Scientists Drop Drifters in Gulf of Mexico to Study Small Currents

GULFPORT, Mississippi — About 300 drifters are being deployed in the Gulf of Mexico around the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill site to help scientists develop a better model for predicting how material travels in the currents.

(From / by Harlan Kirgan) — The deployment that began Saturday is in response to the oil spill and the failure of existing models to predict where the oil would travel, said Tamy Ozgokmen, director of the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment.

“The first ocean model said it was going to be in Miami in 24 hours,” he said. “It never came. So, it was very, very wrong.”

Ozgokmen, of the University of Miami, said there were attempts to predict the oil’s path using photographs of plume.

“You cannot track a shape, but you can track these guys,” he said of the drifters.

Deploying the drifters and the study is expected to cost about $500,000 this summer and be followed by another deployment in 2013 closer to shore off Pensacola. The study is to last three years.

The research is funded through the BP-funded $500 million, 10-year independent Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which was formed by an agreement between BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative is to fund programs to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The consortium deploying the drifters, known as the Grand Lagrangian Deployment, consists of 26 principal investigators from a dozen universities.

Bruce Lipphardt, an investigator on the project from the University of Delaware, said that any time an environmental disaster occurs people turn to computer models to try to predict what is going to happen.

The drifter study supposes that the imprecision of models of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have been because existing computer models do not factor in small-scale currents.

But there also were subsurface factors that affected the oil‚s spread, he said.

“A lot of things happened between that wellhead and the surface and there are a lot of big questions to be addressed as to what is going on,” he said.

The study is to include sediment up through the water column to the surface and the interaction with the atmosphere, he said.

The drifters, which are designed to travel with the ocean currents and transmit their location every five minutes for about 60 days, are being deployed in an 18-day cruise of the University of Miami‚s Research Vessel Walton Smith.

On Sunday, 90 drifters were deployed in groups of three about 500 yards apart, Lipphardt said. Two more deployments of 90 drifters are planned, he said.

Brian Haus, chief scientist of the University of Miami, said one position is the small currents don’t have an impact on the spread of material.

“The other hypothesis is that these little motions cause enough dispersion of these particles that if you don‚t define them correctly you‚ll never be able to figure out exactly where stuff is going,” Haus said.

The study also is important to possibly predict red tides and to the U.S. Coast Guard in determining where to search for boaters who are adrift, he said.

“The Gulf is a great place to really get a handle on that because there is so much happening out there,” he said.

The Coast Guard assisted the project by air-dropping five drifters across the study site on July 12, he said.

“We think the sheer numbers area important to understand what‚s going on at small scales,” he said of the deployment.

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