Deepwater Horizon and the GoMRI Program: Then and Now

Word cloud by Nilde Maggie Dannreuther

Word cloud by Nilde Maggie Dannreuther

The lives tragically lost on April 20 2010, the loss experienced by their families, and the loss of others’ health and livelihoods will never be forgotten. Nine years after Deepwater Horizon, we reflect on the challenges and uncertainties that coastal residents and communities faced following the oil spill.

We also reflect on how the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) began and where the program is now as it approaches its 10th year conducting scientific studies that help us understand the 2010 event and prepare for future oil spills.

The Screenscope film production company, founded and operated by Marilyn and Hal Weiner, created a multimedia initiative Dispatches from the Gulf that shares the remarkable stories of people affected by Deepwater Horizon and about GoMRI’s extraordinary scientific mission. Part of the Journey to Planet Earth documentary series and narrated by Matt Damon, the award-winning documentaries Dispatches from the Gulf and Dispatches from the Gulf 2 chronicled the unprecedented events.

Soon, Screenscope will release a final documentary Dispatches from the Gulf 3 and provide a list of screening events as they are scheduled.

Here are a few podcasts and short videos from the Dispatches from the Gulf initiative that take us back to the first few months following Deepwater Horizon:

Uncertainty and Fear

Grand Isle, Louisiana’s Port Director, Wayne Keller shared his concerns about those who perished and about impacts on Grand Isle. Keller recounted that about one month after the spill started, residents began seeing evidence of oil. Within a few days, Grand Isle was inundated with oil and tourism stopped, making residents feel like they were losing control of everything. Listen to the podcast:

David Chauvin, a 4th generation Louisiana shrimper, explained the difference between dealing with natural disasters and the oil spill. He said that there was no doubt about returning to work after hurricane cleanup. However, that was not the case following Deepwater Horizon, as agencies in charge closed fishing grounds with no word about reopening. Listen to the podcast

GoMRI’s Scientific Response

When Deepwater Horizon happened, BP’s Chief Scientist asked Dr. Rita Colwell to lead a research program studying the oil spill. She agreed under the condition that the group be fully independent and modeled after the National Science Foundation. BP agreed. The result was a highly successful collaboration between industry, academia, government, and non-government organizations that mobilized constructively to address a very important societal problem. Watch this video:

The scientific community responded enthusiastically, feeling an obligation to provide society with answers and information to inform decisions. Because the oil spill affected so many people and aspects of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, the GoMRI community felt strongly about communicating science so that it is usable. The program also provided a unique opportunity to train many next-generation scientists. Watch this video featuring Cynthia Smith, Karen Malone, Helga Huntley, Antonietta Quigg,  Larry McKinney, Rachael Heuer, Joseph Katz, Sunshine Van Bael, Villy Kourafalu, and Samantha “Mandy” Joye.

GoMRI Today and Tomorrow

To date, there have been 267 GoMRI-funded projects involving 1,092 scientists, 358 post-doctoral students, 614 Ph.D. students, 551 master’s students, and 1,010 undergraduate students representing 42 U.S. states and 17 countries. There have been 1,176 studies resulting from GoMRI funding published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Many of these researchers, their activities, and their findings have been featured in over 550 stories on the GoMRI website.  Detailed information about funded projects, people, and resulting studies is collected and maintained in the GoMRI Research Information System.

The data collected and analyzed by this extraordinary scientific effort is available to the broader science community through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC). The GRIIDC created and maintains a scientific data management system and has to-date 2,132 datasets completed and publicly available.

GoMRI grantees were required to include education and outreach efforts that complemented their scientific research. The resulting high-quality education and outreach products are currently being curated and archived on the GoMRI Education Site. Additionally, the GoMRI program coordinated a concerted effort “to get the science out” through its partners at the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal (for the science-interested public) and the Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Program (for people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy Gulf of Mexico or who manage its resources).

As the GoMRI program nears its completion, its focus is on comprehensive scientific syntheses that address what was known before the oil spill, what has been learned since then, remaining knowledge gaps, applying what has been learned, and where to go from here. Nine scientist-led synthesis workshops have been held to date and three more are planned this year. The most recent workshop concluded with a public lecture by David M. Karl, “Station ALOHA: A Proving Ground for Microbial Oceanography,” which is  available on the American Geophysical Union’s Facebook page.

There will be a special symposium featuring GoMRI synthesis results in February 2020 in Tampa Florida, the day before the annual Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Sciences Conference. In April 2020, GoMRI will have special events leading up to the 10th anniversary of Deepwater Horizon that will feature synthesis products and results. In May 2020, GoMRI will host a special session at the 2020 International Oil Spill Conference.

The GoMRI legacy will be a positive societal contribution stemming from the oil spill that helps us better understand and respond to future oil spills.

Additional Information

More than 50 Screenscope short videos feature stories about individual GoMRI-funded scientists  and their research, including studies on marshes and beaches, oil transport, dispersant technologies, water and oil mixing dynamics, marine mammals, fishes, deep-sea corals, marine oil snow, and much more.

Educational resources are available that accompany the Dispatches from the Gulf documentaries. Free digital versions of these films are available to educators, librarians, homeschoolers, and community activists.

Beneath the Horizon, a web resource for the 1979 and 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spills, provides details about the spills, the people who coped with and responded to these disasters, and expectations for recovery.

GoMRI stories from previous Deepwater Horizon anniversaries: 

By Nilde Maggie Dannreuther and Stephanie Ellis. Contact maggied@ngi.msstate.edu with questions or comments.

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Dispatches from the Gulf is made possible in part by a grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Additional funding provided by the Wallace Genetic Foundation and the Farvue Foundation.

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 https://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010-2019 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).