ST. PETERSBURG -
Eighteen months after one of the worst oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg are studying the effects of the deep water blowout with the help of an $11 million grant.
Their research aims to determine how the Gulf is recuperating, along with how marine life is adapting after the BP disaster.
"Traditionally, oil spills only affect the surface, making it a two-dimensional phenomenon, chemical oceanographer David Hollander said.
"Though in a deep water spill, not only does oil rise to the surface, a good portion stays in the subsurface. It turns out being not a two-dimensional disaster, but a three-dimensional catastrophe."
Hollander led a USF research group that developed a "chemical fingerprint" of the oil found after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, identifying the oil as coming from BP and debunking company claims that it was naturally occurring.
"This chemical fingerprint was very important," said Jackie Dixon, dean of the College Of Marine Science.
"There is oil entering the Gulf waters continuously through underwater leaks, a few thousand gallons a day, compared to the tens of thousands that was coming from BP's Macondo well."
BP established The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Fund, which awarded $112 million to centers of research in the Gulf states, with $11 million going to the USF-led research consortium Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem, or C-IMAGE.
The C-IMAGE proposal was one of eight selected from 77 proposed nationwide centers.
About half of the $11 million will go to USF researchers, while the other half will go to their C-IMAGE partners in The Netherlands, Germany, Canada, California and Texas over the next three years, Dixon said.
"We put together the best team of scientists we could find," Dixon said. No one knew what was going to happen, where it was going to go and what the impact was going to be. Something like this can easily happen again, so we want to be better prepared in the future," Dixon said.
The fund set up an executive advisory board that proposed five themes detailing what research they believed to be most valuable. This created a separation from BP's influence.
"The beauty of the GRI funding of these centers is that there is no direct attachment to BP," Hollander said.
"It creates an opportunity for a variety of scientists to research without the possibility of there being any control by the oil company on the kind of results being generated or on the kind of research being proposed or funded."
More than a dozen scientists from USF serve as principal investigators on the research, most from the College of Marine Science and others from the College of Engineering.
* * * * *
USF researchers will determine
how much of the oil floats to the surface, dissolves in the water or sinks to the seafloor and how it continues to affect the ecosystem, such as spawning fish and plankton—the bases of the food web, Dixon said.
Hollander will focus on the chemical processes occurring in the Gulf as a result of the spill, as well as how the oil has dispersed, the phases and composition of the oil and the amount that has remained beneath the ocean floor.
Steve Murawski and Ernst Peebles, USF biological oceanographers, concentrate their research on the impact of the oil spill on marine life.
"We are looking at everything from microscopic all the way up to the largest animals in the Gulf of Mexico. We definitely know that there were impacts on the most microscopic animals. We did that in real time during the oil spill," Peebles said.
"Since then, we have been trying to assess the impacts on the larger animals from fish on up. That's an ongoing process and so far it's given valuable results."
The research center performs a substantial amount of work on plankton, fish eggs and larvae, which tend to be heavily influenced by oil spills, Murawski said.
Their most recent study documented signs of disease in larger fish species, such as red snapper and grouper, in the area of the spill. They are determining whether the oil caused this by looking at individual species and trying to correlate that with diseases found in Gulf fish.
Another aspect of research focuses on marine mammals. One method deploys sensors and acoustic recorders in the water to look at the habits of whales.
The USF College of Marine Science has two research vessels, the Weatherbird II and the Bellows, both with extensive laboratories.
"These research vessels were a key part of our ability to respond to this oil spill in the first place," Peebles said. If they hadn't been in place in St. Petersburg, we wouldn't have been able to respond the way we did."
Since the spill, the vessels have engaged in regular cruises to the spill area and other parts of the Gulf, monitoring the conditions of various aspects ranging from water chemistry to organism health.
* * * * *
Peebles hopes to continue
research beyond the three-year funding.
"Oil spill research in general is going to go on for quite some time," he said. "Depending on how well we perform during these first few years, we will be able to get more money to continue the work after that point."
Hollander says the large-scale spill research needs more time.
"Although we have three years, this is a relatively short amount of time to be able to evaluate the long-term impacts," he said.
"We're hoping that we can continue and maintain funding for the center over the better part of a decade so that we could really begin to understand the longer term effects."
The research initiative aims to create a sense of what "normal" was before the spill, looking at old records and comparing them with new findings. By establishing a baseline for the previous conditions, researchers will be able to better determine the degree of impact if there is a similar spill.