90% of the World’s Oil Slicks Are Caused by Humans, Not Nature

This story on air pollution originally appeared in science magazine EOS and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Ian MacDonald, a retired professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University, has been watching oil slicks in the oceans for decades — he and his colleagues used pictures taken from the space shuttle to verify oil slicks from natural sources in the Gulf of Mexico back in the 1990s.

Now, MacDonald and colleagues at Florida State and in China have discovered that humans are responsible for more than 90% of oil slicks — from sources such as ships, pipelines, and platforms. The number was much higher than they expected, MacDonald said: “This was a huge surprise.” That’s because previous research had shown an almost even split in oil slicks from human and natural sources like ocean seeps.

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