Lesson Plan: Oil Spill Model

Zach Smith

Grade Level:

Subject Area:
Earth Science


Standards Addressed:
National Science Education Standards

Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Time Required:
Three 45-minute class periods.

Lesson Goal:
The overall goal for this lesson is for students to model the dispersal of an oil spill and how the knowledge of tides and currents is used to help clean up the pollutants.

Learning Objectives:

Prerequisite Knowledge:

Water Quality
Coastal waters are valuable resources. They provide food, recreational opportunities, commerce pathways, and solace. They are also home to countless marine and estuarine species. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, we have made great strides in protecting our nation's waters by targeting point source pollutants—pollutants discharged directly from pipes, such as from a factory or sewage treatment plant. This is made exceedingly more difficult when the pollution occurs in the ocean and not on land. This is especially true of nonpoint source pollution, or pollution that is carried in the air and has proven more difficult to control.

Unlike point source pollution on land, which comes from a single usually stationary source, such as leaky pipes. Pollution in the ocean comes from many sources including stationary oil rigs and moving vessels all dumping ballast water, waste water, garbage.

Then there is the issue of waste. A one-week voyage on a large ship is estimated to produce 210,000 gallons of sewage, a million gallons of gray water (runoff from sinks, baths, showers, laundry and galleys), 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water, 11,550 gallons of sewage sludge and more than 130 gallons of hazardous wastes, according to figures supplied by the environmental group Friends of the Earth.http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/travel/15green.html

The major potential environmental effects from offshore drilling occur from the discharge of wastes, including drilling fluids (also referred to as drilling muds), drill cuttings and produced formation water. The decommissioning of platforms/rigs is also a potential environmental problem. http://oils.gpa.unep.org/facts/extraction.htm

Tides and currents further disperse the pollutants and often are the controlling factors in the ability to limit the spread of the pollutant. The level of tolerance for toxic pollutants varies by species though most organisms can take only very limited exposure. Most time it is not direct contact with oil pollution by an organism but the indirect effects that are the most dangerous. Surface water oil slicks may block out light necessary preventing the ability of phytoplankton to photosynthesize and provide energy for consumer organisms. Surface oil also adheres to birds preventing their feathers from properly repelling water and insulating them from the cold. Any organisms that ingests oil also has a greater chance of developing health problems, especially when it interferes with a fish's ability to exchange oxygen in the water through its gills. Oil spills often provide the nutrients for algal blooms which rob the water of required dissolved oxygen. Raw oil also often congeals to form oil balls that sink to the bottom and affect bottom feeding organisms, as well as shell fish, kelp, and sea weed beds.

Polluted water has been linked to a loss of aquatic species diversity and abundance, including many important commercial and recreational fish species. In addition, many swimming and beach closures are attributed to pollution. As the Environmental Protection Agency's 2005 "National Coastal Condition Report" indicates, the overall condition of U.S. coastal waters is fair but 28 percent of coastal waters are not suitable for aquatic life and 22 percent are not suitable for human use (such as fishing or swimming).

Once an oil spill occurs it is nearly impossible to contain or limit its spread since modern technology may provide for water skimmers and surface containment buoys but a 3 dimensional ocean allows for oil to flow deep under the surface and resurface hundreds of kilometers away, killing organisms along the way. Oil on the water surface may be unsightly and dangerous to birds but it is in the ocean depths where the real productivity occurs. A disruption to this area may impact large areas of the ocean and shorelines for years. Even without major spills occurring, oil balls commonly wash ashore on coastal beaches and in wetlands contaminating water and soil.

In Depth:
A Closer Look at nonpoint source pollution impacts on recreational beaches, shellfish beds, and coastal habitat.

Because almost everything we do in the coastal zone influences water quality, improving and maintaining coastal water quality is intertwined with many other coastal issues, including habitat, community development, and cumulative impacts. For example, coastal habitats such as wetlands or riparian areas (areas along streams and rivers and shorelines) play an important role in filtering pollutants from runoff. This includes pollutants which occur from ocean spills which are carried to wetlands by diurnal tides and long shore currents.

Since coastal wetlands are the nurseries for juvenile species any impact there affects future generations of fish, shell fish, and other organisms.

Managing the coastal zone to minimize, or at least mitigate, for these cumulative impacts is critical for protecting water quality. Visit these other coastal issue sections to gain a better understanding of how other coastal management efforts help address water quality issues.

NOAA's National Ocean Service Education Tutorial on Nonpoint Source Pollution — The website provides general educational information about nonpoint source pollution, its sources, what NOAA is doing to address water pollution and what the general public can do to address water pollution. The site also includes several lesson plans for teachers. http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/ education/tutorial_pollution/welcome.html

National Estuarine Eutrophication Assessment— The report evaluates both current eutrophic conditions in estuaries and the effectiveness of management actions aimed at reducing eutrophic conditions.

Procedures/Instructional Strategy:

  1. Divide the class into small groups of no more than four.
  2. Explain the assignment.
  3. Build an ocean table (see appendix A) -possibly one for each group though more than one group can work on the same stream table
  4. See Appendix A for building an easy to use plastic ocean table

Three 45-minute class periods.
Period 1: Set up stream table

  • Discuss if the location of the pollutant's source will affect its ability to contaminate large portions of the ocean?

  • Period 2: Conduct experiments
    Period 3: Debrief (and possible repeat some experiments)
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