University of Idaho Scientist Leads Strategic Sciences Working Group to Assess Cascading Effects of BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Monday, September 13 2010

Written by Sue McMurray

MOSCOW, Idaho – Gauging long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the focus of an inter-disciplinary Strategic Sciences Working Group led by Science Advisor to the Director of the National Park Service Gary Machlis, a professor in University of Idaho College of Natural Resources.

Machlis will lead the group in developing and applying an innovative scenario-building technique to assist the environmental and economic recovery from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The group’s first session was based at the Incident Command Center in Mobile, Ala. College of Natural Resources graduate student Rachel Woita and postdoctoral researcher Jan Eitel assisted Machlis in conducting the scenario-building sessions.

“We are treating the ecology, economy and people impacted by the spill as a tightly coupled system,” said Machlis. “Our challenge has been to understand what is happening and what might happen from that broad perspective, and convert that understanding to scenarios that decisionmakers can use.”

“Dr. Machlis' work exemplifies the globally connected engagement we should expect of a 21st-century land-grant university,” said Duane Nellis, University of Idaho president. “We commend his leadership of an interdisciplinary team seeking to curb the consequences of this oil spill challenge.”

The first results of the working group are highlighted in an article published in the Aug. 27 issue of Science, entitled “Scenario-Building for the Mississippi Canyon 252/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” Machlis co-authored the essay with Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. It is available online at

Their article describes how the group constructed scenarios that may help identify possible policies and actions to reduce negative impacts of the spill and speed up and sustain the recovery process. Each element of the scenarios was assigned a level of scientific uncertainty based on current knowledge.

One scenario in the Science article examined how long-term decline of plants, particularly in wetlands, is a probable consequence of the spill, and if extensive, could impair both fisheries recovery and resistance to hurricane damage with further damage resulting from the re-release of sequestered oil. Other scenarios dealt with impacts on the oyster fishery, health issues of workers and impacts on the tourism industry.

Since its first meeting held in May 2010, the group has briefed the Mobile Unified Command, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Natural Resource Damage Assessment staff, and others involved in Gulf restoration and recovery. The group will reconvene in New Orleans in September and continue work through the fall. Their results will provide information useful to decision makers, resource managers and other professionals developing and managing the existing response plans. All efforts by this working group are funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit