Look for these Tools and Resources for Oil Spill Research in 2020

Eight years after Deepwater Horizon, we reflect on the sobering deaths of 11 people and the millions of barrels of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico. We also reflect on the extraordinary establishment of the largest coordinated scientific endeavor around an ocean event – the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – to understand, respond to, and mitigate impacts from this and future oil spills.

The GoMRI program recently awarded their final two-year grants ($50 Million to 8 research consortia and 23 small research teams), which will wrap up its 10 year oil spill research program. Let’s take a look at some of the new and improved tools and resources that the 23 small team studies will produce that will improve our understanding of the 2010 oil spill and be better prepared for future spills.

Tools to Analyze Public Safety. Over 50,000 workers were involved in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, and the oil spill affected more than 1,000 miles of beaches, some in prime tourist areas.

  • Aerosol Model. Researchers are developing a numerical model for improved predictions of oil aerosolization. These predictions will be based on unprecedented simultaneous measurements of wind speed and aerosol concentrations performed with wind LiDARs detecting the dominating physical mechanisms that govern aerosol dynamics. The new model will help predict the environmental impact of an oil spill on air quality, from the sea to the coast. See study.
  • Respiration Model. Researchers are analyzing how mice respond to aerosolized oil exposure, using a well-established method for studying in vivo effects of smoking and asbestos. The results will go into a model that simulates lung response of mice to hydrocarbon contamination, including molecular-level signatures of cancer-promoting genes, and will improve our understanding of possible impacts on workers’ respiratory systems. See study.
  • Beach Exposure Model. Researchers are quantifying observational data on children’s play activities at four beach sites and combining it with chemical distribution data from prior oil spills. They will use this information to compute health risks from oil spill chemicals in air, water, and beach sands using quantified child beach play scenarios. Simulations can help promote safe beach use and inform closure decisions. See study.

Tools to Find Hidden Oil. Oil spill material that moves beneath the ocean’s surface or sinks to the seafloor adds to the complexity of tracking it for response decisions and impact assessments.

  • Oil Detection Instrument. Response teams need to quickly know if actions such as dispersant application are effective in keeping oil from entering coastal and inland water systems. Researchers are designing a portable instrument that rapidly detects in-situ oil in real time. Compared to existing technologies, the device will have higher detection sensitivity, lower cost, smaller size, and will be easier to operate and maintain. See study.
  • Seafloor Topography Model. Researchers are re-evaluating the seafloor area that marine oil snow affected beyond that of surface slick and oil plume areas. The team is collecting data from morphological and physical features based on a high-resolution spatial watershed model to demonstrate deposition pathways (erosion channels, lee depocenters, isolated valleys). Results will give a new perspective of the sinks, distribution, and transport of sedimented oil. See study.
  • 3D Subsurface Dispersion Formula. Researchers are analyzing multiple data streams and circulation/oil tracking models to quantify the physical processes driving subsurface material dispersion. They will develop a dispersion formula for simulations that include how mesoscale eddies affect subsurface currents and vertical mixing. Results will help researchers infer locations of submerged oil from past and for future spills in the deep ocean or on the continental shelf. See study.
  • Bayesian Subsurface Oil Forecasting Model. Researchers are developing the first model to integrate near-real time field data together with mathematical model output based on historical wind, current, and chemical processes information and bathymetry data. This new model will provide a means to locate and predict the future location of sunken and submerged oil, which can lead to improvements in response decisions and tactics and in environmental analyses. See study.

Tools to Track Oil. Improvements to predictions for where oil spill material is going needs data from interacting environmental factors, physical ocean processes, and spilled oil characteristics.

  • Model with Wave Processes Data. Researchers are quantifying wave-related processes, especially important as a slick moves toward shore, that affect how surface oil moves. Data will include how tropical cyclones, winter fronts, temperature, surface roughness, and oil patchiness affect waves and oil transport. These environmental conditions data will enhance predictions from the Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere-Wave-Sediment Transport (COAWST) model. See study.
  • Basin-Wide Modeling. Researchers are expanding circulation and transport models by accounting for northern and southeastern Gulf of Mexico physical processes and their role on oil drift, especially for spills near Cuba. Large eddies and upwelling near Cuba affect the Loop Current and create barriers that can accumulate and hinder oil movement, or direct it toward Florida. Simulated trajectories can inform U.S. Coast Guard exercises in the Straits of Florida. See study.
  • Shelf to Shoreline Model. Researchers are adding an oil particle aggregate model to coastal circulation, wind, and sediment models to understand how oil moves in the “last stretch” from the inner shelf through the surf zone. Data will include Langmuir supercell turbulence, which lift sediments into the water column where they interact with entrained oil droplets. Results can estimate oil deposit locations in the surf zone, including its seaward side. See study.
  • 3D Model of Upper Ocean Dynamics. Researchers are improving the predictive ability of how oil, marine snow, and other particulate matters evolve in fast-evolving small-scale upper-ocean turbulent currents. The team is using a modeling framework that includes a Large Eddy Simulation model (for boundary layer turbulence), a Lagrangian module (for particle tracking) and an Eulerian-based module (for oil particle coalescence and breakup). See study.

Tools for Oil Degradation and Dispersion Research. A better understanding of how oil degrades in the marine environment can inform spill technology development and remediation decisions.

  • Oil Clock. Degrading oil releases geochemical tracers (radium isotopes), and researchers are using these tracers to “age date” or determine how long oil spill material stays in the marine environment after it is released. The team will create a geochronometer model for hydrocarbon dynamics and exposure time for microbial communities in deep and on surface waters, enhancing assessments of natural remediation rates for past and future spills. See study.
  • Photo-Oxidation Database. Solar irradiation is a key natural weathering process for an oil slick, and it also appears to generate tens-of-thousands of oxygenated, surfactant-like molecules. Researchers are isolating these photo-generated surfactants, identifying their effect on stable oil emulsion formation, and creating a software platform to process mass spectral data from environmentally transformed crude oils. See study.
  • Microbes for “Hidden” PAHs. Not much is known about the hard-to-find high molecular weight polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are more toxic and mutagenic than other PAHs. Researchers are combining state-of-the art microbiological techniques and high-resolution vibrational spectroscopy to find and quantify these compounds and analyze the metabolic processes of bacterial species capable of degrading them. See study.
  • Dispersant Design Matrix. Researchers are analyzing unimolecular micelles for long-term emulsification to enhance biodegradation and reduce the need for dispersant reapplication. They will create a matrix to identify optimal design factors for type (nanoparticle size, hydrophobic-hydrophilic ratio, solid vs hollow) and performance (oil uptake efficiency, stability, toxicity/biocompatibility). Comparisons with Corexit-oil mixtures will include cost-effectiveness and environments (salt and fresh water, temperature ranges). See study.

Resources on Marsh Impacts and Response. Understanding how the spill affected coastal marshes and how they responded can inform response and mitigation decisions and impact assessments.

  • Synthesis of Marsh Impacts, Recovery. Researchers are conducting meta-analyses of marsh studies across geographies, response variables, and time periods that can reveal interpretations not evident from individual studies. Synthesis publications will include control factors for impacts, recovery, and resilience of plants and animals; soil-oil characteristics that influence sustainability; and recommendations for response, remediation, and restoration. See study.
  • Catalog of Biomass and Microbial Impacts. Heavily oiled areas lost almost all of their vegetation, and that which returned was predominantly Spartina. This change affected marsh productivity, invertebrate and microbe recovery, and erosion. Researchers are compiling ten years of marsh monitoring data for a catalog library of above- and below-ground biomass, bacterial populations and community, and oil transformation products. See study.

Tools for Deep Ocean Analyzes. Deepwater Horizon happened in the least understood and incredibly productive area of the Gulf of Mexico. Deep Ocean dynamics affect food webs and global nutrient cycling.

  • Pelagic Plankton and Upper Ocean Dynamics. Many deep-dwelling fishes and their larvae ascend the water column at night to feed and then return to depth. Researchers are analyzing the community structure and feeding ecology of these plankton and will combine their findings with other deep-ocean data, incorporate them into ecosystem and food web models, and estimate how disturbances affect deep-ocean ecosystem dynamics. See study.
  • Natural Seep Data in Models. Understanding natural seep dynamics could improve predictions for subsea oil blowouts. Researchers are quantifying the differences and connections of small (seep) and large (blowout) release rates and their underlying physics. They will combine their results with data from previous natural seep studies and provide a key parameters guide to enhance predictions for natural and engineered releases. See study.

Tools to Assess Marine Animal Impacts. Understanding how marine animals respond to oil spill exposure can inform response decisions, impact assessments, and public safety actions.

  • Adverse Outcome Pathway Model. Researchers are developing a mechanism-based model to assess impacts of the marine vertebrate stress response to oil exposure and estimate recovery. Using the Gulf toadfish, they will link initiating events (receptor activation, stress perception) to impacts on cell and organ systems (receptor sensitivity, pituitary fatigue, cortisol biosynthesis), and changes at the whole animal level (metabolism, immune capacity, behavior) to estimate population level effects (abundance, diversity). See study.
  • Petrochemical Vulnerability Index. Researchers are synthesizing toxicological data, life history traits, spatial distribution, and extinction risk assessments for more than 2,000 Gulf of Mexico marine species. The resulting species-specific petrochemical vulnerability index can help resource managers and oil and gas industries make better-informed decisions for marine resource management, restoration, mitigation, and recovery in U.S., Mexican, and Cuban waters. See study.
  • Meta-Analyses of Transcriptional Responses to Oil. There may be a similar genetic response to oil spill exposure across multiple fish species. Researchers are analyzing global RNA sequence libraries and microbiome samples from six oil-exposed fish species in four life stages from deep ocean and estuarine habitats. A database of impaired basic molecular functions of oil-exposed fish can inform fisheries management practices for future spills. See study.
  • Toxicity Models for Corals. Researchers are analyzing individual- and cellular-level oil toxicity for Atlantic scleractinian and Gulf of Mexico shallow water coral species. The team will integrate their results into existing/emerging oil toxicity and 3D oil plume models, which will provide visualizations, predictions, and understanding of how oil affects key organisms and habitats and can inform response decisions related to impact thresholds, severity, and treatments. See study.

Resources: A detailed oil spill timeline and a video about the making of a 10 Year Gulf of Mexico Research  Program.


The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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/.

© Copyright 2010-2018 Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – All Rights Reserved. Redistribution is encouraged with acknowledgement to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Please credit images and/or videos as done in each article. Questions? Contact web-content editor Nilde “Maggie” Dannreuther, Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University (maggied@ngi.msstate.edu).