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NCEI Records Response to Historic Gulf Oil Spill

Picture of Mississippi shrimp boats in Gulf of Mexico
Courtesy of NOAA

In 2010, the most significant offshore oil spill in U.S. history affected ecosystems across the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and fire on April 20, and an estimated 3.2 million barrels of oil escaped into the Gulf over 87 days from a damaged wellhead a mile below the surface.

Immediately, scientists from NOAA and many partner agencies stepped in and began a process of collecting data to track the oil as it spread across the Gulf, both at the surface and within the water column. NCEI played a pivotal role in the response, not only by preserving the data being collected, but by providing public access to data in near-real time, often within days of its collection. NCEI was also a key player in the multi-agency Joint Analysis Group (JAG) for Surface and Sub-surface Oceanography, Oil, and Dispersant Data, providing rapid data processing and analysis in support of that group’s mission to track the subsurface hydrocarbon plume.

Currently, NCEI stewards a historically unprecedented archive of publicly available data compiled during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response. NCEI is also working with partners, principally NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, to capture and preserve the trove of monitoring and research data collected since the response, including recently released data collected as part of the National Resource Damage Assessment. Stay tuned as NCEI’s Deepwater Horizon-related data resources continue to grow.

Deepwater Horizon by the Data

NCEI provides free access to its archived data: Gulf of Mexico regional products, fisheries information, a selected oil spill bibliography, and other special collections. Climatologies for various parameters were also calculated from historical data in the NCEI archives, so that going forward, researchers studying the spill can determine how the oil may have changed various properties in the water column, the stratified surface-to-bottom measurement.

More specifically, NCEI’s response data encompass:

  • Ocean data from aircraft, floats, gliders, and ships
  • Fisheries and other marine animals observations
  • Resources on oil spills, response, and restoration
  • Special data collections, such as chemical contaminant measurements
  • Reports from JAG

Numerous organizations collected data related to the oil spill response, including private industry, federal and state agencies, and academic institutions. In many cases, these organizations compiled the data in databases as complete datasets.

Methods of Deepwater Data Collection

After the spill began, organizations began collecting information about the environment and marine life in the Gulf a variety of ways. The assessment area covered open water and coastal environments in the five U.S. states that have Gulf coastline, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Data collections occurred by several means:

  • Aircraft: Two NOAA aircraft dropped water temperature probes and pressure-sensitive thermometers into Gulf waters.
  • Ships: Probes, acoustic sensors, lasers, optical devices, bottle, core, and net sampling, and shipboard computers collected data from the NOAA fleet and partner vessels; the data include chemical, biological, geological, and physical observations.
  • Gliders and floats: Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and ocean-profiling floats collected many types of data, from the surface to far below.

NCEI's Deepwater Archive

The NCEI archive holds more than 200 data collections related to the spill and reflect the operations during the response. These records are discoverable and accessible through NCEI’s geoportal search and provide information regarding oxygen levels, salinity, plankton, pH, water temperature, chemical profiles, and many other conditions.

The data contribute to studies that assess the impacts on fish, shellfish, marine mammals, turtles, and birds. The information also helps coastal communities understand the consequences on habitats, including wetlands, beaches, marshes, corals, and the water column.

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