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Oil Spill Clean-Up!

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Earth and Environmental Sciences

Learn about the negative effects of oil spills on aquatic environments and methods for "cleaning" up oil spills by partaking in a timed game to clean up a fake oil spill with provided materials.

What You Need

Materials

  • Large clear container filled with water
  • Oil
  • Cardboard straws
  • Metal spoons
  • Paper towel
  • Small container
  • Timer
  • Towels for clean-up

Guide:

What To Do

Instructions

  • Fill a large container with water.
  • Add in 1/4 cup of oil (can add more or less depending on your container size).
  • Introduce the tools that participants can use to clean-up the oil spill.
  • Give the participants 2 minutes (more or less time depending on the age group) to try to remove as much oil as they can. They can transfer the removed oil into a small container.

Debrief

Were you able to clean-up all of the oil?

What methods did you use to clean it up?

What negative impacts do you think oil spills have on aquatic environments?

Discovery

There are various methods used to clean-up oil spills, with some being better for the environment than others.

In our activity, the straws are similar to boomers. Boomers are used to concentrate the oil into one space for it to be treated or removed. Skimmers (similar to the spoon) come in lots of different configurations and are used to remove the oil layer from the surface. They work best on calm seas.

The paper towels in our experiment are similar to sorbents. Sorbents absorb or adsorb the oil off the surface and must be collected and treated after. For this reason, they are usually only used for small spills or for polishing.

Other methods, such as burning the oil or using dispersants, are also commonly used. Burning the oil can put people and wildlife at risk. Whereas dispersants simply mask the problem by breaking up the oil into smaller particles so that you can no longer see the oil spill. This can have negative effects on animals on the seafloor or swimming through the water column. 

In 2010, the largest oil spill to occur in U.S history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where approximately 4 million barrels of oil leaked into the ocean. The oil coated and smothered many marine organisms and fish. It is very important to know how to prevent and clean-up large oil spills to prevent further damage to marine ecosystems.

What's Happening?

There are various methods used to clean-up oil spills, with some being better for the environment than others.

In our activity, the straws are similar to boomers. Boomers are used to concentrate the oil into one space for it to be treated or removed. Skimmers (similar to the spoon) come in lots of different configurations and are used to remove the oil layer from the surface. They work best on calm seas.

The paper towels in our experiment are similar to sorbents. Sorbents absorb or adsorb the oil off the surface and must be collected and treated after. For this reason, they are usually only used for small spills or for polishing.

Other methods, such as burning the oil or using dispersants, are also commonly used. Burning the oil can put people and wildlife at risk. Whereas dispersants simply mask the problem by breaking up the oil into smaller particles so that you can no longer see the oil spill. This can have negative effects on animals on the seafloor or swimming through the water column. 

Why Does It Matter?

In 2010, the largest oil spill to occur in U.S history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where approximately 4 million barrels of oil leaked into the ocean. The oil coated and smothered many marine organisms and fish. It is very important to know how to prevent and clean-up large oil spills to prevent further damage to marine ecosystems.