Looking For Answers 5 Years After The Gulf Oil Spill
As the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico approaches, numerous Texas A&M University scientists are involved in some of the most advanced research in the world on various projects related to the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry – one that they say may take many years to understand its long-range effects.
They say their research could also help communities cope more effectively in the event of a similar incident in the future.
On April 20, 2010, the huge rig exploded in the Gulf, killing 11 people and releasing almost 5 million barrels – at least 210 million gallons – of oil for 87 days before being capped on July 15.
Antonietta Quigg, professor and associate vice president for research and graduate studies at Texas A&M-Galveston, received a $7.2 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to study the impacts of the oil on the Gulf ecosystem and public health. The grant is part of a $500 million fund established by BP to support research about the spill.
“One of our main goals is to study how hydrocarbons trigger production of substances that may protect organisms from the oil or contribute to the degradation of the oil, or both,” Quigg explains.
“This can help us understand the fate of the oil, such as how it degrades, disperses or its sedimentation once an oil spill occurs. The information may help us establish better predictive models for future spills, and also improved risk assessment and management plans.”
As for long-term effects to marine life, Quigg says that extensive research is being done in this area, and “we are just now getting a better picture of what this may be. We do know that marine life from the smallest creatures to fish, turtles and whales may carry the consequences of the spill.”
Also working with Quigg on the project are Texas A&M colleagues Peter Santschi (professor of marine science on the Galveston campus), and Tony Knap and Terry Wade (director and deputy director, Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, or GERG, in College Station).
Piers Chapman, professor of oceanography, heads a multi-university group that has been busy since the spill – they have made seven research cruises near the spill area and are about to head out again to study a natural gas seep. Their focus is studying oil in the water column and how and where it moves, and collecting samples for fellow oceanographer Shari Yvon-Lewis, who is examining the carbon system in the Gulf and how it has changed since the spill.
On the other ship is Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M’s civil engineering faculty, who with the aid of a remotely operated vehicle, is looking at the bubble plumes produced by the seep and how these develop and disperse.
“We have developed models that we believe can follow an oil particle from its initial release until it ends up on the beach,” Chapman points out. “This includes such changes as dissolution, evaporation and dispersion within the water column as well as slick movement on the surface.
“To do this, we had to carry out a number of lab tests and field programs and these have given us a much better idea of how fast the Gulf of Mexico material mixes around.”
Working with Chapman is oceanographer Steve DiMarco, who has been studying the physical transport of water and material in the region of the spill. He and his group recently completed a unique experiment using dye as a “tracer” to determine how fast dissolved and particulate material move around in the Gulf.
“The data, obtained over a year, together with data on currents from moorings deployed simultaneously and left in place for two years, are providing important information in our modeling work,” DiMarco says. Texas A&M oceanographers Rob Hetland and Ping Chang are also involved with the modeling program.
“What we do know for sure was confirmed to us – that the Gulf is a very energetic and turbulent place,” DiMarco adds. “It has a unique geography to it because it is a large semi-enclosed basin, and the motion of the water is enhanced.”
Former Texas A&M oceanographer John Kessler did several landmark studies on methane gas in the Gulf in the weeks following the explosion. Calling the results “extremely surprising,” he and fellow researchers found that methane gas concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico had returned to near normal levels several months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and that Mother Nature quickly saw to the removal of more than 200,000 metric tons of dissolved methane through the action of bacterial blooms that completely consumed the immense gas plumes.
At that time, the team reported finding methane gas in amounts nearly 100,000 times above normal levels. But about 120 days after the initial spill, they could find only normal concentrations of methane and clear evidence of complete methane respiration. Kessler is now at the University of Rochester.
Another project involves DEEPEND, which stands for Deep-Pelagic Nekton Dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico and focuses on deep oil and gas wells and their effects on marine life. It will key on the pelagic (open ocean) realm, from the surface to depths of over a mile, by far the largest ecosystem component of the Gulf.
Since the spill, more than 1,000 dead dolphins have washed ashore from Texas to Florida, about four times the normal rate.
In addition, the number of sea turtle nests has declined since the spill, 12 percent of the brown pelicans and 32 percent of the laughing gulls may have died as a result of the spill, and 2010-2011 had the lowest numbers of juvenile red snapper since 1994. DEEPEND researchers want to know conclusively if the spill contributed to the large kills and declines.
Almost 2,000 deep-sea exploration wells have been drilled by the oil and gas industry in the past few decades, and this activity is increasing both in scope and depth, the researchers say. “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has demonstrated a worst-case scenario oil disaster at great depths, while also highlighting the paucity of baseline data for deep-ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere,” says Jay Rooker, a marine biologist at Texas A&M-Galveston and one of the leaders of the project.
“Without such data, and information on the drivers of natural variability in these systems, impacts from these activities are difficult or impossible to assess.” The group hopes to get valuable answers to some critical questions about oil and marine life. Also involved are David Wells and Ron Eytan of Texas A&M-Galveston.
For more about the DEEPEND project, go to http://www.deependconsortium.org/index.php/18-news/107-deepwater-horizon-oil-spill-caused-lasting-damage.
For more about research on the oil spill, go to http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.