Mark Leckie is a professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research centers on questions of Earth system history and paleoceanography, with a particular emphasis on biosphere response to changes in the ocean-climate system through time. His work has included modern and ancient marginal marine depositional systems, the Cretaceous age Western Interior Seaway, and a variety of deep-sea settings made accessible through scientific ocean drilling.
When the Gulf oil spill occurred, his initial response was one of personal concern; one of his PhD students has been working with BP and had been out on the Deep Water Horizon the week before the accident. He was incredibly relieved that she was safe, while feeling empathy for the families and friends of those who lost their lives. After the rig sank, it became painfully clear that the event was going to be a mega-ecological and socio-economic disaster.
Although Leckie is not specifically working on any aspect of the oil spill, his studies on microorganisms are useful proxies for understanding how ecosystems are impacted by an oil spill. This can be accomplished, he notes, by examining assemblages of foraminifera from sediments that pre-date the spill (e.g., from sediment cores in marshes, estuaries, continental shelf, and deep seafloor, where much of the oil has accumulated, and then by documenting their response and recovery over time).
With the belief that we need to expand our discussions of offshore oil and gas exploration, Leckie plans to incorporate some of the far-reaching impacts of the oil spill in the Introduction to Oceanography course at UMass (GeoSci 103). He believes that the Gulf oil spill brings about many teaching possibilities, from the demand side of oil exploration (why are we drilling in such deep water anyway?), to the science of how, why, and where hydrocarbons accumulate (biology, geology, physics, and chemistry), to the economic impact on communities directly affected, to the oil industry and the multitude of supporting industries, to then the engineering and technology side of exploration (killing the well and cleaning up the mess), as well as the political fallout and the staggering legal issues that follow such a disaster.
As a university, Leckie believes that we have an opportunity to explore the complexities, connections, and priorities of the real world; the Gulf oil spill allows us to see the importance of science and technology in the context of the political and socio-economic fabric of the U.S. It is also an opportunity to explore solutions for our society’s energy demands and the desire to grow a greener economy.