenges of Disaster Follow-up Research
The Gulf oil spill and Fukushima nuclear crisis have faded from the headlines, but research into the environmental impacts of these disasters is still in its early stages and could continue for decades.
In the past three years we’ve seen two of the worst environmental disasters in history.
On April 20, 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and starting the largest oil spill ever. For 87 days, oil gushed from a ruptured pipe deep underwater. The total volume of the spill is estimated at 4.9 million barrels of oil – that’s 210 million US gallons.
Just shy of a year later, on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan triggered a massive tsunami with forty meter high waves. That tsunami killed more than 15,000 people and left thousands more injured or missing. It also overwhelmed the sea walls and back-up systems in place at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive material into both the air and the ocean. The Fukushima disaster is one of only two events to reach the International Atomic Energy Agency’s top rating of Level 7 Major Accident. Chernobyl is the other.
During and immediately after both the Gulf oil spill and the Fukushima disaster, scientists scrambled to determine the scope of the events and answer the questions of governments and the public. Two and three years later, these events have largely faded from the headlines and the public conscience. But if previous events like Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl are any indication, interesting and worthwhile scientific questions could persist for decades. The challenge is finding the people and funding to sustain long-term research efforts.
Even more than the scientific questions that remain, it’s the sociological issues of disaster science that weigh on the minds of Drs. Chris Reddy and Ken Buesseler, both Senior Scientists in the Department of Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Reddy is an oil spill expert; Buesseler specializes in oceanic radioactivity. Both say that if they had the ear of the President, they’d ask for funding to train upcoming scientists, strengthen ties between academic scientists and government agencies, and create centers that support long-term research.
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