Tuesday, August 11, 2015 - 10:49am

Samantha Joye explains in Science's Perspective section that only through collecting both baseline data and consistent long-term observations after pollution events is it possible to piece together the impacts of environmental disasters like oil spills:

one of the biggest challenges in evaluating the environmental impacts of the Macondo blowout was the lack of baseline data—both in the water column and along the seabed, where as much as 15 percent of the discharged oil ended up.

As oil and natural gas drilling continues at depths well beyond that of where the Macondo wellhead—at 1,500 meters—blew out, Joye argues in a new article in the journal Science that environmental monitoring data is desperately needed to establish natural baselines; such baselines are essential for documenting anthropogenic perturbations, such as oil spills, and preparing for future disaster response.

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"Baseline data describes natural environmental variation that results from long- and short-term changes in climate," said Joye, the Athletic Association Professor in Arts and Sciences in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "Without baseline data for a system, we live in an ‘invisible present,'" a term coined by John Magnuson in 1990.

Key baseline data in the oceans, she continued, should include documentation of biological communities and natural patterns of biological processes in the water column and along the sea floor. Such baselines should include the natural ability of microbial communities to respond to perturbations, such as massive oil and gas inputs, catalog patterns of nutrient and particle dynamics, and identify factors that regulate biological and physical processes in the system.

Researchers across many disciplines are beginning to act on what they have long-understood: that without baseline data on the pre-existing state of any system, it is quite impossible to judge the damage that has ocurred, the natural recovery ability of the system or the scope of any permanent damage. From concussions to oil spills, researchers are making real contributions to health and safety in creating a dynamic for better analysis and understanding. Great job, Dr. Joye, in explaining what is needed in the Gulf to begin to provide the data researchers need.