BP Oil Spill Comes to Parts and Crafts

TOPIC:  What are wetlands?  Exploring wetlands as  a buffer zone

GOAL:  Model the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Louisiana coastline

RESOURCES:  This workshop is based on the Public Lab’s wetlands curriculum, available at www.publiclab.org.  We also watched this video, produced by Baton Rouge Magnet High School.  This video, produced by the Times-Picayne, is a great overview resource.

Step 1: Building wetlands

Starting with a base layer of clay, kids had 15 minutes to build 7,000 years worth of terrain (fact checking myself here: my time estimates were wildly off while narrating this to the group! The Mississippi delta was definitely *not* formed over 150,000 years!)

The first group created a mountainous wetlands forest with lots of rare and artfully named tree species. Second group built a low delta with giant sloths and mammoths wandering around. Third group envisioned a utopian future where green spongy wetlands filled with wildlife blended seamlessly with luxury mansions, sited on high ground just north of the volcano. Each landscape featured a delta with green sponge wetlands separating it from the Gulf of Mexico.

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Step 2: The modern era

Then we introduced various pollutants i.e. food coloring and trash. We added some agricultural fields and simulated runoff with a spray bottle (which got stuck in the off position and resulted in a major drought). Explored how wave action transported different pollutants. Talked about how the wetlands acted as a buffer zone between the Gulf and the landform. Then we took away the sponges and looked at how all these things impacted the coast without the wetlands.

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Step 3: BP oil spill

Last but not least, each group got a cup of oil to dump in the middle of their not-so-pristine landscapes. Once you’ve got oil all over the place, how do you clean it up? We tried a bunch of different materials — pompoms, pipe cleaners, straws, tissue paper. Lots of variations on soaking, sucking things up, and trying (unsuccessfully) to set things on fire. Finally, we tested “dispersants,” as the head of BP walked around with a container of dishwashing detergetn and squirted it into the oily mess. Did it help clean up the oil? Sure did. Did it succeed in making the whole thing less of a mess? Not by a long shot.

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The only team that successfully cleaned up the entirety of the wetland mountains group, who did so by draining the entirety of the Gulf of Mexico. Elegant solution, still waiting to hear back on the feasiblity study.

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 Questions and next steps

We came at this from the oil and water lesson, which links pretty powerfully to the discussion of how dispersants work but isn’t actually connected to the wetlands at all.   Next time we run this I’d probably break this up into two or three different lessons, with more time to focus on wetlands in general before getting to the oil spill and its effects.

The clay demo worked really well. Letting the kids build up the landforms and “setting the clock” on making a pristine landscape (which we then proceeded to destroy) was great in terms of thinking about timescale. It takes a very long time to build up even a simple landscape out of clay, and literally seconds to destroy it with food coloring. Wet clay is also a great material to use for the erosion model — you can really see a difference in water clarity between having the wetlands buffer and not.

I think if I did this again I’d split up the three degradation scenarios — natural erosion due to wave action (plus hurricanes), pollution in the form of runoff, and impacts from an oil spill — into three separate lessons and keep them as far away from each other as possible, starting with a “clean” landscape each time. This was sort of a marathon session and a lot of concepts were blurred in trying to cover them all in one go. Also, it was really hard to do any kind of comparison since there was so much junk in the water.