Course Details

Course offered Spring 2012

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

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

SLN 14430 (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

“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. In exploring the 5 questions of spill response, we will examine:

– Oil spill history – science and policy framework.
– Oil spill fate and behavior in the marine environment.
– Spill response methods for open water and shorelines.
– Natural resource and human effects

We expect students to be new to this topic and many 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 beyond lectures 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 peer-to-peer 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.

Class will conclude with an oil spill response drill where students assume key decision-making roles in a hypothetical oil spill disaster.

The course will strongly encourage student participation, discussion, and peer collaboration. Differing points of view are encouraged when presented in a positive context. Student can expect a high level of success if they attend lectures and complete the readings and course assignments.

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