TAMPA — Nearly 1,000 scientists, researchers and environmental experts from all over the globe are in downtown Tampa this week for the four-day Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference.
The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the northern reaches of the Gulf has spawned a staggering amount of research into the impact on just about every aspect of the Gulf of Mexico.
“We have a ton of data,” said Lisa DiPinto, senior scientist for the Assessment and Restoration Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which conducted the exhaustive study. “We have 13 million records that are available to the public with every type of data available.”
Scientists studied the effects the oil spill had on the deep water, off-shore and near-shore ecosystems. They also studied the effects on marine life, including sea turtles, marine mammals and birds.
“We made 20,000 trips into the field and took 100,000 environmental samples,” DiPinto said. Scientists studied oysters, vegetation, fish and anything else that could have been splashed by oil in the spill. There’s never been a more comprehensive look at the Gulf of Mexico’s ecology, she said.
The conference is a chance for scientists to present findings on the topic and share research and discuss ways to make their discoveries available and easier to understand for the average person.
Taking place in the Tampa Mariott Waterside Hotel, the event began Monday with registration and some presentations, including DiPinto’s.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill spread oil on 43,000 square miles of water and spoiled some 15 trillion gallons of water, said DiPinto, who also is the chief scientist for the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment.
“That’s 40 times the daily discharge of the Mississippi River at New Orleans,” she said.
The rest of the week will include 18 scientific sessions with 286 oral presentations and more than 200 poster presentations, “to share the latest oil spill and ecosystem scientific discoveries, innovations, technologies and policies,” according to a conference news release. “The conference will also have special emphasis on the human dimensions of an oil spill, specifically focusing on sharing opportunities to promote and sustain a healthy Gulf environment, community, and economy.”
Here’s a sampling of topics to be tackled either in presentations, workshops or panel discussions:
♦ What happened to the oil that was released in the spill that never was collected or scrubbed from the shoreline?
Arne Diercks, with the University of Southern Mississippi, will present his research that says the oil particles clung to “marine snow,” made up of sediment and organic material that drift to the bottom in the form of tiny clusters.
“Some of these naturally occurring aggregates then coalesce with oil droplets to form oily “snow storms,” according to a description of the discussion on the conference agenda.
Scientists will discuss the latest research of oil-laden marine snow using underwater cameras to capture the snow’s gradual descent to the sea floor, providing new insight into the where all the oil went.
♦ What about the animals in the Gulf?
William Patterson with the University of Southern Alabama, will discuss the impact the spill had on Gulf life ranging from tiny microscopic plankton to large sharks.
Also, scientists will present a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the oil spill on red snapper and what it means for the future of the fishery.
♦ What about the coastlines?
Jamie Holmes, with environmental consultant Abt Associates, will moderate a discussion on the coastal areas affected by the spill, saying that while much of the oil along the northern Gulf shoreline was recovered, there remains large tracts of marsh that were impossible to get to by foot or boat.
Scientists have taken to the air to try to map how far into marsh lands the oil went, using radar, thermal and infrared imagery. Researchers were able to document not only the presence of floating oil in the Gulf marsh habitats, but also that some of the marshes had received more oil than previously thought.
Rita Colwell, who chairs the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, said the conference began in 2012, when data from scientific research into the oil spill’s impact on the Gulf began trickling in.
She said about 2,000 scientists have been in the Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill researching specific aspects of the environment.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “we have about 50 students who can’t attend the conference because they are out in the field.”
She said the key to the conference is to review all the scientific findings and to make it available to the public in terms the public can understand.
“We want the public to know what’s going on,” she said. “None of this is hidden. This is as open as possible.”
She said much of the data is being written so that it can be taught in classrooms across the country.
But there is hope, she said.
“We’re finding that some species of fish are rebounding,” she said.
Still, there is a lot that scientists are still working on, like the impact the oil spill has on coastal wetlands where researchers can’t get to.
“How does that ecosystem rebound?” Colwell said. “It takes long term study to understand this.”