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Deepwater Horizon: Analyzing Maps that Document an Oil Spill

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Regardless of how far students live from the coastline, studying an oil spill can pique their sense of curiosity and wonder. Analyzing maps that forecast and document oil spills can deepen their understanding not only of the impact spills can have, but also of what skills and information scientists and cartographers might need to create such maps.

Show students this map without the header or key (as below) and allow them a few minutes to observe the map and note details of what they see. Pair students to discuss their observations. Students may say that they are looking at a map of the ocean and land. Some may notice and recognize place names on the map. Then, ask them to make predictions about what they think the map represents. Consider supporting their thinking with a sentence stem such as: I think this map represents ___ because ___. Deepen and focus students’ thinking by asking them to make inferences about what part of the world they are observing and what evidence they have to make that assumption.

Map of Deepwater Horizon incident, Gulf of Mexico, forecasted oil spill location for May 1, 2010
Deepwater Horizon incident, Gulf of Mexico, forecasted oil spill location for May 1, 2010, title and legend blacked out

Next, show the map with the title and the legend. (The complete map is available here.) Allow time for students to examine the new information, and then encourage them to reflect on their predictions and make modifications based on their new evidence. Revisit and revise their earlier thinking with a sentence stem such as: I used to think this map represents ___, but now I think ____ because____.* Finally, ask students to generate questions that this map now raises.

Students may wonder:

  • What caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?
  • Why is this a “forecasted” location of the spill?
  • What was the response for this oil spill?

As time allows, encourage students to seek additional information to answer their questions. What do they learn? What new questions do they have?

In a oceanography or earth science class, teachers might also show this image to students and ask them to compare and contrast with the first map. To engage students’ critical thinking skills, the teacher can ask questions such as:

  • How was the map created from this image?
  • To what extent do geospatial images necessarily indicate the severity of a spill below the surface?
  • What level of knowledge of ocean circulation would be necessary to create this map?

    Aerial Photograph of the area where the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill took place.
    Deepwater Horizon Incident. Nicholas Jackson, 2010

Students can now engage in research about some of the human impacts on ecosystems. Using this primary source as an anchoring phenomenon, consider looking into other disasters that have been triggered by human error. For example, looking at the Johnstown flood may inspire students to compare and contrast the disasters of an oil spill and a flood in order to better understand safety mitigations for future natural disasters.

There are countless other opportunities to tie this learning into a climate science course or discuss human impacts on ecosystems within a biology class. How do you plan to use these primary sources in your classroom?

*”I used to think…but now I think…” is a Project Zero thinking routine.

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