Alabama Researchers Land $6.4 Million Grant to Study Biodiversity’s Role in Oil Spill Recovery

Coastal Alabama is well-known for its vast biological diversity and now a consortium of in-state researchers has been awarded a major grant to investigate how that wide range of marine life may have helped the state cope with oil and dispersants coming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

(From / by Dennis Pillion) — The Dauphin Island Sea Lab/Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium announced this week that it has been awarded a grant totaling $6,497,054 from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to study the role of biodiversity in the spill. 

“It’s pretty well known that the state of Alabama has remarkable biological diversity, and it’s that diversity in terms of species and habitat that makes this an incredibly productive area,” said John Valentine, the study’s lead investigator and director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “It’s the reason why we have such a high quality of life in terms of nature.”

Valentine believes it’s also one reason the impacts of the oil spill weren’t as bad as some feared they would be. He said divergent opinions of the oil spill’s impact partly inspired the proposal.

“Part of what led to this idea is the ‘is not, is so’ environment that we live in, with regard to the oil spill,” Valentine said. “People either believe that the ecosystem was irreparably damaged, or there’s a group who believes that nothing happened. The question is, what happens if there’s a third alternative that was explained by the nature of the species that were present.

“So, areas where there was a lot of biological diversity would appear to have minor or modest impacts whereas areas that were low in diversity would experience very high impacts.”

To investigate this, Valentine and his team plan to take many samples from areas affected and unaffected by the oil. They will also use the Sea Lab’s mesocosm facility — an apparatus with 16 1,000-gallon tanks and four 5,000-gallon tanks — to recreate a wide range of conditions experienced during the spill. 

Rather than focusing on individual species exposed to oil and dispersant, the study will create more complete ecosystems and document the results of chemical exposure to various concentrations of oil and dispersant observed during Deepwater Horizon. 

Valentine believes that in situations where some species may have been heavily impacted by oil, other species that were more resilient stepped up to fill the void. 

“When a couple species are lost, for whatever reason, there are other species out there who perform the same functions that can essentially replace them,” Valentine said. “The ecosystem in that case continues to function regardless of who the players are.”

The DISL grant was one of 12 projects announced this week that will receive funding through GoMRI. Those 12 projects total $140 million in funding to investigate the impacts of oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and public health.  

Forty-seven research proposals were received. Each proposal described how the consortium would operate and the kind of research it would conduct to increase scientific understanding of one or more of five research themes, which are:

  1. Physical distribution, dispersion, and dilution of petroleum (oil and gas), its constituents, and associated contaminants (e.g., dispersants) under the action of physical oceanographic processes, air–sea interactions, and tropical storms.
  2. Chemical evolution and biological degradation of petroleum/dispersant systems and subsequent interaction with coastal, open-ocean, and deep-water ecosystems.
  3. Environmental effects of the petroleum/dispersant system on the sea floor, water column, coastal waters, beach sediments, wetlands, marshes, and organisms; and the science of ecosystem recovery.
  4. Technology developments for improved response, mitigation, detection, characterization, and remediation associated with oil spills and gas releases.
  5. Impact of oil spills on public health, including behavioral, socioeconomic, environmental risk assessment, community capacity and other population health considerations and issues. 

GoMRI is a ten-year research initiative established in 2010 and funded by a $500 million commitment by BP, but administered by an independent research board. The board consists of 20 experts in science, research administration, and public health who evaluate research proposals following merit review guidelines of the National Academies of Science and procedures similar to those of the National Science Foundation.

All funding decisions are made by the research board, which is independent of BP and not connected to the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process.

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.