In late February, a team of 25 future scientists went on a beachcombing expedition like no other.
They searched and found oil patties that potentially came out of a well hundreds of miles away, four years ago. The group is part of Project GOO, an initiative of the Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (Deep-C) consortium funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Project GOO trains citizen scientists to assist researchers studying long-term environmental impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Leading the group was senior marine chemist Chris Reddy and researcher Catherine Carmichael, members of the Deep-C science team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Their mission was to develop research capabilities in a Florida marine science high school class and expand local capacity to identify and collect tar balls and oil patties in the area, making it economically and logistically feasible to continue studies about oil degradation over time.
Deep-C outreach staff Amelia Vaughan, Tracy Ippolito, and Danielle Groenen from Florida State University (FSU) worked with the researchers, teacher, and students to deliver on-the-job training in the scientific process and proper collection methods. The students, nicknamed “Gooies,” and their teacher spent the day at Perdido Key, Florida, identifying and collecting oil spill remnants. They impressed the scientists with their tenacity and skill.
“We were able to collect 40 oil patties in an hour and a half,” said Eric Chassignet, Director of Deep-C and Professor and Director of the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies at FSU. “That would have taken two scientists an entire day.”
Reddy and his team at WHOI will analyze the patties to determine if indeed the oil in them is from the 2010 spill, and if so, how it has changed over time. “All this information will help to respond, restore, and gauge the potential impacts of the oil spill,” said Reddy, emphasizing the importance of “continuing to tell the story.”
Marine science teacher Shawn Walker said he never imagined that his class would have the opportunity to work directly with a scientist of Reddy’s stature. But thanks to the education and outreach efforts by Deep-C, they found themselves on the beach with a renowned scientific team. Under Reddy’s tutelage, the students fanned out across the beach and flagged places to identify possible samples with oil. After inspecting the samples closely, they took pictures and noted characteristics in their journals. Then, using appropriate protection, the students placed the samples in numbered specimen jars for transport back to WHOI.
Chassignet spoke of the excitement the students felt for this hands-on “real research” saying, “Through GOO, we get to introduce the students to the world of scientific research, which can really open them up to enjoying learning about science.”
The GOOies’ involvement is a boon to Reddy’s study. Sun, surf, wind—even tiny bacteria that live in the water—all leave their mark on oil over time. Flying down from Massachusetts to collect oil patties and tar balls was proving expensive. So much so, that he would not have been able to afford to collect what he called “the last clues of an iconic and unusual oil spill” in regular intervals, but rather would have had to look at them after a span of ten years or more. Reddy might see how the oil ultimately degraded, but would have missed the steps along the way. Details gleaned in studying it in regular, shorter intervals over time can help scientists figure out the best tools to combat a spill in various stages.
“We would be not be able to disentangle when the compounds broke down,” explained Reddy. “We want to watch this spectrum of changes in the oil so we have as much detail as possible.”
Reddy said his team wants to understand how the compounds in oil disappear naturally. Project GOO is a cost effective way to continue his research while inspiring future scientists along the way and citizens who take a vested interest in the health of their environment.
The students themselves found the whole experience eye-opening. “I had no idea there are still tar patties out there. I thought it was all cleaned up,” said student Tamara Wise. “The fact we found them just showed me things impact us whether we realize it or not.”
In the fall of 2013, the Deep-C outreach team along with Reddy and Carmichael visited the West Florida High School of Advanced Technology to introduce the honors science class to the project.
The team engaged the students with hands-on lab activities, video presentations, and interactive instruction concerning the current state of oil spill research.
The success of this first outing means Project GOO will expand to other student groups. Deep-C plans to add high schools in Tallahassee and elsewhere to the program to mine the beaches for clues of the oil’s fate.
GOOies combing beaches along the Gulf means potential for more scientists in our future and deeper understanding of the long-term effects of an oil spill today.
As for the students, they realize that their role is about more than learning the fate of the Deepwater Horizon oil. Explained student Joshua Matenay, “What we did is helping the world figure out what they are going to do in the future.”
Deep-C documented the students’ experience in a video showcasing the day’s effort:
This research was made possible in part by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Deepsea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (Deep-C) consortium. The GoMRI is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.