Course Details

Course offered Spring 2011

Honors 222 A: Disaster Science: Interdisciplinary Exploration of Marine Oil Spills (NSc)

Honors 222 A: Disaster Science: Interdisciplinary Exploration of Marine Oil Spills (NSc)

SLN 14166 (View UW registration info »)

Robert Pavia (School of Marine and Environmental Affairs)
Office: 3707 Brooklyn Avenue NE, Box 359485
Phone: 425-502-5243

Credits: 5
Limit: 30 students

Honors Credit Type

If Honors 222 A is full and you're interested in a Marine Science course, check out SMA 103 (SLN 18033). See Time Schedule for details.
“After catastrophic spills, when the acute effects of oiled beaches, polluted waterways, and dying wildlife are featured in all the media, there is public outcry and political interest, accompanied by calls for action, for more research, and for better prevention and control measures. Later, as acute effects fade, but longer-term and less obvious problems may continue, public interest-and with it political interest-fade. …” (National Research Council, 1994).

Over the past decade, there have been between 3,000 and 5,000 marine spill incidents annually. Marine oil spills are among the most visible and potentially damaging threats to fish and wildlife and their habitats, regional economies, and the people of a region in which a spill occurs. They can impact international relations, national energy policy, and even election outcomes, yet few people understand the scientific foundations of spills.

We will begin with an introduction to oil spills that have had a major impact on response science, technology, and policy in the United States. Each spill will illustrate key disciplines that provide the scientific foundation for mitigating spill impacts, such as physical oceanography, chemistry, geomorphology, and ecosystem interactions. Oil spill science considers 5 basic questions when examining a spill scenario:

1. What are the spilled oil’s characteristics?
2. What will be the oil’s fate?
3. What natural and economic resources are at risk?
4. What will be the effects to natural and human systems?
5. What can be done to mitigate those effects?

Answering these questions requires an interdisciplinary approach that considers both natural and social sciences.

Can an oil spill fundamentally change U.S. energy policy? This course complements Honors 100 by exploring the scientific underpinnings of marine oil spill response, including BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil spills provide a crucible for exploring the theme of knowledge across disciplines applied to real-word problems of managing marine ecosystems. Students will examine major oil spills to understand both the scientific and managerial side of preserving ocean resources.

Oil spills provide a window on to how society uses science to mitigate the effects technology. By studying oil spills, students will develop skills for critically evaluating the popular understanding of scientific concepts, their application to policy debate and a deeper appreciation for the complexity of developing sustainable societies.

We expect students to be new to this topic and to be non-science majors. Course materials and lectures will consider the backgrounds, experience, and goals of enrolled students. The course will rely on lectures from the instructor and guest lecturers with first-hand spill response experience to conveying general principles and key features of oil spills. Lectures will provide examples of how to apply science to improve spill response actions and reduce impacts to coastal communities. Students will learn and apply planning methods such as ecological risk assessment and tools such as computer models to understand and evaluate spill response alternatives. Instruction methods will use a variety of approaches to help ensure successful learning by non-science majors.

Some class time will be devoted to discussion of assigned readings drawn from scientific literature, government policy and plans, the popular press, and social media. Throughout the course, students will be expected to engage in critical examination of lectures and readings through class discussions, small group work, and short homework assignments.

There will be one group assignment where students will apply knowledge and skills gained in the class to examine alternative approaches to spill response. The project will involve either a critical evaluation of a past spill or developing a hypothetical spill example. The assignment will require that the group evaluate,
synthesize, analyze, and apply course content.

At the end of this course, the student will be able to:

– Explain how oil spills behave in the marine environment, with an emphasis on fate and effects on humans and ecosystems.
– List, describe, and compare the advantages and disadvantages of the basic spill response strategies and their differing impacts to the environment and humans.
– Demonstrate how to apply oil spill tools and models to an oil spill scenario in order to critique alternative response strategies.
– Recognize the role of old and new media in comunicating science and affecting policy.
– Display a leadership role in the classroom community through discussion, group learning, and class presentations.

– Attendance and general in-class participation – 15%
– Discussion briefs and short writing assignments – 30%
– Quizzes – 15%
– Group Project – 20%
– Final Paper or Exam – 20%