Scientists Hope to Better Understand Effects of Oil Spill

A view of the deck of the Nautilus as it sits docked at the port in Gulfport on Friday. (Credit: AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD)

(Click to enlarge) A view of the deck of the Nautilus as it sits docked at the port in Gulfport on Friday. (Credit: AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD)

Scientific vessel helping researchers study spill effects

(From SunHerald.com / by Donna Harris) —  Scientists who returned Friday from a 16-day cruise to the Deepwater Horizon site hope the data they collected will help researchers understand the effects of the oil spill on the environment.

The research teams on board the Endeavor and the Nautilus, docked at the Port of Gulfport, are part of the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf. ECOGIG, which is headquartered at the University of Mississippi, is a 17-university consortium that was awarded competitive funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to study the ecosystem and effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Funding for their research is coming from a three-year competitive grant awarded to them by GoMRI, a 10-year independent research program established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP.

For more than two weeks at sea, scientists from several disciplines studied the current flow, ocean chemistry, microbial activity and deep-sea coral communities.

Chief scientists Erik Cordes and Joe Montoya briefed officials from GoMRI and Ole Miss on their progress.

By taking undersea photographs and comparing them to images previously taken at the same sites, scientists can see if the corals near the Deepwater Horizon site are recovering or getting worse, Cordes said.

Using the two remotely-operated vehicles on board the Nautilus, scientists can collect coral samples as well as core sediment and water samples from depths of 2½ miles, said chief ROV pilot Reuben Mills.

Nautilus is a 211-foot research vessel equipped with state-of-the-art exploration technology. Remotely operated vehicles onboard, named the Hercules and the Argus, are used to view the sea floor with high-definition video, take environmental measurements and collect geological and biological samples.

Endeavor is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated under a charter party agreement by the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Scientists on the Endeavor collect and study water and sediment samples.

The cruises can add up to $50,000 a day per vessel, not including the salaries for the science teams, Cordes said.

However, the information they bring back is invaluable. “I think it was definitely money well spent,” he said.

GoMRI Director Michael Carron of Pass Christian said the data will be used to determine what the best course of action will be the next time there is a massive deep sea oil spill.

For Deepwater Horizon, the question that remains unanswered is whether oil and dispersant together damaged the ecosystem worse than just the oil would have. Scientists may not know that for years, Carron said. The data collected from the various projects funded by GoMRI will help answer that.

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, Coast Guard officials chose to use dispersant to break up the oil so microorganisms could eat it.

“Will that be the best decision in the future if something like that ever happened again?” he said.

GoMRI will have another round of competitive funding in October, with $100 million to give away to applicants, Carron said. A 20-member research board makes the decision of which groups will get the funding.

“GoMRI In the news” is a reposting of articles about GoMRI-funded research (published by various news outlets). The author’s interpretations and opinions expressed in these articles is not necessarily that of GoMRI.