Capping Off the Decade of GoMRI

Graphic Created by Jason Mallett, Consortium for Ocean Leadership, for the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

Graphic Created by Jason Mallett, Consortium for Ocean Leadership,
for the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

(From Farewell 2020 Newsletter) Ten years ago, July 15, 2010, the well below the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil rig was capped after discharging gas and light sweet crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) was created in response to the disaster to improve society’s ability to understand the impacts of the oil on the ecosystem, learn new ways to mitigate oil in the environment, and understand how to be better prepared should a similar event arise in the future. This work has resulted in more than 1,400 peer-reviewed publications. Check out the full list here.

As GoMRI comes to a close, there have been several efforts to compile the novel findings from the program into products to help answer some larger questions about the spill and recovery in the Gulf:

  • How should we respond to the next spill?
  • Have our ecosystems recovered?
  • What role did microbes play?
  • And many more…

Some of these products are shared here, and many more can be found on the GoMRI website, including Synthesis products, as well as the websites of several collaborating organizations – Screenscope, Sea Grant, and the Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Individual research efforts can also be perused on the GoMRI Flickr page and YouTube channel. Also make sure to check out web stories of Science Highlights and the research conducted by our GoMRI Scholars.

What was known about oil spills prior to DWH? In 2017, a literature survey was published in which researchers examined over 1,200 oil spill studies conducted between 1968 and 2015 to characterize the field and describe changes. For example, research attention shifted dramatically to the Gulf of Mexico following DWH, rising from 2% of studies in 2004-2008 to 61% in 2014-2015, with the DWH spill ranking as the most studied oil spill. The analyses also provided insights into research trends and gaps, particularly a long-standing lack of human health studies (less than 1% of the surveyed oil spill literature).

Journal Special Issues

Several journal special issues provide synopses of DWH research and resources, such as the April 2020 special edition of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Eos magazine, Science from the Spill. The issue’s feature article was authored by GoMRI researchers and describes breakthroughs in microbial genomics as a result of spill research. In 2019, a special issue of Current: The Journal of Marine Education, produced by outreach coordinators from GoMRI consortia, synthesized oil spill science and shared educational resources that incorporate oil spill science into education curriculums. For more information on education efforts, check out the GoMRI Education Resources website. In 2018, a special issue of Marine Technology Society Journal, Advancing Oil Spill Technology: Beyond the Horizon, focused on technology related to oil spill research. Lastly, in 2016, a special issue of Oceanography Magazine, GoMRI: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science, highlighted scientific advances from the program ranging from how the spill affected marine ecosystems and the fate of oil in the marine environment, to data management, and education and outreach initiatives.

Books

A two-volume book series titled Deep Oil Spills: Facts, Fate, and Effects and Scenarios and Responses to Future Deep Oil Spills: Fighting the Next War was published by the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE) in 2019. This series provides a synthesis of oil spill science from GoMRI, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, and other agencies for use in future policy formulation, disaster response, and damage assessments. It was a collaborative effort involving over 150 researchers (representing academia, oil industry, and government scientists and contractors) who authored the 63 chapters. C-IMAGE also recently published a booklet and corresponding webpage that provide a less technical overview of findings related to oil spill impacts on fishes, the processes involved with oil sinking to the seafloor, and sub-sea dispersant use.

Public-Focused Resources

For more public-focused resources, check out the Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Program’s publications. In 2019, they updated their Top 5 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about DWH and have several resources focused on human impacts, including mental health and fisheries. Similarly, the Smithsonian Ocean Portal has several articles about GoMRI research topics along with an interactive infographic The Anatomy of an Oil Spill: Science from the Gulf of Mexico and ArcGIS story map Where Did the Oil Go In the Gulf of Mexico?.

Targeted Summary Publications and Reports

In addition to these broader synopses, there have been several targeted summary publications and reports, including the following topics:

Oil-Eating Microbes: A 2020 report titled Microbial Genomics of the Global Ocean System discusses advancements in marine microbiology and metagenomics and explains how microbial communities in the Gulf of Mexico played a critical role in the oil spill cleanup by contributing core hydrocarbon bioremediation services. The report is a joint effort of the American Academy of Microbiology, AGU, and GoMRI, who convened at an April 2019 colloquium.

MOSSFA (Marine Oil Snow Sedimentation & Flocculent Accumulation): In a 2013 workshop, researchers discussed the formation and fate of oil-associated marine snow and its ecological impacts on deep-sea environments and made recommendations for future marine oil snow research. Their findings and discussions have been published in this report. In addition to the 2013 workshop and report, a synthesis effort on MOSSFA was recently completed in 2019, resulting in this report.

Photo-Oxidation: Scientific advancements in how sunlight alters floating surface oil are described in a feature article in Eos titled Why Sunlight Matters for Marine Oil Spills. The article summarizes a two-year synthesis effort that began at a 2018 workshop.

Dispersants: Published in 2019, a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) News Feature highlights GoMRI researchers as they seek to understand what happens when chemical dispersants are used in a deep-sea setting for oil spill remediation. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a 2019 report that assessed the effects and efficacy of dispersants as an oil spill response tool. It also included a comparison of the fate and effects of chemically dispersed oil versus untreated oil and a review of dispersant use during actual spill events, such as A GoMRI synthesis effort is currently underway to complement the National Academies’ study and further evaluate GoMRI-funded research relevant to dispersants within the context of what was known prior to GoMRI, what has been learned during GoMRI, and what are the important gaps in knowledge in need of research.

Ray-Fin Fish: Scientists from the Relationships of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in Fish for Validation of Ecological Risk (RECOVER) II consortium synthesized data from 53 peer- reviewed laboratory studies that investigated how DWH oil may affect 20 ray-fin fish species in this article.

Deep-Sea Fish: Results of a 10-year (2007-2016) assessment study by scientists in C-IMAGE and the Deep Pelagic Nekton Dynamics in the Gulf of Mexico (DEEPEND) consortia on the vulnerability of deep-sea fishes to oil exposure are summarized in this article.

Marine Mammals: The National Marine Mammal Foundation, who leads the Consortium for Advanced Research on Marine Mammal Health Assessment (CARMMHA), published a special article in 2020 that summarized what we have learned over the decade about the impact of the spill on dolphin and whale

Salt Marshes: A synthesis workshop was held in April this year to discuss the effects of the spill on coastal wetlands, focusing also on ecosystem-component interactions and feedbacks. Once complete, the report will be posted on the Synthesis Products In 2019, an eight-year study of oil quantity and quality in 1,200+ samples from continental shelf, estuarine waters, and marsh sediments in the Gulf of Mexico was summarized in this article. It discusses how the initial oiling at the marsh edge gradually moved inland, affecting the entire marsh within two years, suggesting that the total area oiled was larger than the visible initial oil distribution when the spill first occurred.

Corals: Researchers analyzed high-definition imagery of over three hundred deep-sea coral colonies from 2011- 2017 to quantify their recovery from the oil spill. After seven years, the effects of the spill on those coral are still visible compared to reference sites. For more information about corals, another great resource is this set of educational videos.

Human Health: A 2019 publication summarizes the results of a 2016 survey of 2,500 U.S. Gulf Coast residents to learn how their lives have been affected since DWH and assess the long-term health and well-being of these communities. One of the key findings of the study was that fishing households experienced depressive symptoms despite social support after oil spill. For more information on public health impacts, check out the resources available on the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC)

When the well was capped 10 years ago, the immediate threat of spilling oil was abated, but that was just the beginning for Gulf ecosystems as they began to recover and for GoMRI as it began a decade-long journey to better understand impacts, recovery, and future preparedness. There were many questions and not much could be drawn from previous research. The establishment of GoMRI and the dedication of the researchers funded by the program to understand the impacts has contributed significantly to advancing understanding of the Gulf. These examples are just a few of the countless publications and resources that have been developed to share scientific results from the program. As we know all too well, the journey is not over for the Gulf as it recovers from this spill and waits for the next. Our hope is that GoMRI’s legacy of research and researchers will serve as the foundation on which new discoveries, technologies, models, and management practices can be built for years to come.

[Back to the Farewell 2020 Newsletter]