Physical scientists have a whole world of work to do in the Gulf Oil Spill. From anthro-biology to ethno-zoology, there is something to study and there will be practical applications that need to be developed from knowledge that is both old and new; general and specific; formal and indigenous.
First of all, little is known about the physical nature and structure of the Gulf Of Mexico and the surrounding riparian systems. This is a huge place, with many locations where humans cannot go to use their senses to observe, classify, sample, test or do the traditional roles of the scientist. In many locations, only the most experienced and savvy can serve as guides through complex land/ocean interfaces.
Physical scientists are finally learning that indigenous knowledge is knowledge that is not formalized and documented in ways that are appealing to scientists. But they are also learning that indigenous knowledge will be essential in getting the data and facts that they will never be able get on their own. The indigenous peoples of the Gulf of Mexico are now a mix of the ancient peoples and those who have settled in the Gulf over hundreds of years, and they will require careful attention, linguistic understandings and respect for their knowledge. The most important aspect of this knowledge relates to the resident’s constant, generational and personal relationship with the land that scientists cannot gain in time to develop practical applications of their work.
The currents, subcurrents, tides and other movements of the water are, alone, several lifetimes of study. The oil plumes can go in some directions that are obviously dictated by the existing surface current system, but little is known about the other, deeper currents, where the dispersed or broken down components of the oil will take on what will seem to be a life of their own.
With only the data that can be collected and the modelling systems that can be designed, scientists will have to rely upon models and algorithms that use conventional knowledge and wisdom to predict the behavior and movement of the oil/dispersant components. As a result, a major field of work will be required to develop and enhance more accurate and reliable models of various physical and biological possibilities!
Engineers and physicists are coming to an understanding that the knowledge about how to engineer deep water drilling is flawed, frighteningly incomplete and very risky, with the BP spill as a glaring example of the ways in which human failure and fault combines with ignorance to create disasters that cannot easily be prevented or resolved. There is both mechanical and human fact involved with the current disaster.
Physical scientists will have to step it up with the understanding of how to engineer the removal of oil from unseen, unidentifiable and immeasurably vast caches of substances that are as complex, volatile and unpredictable as crude oil.
Atmospheric scientists must attempt to determine the effects of the aromatics and volatile gaseous molecules on the atmosphere of the earth. Oceanic and weather scientists must determine if the heating effect of the oil will contribute to a more virulent and powerful hurricane season than the region has ever experienced.
Political and social scientists will have to ramp up their understandings of the physical sciences in order to do their work. Right now, there is a paucity of understanding about many things, but everything, from budgeting and public health planning, to evacuations and public policy will depend upon the work of physical scientists who will have to make predictions about current and ongoing future outcomes and problems.
Finally, it will be interesting to see how geologists study the impact of emptying “state-sized” caches of underground crude oil on the fracturous surface of the Earth’s crust to contribute to any number of adjustments in faults and tectonic plates.
In summary, all of the sciences are going through an era and a crisis where overspecialization is being forced to transition into more effective forms of generalization, where study and understanding of aspects of both the physical and non physical sciences is needed in order to solve complex problems.