> Oceanography > Issues > Archive > Volume 24, Number 3

2011, Oceanography 24(3):318–320, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2011.89

OCEAN POLICY | Black Swans, Wicked Problems,
and Science During Crises

Authors | Introduction | Full Article | Citation | References


Gary E. Machlis | National Park Service, Washington, DC, USA

Marcia K. McNutt | US Geological Survey, Washington, DC, USA



Oceanic resources face challenges that are significant and widespread, including (but not limited to) overharvesting, climate change, selected stock collapse, coral reef decline, species extinction, pollution, and more. These challenges are the focus of much ocean science, which is helping to inform policy and guide management actions. The steady growth of research results and the emergence of new research needs have been systematically reviewed through periodic assessments, such as those of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (Valdés et al., 2010).

Yet, oceanic resources are also at risk due to specific crisis events—temporally and spatially explicit incidents that are both human emergencies and potential environmental disasters. Examples include the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (1989), the Prestige oil spill off the Finnesterre coast of Spain (2002), the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004), the Jabel al-Zayt oil platform spill in the Red Sea (2010), and the radioactivity leak at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan (2011). These crisis events have resulted in new scientific findings; examples are the Spanish and international scientific response to the Prestige event (Albaigés and Morales-Nin, 2006) and ecological research accumulated after the 1979 Ixtoc I oil spill in Mexico's Bay of Compeche (Teal and Howarth, 1984). However, there is a critical need to develop organizing structures, methodologies, and delivery tools for conducting science during environmental crises.

The need for science during crisis is not restricted to ocean-related events, and there are numerous historical examples of science conducted under emergency conditions. Examples include the British research effort to develop a workable radar system prior to the air war over England, the activity of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, the engagement of scientists and engineers during the Apollo 13 emergency return to Earth in 1970, and the work of epidemiologists and disease specialists during the initial 1976 outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire. Another (and more recent) example is the response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill suggest that planning for science during crisis is both essential for informed decision making, and valuable for mid-term and long-term recovery efforts. Such planning can also improve early warning monitoring and crisis preparations.


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Machlis, G.E., and M.K. McNutt. 2011. Ocean policy: Black swans, wicked problems, and science during crises. Oceanography 24(3):318–320, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2011.89.



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