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1.3 Oil and Water Don't Mix... or Do They?

Teacher Background

Oil spills-the accidental or deliberate discharge of petroleum or petroleum products into the ocean from oil rigs, tankers, or oil-fueled vessels-number in the thousands each year. While most are relatively minor (amounting to less than 1,000 gallons), catastrophic spills occur regularly. The pristine environment of Antarctica has not been spared these man-made disasters. On January 28, 1989, the Bahia Paraiso, an Argentine tour ship visiting Palmer, ran aground on a reef near the station and spilled 200,000 gallons of fuel oil into the harbor. Over 200 people had to be evacuated to Palmer (normal population, 45 or so!) until rescue vessels could be sent. Today the rusting overturned hulk still sits in Arthur Harbor. Fortunately, the Bahia Paraiso incident did not have a long term effect on the LTER project. The wreck's presence, however, serves as a warning to researchers and others about the uneasy co-existence of tourism and science in such a fragile environment.

Oil spills can impact the entire food chain. Oil-coated birds whose feathers can no longer hold air or repel water, and furred ocean mammals such as seals, die from drowning, exhaustion and freezing. Oil-impregnated water and toxic components of the spill also affect the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain which sustain those at the top. Techniques for dealing with oil spills at sea include the use of floating booms to keep the oil contained until it can be collected by pumps or skimmers; spraying chemical dispersants which break down the oil, and burning surface oil.

Sidebar: Marine Fuel Spill Response


Students will investigate the effects of oil on various materials simulating the skin and/or coats of Antarctic marine organisms, and compare the ability of different techniques to clean up oil spills.

Materials (for each team of 3/4 students)

  • 1 aluminum pie pan
  • water
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • cup of sand
  • small piece of brown fake fur (to represent elephant seal)
  • feather-use sterilized feathers from a pillow (to represent a penguin or skua)
  • medicine dropper
  • paper towel
  • cotton ball
  • tweezers
  • wooden toothpicks
  • metric ruler
  • safety goggles (one per student)
  • liquid detergent
  • Activity 1.3 Student Worksheet "Oil Spill Simulation"


Ask students to name the most famous oil spill with which they're familiar. What effects did this accident have on the environment? What can be done to deal with them?


Review with students information about the Bahia Paraiso oil spill. Distribute worksheets. Demonstrate Activity set-up (see Worksheet, steps 1-5). Tell students their mission is to simulate an oil spill, keep the oil from spreading in the ocean, clean it up and figure out ways to save the seals and penguins. A seal is "saved" if its fur is cleaned well enough to feel free of oil when dry. A sea bird is "saved" if the dry feather returns to its original unclumped appearance.

After completing the Activity, ask teams to report their results. Note that it can be difficult to keep the spill from spreading, clean it up, and save the sea animals, all at the same time. Compare this simulation with problems faced in the Antarctic in the Bahia Paraiso spill.


Have students repeat this experiment with ice-cold water and compare and contrast the results with the room temperature water of the original activity.

Local investigation:

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How does your community dispose of oil from industry and cars?

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Have students research the Antarctic Conservation Act, and ASA's publications on waste disposal and waste recycling. (There are links to this from the LFA 2 Home Page.) List additional suggestions, ideas or methods that might be used to prevent pollution of the land, ice sheets or oceans of the Antarctic. Write a letter to NSF's Office of Polar Programs giving your reasons protecting Antarctica and proposing specific laws. Post ideas, research and letters on-line!

art logo

Design a poster to help stop ocean pollution.

Suggested URLs

Ocean Planet's information details sources, and lists accidents and cleanups

Details the environmental issues in Antarctica including information about oil spills

Information about U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Oil Spill Program

Newton's Apple lesson on oil spill cleanups with links to related topics.

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Last Update: 1/18/97
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