A Local Response to a Global Story: Demystifying the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

By Hela Sheth
From ASTC Dimensions
September/October 2010

Every summer, staff members at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, Alabama, get together to review weather disaster plans in preparation for a major hurricane. We look at our insurance policy, take down the tent in our courtyard, and get new batteries for our weather radios. During the past decade, the Gulf Coast has experienced many devastating hurricanes; Ivan, Dennis, and Katrina remain household names that evoke feelings of despair for homeowners and businesses in the region, particularly those that rely on tourism. This summer, however, staff members got together for a different reason. We met to discuss how our center could help to explain the science behind the oil spill that began after Deepwater Horizon, Transocean Ltd’s drilling rig licensed to BP, sank in the Gulf of Mexico on April 22.

No amount of disaster planning could have prepared us for the economic and environmental ramifications of this oil spill. It has affected everyone on the Gulf Coast, and our science center is no exception. We are experiencing declines in attendance and revenue due to far fewer tourists, which we rely on in the summer months. We are also struggling with the malaise of the local population, who are feeling unsure of the economy and are being more careful with discretionary spending. In spite of these difficulties, we are energized about the ways in which our science center can serve as a resource for this local issue that has become a global story.

The only science center serving southern Alabama, northwestern Florida, and southern Mississippi, the Gulf Coast Exploreum is located next to Mobile Bay, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Mobile Bay is on the edge of the Mobile–Tensaw River Delta, one of the largest intact wetland ecosystems in the United States. Because the delta is a melting pot of freshwater and marine ecosystems, it supports a phenomenal diversity of animals, including at least 126 species of fish, 40 species of mammals, 69 species of reptiles, 30 species of amphibians, and an untold host of insects. Sadly, as early as June, tar balls washed up on our pristine beaches and oil slicks were spotted in the bay.

As soon as the oil started spilling into the Gulf, we discussed how we could help. The spill’s evidence in Mobile Bay further galvanized our focus on helping visitors better understand the science behind the spill. We began showing live video of the oil spill and performing daily demonstrations in our chemistry laboratory, the BASF Lab. Our demonstration illustrates how oil and water interact based on their scientific properties and shows the effects of dispersants on the oil–water combination. Staff members also explain how skimmers scoop the oil into containment tankers, how booms prevent oil from passing through, and how sorbents act like giant oil-absorbing cotton balls. The demonstrations have received a lot of attention. In fact, one Coast Guard member said our demonstration was the best explanation his child has received about his work in the Gulf. Several local news stations have also filmed the demonstration to illustrate how visitors are learning about the spill.

The oil spill demonstration discusses the short-term environmental consequences, but as a science center, we also want to address the long-term ramifications for biodiversity. Therefore, we partnered with the aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which has an engineering center in Mobile, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to bring their international See the Bigger Picture exhibition to the Exploreum in September 2010. The exhibition features images from a worldwide photo contest on biodiversity. In May, along with Airbus and local partner Calagaz Photo, we also launched a Gulf Coast version of the contest for children ages 6 to 14 to submit a photo that showcases the region’s biodiversity. We are using this opportunity to discuss the importance of preserving the Gulf’s delicate ecosystems, including the biodiversity-rich wetlands, in the midst of what many are calling the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

We are involved in other spill-related efforts, as well. We are working with local, state, and federal officials to monitor the spill’s effect on tourism and its impact on our attendance. We are also in communication with other nonprofit and volunteer organizations to assist with the cleanup efforts. For example, we offer discounts on facility rentals for fund-raising events, we donate admission tickets to silent auctions, and our center is available as a drop-off location for supplies.

Like the notorious hurricanes in this region, the situation with the oil spill changes on a daily basis. Here at the Gulf Coast Exploreum, we will serve as a leader in the community to provide scientific context now and in the months and years of recovery efforts ahead.

Hela Sheth is director of marketing and public relations at Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, Mobile, Alabama.

About the image: A student adds a dispersant to oil and water during the oil spill demonstration. Photo courtesy the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center