Oil Coverage Gets Mixed Grades From Scientist: 'Don't Talk to Fox News' a Key Lesson

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

BOULDER, COLORADO—Speaking to journalists here at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) oceanographer Synte Peacock passed along lessons from the coverage of research on the spill.

Her work has looked at how ocean currents might deliver oil from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean. On 3 June 3, NCAR released a press release describing the behavior of a computer modeling she had done of dye released near the surface of an ocean, to simulate the movement of oil in the Loop Current. The findings suggested that oil might reach the Atlantic in 1 to 6 months, depending on weather and the behavior of the Loop Current. And the release included plenty of caveats:

The dye tracer used in the model has no actual physical resemblance to true oil. … Peacock and her colleagues stress that the simulations are not a forecast because it is impossible to accurately predict the precise location of the oil weeks or months from now. Instead, the simulations provide an envelope of possible scenarios for the oil dispersal. The timing and course of the oil slick will be affected by regional weather conditions and the ever-changing state of the Gulf's Loop Current—neither of which can be predicted more than a few days in advance.

Peacock praised media coverage of the data, which hasn't been peer reviewed. (Outlets including the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters covered the work and included the caveats.)

But she slammed the Fox News morning talk show Fox and Friends, which included animated images from the computer simulations.

Reacting to the NCAR modeling, Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy said:

Is the government prepared for where the oil's going to go next? Well does it seem like it? I mean that's a really cool animation but that was not done by the federal government. You know they've got that wing, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. They generally do stuff like that but that thing that we just saw was done by some folks out in Boulder. ... The president has been accused of being flat-footed, and here they don't even know where the oil's going to go in the future.

Peacock said that statement "turned around" the NCAR work into a "political attack on the White House." (Here Doocy's statement is flagged and critiqued by Media Matters.)

Peacock also singled out a report by USA Today for a zinger. It said, "For East Coasters, having the oil flow into the Loop Current and then the Gulf Stream would be disastrous." Peacock responded: "I never said it would be disastrous. We don't know that." Along with the other caveats, she said, without knowing the total amount of oil flowing into the Gulf it's impossible to estimate how much oil might reach the Atlantic, and in what concentration.

For more on the gulf oil spill, see our full coverage.

Posted in Climate Gulf Oil Spill, oil fate