Researchers to Use Alvin Sub To Study Mile-Deep Seafloor Near BP Well Blowout

A team of scientists led by University of Georgia marine biologist Samantha Joye will spend most of April using the deepsea submarine Alvin to study the mile-deep seafloor near the site of BP’s ill-fated Macondo well for the lingering effects of the 87-day flow of oil and gas following the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April 2010.

(From / by Mark Schleifstein / The Times-Picayune) — Alvin carries three scientists and has made more than 4,300 dives since its launch in 1964, with some dives traveling nearly three miles deep. It was used to find a lost hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea in 1966, discovered deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the late 1970s and explored the sunken ocean liner Titanic in 1986.

The team will use the U.S. Navy’s research submarine in a series of dives near the Macondo wellhead, allowing them to record observations with the use of high-definition cameras and to collect water, sediment and biological samples from the seafloor.

“No one has visited these sites in a human-occupied submersible since 2010, so we are very eager to evaluate the health of these locations firsthand,” Joye said in a news release announcing the trip. “Populations of many organisms living in the water and on the ocean floor were seriously damaged by the blowout, so we want to know how things have changed since December 2010.”

The scientists will study areas where the seafloor was covered with oil in 2010, staying outside a 2 nautical mile circle around the wellhead.

“We particularly want to know if the oil-contaminated sediment layers are still there,” she said. “It may be buried beneath a layer of sedimentation, but its effects could still be profound and we will be able to assess this.”

Joye was the leader of several independent research cruises using submersible vehicles to track the effects of the oil spill in the months immediately following the spill. She was part of a team that quickly published a peer-reviewed paper that explained that a significant percentage of the hydrocarbons released by the wells were traveling as methane gas in a miles-long plume between 3,200 feet and 4,800 feet beneath the surface, and another study that found oil droplets or microbes that ate the droplets rained down on a large area of the seafloor around the well, including on deepwater coral reefs about 10 miles north of the well.

In April, the researchers also will visit a series of natural seeps of oil that are between 75 and 300 nautical miles away from the wellhead, part of a long-term microbial observatory research project that is examining the role of hydrocarbon-rich, salty brine fluids that are expelled naturally from the seafloor on fluid and sediment geochemistry and microbiology.

“Brine-influenced habitats are analogs to ancient habitats on the Earth,” Joye said. Their study helps in understanding how similar biogeochemical cycling occurred on the ancient Earth, and could result in the discovery of new microorganisms, she said.

Other researchers aboard the R/V Atlantis, which acts as the mothership for the Alvin, are from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida State University, University of North Carolina and Coastal Carolina University.

The research is being funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation and from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative’s Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf program.

The National Science Foundation is funded by the federal government. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative is funded by a $500 million grant made by BP soon after the spill. It has an independent board of directors that determine how grants are awarded, with no input from BP beyond that the research be aimed at issues involving the blowout accident and its aftermath.

The Alvin is operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for the National Deep Submergence Facility. This will be the first major research operation for the underwater research platform following a two-year renovation that increased its seating capacity.

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