Bill Chameides Dean of the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke awards BP his 2010 Accidental Earth Experiment’ Prize!!! on his blog the Green Grok. His award recognizes that BP’s incompetence created a disaster that created novel conditions allowing scientists to learn how the Earth works. He writes:
For the Environmental Scientist, the Ultimate Lab Is Earth
Science is at its core an empirical endeavor. You can come up with all the clever and compelling theories you want, but data gathered from experiments are and will always be the ultimate arbiters of truth. That presents a problem for environmental and Earth scientists. The only laboratory that accurately replicates the thing we study is our little blue planet.
As a result, environmental scientists are forever looking for real-world events that, like a chemist’s laboratory experiments, directly test specific aspects of the Earth system. For example, volcanoes that spew tons of small particles into the upper atmosphere and variations in sunspots provide unique experiments to test the accuracy of climate models built on the basis of our understanding of climate.
The Accidental Experiments
But natural events are not the only sources of environmental experiments. Humanity is now arguably the greatest driver of environmental change on the globe, and as a result is increasingly and inadvertently causing events that double as experiments for inquisitive environmental scientists.
Unfortunately these “accidental experiments” often carry devastating consequences, but nevertheless provide a kind of consolation prize in the form of unique data to learn about the Earth with.
Case in Point: The Oil Rig Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico Last Spring
We can all agree the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a mess. But let’s not forget it’s also a grand experiment. How else could we learn what happens when you dump billions of barrels of oil into the gulf roughly a mile below the surface?
For example, we’ve learned that some bugs that inhabit the gulf’s waters have been effective in gobbling up the stuff the blown wellhead spewed into their home turf. A paper published last year in the journal Science by Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues reported on the discovery of a heretofore unknown voracious hydrocarbon-eating microbe.
Just last week came another paper in Science, this one by John Kessler of Texas A&M University and colleagues, which showed that other microbes had also made short work of most of the natural gas released from the blowout.
This is a great example of the natural system’s adaptability and ingenuity. Put a bunch of oil and gas in the ocean, and native bug populations swell to take advantage of it. I should note that we were somewhat lucky in this regard. The Gulf of Mexico was the beneficiary of an in situ population of bugs due to natural gas and oil seeps. Without these microbes the environmental consequences of the disaster (still the largest in marine history) would no doubt be worse.