Author Archives: Stephanie Ellis

Sea Grant Brings Partnership with GoMRI to NOAA for Oil Spill Preparedness

3961Friday April 28 Brown Bag Luncheon

The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Program is collaborating with NOAA entities to extend the two-way dialogue with sectors who were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A brown-bag lunch presentation will be held on Friday, April 28 at noon eastern time in Silver Spring, MD (NOAA Central Library) and is open to the public, either in person or via webinar at https://goo.gl/FxONur.

Presentation highlights will include the effective public/private outreach partnership between Sea Grant and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiate (GoMRI), program evaluation, and extending the Sea Grant model to a national level.  The presentation will also highlight the cooperation between Sea Grant and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) that leverages the science outreach expertise of Sea Grant with the operational scientific support and injury assessment roles of OR&R to create a unique extension and engagement program.

Speakers:

Stephen Sempier, Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Manager and Deputy Director at Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium where he has led or coordinated several Gulf-wide, NOAA-supported projects during the last ten years.

Scott Lundgren, Chief of the Emergency Response Division (ERD) at NOAA OR&R where he leads scientific support in spill preparedness and response to 150 coastal oil and chemical pollution emergencies annually.

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GoMRI and the Sea Grant programs of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Mississippi-Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) have partnered to create an oil spill science outreach program. The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team synthesizes peer-reviewed science for a broad range of general audiences, particularly those who live and work across the Gulf Coast. Sea Grant offers oil-spill-related public seminars across the Gulf Coast. Click here to view upcoming science seminars and read about recently-held events. To receive email updates about seminars, publications, and the outreach team, click here.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Analyzes Trends and Gaps in Oil Spill Literature Since 1968

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Word cloud provided by David Murphy.

Researchers surveyed oil spill studies between 1968 and 2015 to characterize the field and describe changes. The team found that, despite its episodic nature, oil spill research is a rapidly expanding field with a growth rate greater than science as a whole. Research attention shifted dramatically to the Gulf of Mexico following Deepwater Horizon, rising from 2% of studies in 2004-2008 to 61% in 2014-2015, making Deepwater Horizon the most studied oil spill. The analyses provided insights into research trends and gaps, particularly a long-standing lack of human health studies (less than 1% of the oil spill literature). The researchers published their findings in Marine Pollution Bulletin: An in-depth survey of the oil spill literature since 1968: Long term trends and changes since Deepwater Horizon.

Oil spill impacts on environmental, economic, and public health make them an important research topic for a broad scientific community, including biologists, oceanographers, engineers, chemists, social scientists and economists. Using the Web of Science database, this study team identified over 11,000 oil spill-related papers. The team randomly subsampled 10% (1,255) of these publications and organized them by discipline, type (laboratory, field, or mesoscale/mesocosm), location, category (literature review or research study), dispersant-related, and specific spill event and then created a publically available Oil Spill Paper Database, which they used for further analyses.

Spikes in academic interest in oil spills coincided with “hyper-spills” that attracted major media and academic attention. The most notable spikes occurred in the early-1970s, 1989-1992, and 2010 to present, coinciding with the Santa Barbara, Exxon Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon spills, respectively. These events drove the geographical focus of oil spill research, with a notable shift away from the North Atlantic and North Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. The focus on hyper-spills appeared to generate a boom and bust cycle in interest and funding. Implications of this cycle may include the loss of hands-on experience between hyper-spills and increased time launching new research programs during boom phases.

The proportion of biological and physical studies remained generally consistent over time, with biological studies comprising about one third of oil spill research. Chemistry studies after the mid-1970s maintained a 25-30% share, but dipped recently to 20%. Physical studies remained fairly consistent at 10-15%, and engineering studies increased after the late 1990s to 10-15%. Modeling studies were the least common through the early 1980s (<10%), but grew and maintained a 10-15% proportion afterwards. Interdisciplinary studies grew from 20-30% in the 1970s to 40-50% in the 2000s. Review papers fell from 10% to 5%. Studies considering dispersants doubled to 20% recently, and those involving a field component rose to over 70% in the early 1980s, then declined to 45%.

Human health, certain geographical regions, and oil types such as diluted bitumen and fuel represent gaps in current oil spill literature. Estuarine, brackish, riverine, and freshwater environments received less research attention than coastal and pelagic environments. Oil spill impact studies focused more on microbes, invertebrates, and fish than on plankton and protozoa. There has been growth in the oil spill research community, particularly graduate student involvement since Deepwater Horizon. The growth in the oil spill research field suggests that scientists, policy makers, and responders may be better equipped to understand and respond to future spills.

Study author David Murphy shared his thoughts on the largest research gap, “Little work has been done to understand the effects of oil spills on human health. This is a gaping hole when you consider that hundreds of thousands or even up to a million people can be exposed to oil during a cleanup effort. Our work showed that the Niger Delta is, or should be, ground zero for looking at the human health effects of oil pollution, as many residents there experience chronic, high-magnitude exposure to spilled hydrocarbons through drinking water, outdoor air, contaminated food, and dermal contact.”

The Oil Spill Paper Database is publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) website at doi:10.7266/N7SN06Z4.

The study’s authors are David Murphy, Brad Gemmell, Liana Vaccari, Cheng Li, Hernando Bacosa, Meredith Evans, Colbi Gemmell, Tracy Harvey, Maryam Jalali, and Tagbo H.R. Niepa.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies II (DROPPS II) consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Oceanography Highlights Findings from Deepwater Horizon Research

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Cover of the September 2016 Oceanography Magazine, Volume 29, Number 3

7th year of the largest coordinated research endeavor around an ocean event.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and subsequent response efforts raised concerns about impacts on the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean and coastal environments. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), in response to the spill, initiated an unprecedented 10-year scientific research program funded by BP. Seven years into the program, we know more than ever before about the Gulf’s complex environment, dynamic processes, and response to stressors.

Oceanography magazine dedicated a special issue to this research, GoMRI: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science, and below are highlights from 13 papers it featured.*

WHERE OIL WENT

Surface oil covered a cumulative area of 149,000 km2 in the northeastern Gulf. Wind and currents transported surface slicks towards land, affecting approximately 1,800-2,100 km of shoreline, a third of which were moderately to heavily oiled including 1,075 km in Louisiana. Macondo oil was visually evident at the edge of Louisiana marshes and up to 10 m inland.

Subsea oil and gas rose through the water column and formed an underwater oil plume that covered an area of approximately 930 km2 and made direct contact with continental slope sediments. A significant proportion of surface oil returned to the deep seafloor primarily through an extensive marine oil snow sedimentation event known as a “dirty blizzard,” forming a 0.5-1.2 cm thick floc layer.

Cleanup efforts removed oil from 73% of beaches affected by the spill, but residual oil remained as surface residue balls (SRBs), submerged oil mats, and in marsh plants and sediment, and is subject to continued weathering, biodegradation, and possible resuspension.

HOW OIL CHANGED

Crude oils contain thousands of compounds that, upon entering a marine environment, undergo significant compositional changes from weathering processes such as evaporation, dissolution, emulsification, dispersion, sedimentation/flocculation, microbial degradation, and photooxidation.

Most crude oil compounds are readily biodegradable and generally follow a clear degradation pattern: n-alkanes first followed by branched alkanes, lower molecular weight aromatics, higher molecular weight aromatics, and cyclic alkanes. Anaerobic biodegradation is a slower process than aerobic degradation, and crude oil compounds can remain relatively unaltered in reduced sediments and environments for long time periods and may appear as relatively fresh oil compared to surface oil exposed to aerobic conditions.

MICROBIAL RESPONSE AFFECTING OIL FATE

Macondo oil had a relatively low content of persistent resins and asphaltenes, and warm temperatures supported geochemical and biological degradation. The prevalence of oil-degrading bacteria generated a prompt response from the microbial community and subsequent biodegradation. Microbial communities in the plume were different from those in non-plume waters and exhibited a significant enrichment of hydrocarbon-degrading metabolic genes. Aerobic oxidation of short chain alkanes, propane, and butane caused up to 70% of oxygen depletion observed in the oil plume.

Residual oil trapped in Pensacola Beach sands showed a progression of microbial populations linked to hydrocarbon degradation. Early-responder microbes were followed by populations capable of aromatic hydrocarbon decomposition. Microbial abundance in oiled sands was 10-10,000 times that in clean sands in the first four months after oil came ashore.  A typical beach-environment microbial community returned after one year but differed significantly from pre-spill communities.

DEEP OCEAN IMPACTS

Carbon from the spill was likely incorporated into the mesopelagic (200-1,000 m depth) food web through consumption of prey rich in depleted carbon. The nature of microbial communities in the deep sea likely changed. An 80-93% decline in benthic foraminifera was related to reducing conditions and increased polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) concentrations.

Deepsea megafauna had lower diversity and abundance near the spill site relative to regions farther away, though blue marlin, Atlantic sailfish, blackfin tuna, and dolphinfish showed no significant reduction in larval abundance. Bottom-dwelling golden tilefish had the highest concentrations of naphthalene metabolite levels in bile measured in fishes globally. Tunas and jacks collected near the spill site exhibited developmental crude oil cardiotoxicity, suggesting a possible loss of early predator recruits that spawn in open waters. Sperm whale acoustic activity decreased near the spill site by a factor of two and increased farther away, suggesting they relocated.

Hard-bottom communities, including natural and artificial reefs, suffered injuries that were severe and long-lasting. Macrofauna and meiofauna diversity had not recovered after four years, and community structure differences still persist. Deep-sea colonial corals, in particular octocorals near the spill site, showed visible evidence of impact, and flocculent material covering the coral contained chemical fingerprints associated with Macondo oil and DOSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate). Researchers returned to these coral eight times and observed continued impacts such as tissue death with some coral skeletons secondarily colonized by hydrozoans.

Field measurements showed that planktonic community abundance and species composition returned to pre-spill conditions within a year. Laboratory experiments indicated that zooplankton exposed to sublethal crude oil levels bioaccumulated five PAHs, which could increase their susceptibility to predation and enhance trophic transfer of toxic PAHs.

MARSH IMPACTS

There were immediate negative impacts in moderately to heavily oiled marshes in southeastern Louisiana. The average concentration of total alkanes and PAHs in June 2013 was 20 and 374 times pre-oiled conditions, respectively. Total alkane concentrations were on a trajectory to be near baseline levels by 2015, but this did not occur likely a result of multiple resuspension events from storms.

Some damaged marsh shorelines showed precipitous shoreline erosion at least 2.5 years after oiling due to damaged root systems. Marshes lost due to oiling and shoreline erosion will not return without human intervention. Forty-two months after the spill, heavily oiled marshes showed near-complete plant mortality, and live aboveground biomass was 50% of reference marshes. Decreased living marsh vegetation and population levels of some fauna were obvious for 2-5 years. Meiofauna density was lower along with S. alterniflora grasses in heavily oiled areas.

Fiddler crab average size declined and there were proportion shifts in two species composition. Periwinkle snails density declined, and a slow recovery in abundance and size distribution was related to habitat recovery. Worms, seed shrimp, and mud dragons had not recovered to background levels 48 months post-spill. Killifish showed little evidence of spill impacts. Horse fly abundance declined sharply. Arthropods were suppressed by 50% in 2010 but had largely recovered in 2011. Seaside Sparrow nests on unoiled sites were more likely to fledge than those on oiled sites. Loons varied in frequency with PAHs by year and exhibited reduced body mass as PAH concentrations increased.

These effects are expected to continue – possibly for decades – to some degree, or the marsh ecosystem will reach a new baseline condition in heavily damaged areas.

FISH & SEAFOOD IMPACTS

Commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries were closed in fall 2010 in areas where oil was observed and predicted to travel and reopened by April 2011. Impacts on fisheries productivity were relatively short-lived, with landings and their values returning to pre-spill levels or greater for most fishery species. However, long-term effects are yet to be determined. Laboratory studies indicate that early life stages of fish are generally more sensitive to oil and dispersant’s sublethal effects (with some resulting in reduced swimming performance and cardiac function) than adults.

Public health risks from exposure to crude oil residue through seafood or coastal beaches returned to pre-spill levels after the spill dissipated. Seafood from reopened areas was found to be safe for consumption, with PAH levels comparable to those found in common local processed foods. PAH concentrations detected in many seafood samples during and following the spill were at least 2 orders of magnitude below levels of public health concern. DOSS was detected in less than 1% of samples and at levels below public health concern.

Tests on SRBs showed that Vibrio vulnificus were 10 times higher than the surrounding sand and up to 100 times higher than seawater, suggesting that SRBs can act as reservoirs for bacteria including human pathogens. Coquina clams initially showed higher PAH levels relative to the surrounding sand, but levels decreased continuously and were undetectable in sand (one year) and Coquina tissues (two years).

DISPERSANT EFFECTS & FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES

Dispersant increased the oil fraction that spread within the water column and laterally displaced oil that reached the sea surface. Dispersants reduced droplet sizes and rise velocities, resulting in a more than tenfold increase in the downstream length of the surface oil footprint.

Chemical dispersants may be more toxic to some marine organisms than previously thought, and small oil droplets created by dispersant use and directly consumed by marine organisms are often more toxic than crude oil alone. Dispersant effects on microorganisms might be taxa-specific, and some studies suggest that dispersants stimulated biodegradation while others conclude the opposite. Degradation rates of hexadecane and naphthalene were more rapid in the absence of dispersants, as was the overall removal of the water-accommodated oil fraction.

Dispersant applied at the broken riser pipe helped form a deep water oil plume. DOSS was likely transferred to the plume and was later detected in surface sediments, on corals, and within oil-sand patties.

A future option is development of plant-based materials for efficient chemical herding of compact oil slicks into layers that are sufficiently thick to enable oil burning or skimming. Opportunities exist for new dispersants that work in synergy with current dispersants and mitigate some of their disadvantages. Examples include a system containing soybean lecithin and the surfactant Tween 80, substitution of lecithin for DOSS, and using carbon-based particles and silicas to stabilize emulsified droplets. Laboratory research needs to be conducted at concentrations and under conditions relevant to marine environments.

MODELING CAPABILITIES

Model improvements provide a better understanding of droplet formation in the turbulent plume above the wellhead. No model during the spill could predict droplet size distribution, which dictates rise times, dissolution, and biodegradation. Oil spill models now include the ability to simulate the rise of a buoyant oil plume from the seabed to the surface. Consideration of oil’s 3D movement permits the prediction of oil spreading through subsurface plumes. Our understanding of the near-surface oceanic layer and atmospheric boundary layer, including the influences of waves and wind, has also improved.

Oil spill modeling routines will likely be included in Earth system models, linking physical models with marine sediment and biogeochemical components. Advances in coupled nearfield-farfield dynamic modeling together with real-time, seven-day circulation forecasts allow for near-real-time tracking and forecasting of oil dynamics. This is the most promising approach for rapid evaluation of blowout predictions to support first response decisions.

* Overton, E.B., T.L. Wade, J.R. Radović, B.M. Meyer, M.S. Miles, and S.R. Larter. 2016. Chemical composition of Macondo and other crude oils and compositional alterations during oil spillsOceanography 29(3):50–63

Socolofsky, S.A., E.E. Adams, C.B. Paris, and D. Yang. 2016. How do oil, gas, and water interact near a subsea blowout? Oceanography 29(3):64–75

Passow, U., and R.D. Hetland. 2016. What happened to all of the oil? Oceanography 29(3):88–95

Özgökmen, T.M., E.P. Chassignet, C.N. Dawson, D. Dukhovskoy, G. Jacobs, J. Ledwell, O. Garcia-Pineda, I.R. MacDonald, S.L. Morey, M.J. Olascoaga, A.C. Poje, M. Reed, and J. Skancke. 2016. Over what area did the oil and gas spread during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Oceanography 29(3):96–107

John, V., C. Arnosti, J. Field, E. Kujawinski, and A. McCormick. 2016. The role of dispersants in oil spill remediation: Fundamental concepts, rationale for use, fate, and transport issues. Oceanography 29(3):108–117

Passow, U., and K. Ziervogel. 2016. Marine snow sedimented oil released during the Deepwater Horizon spill. Oceanography 29(3):118–125

Tarr, M.A., P. Zito, E.B. Overton, G.M. Olson, P.L. Adhikari, and C.M. Reddy. 2016. Weathering of oil spilled in the marine environment. Oceanography 29(3):126–135

Joye, S.B., S. Kleindienst, J.A. Gilbert, K.M. Handley, P. Weisenhorn, W.A. Overholt, and J.E. Kostka. 2016. Responses of microbial communities to hydrocarbon exposures. Oceanography 29(3):136–149

Rabalais, N.N., and R.E. Turner. 2016. Effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on coastal marshes and associated organisms. Oceanography 29(3):150–159

Murawski, S.A., J.W. Fleeger, W.F. Patterson III, C. Hu, K. Daly, I. Romero, and G.A. Toro-Farmer. 2016. How did the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affect coastal and continental shelf ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico? Oceanography 29(3):160–173

Buskey, E.J., H.K. White, and A.J. Esbaugh. 2016. Impact of oil spills on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico: Effects on plankton, nekton, and deep-sea benthos. Oceanography 29(3):174–181

Fisher, C.R., P.A. Montagna, and T.T. Sutton. 2016. How did the Deepwater Horizon oil spill impact deep-sea ecosystems? Oceanography 29(3):182–195

Dickey, R., and M. Huettel. 2016. Seafood and beach safety in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oceanography 29(3):196–203

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

SeaGlide Workshop Engages Teachers and Students in Ocean Research Technology

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Christopher Hatten of Mildred Osborne Charter School contemplates the Arduino microcontroller board that he will later program to run his SeaGlide model. (Photo by Dinah Maygarden)

LADC-GEMM researchers from Oregon State University, the University of New Orleans, and Proteus Technologies explained how they use ocean gliders to collect temperature, pressure, and acoustic data such as sounds made by Gulf of Mexico whales and dolphins. The team guided the participants in constructing their own SeaGlide models assisted by eight Warren Easton Charter High School students with experience building the model gliders.

SeaGlide models are fully functioning miniature gliders that, like “real” gliders, collect data and take in and expel water to change their buoyancy and propel themselves forward. The kits are designed to guide users through the building process while teaching them the foundations behind the technology. The participants learned about basic electronics so they could solder and program the gliders’ circuit boards and built servo-driven engines that manage the gliders’ buoyancy and pitch.

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Julian DeRouen (far right), an advanced physics student from Warren Easton Charter High School, shows Fifth Ward Elementary’s Rhodie Simms and West St. John Elementary’s Angela Farnell how to assemble the electronics for their glider models. (Photo by Sara Heimlich)

Workshop participants consisted of 5th – 12th grade educators working in local schools and after-school programs. Most participants said that they thought the hands-on building experience was the most valuable part of the workshop and expressed an intention to incorporate what they learned into their school-year, after-school, or summer curriculums. Some expressed an interest in teaching the material for as long as three or four weeks, while others considered incorporating the gliders as a weekly activity throughout the entire school year. The majority of participants reported that the workshop made them feel more confident in their ability to teach overall science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) principles.

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Proteus Technologies’ Sean Griffin guides participants through the delicate process of soldering electronic parts onto the programmable computer chips that control the model gliders’ movements. (Photo by Kendal Leftwich)

This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Littoral Acoustic Demonstration Center – Gulf Ecological Monitoring and Modeling (LADC-GEMM) consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

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Hatten tests his finished model in a water tank. (Photo by Dinah Maygarden)

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The workshop used this glider, provided by Stephan Howden of the University of Southern Mississippi, to demonstrate the type of gliders used in LADC-GEMM research. (Photo by Sara Heimlich)

Study Quantifies Influence of Data Input on Confidence in Loop Current Forecasts

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Time evolution of the Sea Surface Height anomaly from AVISO altimetry data (color), with the Loop current edge, as defined by the 17 cm contour, in the Polynomial Chaos ensemble (black lines) and in the AVISO data (white line). Image provided by Iskandarani.

Researchers described in a recent study a surrogate-based technique to quantify the uncertainty in forecasting the oceanic circulation. The authors focused on the time period during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill when an extended Loop Current increased the risk of carrying the oil slick towards the eastern seaboard of the U.S.  The new methodology, which accounts explicitly for the inherent uncertainty in forecasts, may help improve the planning of emergency responses to weather and marine pollution events.  The authors’ paper was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans: Quantifying uncertainty in Gulf of Mexico forecasts stemming from uncertain initial conditions.

The accuracy and usefulness of material transport models depend on the quality of oceanic and atmospheric forecasts. However, the input data needed to run the forecast models are incomplete because observations are limited in space and time and may include measurement errors. The uncertainties in the model input lead to uncertainties in the model output. Useful forecasts should include a quantitative assessment of these uncertainties to better inform decisions such as evacuations or deploying resources. Probabilistic forecasts allow policy makers and emergency responders to consider a range of possible scenarios instead of only one best-guess scenario whose certainty is unclear.

The study focused on the period from May – June 2010, when the major concern was whether or not the Deepwater Horizon oil would be entrained in the Loop Current. “The Loop Current can act like a conveyor belt capable of moving water swiftly from the northern Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Strait,” explained study author Mohamed Iskandarani. “The Gulf Stream would then carry it quickly farther north.” Therefore, quantifying the uncertainty in Loop Current forecasts was a major goal of this study.

The researchers focused on the impact of misjudging the strength of a frontal eddy that was influencing the Loop Current’s path.  Using a polynomial chaos technique, the team ran a small ensemble of 49 scenarios (with varying frontal eddy strength) to build a cost-effective but faithful surrogate of the full model. They used this surrogate to determine how the model output changed with different input data. “The surrogate provides more accurate statistics than a traditional ensemble and can be analyzed to decide which input is most responsible for the largest portion of the uncertainty,” said Iskandarani. “This provides guidance for additional observations that can reduce the uncertainty in the model output most effectively.”

Simulations showed that a weak eddy would have kept the Loop Current on a trajectory to enter the spill area, potentially increasing the risk of oil spreading, while a stronger eddy would have separated the Loop Current from its trajectory before reaching the slick. “Uncertainties in the frontal eddy strength strongly affected the prediction of a Loop Current eddy detachment 15-30 days later,” explained Iskandarani. The study suggested that the predictability limit of the forecast was three weeks, and assimilating new observations is necessary to improve the forecast beyond that time.

The study’s findings have the potential to support an operational observing system for the Loop Current. “There would be great, two-way benefits from pairing an observing system with a probabilistic forecast model,” said Iskandarani. “The forecast model could be used to propagate these uncertainties forward in time to estimate the output uncertainties. The biggest contributors to the output uncertainties can be identified and targeted observations can be planned to reduce the uncertainties in the inputs.”

This study’s data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi:10.7266/N77H1GNF.

The study’s authors are Mohamed Iskandarani, Matthieu Le Henaff, William Carlisle Thacker, Ashwanth Srinivasan, and Omar M. Knio.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment II (CARTHE II). Other funding sources included the Office of Naval Research (Award N00014-101- 0498), the US Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research (DE-SC0008789), the NOAA Quantitative Observing System Assessment Program (NA15OAR4320064), and the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Sea Grant Releases Brochure on Oil Spill Cleanup Technology Developments

3985The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is pleased to announce a new Sea Grant informational brochure that explores products currently available or in development to remove oil from water in future spills.

The brochure Emerging Surfactants, Sorbents, and Additives for Use in Oil Spill Clean-Up addresses surfactants inspired by microbes, finding treasure in unexpected places (everyday materials), and tiny materials with big impact (nanotechnology). These developments show promise; however, much testing, both in the lab and the field, and regulatory steps lay ahead before these products may be used during an oil spill.

The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team synthesizes peer-reviewed science for a broad range of general audiences, particularly those who live and work across the Gulf Coast. Sea Grant offers oil-spill-related public seminars across the Gulf Coast. Click here to view upcoming science seminars and read about recently-held events. To receive email updates about seminars, publications, and the outreach team, click here.

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GoMRI and the Sea Grant programs of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Mississippi-Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) have partnered to create an oil spill science outreach program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

CRGC Hosts Second Executive Leadership Training Module

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Larissa Graham of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium leads discussion about communicating oil spill science to diverse stakeholder groups during second module of “Planning for Resilient Communities” Executive Leadership Training. (Photo provided by CRGC)

The Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC), the Institute for Disaster Resilience and Humanitarian Affairs at George Washington University, and the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy (DRLA) at Tulane University are hosting the second module of “Planning for Resilient Communities” Executive Leadership Training for the inaugural cohort of Southeastern Louisiana Disaster Resilience Leadership Fellows, who first convened in November 2016 for a five day workshop.

A Leadership Advisory Committee (LAC) led by Louisiana Lt. Governor Nungesser selected the 15 Fellows, who are being trained to provide a diverse breadth and depth of disaster resilience leadership capacity and coordination across multiple sectors and systems. Fellows comprise of emerging, local leaders representing Louisiana’s five coastal parishes.The Fellowship Program is an important component of CRGC’s community action planning and resilience building work.

Learn more about CRGC’s community action planning and resilience building work.»

CARTHE Hosts Poetry Competition Winners

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The winners of Piano Slam while touring RSMAS. (Photo courtesy of CARTHE)

Students participating in the Piano Slam contest created works of poetry inspired by a specific musical selection. The winners of this year’s contest and their families were invited to visit the University of Miami, where they toured the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, learned about CARTHE research, and rewatched their winning poetry performances.

Learn more here!

Study Characterizes Natural Deep Sea Seeps

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Scientists used two deep-sea autonomous underwater vehicles, the Eagle Ray and Mola Mola, to survey natural seeps near the Macondo wellhead site. Graphic provided by Arne Diercks.

Mississippi scientists surveyed natural seeps near the Macondo blowout using a high-resolution autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to inform biogeochemical studies about the post-Deepwater Horizon water column and seafloor. The researchers observed that the most distinctive physical features of the seepage systems were elongated depressions, pockmarks, and mud volcanoes/mounds. Visual imagery showed seep clusters on the periphery of salt domes and the presence of benthic communities and gas hydrate outcrops. These observations enhance current knowledge about seafloor morphology and how it relates to natural gas seepage processes. The scientists published their findings in Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography: Morpho-acoustic characterization of natural seepage features near the Macondo Wellhead (ECOGIG site OC26, Gulf of Mexico).

Tectonically-active salt bodies such as the Gulf of Mexico produce networks of faults and fractures that can act as natural pathways for hydrocarbon seepage. Researchers identified precise locations for naturally occurring hydrocarbon seeps and used acoustic and optical sensors to collect seafloor morphology, seafloor sediment reflectivity, and water column data as well as photographs and subsurface seismic images.

Mud volcanoes/mounds and pockmarks were prevalent in the northeast region of the study site, while elongated depressions characterized the southwest region. Subsurface images revealed trapped gas and chimney structures – which often represent direct pathways for hydrocarbons to enter the water column – beneath all three features, suggesting that the structures resulted from or were associated with seep processes.

Depressions and pockmarks were associated with areas that contained a high percentage of gassy soft sediments. The shape and structure of mud volcanos and mounds offered details about the activity, pressure, and viscosity involved in their creation.

Study co-author Arne R. Diercks commented that collecting data using AUVs was challenging. “Work with AUVs is limited by the data resolution needed, the size and depth of our target area, and the amount of energy we can take [to the seafloor] to run the instruments,” he explained. “My team managed to hit the target area on our first try. Getting a fully functional high-tech computer to the seafloor and autonomously navigate a preprogrammed path in complete darkness without a GPS and successfully collect data takes a great effort and a good team.”

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at R1.x132.137:0012.

The study’s authors are A. Conti, M. D’Emidio, L. Macelloni, C. Lutken, V. Asper, M. Woolsey, R. Jarnagin, A. Diercks, and R.C. Highsmith.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf-2 (ECOGIG-2) consortium. Other funding sources included the Marie Curie Fellowship co-funded by the European Union under FP7-People — co-funding of Regional, National and International Programmes, GA n. 600407 and RITMARE Flagship Project.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Virtual Lab Creates More “Wow” Moments in Science Discovery

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Miami Girl Scouts look at mahi-mahi embryos at an Ocean Kids outreach event. University of Miami students with the RECOVER consortium set up hands-on learning stations about the ocean. (Photo by RECOVER)

A child’s face lit up with wonder as she peered into a microscope for the first time and discovered a new world. Researchers at the Miami-based RECOVER consortium want experiences like this to happen more often for more students, so they designed and developed the RECOVER Virtual Lab. Now, scientists can engage students ages 8 and older anywhere anytime with an innovative lab experience that is accessible online and soon through the Apple App Store.

RECOVER Outreach lead Daniel DiNicola explained how the virtual lab came about, “In the consortium’s beginning, Martin Grosell [RECOVER Director] and I wanted to increase the public’s awareness and use of RECOVER’s visually-engaging experiments. We wanted something interactive that schools or public venues like museums could use.” The virtual lab is a consortium legacy product that will teach oil spill science for years to come and increases their classroom reach around the world.

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Visitors to the Virtual Lab see an experiment showing how the swimming performance of Mahi mahi are affected by different levels of oil exposure. The chart below the fish tracks performance. (Photo provided by RECOVER)

The lab’s development began in earnest using the same team that built the RECOVER website. “We liked that they already understood the research and that they work close by at the University of Miami’s main campus,” explained DiNicola. Development took about eight months and included storyboarding, wire framing, script development, filming, post production, data visualization, app design, and coding.

Internal beta testing for the virtual lab gave the RECOVER team feedback that improved science accuracy. “It was extremely beneficial to work alongside the scientists whose work is featured in the app,” said DiNicola. “The scientists offered insight and guidance that helped us refine the product and identify bugs.”

The pilot lesson, Fish Treadmills, is geared toward middle school, high school, and college students. Future lessons will include an experiment on visual acuity, fish embryonic and larval development, and social interactions. “All our lessons will feature one RECOVER graduate student acting as the virtual lab partner and explaining their research,” explained DiNicola. “We believe this is a great way for our students to practice valuable science communication skills as well as show their enthusiasm for their work.”

An evaluation component is built into the app to help determine and quantify the virtual lab’s success. Grade-specific quizzes available after every lesson will give the RECOVER team valuable insights into the lesson’s effectiveness. The demographic and location data collected by the quizzes will help identify use and participation trends. The RECOVER team hopes to publish their findings on the tool’s effectiveness using the evaluation data.

Grade-specific workbooks and transcripts for educators and students are available for download. Future plans for the virtual lab include more lessons for younger elementary students. For more information, visit the RECOVER website.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Relationship of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in Fish for Validation of Ecological Risk (RECOVER) consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Grad Student Girard Uses High-Definition Imagery to Assess Post-Spill Coral Recovery

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Fanny digitizes a high-definition image of an impacted coral colony to quantify impacts, growth, and recovery. (Photo by Cherisse DuPreez)

Deep-sea corals are important organisms that support a healthy and diverse deep-sea ecosystem. However, there is much we do not know about certain coral species, including how they grow, reproduce, or interact with other organisms. Fanny Girard’s research helps bridge that knowledge gap through her work on how disturbances such as oil spills affect deep-sea coral colonies and if those effects have lasting impacts. She hopes that her research will underline the need to protect these important deep-sea ecosystems.

Fanny is a Ph.D. student in Pennsylvania State University’s biology program and a GoMRI Scholar with the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) consortium.

Her Path

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Fanny takes photos of corals in the ROV control van onboard the E/V Nautilus. (Photo credit: Ocean Exploration Trust)

Fanny grew up on the Mediterranean coast of southern France and developed a special affinity for the ocean. Her desire to work on ocean related issues started when she was eleven years old, scuba diving with her mother. While pursuing a biology bachelor’s degree at Pierre and Marie Curie University, Fanny explored marine mammal ecology during internships studying whale populations in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. Her graduate marine ecology studies at the University of Western Brittany included a course on the deep sea that inspired her to change direction. “Even though the deep sea is the largest ecosystem on earth, there is still so much to discover. That fact made me want to get involved in deep-sea research,” she said.

Fanny participated in various deep-sea research projects during her master’s work, including projects at the Institut Français de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer (IFREMER) in France and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her master’s advisor introduced her to Pennsylvania State University’s Dr. Chuck Fisher, who offered her a Ph.D. position researching deep-sea corals for the ECOGIG project. “I had read about some of [Dr. Fisher’s work] in the Gulf of Mexico and was very excited about joining his lab,” said Fanny. “A lot of research still needs to be done to protect corals, and I really wanted to be part of this effort.”

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An impacted coral imaged in 2011 (left) and 2016 (right). Part of this coral has visibly recovered, but most of the colony was still heavily impacted six years post-spill. (Image by Fanny Girard)

Her Work

Natural mortality is a rare event among deep-sea octocorals, also known as sea fans, whichhave the potential to act as sentinels for anthropogenic impacts. Fanny uses high-definition imagery to assess the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s long-term impacts on octocorals.

Since 2010, her group’s lab has been monitoring hundreds of coral colonies at oil exposed and control sites. The team collects high-definition images of the same corals every year using ROV-mounted camera equipment. Fanny digitizes the images and identifies visible impacts to coral branches, including excess mucus, bare skeletons, and secondary colonization by hydroids. She compares the annual images to assess recovery over time and identifies factors potentially influencing recovery, which helps determine if the spill had delayed or long-term effects on the coral’s health and growth.

Her analyses suggest that while lightly-impacted corals have mostly recovered, many colonies are still unhealthy with little recovery evident. While deep-sea octocorals naturally grow extremely slowly, the growth of the impacted corals was barely detectable after six years, and significantly-impacted corals have lost branches continuously since 2011. Fanny recently authored a peer-reviewed article providing evidence that brittle stars, which live on and have a symbiotic relationship with coral colonies, appeared to protect and facilitate coral recovery.

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Fanny stands in front of the ROV Global Explorer after a successful dive. She uses ROVs to image corals and collect different types of samples, including coral, water, and sediment. (Photo by Cherisse DuPreez)

The slow growth rates and abnormal branch loss that their team observed could indicate a lengthy post-oil spill recovery process. Fanny created a mathematical model that uses a matrix population model to project how many branches per coral colony will present as healthy, unhealthy, or colonized by hydroids and estimate recovery time. “The model suggests that it will take decades until all remaining branches appear healthy,” Fanny explained. “It will take another century until the lost branches have regrown.” She said that the long term image-based monitoring technique used in her research is an excellent tool to identify corals that suddenly become damaged or die, indicating an environmental disturbance.

Her Learning

Fanny experienced the most scientific growth while working with her advisors, Drs. Chuck Fisher and Iliana Baums, conducting field work aboard research cruises. Since beginning her Ph.D., she has participated in at least one research cruise each year and acted as chief scientist during a 2016 cruise. She says that the interdisciplinary nature of expeditions gave her a greater appreciation for other fields and introduced her to people who share her passion for the environment. The experiences taught her important skills for conducting research expeditions, such as coordinating between scientists, crew members, and ROV teams. “Making connections is extremely important for graduate students to find employers and identify future collaborations, but it can also be very difficult,” said Fanny. “I think being part of the GoMRI science community really facilitated that process.”

Her Future

Fanny plans to continue studying the deep sea and hopes her research can help protect and restore vulnerable ecosystems. She is considering post-doc opportunities, possibly in Europe, but is willing to travel anywhere for the right project. She advises students considering a scientific career to follow their passion, even if it seems difficult. As an undergraduate student, Fanny often expressed a desire to go on expeditions and study the ocean. However, most people dismissed her goals because of limited job opportunities and advised her to pursue a more mainstream profession. “I didn’t listen, and now I’m doing what I love,” she said. “I think if you are determined and love what you are doing, you will succeed.”

Praise for Fanny

Dr. Fisher said that Fanny has been an important asset to his team’s research since her first day. He explained that she developed the research methods used to demonstrate and quantify the brittle stars’ beneficial effects on oil-impacted coral’s recovery on her own. “Fanny is a pleasure to work with and has taken our research in new and exciting directions,” he said. “Most recently, she developed a mathematical model to predict the eventual fate of long-lived corals impacted by the oil spill.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Fanny Girard and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the ECOGIG website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Finds Jellyfish Mucus May Enhance Microbial Oil Biodegradation

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Jellyfish with oil. Photo by Brad Gemmell

Scientists conducted laboratory experiments to examine the influence of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) on crude oil aggregation and degradation. The researchers found that jellyfish swimming in a dispersed oil solution produced copious amounts of mucus which formed aggregates containing 26 times more oil than the surrounding water. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria density more than doubled and microbial oil degradation significantly increased compared to control treatments. These results suggest that jellyfish can aggregate dispersed oil droplets beyond water column concentrations and embed them in an environment that favors oil-degrading bacteria. The scientists published their findings in Marine Pollution Bulletin: Can gelatinous zooplankton influence the fate of crude oil in marine environments?

Gelatinous zooplankton excrete a nutrient-rich mucus that other organisms can use. Environmental stressors, such as an oil-spill plume interacting with zooplankton, exacerbate mucus excretion. The increased mucus may boost oil biodegradation by enhancing nitrogen and phosphorus availability, which bacteria need to degrade oil but are often limited during a spill event.

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Jellyfish swimming. Photo by Brad Gemmell

Researchers conducted ten trials with moon jellyfish collected from inshore northern Gulf of Mexico waters using seawater and an emulsified suspension of crude oil droplets. Experiments with jellyfish swimming in the presence of crude oil used 100 uL/L oil concentration to simulate a sub-surface oil plume (a concentration based on Reddy, et al., 2012 who measured the xylene fraction above the Macondo well and found up to 80 uL/L of total crude oil). The team evaluated the effects of jellyfish mucus on bacterial growth and oil biodegradation using batch culture experiments with 1000 uL/L oil concentration (based on prior work with bacteria and oil Bacosa, et al., 2012). Then they analyzed images of the mucus aggregates the jellyfish created and shed to evaluate effects on bacterial growth and oil biodegradation.

Jellyfish in control seawater treatments did not produce mucus, while jellyfish in crude oil treatments produced mucus in less than one minute after oil was introduced, and this mucus may have inhibited the jellyfish ingesting or absorbing oil. The amount of oil that the mucus contained correlated linearly with the size of the mucus aggregates.  The density of oil-degrading bacteria more than tripled after 7 days compared to the non-mucus control, and n-alkane hydrocarbons decreased 33% after 14 days. The authors hypothesized that the increased nitrogen availability due to jellyfish mucus could explain the higher microbial oil degradation rate.

The results suggest that the bacterial response to crude oil and jellyfish mucus may have important implications for oil spill fate in areas where zooplankton are abundant. The researchers propose larger-scale studies be carried out to better understand these processes under more realistic conditions.

GoMRI data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi:10.7266/N71834JF.

The study’s authors are Brad J. Gemmell, Hernando P. Bacosa, Zhanfei Liu, and Edward J. Buskey.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies II (DROPPS II) consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

C-IMAGE’s The Loop Podcast Highlights Deepwater Horizon’s Risks to Fish

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Photo Courtesy of C-IMAGE

The podcast’s most recent episode features Mote Marine Laboratory’s Dana Wetzel and Kevan Main, who analyze how fish’s bodies recover after exposure to small oil doses in their food, water, or seafloor sediments. Wetzel, Main, and Matt Resley discuss how understanding the risks fish have during oil spills can assist oil spill response decisions.

Read the full story and listen to the episode here!

Study Finds Corexit Triggers EPS Production, Enhancing Marine Snow Formation

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Justine van Eenennaam working in the lab of Environmental Technology at Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands. Photo provided by van Eenennaam.

Scientists observed in laboratory experiments the formation of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS, a natural microorganism excretion) when phytoplankton and their associated bacteria were exposed to Corexit dispersant. The researchers observed that Corexit can trigger microorganisms in the phytoplankton community to produce EPS, even without oil present. EPS production was induced within days, and energy drawn from the phytoplankton further enhanced the bacteria’s EPS formation. Phytoplankton with no bacteria present did not produce EPS. The team suggested that spill response decision makers should account for this mechanism’s potential to increase marine snow formation when considering chemical dispersants. The scientists published their findings in Marine Pollution Bulletin: Oil spill dispersants induce formation of marine snow by phytoplankton-associated bacteria.

Marine snow occurs when particles in the water column aggregate, with EPS holding them together, and then sink to the sea floor. Past research suggests that chemical dispersants applied during the Deepwater Horizon spill in the presence of phytoplankton triggered an unprecedented amount of marine snow formation. Researchers in this study prepared various combinations of phytoplankton (Dunaliella tertiolecta and Phaeodactylum tricornutum), their associated bacteria, and Corexit 9500 (0.5 mL/L, an anticipated concentration level in the upper centimeters of the water column after surface application, US EPA, 1995). The team then weighed, visually characterized, and measured the protein and carbohydrate content of resulting EPS flocs.

Study author Justine van Eenennaam explained their results, “The EPS contained protein and polysaccharides, and the composition varied with the species of phytoplankton. The sticky EPS can play an important role in aggregating the ingredients of marine snow, including dispersed oil and suspended particles, into sinking flocks.”

The researchers said that the results demonstrate that a large application of dispersants during a phytoplankton bloom will likely trigger a MOSSFA (Marine Oil Snow Sedimentation and Flocculent Accumulation) event, similar to what was observed during Deepwater Horizon. “Combined with enhanced availability of suspended particles due to flushing of the Mississippi River, it is possible dispersant application may have made the outcome for the benthic ecosystem worse than anticipated,” said van Eenennaam.

The team continues their research on the effects of oiled marine snow on the benthic community, which is at the bottom of the food chain. “Indications are that marine snow hampers oil biodegradation, implying we might have to deal with the aftershocks of this spill for quite some time,” said van Eenennaam.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi:10.7266/N78C9T75.

The study’s authors are Justine S. van Eenennaam, Yuzhu Wei, Katja C.F. Grolle, Edwin M. Foekema, and Albertinka J. Murk.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II). Other funding sources included the Wageningen UR TripleP@Sea innovation Program (KB-14-007).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Grad Student Dykstra Sees Global Applications for Local Ocean Circulation Maps

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Steve releases a drifter at Main Pass (Mobile Bay), Alabama, to study the surface tidal plume. (Provided by Steve Dykstra)

When Deepwater Horizon oil approached coastal environments, it was unclear how river water entering the Gulf of Mexico would affect the oil’s transport and fate. Steve Dykstra uses drifters and ship-deployed sensors to study how freshwater plumes disperse in the coastal environment over different seafloor topography. He plans to someday use his findings and experience to help inform coastal resource management in developing countries.

Steve Dykstra is a Ph.D. student at the University of South Alabama’s marine science program and a GoMRI Scholar with the Consortium for Oil Spill Exposure Pathways in Coastal River-Dominated Ecosystems (CONCORDE).

His Path

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Steve explores the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to better understand how the area’s fluvial-tidal flow affects coastal circulation. (Provided by Steve Dykstra)

Steve became interested in science while exploring the forests, lakes, and wetlands around his childhood home near Lake Michigan. He was fascinated by nature’s complexity and developed a particular interest in river and stream morphology, which studies the form, function, and interactions of these waters with the surrounding landscape. As he grew up, Steve became more knowledgeable about morphology by frequenting sand dunes and learning how to redirect or “pirate” streams. He completed a bachelor’s degree in science at Calvin College in 2008 and decided his next steps would be less conventional.

Steve worked as a naturalist in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park and Chugach National Forest, where he led tourist excursions and taught visitors about the area’s geology, ecology, and wildlife. Next, he volunteered for the NGO Help for the Massai, distributing food and helping run immunization clinics in Tanzania near Serengeti National Park in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. “Working with the indigenous Massai people, I got a first-hand look at the developing world,” he said. “It taught me how to work cross-culturally.”

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Steve prepares the microprocessors he constructed to go inside his drifters. (Provided by Steve Dykstra)

Steve completed an environmental science master’s degree at Taylor University and interned with Dynamic Solutions International’s watershed management program in Vietnam. He worked in watershed management in Tajikistan through the Global Partners organization. Security issues sent him back to the United States, and he decided to pursue a long-time desire – obtaining his Ph.D. Steve found an opportunity to research freshwater discharge’s influence on the coastal environment with Dr. Brian Dzwonkowski and joined his team at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL).

A personal motivator for Steve is a calling to Biblical stewardship. “As a Christian, I believe I’m called to care for and try to reconcile the world around me,” he said. “I think it’s something that a lot of Christians overlook, but stewardship includes the natural environment that we have.”

 

His Work

Steve works in the Mobile Bay delta, where tides influence river flow and level as it moves into the coastal area. As freshwater enters saltier waters, it remains on the surface and forms a plume that spreads over a wide area. However, changes in the coastal geomorphology can alter flow dynamics, salinity, and the freshwater’s movement into the Gulf. “Narrow or wide or deep inlets change the way water flows,” explained Steve. “As the geomorphology changes – either naturally or anthropogenically –it changes the flow dynamics, which inadvertently change how much salinity goes into the Bay and how the freshwater moves out into the Gulf.”

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Steve prepares a drifter for release. (Provided by Steve Dykstra)

Steve’s component of the research focuses on Main Pass, Mobile Bay, where he helps build and release GPS-equipped drifters fitted with temperature and salinity sensors to study how fast they move, where they move, and how they spread out and disperse. He takes simultaneous measurements aboard a research vessel using conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) sensors and a Laser In-Situ Scattering and Transmissometry (LISST) instrument, which measures sediment grain sizes and concentrations in the water. He compares these measurements with the drifter readings to determine the plume’s movement relative to the surrounding environment, what it transports, and how it mixes with Gulf waters.

Steve’s observations will help validate a CONCORDE-developed circulation model reflecting the exposure pathways and mechanisms of Deepwater Horizon oil. His work will inform the land-to-sea portion of the model and compliment other researchers’ work in offshore regions. “It’s easier to predict how oil will function when it’s moving around in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s more difficult to figure out how it will interact with the complex shoreline,” he said. “I’m taking observations to help inform and change the model to better reflect the system that we’re actually working with.”

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Steve and his advisor, Dr. Brian Dzwonkowski, release small drifters in the Grand Bay National Estuary Research Reserve. (Provided by Steve Dykstra)

His Learning

One of the greatest benefits from Steve’s GoMRI research has been the opportunity to take the time to delve into the materials and research. His past travels left him little opportunity to get to know a single system. “I often had to skip over some good insights and get more of the theory behind something instead of really learning one particular local environment. I think it’s been helpful to finally do and understand that,” he said. Steve’s GoMRI work also introduced him to marine science. Prior to beginning his Ph.D., Steve had never taken a marine science class and had little experience working in coastal or marine environments. He credits his research as the source of everything he currently knows about marine environments.

Steve also frequently works with his secondary advisor Kelly Dorgan, a sediment ecologist with the ACER consortium. Interacting with researchers from different projects helps him see differences in how consortia operate and coordinate when conducting research in same region. Steve meets and interacts with scientists in many disciplines and observes how they conduct their research and interact with other investigators. Steve reflected, “I’ve been able to learn quite a bit about discerning who to learn from and what questions to ask which researchers.”

His Future

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Steve and Dr. Dzwonkowski (white boat) follow drifters to compare their tracks with a dye release in Grand Bay National Estuary Research Reserve. (Photo by Robert Moorhead)

Steve is considering a post-doctoral position after graduation and becoming further established in his field. However, his long-term goal is to go back overseas and conduct research in resources management for developing countries, where he believes his education and experience in streams and coastal environments could help. “I’d like to help countries that are trying to manage their resources, particularly in deciding how to balance development and conservation. Whether I’m doing consulting work or conducting research with a local university, I’d like to continue to do some of the relief work I was doing previously but with further expertise.”

Steve advises that students considering a science career should start broad, learning a wide range of foundational material, and then specialize through research and internship opportunities. “Don’t do an internship because it looks good on your resume but chase your dreams and allow yourself to fail in that process,” he said. He hints that those opportunities might even offer a way to avoid debt after graduating, “Be willing to take things slower and work jobs that you may not have initially considered or move to places with better financial opportunities. I’ve been able to go through debt-free, not because I had parents assisting me, but because I worked hard and moved to places that I’d never been before.”

Praise for Steve

Dzwonkowski said that Steve has shown impressive ambition and an industrious nature throughout his graduate career. He said that Steve seeks ways to improve his grant-writing skills, hunting down external research funds to support his graduate career through student travel opportunities and prestigious fellowship opportunities. “Given his early and immediate interest in proposal writing, I am positive that Steve will be successful obtaining future research funds,” he said.

Dzwonkowski also highlighted Steve’s contributions to education and outreach efforts. DISL adapted Arduino computing components for their summer research, and Steve helped train students to wire and program the components and discussed how they could use the low-cost technology in their own research. He is preparing to help build Arduino-based technical skills into K-12 lesson plans. “He has a very positive influence on the people around him,” said Dzwonkowski. “He has been a great addition to DISL, and I look forward to seeing him develop along what I know will be a highly impactful career path. I believe he will make a difference in many peoples’ lives over the course of his career.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Steve Dykstra and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the CONCORDE website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Using Complementary Simulations to Improve Oil Tracking under Hurricane Conditions

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A close up of major equipment used in the experimental set up in the University of Miami ASSIST facility. The equipment includes (left to right) the wave slope gauge, the Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV)/bubble imager, and spray shadowgraph. (Photo by Will Drennan)

Interactions among wind, waves, and upper-ocean currents are essential factors in predicting oil slick transport and fate. These complex interactions, however, make capturing their dynamics in simulations challenging, especially when turbulent weather conditions are present.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. William Drennan a grant to study how wind-wave-current interactions affect oil transport under significant wave influences, such as hurricanes. The researchers are taking a two-step approach that combines model simulations with parameters derived from laboratory wave tank experiments. Their goal is to improve our ability to monitor and contain oil in the event another spill occurs under high-turbulence conditions.

“The more oil that gets away from us, the more oil that ends up in the ecosystem somewhere,” said Drennan. “Our goal is that, if there is another spill like this, we will be able to better prepare and make the clean up more efficient. If there’s a big storm coming, we need to modify how we react to the spill and capture the oil that will escape from the spill area as a result.”

4041b

The ASIST flume experiment while underway, using the laser light for the slope gauge and the backlight of the PIV. (Photo by Will Drennan)

Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Lian Shen is simulating wind, waves, and ocean currents using a suite of state-of-the-art wave-resolving models to visualize the spray, bubbles, and oil transport pathways that result from breaking waves under various sea conditions. The models will help capture the processes essential to ocean wave-field dynamics so that researchers can observe where oil goes in simulations.

The model’s simulations need to be realistic so that results represent oil’s behavior in the ocean.

Drennan is simulating breaking waves using unique and advanced wind-wave tank facilities in the University of Miami’s Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction (SUSTAIN) laboratory. Observations from experiments in the tanks will help him map the wave topography in great detail and inform and calibrate Shen’s models. Drennan is measuring spray and bubble behavior under various wind and wave conditions (including a Category 5 hurricane) with and without oil present. He is incorporating these laboratory measurements into the models to provide a detailed 3D description – a necessary dataset to construct the wind, waves, and currents field and develop a deeper understanding of their physical processes.

Drennan reflected on the project’s motivations for focusing on transport under significant wave influences, “As long as we’re going to be producing oil in areas where there are hurricanes or tropical storms, we need to understand how to respond to a potential disaster under those conditions. It’s interdisciplinary, because the consequences of a disaster affect everything from marine life to fisheries to coastal resilience. If we can prepare and respond better to a disaster, then we can avoid some of the really negative consequences.”

The project’s researchers are William Drennan at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Lian Shen at the University of Minnesota Department of Mechanical Engineering. Their project is Investigation of Oil Spill Transport in a Coupled Wind-Wave Current Environment Using Simulation and Laboratory Studies.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Characterizes River Plume Mixing Processes in Coastal Waters

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Kimberly Huguenard at the University of Maine uses a microstructure profiler to measure turbulence and mixing in coastal waters. Photo provided by Holland Havercamp of the University of Maine.

Scientists assessed the behavior of a Florida river plume to determine how it might influence the transport and dispersion of surface oil near coastal regions. The researchers found that the near-surface measurements of dissipation at the front’s bounding edge were four orders of magnitude larger than the environment beneath. Frontal processes accounted for approximately 60% of the overall mixing of river plume water observed near the coast. An energetic wake trailed the frontal edge, which could potentially increase frontal and plume mixing and could push surface-trapped oil downward. The researchers published their findings in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans: On the nature of the frontal zone of the Choctawhatchee Bay plume in the Gulf of Mexico.

River plumes are common transport pathways between estuaries and coastal regions. Mixing inside these plumes controls where estuarine material is deposited into coastal waters. Because the highest social-economic impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was on coastal communities, it is important to represent coastal processes in oil transport model predictions.

This study’s researchers used acoustic and microstructure profiling to collect and analyze the velocity, density, wind speed, and dissipation rates (which help determine small-scale turbulence) of a river plume in Destin, Florida’s Choctawhatchee Bay. The team used a satellite image of the area and synthetic aperture radar in situ measurements to compare with a model simulation of the plume’s frontal footprint.

The researchers observed a turbulent bore head (the leading edge of the plume forms a wave or waves that travel against the current), which detached from the plume and generated instabilities in the trailing wake. The bore head’s detachment is significant because it can expand the frontal zone and evolve into internal waves.  The observed plume footprint was much larger than predicted by the model.

This study demonstrates that energetic frontal zones influence mixing, plume spreading, and internal wave generation. “If ambient coastal currents oppose the direction of the plume, as observed in our study, a very active frontal zone is formed,” explained study author Kimberly Huguenard. “Understanding that this occurs in nature provides scientists with the opportunity to find new ways to include these processes in their models, improving the accuracy oil spill transport predictions.”

This study was the first to quantify the plume’s frontal zone mixing using near-surface microstructure observations rather than simplified parameterizations.

Researchers used the Rockland Scientific Vertical Microstructure Profiler in a new, uprising profiling mode to quantify mixing in the Choctawhatchee Bay river plume. The upriser mode resolves turbulence in the upper meters of the water column, otherwise truncated in the traditional downward deployment. (Filmed by Nathan Laxague and edited by Dave Ortiz-Suslow under the advisement of Brain Haus of the University of Miami and CARTHE)

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi: 10.7266/N73776Q9.

The study’s authors are K.D. Huguenard, D.J. Bogucki, D.G. Ortiz-Suslow, N.J.M. Laxague, J.H. MacMahan, T.M. Ozgokmen, B.K. Haus, A.J.H.M. Reniers, J. Hargrove, A.V. Soloviev, and H. Graber.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE) and the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science for their project Monitoring of Oil Spill and Seepage Using Satellite Radars.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

DROPPS Participates in UTMSI’s Women in Marine Science Day

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Photo by DROPPS

Team members recently taught 8th grade girls about plankton and how dispersed oil affects them for the University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s Women in Marine Science Day event. They projected live plankton on a screen to demonstrate how they move and then guided the girls in making their own plankton and discussing how they would fare in dispersed and undispersed oil. See photos from the event here!

ACER Tool Talk Series Highlights SCAT Maps

4059

A SCAT map of a portion of the Chandeleur Islands which are the focus of ACER’ research. Credit: https://gomex.erma.noaa.gov/erma.html

A Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) map indicates the degree of oiling at a geographic location. SCAT teams survey shorelines to collect important data that will help them analyze the amount of necessary cleanup, choose cleanup techniques, and monitor clean up effectiveness.

Read the full story here.

Screenscope Releases Trailer for “Dispatches from the Gulf-2″

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Credit: Screenscope

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative is pleased to announce the release of the Screenscope film production company’s trailer for “Dispatches from the Gulf-2.”

This second film continues the remarkable stories about the global scientific team studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The movie, narrated by Matt Damon, will air later this year as a new episode of the award-winning Journey to Planet Earth Series.

The first “Dispatches from the Gulf” documentary received industry recognition with an Emmy for best photography and the Blue Whale Award at the 2016 Blue Ocean Film Festival.  Using material from this first documentary, producers Hal and Marylyn Weiner created 50 video shorts that include film highlights, interviews with scientists and graduate students, and more. An associated Educators Guide provides detailed descriptions and keywords for each video and can be used in classroom curriculum and in other educational efforts.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, in response to the 2010 oil spill, initiated an unprecedented response effort and mobilized the largest, coordinated scientific research endeavor around an ocean-related event in history.  For additional information about the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative:

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“Dispatches from the Gulf” is made possible in part by a grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). 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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Five-Year Study Finds Deepwater Horizon Negatively Affected Periwinkle Snails

4072a

Researchers sampling periwinkle snail density and size along a Louisiana marsh shoreline. Photo by Scott Zengel.

Scientists conducted a meta-analysis on marsh periwinkle snails using data spanning five years to investigate how the oil spill affected them over time. The researchers found that snails from heavily-oiled sites exhibited decreased density and shell length. There were greater relative proportions of small adults and fewer large adults in heavily-oiled sites compared to reference sites. These results suggest that the Deepwater Horizon spill suppressed periwinkle populations and that recovery was slowed or incomplete. The researchers published their findings in Marine Ecology Progress Series: Five years of Deepwater Horizon oil spill effects on marsh periwinkles Littoraria irrorata.

4072b

Oil covered dead periwinkle snails found at a Louisiana marsh site. Photo by Scott Zengel.

Periwinkle snails are an abundant salt marsh species that influence estuarine food webs and ecosystem productivity. Negative impacts on periwinkles could affect other marsh species and the overall marsh structure and function. Researchers synthesized published and unpublished data from 2010 – 2015, comparing northern Gulf of Mexico periwinkle populations in heavily-oiled seaward marsh edges (~0-6 meters from the shoreline), the oiled marsh interior (~6-15 meters from the shoreline), and the marsh interior with light-to-no visible oiling (>15 meters from the heavily oiled shoreline).

4072c

Researchers estimate periwinkle density using quadrats. Photo by Scott Zengel.

The population densities of periwinkles declined an average of 73% at heavily-oiled sites, with moderate recovery that leveled off and remained below reference values during 2013 – 2015. Population density declined in the oiled-marsh interior areas from 2010 – 2011, but recovered by 2012. There were no observed effects to population density in the marsh interior with light-to-no visible oiling. Periwinkle shell lengths shortened in 2011 at heavily-oiled sites, then appeared recovered by 2012, but exhibited a declining trend through 2015. Shell sizes in the marsh interior areas were unaffected. The differences in size distribution among oiled and reference sites suggest low recruitment and/or poor survival of early recruits.

The researchers proposed that periwinkle population recovery may take several years due to effects from residual oil in marsh soils, ongoing recovery of the marsh vegetation, and the time required for snail recruitment, immigration, and subsequent growth to rebuild populations. Their study emphasizes the need for continued, long-term population monitoring.

4072d

One of the field teams takes a break during sampling. Photo by Scott Zengel.

NRDA data used in this paper are publicly available at https://dwhdiver.orr.noaa.gov. GoMRI data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi: 10.7266/N7FF3Q9S. Data from McCall & Pennings (2012) are publicly available at http://dx.doi.org/10.6073/pasta/8da296e41363a8fcb931d44a71264107.

The study’s authors are Scott Zengel, Jennifer Weaver, Steven C. Pennings, Brian Silliman, Donald R. Deis, Clay L. Montague, Nicolle Rutherford, Zachary Nixon, and Andrew R. Zimmerman.

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This research was made possible in part by grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Florida Institute of Oceanography for the project Biodegradation of the Deepwater Horizon Oil in Florida Marsh Ecosystems and Exploration of Novel Passive Remediation Strategies and the Louisiana State University Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences for the projects Accelerating Recovery after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Response of the Plant-Microbial-Benthic Ecosystem to Mitigation Strategies Promoting Wetland Remediation and Resilience and Long-Term Impact, Recovery and Resilience: Wetland plant-microbial-benthic ecosystem responses to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and mitigation strategies promoting sustainability. Other funding sources include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the State of Louisiana, and the National Science Foundation.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Sea Grant Releases Brochure on Oil FAQs

4080The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is pleased to announce a new Sea Grant informational brochure that explores basic aspects of oil as a natural resource and oil spills.  The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team synthesizes peer-reviewed science for a broad range of general audiences, particularly those who live and work across the Gulf Coast.

The brochure Frequently Asked Questions Oil Edition addresses questions such as What is oil? How is oil released into the environment? Who produces and uses oil? Does oil break down? How do scientists determine the origin of oil found in the environment?

Sea Grant offers oil-spill-related public seminars across the Gulf Coast. Click here to view upcoming science seminars and read about recently-held events. To receive email updates about seminars, publications, and the outreach team, click here.

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GoMRI and the Sea Grant programs of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Mississippi-Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) have partnered to create an oil spill science outreach program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

DROPPS Hosts and Participates in Community Response Meeting

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Photo by DROPPS

The quarterly South Texas Coastal Zone Area Committee Meeting is an opportunity for response community members to discuss recent activities and update area contingency plans. DROPPS’ Zhanfei Liu presented on petroleum hydrocarbon analysis and Sarah Cosgrove and Lalitha Asirvadam volunteered to participate in future workgroups, hoping to continue bridging the gap between science and response.

Read more about the event here.

Grad Student Diamante Investigates How PAHs Affect Fish Development

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Graciel prepares zebrafish embryo samples for RNA extractions to assess gene regulation after PAH exposure. (Provided by Graciel Diamante)

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can disrupt important signaling pathways that transcribe genes during fish’s early embryonic development, which could cause malformations. Graciel Diamante is conducting laboratory experiments with fish embryos to understand how weathered PAHs affect fish development. She is also finding that her work demonstrates the importance of perseverance, giving back, and collaborating within a diverse scientific community.

Graciel is an environmental toxicology Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and a GoMRI Scholar with the RECOVER consortium.

Her Path

Graciel began pursuing biology as an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) after her enthusiastic biology professor sparked her interest in the field. She explored different research programs and worked in several labs and summer research opportunities to narrow her interests. She discovered a passion for toxicology while working on a University of California, Los Angeles summer project researching how saporin – a ribosome-inactivating protein found in soapwort plants – causes toxicity.

4084b

Graciel (left) and Norma Menjivar-Cervantes, an undergraduate at UCR, assess zebrafish embryos after PAH exposure. (Provided by Graciel Diamante)

She completed her undergraduate degree in cell and molecular biology and entered UCR’s environmental toxicology Ph.D. program. There, her interest in understanding how different compounds affect fish cardiovascular development led her to her advisor, Dr. Daniel Schlenk. Although Dr. Schlenk did not have an open position when Graciel arrived, he was impressed by her persistence and took her on as a graduate teaching assistant. She also conducted laboratory research while attending classes until Schlenk’s lab began its collaboration with the RECOVER consortium. “When the GoMRI grant came in, she was my first choice to put on as graduate student support,” said Schlenk.

Her Work

Chrysene is one of the most persistent PAHs in the water column following an oil spill and can produce oxygenated derivatives such as 2- and 6-hydroxychrysene after undergoing photo-oxidation. These hydroxylated compounds can disrupt important estrogen-signaling pathways during embryonic development, but little else is known about their toxicity. Graciel investigates the signaling pathways involved in hydroxylated PAH toxicity using zebrafish as a model for vertebrate development.

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Graciel (left) and undergraduate Norma Menjivar-Cervantes use a miscroscope to assess the impacts of chemical exposure to zebrafish embryos. (Provided by Graciel Diamante)

Graciel prepares zebrafish embryos so that they are all the same developmental stage and conducts 74-hour exposure experiments using different concentrations of 2-hydroxychrysene and 6-hydroxychrysene (0.5 μM to 10 μM). Using real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), she analyzes the embryos to assess the expression of certain genes that these chemicals can potentially alter and evaluate the occurrence of deformities compared to controls. She also determines the number of dead and alive embryos during the experiments.

She is observing that, unlike the parent compound chrysene, 2-hydroxychrysene and 6-hydroxychrysene exposures of at least 0.5 μM and 3 μM, respectively, increase developmental defects including cardiac, circulatory, and eye defects. The 6-hydroxychrysene concentrations of at least 3 μM decrease embryo survival, while 2-hydroxychrysene concentrations do not. Next, Graciel will conduct the same experiment using mahi mahi embryos and determine if the same effects are observed across fish species. She will use lower hydroxylated PAH concentrations and evaluate embryos for the deformities and altered transcripts found in the zebrafish experiments.

Her Learning

Graciel is an active mentor in the UCR’s Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) undergraduate program, which helps students from diverse backgrounds get involved with research. While she was an undergraduate student participating in CSUN’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement program and later its Minority Access to Research Careers program, Graciel saw first-hand the impact such programs can have on a student’s professional growth. “As a mentor, I want teach them about a project’s importance, experimental design, and the ups and down of research – things you can’t learn in a classroom setting,” she said. “I want them to find what it is that inspires them, so that they can find a career they truly enjoy.”

4084d

Graciel (left) with RECOVER scientists Dr. Daniel Schlenk (center) and Dr. Elvis Xu (right). (Provided by Graciel Diamante)

Graciel said that working in Schlenk’s lab during her GoMRI research taught her that science is a continual learning process. “Just as you uncover the answer to one question, another question arises.” She also learned that science pushes forward collaborations. “The importance of networking became even clearer when I joined the GoMRI community,” she said. “The RECOVER group has great scientists as well as some of the nicest people I have met.”

Living and attending school in a culturally mixed environment has helped Graciel meet and work with individuals from unique backgrounds. Cultural diversity has had an important impact on her personal maturity and shown her the importance of a diverse scientific community. She explained, “Research needs different ideas and is highly dependent on creativity and critical thinking. There is no better way to obtain this than from diverse individuals.”

Her Future

Graciel hopes to attain a post-doctoral position, continue researching fish cardiac development and physiology, and combine toxicology and developmental biology to investigate contaminants and their specific mode of action. Ultimately, she wants to become a professor and foster students’ curiosity about science and promote higher education. She suggests that students considering a science career get involved in a research project to help focus their ambitions. Gaining research experience and working in multiple labs as an undergraduate helped Graciel prepare for graduate work and her overall scientific career. “These experiences helped me figure out what my interests were and if this was the career I wanted to pursue,” she said.

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Graciel and the RECOVER team pose for a photo at a consortium All-Hands Meeting. (Photo by Daniel DiNicola)

Praise for Graciel

Schlenk said Graciel displayed a positive attitude and persevered in the face of setbacks. He explained that when the project began, it appeared that Graciel was seeing very significant effects on the fish. However, she discovered that her results were caused by a pathogen infestation in the animal model, not the chemicals she was testing. Rather than giving up, Graciel quickly began preparations to repeat the experiment. “She spent almost a whole year on her project and had to repeat everything all over again using a different animal,” he said. “So many students say ‘tell me the easy way out’ and she’s never ever asked that. It’s been neat to see her develop through this project so that she knows now what studies to do and what end points to look at. It’s very encouraging for me as a mentor.”

Schlenk explained that Graciel is a first-generation college student and that her passion for education and women in science is evident in mentoring female undergraduate students. Schlenk believes that the students’ increasing excitement about science and research is due to Graciel’s mentorship. “It’s wonderful that she’s able to touch students’ lives,” he said. “I think she’s so grateful for the opportunities she’s had that she wants to show her gratitude by doing the same things for younger students – kind of passing the torch.”

Schlenk also discussed Graciel’s personal interactions in the lab, describing her as “the mom in the group,” helping out and taking care of issues without complaint. He concluded, “She’s just a wonderful, caring person who wants to do the right thing. It’s so refreshing.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Graciel Diamante and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the RECOVER website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Demonstrates Sinking Marine Particles Help Remove PAHs from Water Column

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Sediment traps are readied for sampling on the research vessel’s deck. (Provided by Puspa Adhikari)

Researchers measured polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) concentrations in water collected near the Deepwater Horizon site to understand how sinking particles, such as marine snow, influence the residence time of PAHs in the upper ocean.  They observed that dissolved PAH concentrations had decreased by over 1,000 times compared with concentrations reported during and immediately after the oil spill. They found that sinking particulate matter can remove up to 7% of particle-bound PAHs daily in the Gulf of Mexico. The researchers published their findings in Marine Chemistry: Vertical fluxes of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

 

 

4092b

Researchers recover a surface drifting buoy after a three-day deployment. (Provided by Puspa Adhikari)

Crude oils are composed of thousands of chemical compounds, and PAHs are a class of these compounds that cause health concerns in an oil spill. PAHs enter the Gulf of Mexico marine environment year round via oil seeps and spills, land runoff, river discharges, coastal erosion, and atmospheric deposition. These hydrophobic compounds, which do not dissolve quickly in water, attach to marine particles and are deposited to sediments. While studies have investigated the fate and transport of Deepwater Horizon oil in the northern Gulf of Mexico, this study is the first to address the residence times of PAHs in the water column.

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A buoy with an array of three sediment traps attached below it at 150, 250, and 350 m depth was deployed and floated freely in the Gulf of Mexico for three days. (Provided by Puspa Adhikari)

Researchers collected water samples (for dissolved PAHs), suspended particles (for particulate PAHs) and settling particles (for sinking PAHs). The team used sediment traps to collect sinking particles and pumps to filter water for suspended particles. They characterized PAH distribution, the removal mechanisms, and residence times.

Vertical profile samples exhibited a general pattern of low PAH concentrations at 100 m depth, elevated concentrations at 150 m depth, and then decreased or constant concentrations at further depths. Vertical profiles showed maximum particulate PAH concentrations at 100 m that remained similar throughout the water column to 350 m depth. Lower and middle molecular weight PAHs – which attach to marine particles more easily – dominated sinking PAH concentrations, confirming marine particles’ role in vertical PAH fluxes. The team determined that if vertical sinking was regarded as the only removal pathway, PAHs’ would exhibit residence times of about 15 days in the upper euphotic zone.

4092d

A researcher deploys a large-volume in situ pump to filter hundreds of liters of water and collect suspended particles in the upper 100 – 350 m of the water column. (Provided by Puspa Adhikari)

“Our results showed that the sinking particles including marine snow can efficiently transport PAHs from the surface oceans to the seafloor, and it is a key factor controlling PAHs’ removal from the upper oceans,” said study author Puspa Adhikari. This study is the first to measure particulate PAH concentrations and sinking PAH fluxes simultaneously using large-volume in situ pumps and drifting sediment traps, which allowed researchers to directly estimate particulate PAH loss due to vertical fluxes and better understand vertical sinking’s role in open-ocean PAH cycling.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi: 10.7266/N7N29TXF.

The study’s authors are Puspa L. Adhikari, Kanchan Maiti, and Edward B. Overton.

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4092e

A microscopic image of sinking particles captured in the sediment trap at 150 m depth in the northern Gulf of Mexico. (Provided by Puspa Adhikari)

This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to Louisiana State University for their project Investigating the Potential Ecological Impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Biologically-mediated Mechanisms of Removal of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Building a Rapid Response System for Predicting Water Column Processes and Oil Fate

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Senior research associate Jodi Brewster (left) and Ph.D. candidate Johna Rudzin (right) deploying a CTD with Nanson bottles off the University of Miami R/V F. G. Walton Smith, a ship in the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet. (Photo by Jodi Brewster).

As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfolded, there were concerns that the Loop Current might transport oil out of the Gulf to the Florida Keys and up the eastern seaboard. This possibility highlighted the need for quick predictions of oceanic flows and subsurface hydrocarbon distribution during and after a spill. Because physical and biochemical processes can alter subsurface hydrocarbons’ chemical composition and behavior, a successful modeling system must account for these processes when predicting oil fate.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) recently awarded Dr. Lynn “Nick” Shay a grant to develop an integrated physical and biogeochemical observation and prediction system to map the near-real-time distribution of subsurface hydrocarbons and quantify hydrocarbon fate as oil interacts with currents and sinking marine particles. Their goal is to build an observational system that researchers can easily deploy from ships and/or aircraft to start immediate sampling and begin running model scenarios for future oil spills.

The proposed system is a cluster of ten electromagnetic Autonomous Profiling Explorer (APEX) floats with physical, chemical and bio-optical sensors that provide information to a data-assimilative physical-biogeochemical model for hindcast, nowcast, and forecast simulations of oil transport and fate. The team will equip the floats with a novel combination of CTD and electromagnetic current sensors and oxygen, chlorophyll, and colored dissolved organic matter fluorescence and backscatter sensors. The system will focus on the accurate representation of mid-water column processes, including the interaction of hydrocarbon droplets with marine particles.

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Prior to deployment, Johna Rudzin (right) and assistant research scientist Benjamin Jaimes (left) test the profiling parameters of an air-deployable EM/Apex float in a Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science laboratory. (Photo by Jodi Brewster).

“These floats have been used in the field for shipboard and aircraft deployments during hurricanes and can readily withstand major ocean and atmospheric stressors,” said Shay. “These profilers were designed to profile to depths of 2,000 m at intervals of 4 – 7 days, depending on the ocean and atmosphere conditions. That means if a hurricane is moving over the Gulf, for example, we can program the floats to sample faster and examine the effects of strong wind-driven currents and upwelling on these biochemical processes.”

The researchers will perform data-assimilative model simulations to hindcast circulation during Deepwater Horizon and determine optimal deployment strategies for field testing the floats. They will then deploy the floats in the northern Gulf from Summer 2017 to Spring 2018 to assess its skill during energetic physical processes, such as the Loop Current and atmospheric events, including hurricane season (summer) and atmospheric frontal passages (winter).

The team will assess the system’s performance using profiler metrics such as temperature, current, and salinity taken pre-, during-, and after weather events. They will also assess the system’s performance using data gathered during and after Deepwater Horizon by other GoMRI projects and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They will then evaluate and improve the model’s representation of mid-water column particle distributions and fluxes, accounting explicitly for marine particles interacting with oil droplets. Finally, they will validate the system’s capability for real-time, end-to-end nowcasting and forecasting by assimilating physical and biochemical satellite and float observations in near-real-time and assessing the system’s predictive skill.

Shay explained that the products created by this research will make both academic and societal contributions, “Scientifically, we hope to show how the physical stressors affect these biogeochemical processes. Societally, we hope to provide the community with an easily deployable end-to-end system product that returns real-time data to help emergency responders and policy makers to mitigate deep-sea oil spills like Deepwater Horizon.”

The project’s researchers are Lynn “Nick” Shay at the University of Miami, Katja Fennel at Dalhousie University, Peter Furze at Teledyne Webb Research, and Ruoying He at North Carolina State University. Their project is Three-Dimensional Gulf Circulation and Biogeochemical Processes Unveiled by State-of-the-Art Profiling Float Technology and Data Assimilative Ocean Models.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

ECOGIG Hosts Family STEM Night

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ECOGIG graduate students at UGA (Hannah Choi and Yu Wang) share photos of deep sea creatures, taken with a ROV (remotely operated vehicle) with students at family STEM night. (c) ECOGIG

Consortium outreach staff and graduate students brought the Ocean Discovery Zone to Trip Elementary School’s family STEM night to share science with over 300 interested students and their families.

Read the full story here.

Photos of the event are available on the ECOGIG Facebook page.

Study Suggests Brittle Stars Limited Deepwater Horizon Impacts on Deep Sea Corals

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Close up of a brittle star on its host. This photo illustrates how closely associated these organisms are. (Photo credit: Fanny Girard)

Pennsylvania State University scientists analyzed images of impacted and non-impacted deep sea corals to characterize their symbiotic relationship with brittle stars and determine if brittle stars influenced coral recovery from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The researchers observed that corals associated with brittle stars were healthier than corals that were not. Corals with brittle stars settled on them exhibited less visible impact and a greater incidence of recovery compared to corals with no brittle stars, likely a result of the brittle stars removing deposited material and inhibiting hydroid settlement. The scientists published their findings in Marine Ecology Progress Series: Mutualistic symbiosis with ophiuroids limited the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on deep-sea octocorals.

Coral communities are considered hotspots of biodiversity and provide a habitat and food source for other species. Deep-sea corals can form large aggregates, similar to forests, and can live for thousands of years. However, the corals’ high longevities are associated with very slow growth rates making them vulnerable to environmental impacts. Most Paramuricea biscaya coral colonies – the coral species most impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – are associated with one species of brittle star, Asteroschema clavigerum. While previous studies suggest that brittle stars could use their shallow-water host corals to rise above the sea floor and gain better access to food, few studies have suggested that corals could also benefit from their association with brittle stars. This study seeks to better understand coral’s responses to anthropogenic impacts and interactions with other organisms and provide insights on protecting them.

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Researchers on board the E/V Nautilus image corals from the control room. Credits: Ocean Exploration Trust

Researchers used remotely operated vehicles during seven research cruises between 2011 and 2014 to obtain high-resolution images of corals at three impacted and one non-impacted sites. They digitized the images and coded coral branches as either visibly impacted (excess mucus, bare skeleton, absence of polyps), colonized by hydroids, or not visibly impacted. They then calculated the total visible impact based on the proportion of branches that were colonized by hydroids or otherwise visibly impacted. They developed a method to define an area under the influence of brittle stars for each coral, and compared impact as well as recovery within and outside that area.

The team observed high fidelity between corals and brittle stars at most sites, with 91–100% of brittle stars staying on the same coral over time. While some brittle stars on heavily-impacted corals left their host or died during the year that followed the spill, most stayed on their host coral regardless of oiling.  Within a coral colony, branches located near a brittle star were healthier and, if impacted, were more likely to recover. Coral recovery from visible impact decreased as a coral’s distance from a brittle star increased.

This study demonstrates the importance of brittle stars to coral health and provides evidence that brittle stars protect deep-sea corals and facilitate their recovery from impacts and the only such study on a deep-water coral species. The researchers suggested that these benefits could also apply to corals exposed to natural sedimentation events or other anthropogenic stressors as well as to shallow water corals. “Our study reinforces the fact that biodiversity is important to the health of an ecosystem and that damage to individual species can have wide-ranging effects on entire communities,” said study author Fanny Girard.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi: 10.7266/N7NG4NJP, 10.7266/N7HQ 3WVD, 10.7266/N7D21VJQ, 10.7266/N78913TC, 10.7266/N74J0C2M).

The study’s authors are Fanny Girard, Bo Fu, and Charles R. Fisher.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf-2 (ECOGIG-2) consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Develops Predictive Model for Oil-Particle Aggregate Formation

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Dr. Lin Zhao prepares oil-particle aggregates (OPAs) in the lab of New Jersey Institute of Technology. Photo provided by L. Zhao.

Scientists developed a new model to predict how much oil from a spill might bind to sediments or organic matter in the water column. The model, A-DROP, introduces a formula that accounts for oil stabilization by particles, particle hydrophobicity, and oil-particle size ratio. The model advances our understanding about the natural removal of oil and contributes knowledge towards development of oil spill mitigation techniques that incorporate oil-particle aggregates. The researchers published their findings in Marine Pollution Bulletin: A-DROP: A predictive model for the formation of oil particle aggregates (OPAs).

When oil and particulate matter interact it creates oil-particle aggregates (OPAs), whose decreased buoyancy transports oil to the seafloor. Once particles adhere to an oil droplet’s surface, a barrier is formed that prevents the droplet from attaching to and coalescing with other droplets. Since an oil droplet’s surface area is limited, the space available for particles to interact with decreases as more particles adhere to the droplet’s surface. Models capable of accounting for the effects of particles on droplet surfaces are necessary to accurately predict OPA formation.

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Dr. Zhao uses a confocal microscope imaging techniques to understand the mechanisms of oil-particle interactions during oil spill events. Photo provided by L. Zhao.

The team used previous studies to make informed assumptions about the way water column hydrodynamics affect the break up and coalescence of oil. Using equations for calculating OPA formation, collision frequency, stability, and the coating effects of particles on the oil droplet surface, the researchers created a formula that can determine oil-particle coagulation efficiency under various conditions. They incorporated the new formulation into their model, which showed good agreement when validated against existing experimental data.

Model simulations of OPA formation in a typical nearshore environment suggested that increased particle concentration in the swash zone (the turbulent water layer that washes onto the beach) would increase the oil-particle interaction process. However, the amount of oil trapped in the OPAs did not correspond to the increased particle concentration, and the team determined that only a small increase in oil trapping rates can be expected.

“The model results might explain why oil [from the Deepwater Horizon spill] persisted visually near shorelines that have sand grains in them as opposed to fine sediment shorelines, such as those in Louisiana,” explained study author Michel Boufadel. He continued, “Thus, if you are in a community with fine sediments in the beaches, you might underestimate the amount of oil that reached your shorelines.”

This study is the first attempt at developing a coagulation efficiency formula based on particle coating mechanisms. “Our study started from the microscopic scale (i.e., not only observation), and predicted the behavior, and then we compared to data,” said Boufadel. “The study was numerical, but we are currently using confocal microscopy to understand how particles attach to oil, and the preliminary findings seem to support the conceptual framework of the A-DROP model.”

The researchers noted that further experimental and modeling studies are needed to continue improving the model’s predictive capability.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at R4.x259.190:0008.

The study’s authors are Lin Zhao, Michel C. Boufadel, Xiaolong Geng, Kenneth Lee, Thomas King, Brian Robinson, and Faith Fitzpatrick.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies II (DROPPS II). Other funders include the Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada (Contract No. F5211-130060).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Building a Benthic Genome Database for Improved Oil Spill Monitoring

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Image of meiofaunal eukaryotes (Credit to Larry Hyde)

Meiofauna are invertebrate organisms that live in seafloor sediments. These marine creatures perform ecosystem functions such as trophic transfer, biogeochemical cycles, pollution removal, and sediment transport stability. Sensitive to environmental events such as oil spills, meiofauna are valuable bioindicators of impacts from contamination. However, their small size and our limited knowledge about these organisms’ community structure and taxonomy makes it difficult to track and characterize oil’s impacts.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. Kelley Thomas a grant to compile a reference genome database of benthic meiofaunal eukaryotes and establish Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for monitoring oil spills using bioinformatics. These tools can help researchers and responders interpret how spills might affect organisms in a particular area and how the organisms are expected to recover. “There’s so much we don’t understand about the relationship between the Gulf’s biogeochemical structure and the distribution of different taxa – we really don’t have any idea,” explained Thomas. “This information will help us better interpret the spill’s consequences and what kind of recovery will take place.”

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Larry Hyde reviews samples under a microscope. (Photo by Rick Kalke)

His team is analyzing as many individual benthic eukaryotes as they can using whole genome shotgun sequencing, a quick and economically-effective method for analyzing the structure of long DNA strands. The researchers are compiling the resulting data into a large database of reference genomes to identify biomarker genes based on their ability to identify changes in population and community structure. Once completed, they can sequence pre- and post-spill samples of the benthic community for the biomarker genes and identify which organisms and communities the spill impacted.

“In the mid-2000s, genetic sequencing technology rapidly advanced to allow us to run up to 200,000,000 sequences at a time when before we could only run about 100 sequences at a time,” explained Thomas. “The technology has steadily improved and gotten cheaper over time since then. That’s why today it is feasible to consider modeling the benthic Gulf of Mexico in a large-scale way just by conducting DNA sequencing and analyses.”

The project is also developing clear and concise SOPs for using the genome database to conduct environmental and oil spill monitoring. The open-source SOPs will target researchers without previous genomics experience to help train future scientists to understand the communities’ sediment biology and conduct big data analyses using bioinformatics. An annual workshop will introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the SOPs, from sample preparation to interpreting metagenomics and implementing bioinformatics.

“It’s not just microscopes anymore. Most of a researcher’s time is spent in front of a computer,” said Thomas. “The skills taught in this training will have more biological and environmental applications than just learning how to analyze Gulf of Mexico data.”

Thomas’s team is enthusiastic about the potential of their project’s products to offer analytic tools and facilitate academic progress in the field of biology. They hope to fill gaps in the current understanding of benthic eukaryote taxa, including information about their roles in the environment, their interactions, and even their viral histories. He explained that his team is very interested in the possibility of combining their work with that of other GoMRI projects. For example, combining their findings with the ongoing effort to describe the Gulf’s biogeochemistry and other such patterns and trying to link it to organismal patterns.

“We’re not just developing a practical resource. I believe that this database is going to contribute to and make a substantial impact on biology,” said Thomas. “This is going to be the way people will monitor those environments.”

The project’s researchers are W. Kelley Thomas of the University of New Hampshire Hubbard Center for Genome Studies, Holly M. Bik of the University of California – Riverside, and Paul A. Montagna of the Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. Their project is Genomic Responses to the Deepwater Horizon Event and Development of High-Throughput Biological Assays for Oil Spills.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Examines Transformation of Weathered Oil in Saltmarsh Sediment

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Study author Dr. Aixin Hou from Louisiana State University during the field sample collection in Louisiana wetlands.

Scientists analyzed weathered and fresh Macondo oil to learn about oil products resulting from microbial degradation and photochemical reactions. They observed that 48 months after the Deepwater Horizon spill, less than 1 percent of oil remained in marsh sediments collected from heavily-impacted sites; however, it was still 400 times greater than sites with moderate-to-no observed oiling.  Photo-oxidation and biodegradation contributed to changes in weathered oil and generated persistent oxidized products that are potentially toxic to marine organisms and environment. The researchers published their findings in Environmental Science & Technology: 4 years after the Deepwater Horizon Spill: Molecular transformation of Macondo Well oil in Louisiana salt marsh sediments revealed by FT-ICR mass spectrometry.

The long-term impacts of persistent petroleum and their weathered products are not well understood. This study is the first temporal characterization of Macondo well oil transformation products at the molecular level. The researchers catalogued oxidation patterns in oil samples extracted from saltmarsh sediments in heavily-oiled northern Barataria Bay using electrospray ionization (ESI) Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FT-ICR-MS) and comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography (GC×GC). They analyzed sediment collected 9 to 48 months post-spill, quantifying the biomarker C30–hopane and estimating the degree of hydrocarbon degradation.

Researchers observed the disappearance of low-molecular weight aromatic hydrocarbons within the first 9 months and detected few or almost no heavy alkanes by 48 months. No significant weathering was observed between 36 and 48 months, suggesting that the depletion of oil continued up to 36 months and then slowed down, or that the biomarker C30–hopane degraded over time. Bulk oxygen content in field samples increased 7-fold after 9 months, indicating that oxidative processes dominated oil weathering during the first months after the spill, and produced persistent oxidized transformation products.

Study author Amy McKenna explained the importance of applying advances in technology to oil spill science, “When assessing long-term impacts of an oil spill, it is critical to have techniques that are well-suited to determine if there is oil present and what it looks like.” She continued, “Oil is still lingering in the salt marshes, and it is being transformed into a very complex, poorly understood mixture that requires this advanced technique. We used advanced analytical instrumentation to watch oil compounds change molecule by molecule in a buried salt marsh four years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”

Data for this study are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at R1.x138.000:0001.

The study’s authors are Huan Chen, Aixin Hou, Yuri E. Corilo, Qianxin Lin, Jie Lu, Irving A. Mendelssohn, Rui Zhang, Ryan P. Rodgers, and Amy M. McKenna.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Deepsea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (Deep-C) consortium and the Louisiana State University Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences for the projects Accelerating Recovery after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Response of the Plant-Microbial-Benthic Ecosystem to Mitigation Strategies Promoting Wetland Remediation and Resilience and Long-Term Impact, Recovery and Resilience: Wetland plant-microbial-benthic ecosystem responses to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and mitigation strategies promoting sustainability. Other funding sources include the National Science Foundation Division of Materials Research (DMR-11-57490) and the State of Florida.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Grad Student Quas Analyzes Sediment Grain Size to Characterize Oil Behavior

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Dr. Ian Church trains Lauren to operate the Multibeam on the R/V Point Sur during the first leg of the CONCORDE Fall Campaign. (Photo credit: Heather Dippold)

Oil droplets can attach to tiny sediment particles suspended in the water column, causing them to sink to the seafloor where they can linger for a long time. Sediment grain size influences if and how oil droplets are resuspended into the water column. Larger particles sink faster and are more difficult to resuspend in the water column than smaller particles.

Lauren Quas uses acoustic sonar to map different sediment grain sizes and help understand and predict the behavior of oil in seafloor sediments. Knowing where different grain sizes are concentrated in the northern Gulf of Mexico seafloor can help scientists evaluate resuspension rates in those areas and estimate where oil might end up.

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Lauren and Chief Engineer Joshua Jansen supervise the lowering of the multibeam pole into the water. (Photo credit: Alison Deary, Carla Culpepper, and Kelia Axler)

Lauren Quas is a master’s student in the University of Southern Mississippi’s Hydrographic Science program and a GoMRI Scholar with the Consortium for Oil Spill Exposure Pathways in Coastal River-Dominated Ecosystems (CONCORDE).

Her Path

As a child, Lauren loved being outdoors and collecting rocks and seashells. Her family’s vacations often involved trips to the beach, which sparked her love for the ocean. Encouraged by her parents to see the world, Lauren spent almost a decade during her high school and college years visiting countries in nearly every continent on the globe. No matter where she went, she found that the landscapes and coastlines were the most awe-inspiring parts of her travels. “It is in these places that you realize how small we are as humans and yet how big our impact is on the world,” she said.

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The multibeam sonar attached to the pole mount off the side of the R/V Point Sur. (Photo credit: Ian Church)

While completing her bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Memphis, Lauren interned at the University of Memphis Groundwater Institute conducting visual stream measurements. Knowing that she wanted to pursue a career that would combine her passion for adventure and travel with her love for the ocean, she enrolled in the University of Southern Mississippi’s Geological Oceanography program. She switched her major to hydrographic science after working with her advisor, Dr. Ian Church, and seeing the career possibilities hydrography offers. She conducts studies with Dr. Church and CONCORDE’s hydrographic research team to understand the dynamics of oil and ocean sediment.

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The Allen Reef Liberty Ship (above) and Casino Magic Barge (below) are examples of seafloor targets researchers can map using multibeam sonar. The sunken vessels are part of fish havens in the northern Gulf of Mexico. (Photo credit: Ian Church, Lauren Quas)

Her Work

Lauren operates a multibeam sonar to map the seafloor’s appearance and depth and quantifies the grain size of sediments using acoustic backscatter (a sound wave’s intensity after hitting the seafloor and returning to the sonar). A higher intensity return indicates that the seafloor sediment has large grain sizes, while a lower intensity return means it is composed of small grain sizes. She also collects sediment samples during research cruises using a sediment multi-corer, which removes the top 5 – 10 cm of sediment from the seabed. The sediment samples are brought back to her team’s lab at Stennis Space Center, where she analyzes them for grain size.

Lauren correlates the grain sizes depicted in the multibeam sonar data with the laboratory grain analyses to graph where different sediment sizes are located. Her sediment and backscatter data are important inputs for CONCORDE’s ocean models, which incorporate physical, chemical, and biological field data. Future scientists and responders will be able to use these models to predict and interpret how future oil spills could impact the northern Gulf of Mexico.

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Lauren uses a multicorer like this one to collect seabed sediment samples. (Photo credit: CONCORDE)

Her Learning

Lauren’s first research cruise began two months after she entered her Hydrographic Science program. She recalled being intimidated at jumping into field work because of her limited background in hydrography. However, Dr. Church used the first leg of the cruise to teach her about the equipment and data processing programs, and Lauren then taught another student how to do so. “The knowledge I gained within such a short time is all due to the opportunities provided to me by Dr. Church and the CONCORDE project,” said Lauren. “This consortium is full of some of the most incredible, hard-working people I have ever met. It has been incredibly valuable to me as a young scientist to watch and work with this team.”

 

 

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Lauren describes how the multibeam sonar transmits real-time bathymetry data to the computers onboard the R/V Point Sur. (Photo credit: Alison Deary, Carla Culpepper, and Kelia Axler)

Her Future

Lauren hopes to complete her master’s degree in August 2017 and begin her career as a field hydrographer. “The world’s oceans need to be mapped and I want to have a part in that,” said Lauren. “I am excited about the advances in technology.” She recommended that students considering a career in science get hands-on experiences to discover their passions. “I started out as a geologist, and now I am a hydrographer. If you have an interest, get your hands dirty. Volunteer or find an internship. You need the fundamentals taught in the classroom, but there is nothing like experiencing what a day in the life of a scientist is like.”

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Lauren (center, gray jacket) and the CONCORDE field team onboard R/V Point Sur for the consortium’s Spring Campaign. (Provided by Lauren Quas)

Praise for Lauren

Dr. Ian Church described Lauren as an intelligent, hardworking, and innovative student whose eagerness to assist and teach others has made her a mentor to her peers. He emphasized the determination and problem-solving skills she exhibited in her leadership role aboard the R/V Point Sur during CONCORDE’s recent seabed mapping campaign. Lauren oversaw the successful mobilization of vessel sonar equipment, system troubleshooting, calibration, and data acquisition, processing, and analysis, which Church called “an incredible and notable accomplishment for anyone, let alone a graduate student with less than a year’s experience.”

Church said that Lauren’s enthusiasm is contagious and she takes pride in her research. “She is a naturally talented researcher with a drive to discover and produce innovative solutions to complex problems – I could not think of a person more deserving of the GoMRI Scholar award.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Lauren Quas and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the CONCORDE website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Resiliency and Recovery Connections in Oiled Wetland Plant-Microbial-Benthic Ecosystem

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Restoration/remediation plots set up in a previously heavily oiled shoreline marsh along the northern Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Photo provided by Qianxin Lin)

Marshes depend on a healthy, well-functioning complex of plants, microbes, and benthic communities to support the environmentally and economically important ecosystem services they offer, such as reducing storm surges and providing nursery grounds for many species. Researchers have been conducting studies assessing Louisiana marsh flora and fauna after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and have identified factors influencing the plant-microbial-benthic complex’s function and long-term sustainability. Their work-to-date suggests that recovery is occurring but is not yet complete, highlighting the need for a much longer-term study to better quantify marsh recovery and resiliency.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. Qianxin Lin a grant to bring together marsh ecosystem researchers and build on their previous work. Specialists are collecting and analyzing samples of marsh plants, benthic organisms, and microbes and are synthesizing their observations to identify connections and influence on oiled marsh recovery. Their findings will help document long-term impacts on the coastal plant-microbial-benthic ecosystem and assess the recovery timeline. They are also evaluating the effectiveness of certain restoration and remediation strategies in promoting long-term sustainability in oil-affected marshes.

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Sean Graham, Stefan Bourgoin, and Don Deis collect samples at a study site in northern Barataria Bay, Louisiana. (Photo provided by Qianxin Lin)

“Researchers are usually specialists who study just one of these components [plants, microbes, benthic communities] rather than all of them,” explained co-Principle Investigator John Fleeger. “We have a group of investigators who are working together to look at all of those parts, and we’re really getting the whole picture of how the marsh is responding.”

The researchers have been sampling the plant-microbial-benthic complex every six months for the last five and a half years. While their previous work focused on how the different components of the marsh responded to oil, they are now focusing on the long-term and larger picture of ecosystem recovery.  Team members return to study sites and collect samples for each component of the study. Some will count the number of periwinkle snails, fiddler crab burrows, and aboveground plant stems present in the field and collect belowground root and rhizome samples. Others analyze soil samples using microscopes and DNA extractions to identify the functional microbial community. They are also testing soil shear strength to determine how stable it is and to make observations about oiling’s influence on the soil’s stability or erosion rate.

The team has already uncovered some of the plant-microbial-benthic connections they are seeking. For example, their work has shown that plants, such as the grass Spartina, and the densities of animals living in the sediment recovered at the same pace, suggesting that the recovery of sedimentary animals is closely correlated with plant recovery. Fleeger explained, “We have to make these connections thinking ‘What did the plant people find? What did the benthic people find? How can we look at those findings together and make connections within them?’ There’s no one big magic index that allows us to put all of the data in one big formula and crank out a number. We have to actually gauge how the different components are responding and then piece it together.”

The researchers plan to expand their work this summer to include field manipulative experiments that look closely at linkages they have identified, such as the relationship between plants and periwinkle snails. The team will investigate how strong these interactions are and how oil might tip the balance between the plants’ sustainability and the numbers of the snails eating them. They are also building on past experiments to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of restoration plantings and remediation with fertilizer. Initial assessments of the experiments have shown promising short-term results towards accelerating the pace of recovery and enhancing marsh stability. The team will continue experimenting with and evaluating combinations of planting and fertilizer to determine their viability as methods for enhancing long-term marsh recovery.

The project’s researchers are Qianxin Lin, John Fleeger, and Aixin Hou at Louisiana State University, Donald R. Deis at Atkins North America, Inc., and Sean Graham at Nicholls State University. Their project is Long-Term Impact, Recovery and Resilience: Wetland Plant-Microbial-Benthic Ecosystem Responses to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Mitigation Strategies Promoting Sustainability.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

DEEPEND Releases Marine Navigation Learning Module

3934The module is the fourth in a series of marine environment-focused teaching and learning modules developed by the consortium for grades 6 – 12. This module focuses on navigating marine environments, particularly historical and current human navigation and animal navigation. The module is available for download here.

This module is the fourth in a series of teaching and learning modules developed by the DEEPEND (Deep-Pelagic Nekton Dynamics) Consortium and their consultants. Whenever possible, the lessons will focus specifically on events of the Gulf of Mexico or work from the DEEPEND scientists.

All modules in this series aim to engage students in grades 6 through 12 in STEM disciplines, while promoting student learning of the marine environment. We hope these lessons enable teachers to address student misconceptions and apprehensions regarding the unique organisms and properties of marine ecosystems. We intend for these modules to be a guide for teaching. Teachers are welcome to use the lessons in any order, use just portions of lessons, and may modify the lessons as they wish. Furthermore, educators may share these lessons with other school districts and teachers; however, please do not receive monetary gain for lessons in any of the modules.

You can view other modules here: http://outreach.deependconsortium.org/index.php/education/resources/lesson-plans

CRGC Releases Working Paper Exploring Post-Spill Effects on Fisheries

3954The consortium’s preliminary findings suggest the spill had at least short-run negative impacts on fisheries landings and that there may be both biological and behavioral components driving the observed changes. A free PDF of the full report is available here.

What were the direct impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DH) oil spill on the Gulf fisheries industry? This paper reports results from an ex-post analysis of the spill using publicly available, routinely collected data on landings, revenues, and fishing effort for select fish species in the Gulf. Our methods examine the overall impact of the oil spill as well as changes that occurred over time. A key contribution of our work is that it goes beyond simple pre-post analysis and applies various identification strategies that have been developed in the econometric literature, in order to identify the causal effects of the spill. Nevertheless, the limitations of the data preclude many strategies. Investigation of the short and longer term dynamics of the Gulf fisheries has important implications for understanding the resilience of Gulf communities in the face of large-scale environmental events like DH. The dynamic path of certain indicators, such as fisheries landings and revenues, can provide information about the resilience of fisheries to oil spill events at the sectoral level, aggregating the various physical, policy, and behavioral responses that combine to form the latent resilience construct. These interim findings may help stakeholders, policy-makers, and researchers define the impacts of environmental disasters over time, understand the dynamics of response, and plan for future uncertain events.

GoMRI RFP-V: Chemical evolution & degradation of petroleum in saline marsh plants & soils (Van Bael)

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Dr. Sunshine Van Bael

The importance of bacteria for biodegradation of petroleum is well described for contaminated seawater and coastal soils, but very little is known about the role of symbiotic plant bacteria in degrading petroleum. Endophytes are bacteria and fungi that live as symbionts within plant roots, stems and leaves. These symbionts are closely associated with the plant and some endophyte species serve the dual purpose of promoting plant growth and degrading petroleum inside of plant tissues. In an extreme environment such as a salt marsh, where oxygen is limited in soils, plants may be especially dependent on endophytic bacteria for resilience to stress and to respond to petroleum contamination.

The overall goal of the proposed research is to develop a mechanistic understanding of plant bacterial symbioses in relation to petroleum/dispersant pollution in saline marshes. The proposed work will characterize the transport, fate and catabolic activities of bacterial communities in petroleum-polluted soils and within plant tissues. The project focuses on Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), the foundational grass species within salt marshes along Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The specific goals are (1) to use next-generation genomic technology for characterizing the taxonomy and function of microbial communities inside of S. alterniflora tissues and in the rhizosphere, while relating these communities to the chemical evolution of crude oil constituents in plant tissues and in soil; and (2) to use new visualization and computational modeling approaches for investigating the biomechanical and chemical influences on bacteria movement at the interface of roots and soil to mechanistically relate bacterial chemotaxis to the presence of petroleum, dispersant, oxygen and root exudates. The proposed research goals directly address GoMRI research theme two, as each ultimately relates plant-symbiont interactions to the chemical evolution and biodegradation of petroleum and dispersants in coastal ecosystems. Pursuing these goals will advance understanding of key processes that occurred in the DWH spill and may occur in future spills.

The outcomes of the proposed research will include (1) a deeper knowledge of the functional genomics of petroleum degradation and uptake of petroleum into plants, (2) the first descriptions and computational models for the biomechanical and chemical aspects of bacterial movement at the root: rhizosphere interface in response to petroleum and dispersant, and (3) the first determination of how plant-endophyte symbioses influence the fate of petroleum in marsh ecosystems. Developing a mechanistic understanding of plant-symbiont-petroleum interactions could provide a foundation for the development of remediation tools using naturally occurring plant-bacteria combinations. Such strategies are being developed in other ecosystems but have not yet been extended to include coastal plants in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), where there is a persistently high threat of petroleum contamination.

This project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in the RFP-V funding program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Summarizes Current Knowledge on Marine Oil Snow During and After Deepwater Horizon

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A conceptual diagram of marine oil snow processes: (A) oil release and dispersant application; (B) rising oil and gas and plume formation; (C1–C4) processes influencing oil snow formation (wind, diatom bloom, surface dispersants, UV light and evaporation, aerosols and burning, and sinking particles); (D) a benthic nepheloid layer and oil plumes; (E) marine oil snow sedimentation and coral flocculation, and (F) resuspension of oiled sediments. Figure 4 in the publication.

Scientists conducting oil spill research participated in the 2013 Marine Oil Snow Sedimentation and Flocculent Accumulation (MOSSFA) workshop. The 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. The scientists published a report of their findings and discussions in Anthropocene: Assessing the impacts of oil-associated marine snow formation and sedimentation during and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Study author Kendra Daly summarized the main points from the workshop, “The Deepwater Horizon marine oil snow sedimentation event is recognized to be a significant pathway for oil distribution and fate; marine oil snow formation and sedimentation is influenced by plankton and bacterial dynamics and river discharge of nutrients and suspended minerals; and emergency responders should consider oil sedimentation processes when planning mitigation strategies.”

The authors reported that oil-associated marine snow accounted for as much as 14% of the total oil released during Deepwater Horizon. Sedimented oil on the seafloor may result in prolonged exposure to benthic organisms and economically-important fish. An elevated and extended Mississippi River discharge enhanced phytoplankton production and suspended particle concentrations, zooplankton grazing, and microbial mucus formation.

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Researchers use a towed camera imaging system (the Shadowed Image Particle Profiling and Evaluation Recorder or “SIPPER”) and customized software (Plankton Image Classification and Extraction Software or “PICES”) to record organisms and marine snow particles during the Deepwater Horizon spill. (Photo by Andrew Remsen)

Daly explained that scientists estimate hundreds of millions of tons of marine snow sink to the seafloor every year, providing food for deep-water animals and playing an important role in the Earth’s natural carbon cycle. Daly described a conceptual framework of MOSSFA processes, “Marine snow occurs everywhere in the world’s oceans, is found at all depths, and is a part of the ocean’s biological pump, which controls how much atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean and how much carbon sinks into deep water.” Daly explained that as marine snow particles form and sink, they may clump together with other small particles creating small “flakes” of marine snow and that some particles make it to the seafloor and some are eaten by zooplankton and begin their cycle again.

The authors said that marine snow particles are considered hot spots for microbial activity which likely assisted the high microbial degradation rates observed in below-surface oil plumes that formed during and after the spill. Some of the direct and indirect marine ecosystem impacts may have occurred through ingestion, microbial activity, smothering, suboxic and anoxic conditions, transfer through the marine food web, and immunotoxicity through exposure and/or bioaccumulation.

Recommendations for future marine oil snow studies included the influence of sub-sea dispersant application, sub-surface oil plumes, and physical processes (especially large storms); long-term environmental impacts; coupling marine oil snow models to circulation models; and baseline time-series data for all ecosystem levels where hydrocarbon extraction takes place. See the MOSSFA Workshop Report for additional details.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi:10.7266/N78P5XFP and doi:10.7266/N76T0JKS.

The study’s authors are Kendra L. Daly, Uta Passow, Jeffrey Chanton, and David Hollander.

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This research was made possible by grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE I), the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II), the Ecosystems Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG 1) consortium, the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf-2 (ECOGIG-2) consortium, the Deepsea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (DEEP-C) consortium, and Florida Institute of Oceanography.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Advances Predictions of Air Pollution from Oil Slick Evaporation

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Author Greg Drozd displays at depth and at surface modeled cumulative yields of potential secondary organic aerosol formation for Deepwater Horizon oil evaporation. Photo provided by G. Drozd.

Scientists ran model simulations for oil evaporation based on composition measurements of fresh Macondo crude oil and weathered surface oil from Deepwater Horizon slicks. The authors classified hydrocarbons with 10–30 carbons (which make up ~70% of total oil mass) by degree of branching, number of cyclic rings, aromaticity, and molecular weight. The simulations indicated that following the spill, subsurface and surface transport pathways created slicks with a range of evaporative ages. Light hydrocarbon fractions were dominate in the first 30 hours after the spill and longer-chain hydrocarbons were dominate after that. The modeling results suggest that a constant evaporation flux of volatile material during spills can lead to sustained ozone production. The authors published their findings in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans: Modeling comprehensive chemical composition of weathered oil following a marine spill to predict ozone and potential secondary aerosol formation and constrain transport pathways.

The Deepwater Horizon spill released oil that persisted on the water surface and in the water column; however, the spill also released some oil components into the atmosphere. The oxidation of volatilized light hydrocarbons, which leads to the formation of secondary organic aerosols (EPA-regulated pollutants), broadened the spill’s impact area and time scale. These conditions highlighted the need for predicting and measuring atmospheric effects and to assess human health impacts.

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Modeled cumulative yields of potential secondary organic aerosol (PSOA) formation from DHW oil evaporation for two scenarios: (left) release at 1500 m depth, (right) surface spill. Image from Figure 9 in the publication.

“Our evaporation model is the most detailed treatment of oil evaporation so far and aids greatly in predicting air pollution from an oil spill,” said study author Greg Drozd. “Novel state-of-the art analysis using gas chromatography with vacuum-ultra-violet-ionization mass spectrometry allowed us to show that some of the released oil traveled up to 100 km away from the Deepwater Horizon rig prior to reaching the ocean surface, showing that an oil spill can lead to air pollution far from the spill site.”

Drozd explained that their analysis and modeling indicated a significant amount of organic aerosol could form from the released oil, which NOAA aircraft measurements taken during the spill confirmed. Wind-tunnel experiments verified their model’s ability to accurately represent the changes in oil composition that occurred during evaporation.

The authors said that initial comprehensive composition can assist researchers and responders to predict potential pollutant formation and the sensitivity of atmospheric emissions to the type of release (deep-sea versus surface spill). Information on oil composition and prediction of time-resolved weathering effects can inform response decisions on the window of opportunity for response measures (burning, dispersant application), dispersant formulation, and predicting flocculation events.

Data for this study are archived at the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi:10.7266/N7K64G1H.

The study’s authors are Greg T. Drozd, David R. Worton, Christoph Aeppli, Christopher M. Reddy, Haofei Zhang, Evan Variano, and Allen H. Goldstein.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Gulf of Mexico Integrated Spill Response Consortium (GISR) consortium. Other funding sources included the National Science Foundation OCE-1333148.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

Study Finds UVB Radiation Increases Oil Toxicity in Marine Copepod Larvae

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Tracy Harvey at the University of Texas at Austin uses fiber optics to analyze copepod behavior. Photo provided by DROPPS from the Journey to Planet Earth: Dispatches from the Gulf.

Scientists conducted laboratory exposure experiments to assess the effects of dispersed crude oil, Corexit 9500A dispersant, and natural ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation on early larval stages of planktonic copepods (“nauplii”). The researchers found that chemically-dispersed oil significantly reduced survival, growth, and movement of copepod nauplii compared to other treatments. UVB radiation further elevated mortality rates of copepod nauplii up to 4 times and decreased naupliar growth rates compared to treatments without UVB radiation. The authors published their findings in Chemosphere: Influence of UVB radiation on the lethal and sublethal toxicity of dispersed crude oil to planktonic copepod nauplii.

Some crude oil compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, absorb UVB radiation from the sun, which can cause photo-enhanced toxicity of crude oil. However, most studies that investigate crude oil toxicity on marine zooplankton use artificial light with no UVB radiation.  This study’s team sought to bridge that knowledge gap because planktonic copepods are key components of marine pelagic ecosystems. Copepod nauplii are the most abundant forms of metazoans on the planet and the main prey of many fish larvae. However, little is known about lethal and sublethal effects of dispersed crude oil and chemical dispersants on these important creatures.

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Tracey Harvey counts plankton in the lab. Provided by DROPPS.

Researchers conducted 48-hour exposure experiments (using different concentrations of mechanically and chemically dispersed crude oil ranging from 0.5 to 2 µL L-1) to determine the effect of UVB radiation on the oil toxicity to nauplii of the copepods Acartia tonsa, Temora turbinata and Pseudodiaptomus pelagicus. The team chose these toxicant exposure concentrations because of documentation showing them to be in the low range typically found in the water column after crude oil spills and/or dispersant applications (McAuliffe et al., 1981; Wells, 1984; Lichtenthaler and Daling, 1985; Clayton et al., 1993; Mukherjee and Wrenn, 2009; National Commission on the BP Deep Ocean Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, 2011).

The team collected adult copepod specimens from the Aransas Ship Channel and Corpus Christi Bay and raised them in the laboratory.  Nauplii ingested oil droplets and their mortality rate rose as crude oil concentration increased. All experimental treatments reduced growth and swimming behavior of nauplii compared to controls, with dispersant-treated oil in the presence of UVB radiation causing the greatest reductions. Control treatments did not reveal harmful effects of UVB radiation alone to copepod nauplii.

The authors noted that, in addition to direct lethal effects, the sublethal effects of dispersed crude oil may have important implications on planktonic copepod recruitment and population dynamics. Their results support previous studies that indicate that small zooplankton, especially early-life stages and ciliates, are particularly sensitive to chemically dispersed oil and, therefore, highly vulnerable to the impact of oil spills and dispersant applications in marine environments. They also emphasized the importance of including natural sunlight in petroleum toxicological studies and models to ensure more accurate estimation of oil spills’ potential impact on marine zooplankton.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at R1.x140.125:0009.

The study’s authors are Rodrigo Almeda, Tracy E. Harvey, Tara L. Connelly, Sarah Baca, and Edward J. Buskey.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the consortium for Dispersion Research on Oil:  Physics and Plankton Studies (DROPPS) and the consortium for Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies II (DROPPS II). Other funding sources include the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program (Grant OCE-1062745) and the Villum Foundation.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010- 2017 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).

GoMRI RFP-V: Resilience Attributes for Children, Youth, and Communities in Deepwater Horizon (Slack)

The Understanding Resilience Attributes for Children, Youth, and Communities in the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill project is lead by Tim Slack, Louisiana State University.

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Dr. Tim Slack

This proposal outlines a research agenda to assess the public health impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DH) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with special emphasis on the impacts of the disaster on children and their families over time. The project will leverage face-to-face household interview data (N=692) collected by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) in 2014 on child and family health impacts in DH spill affected areas to build a three wave longitudinal data set with the 91% (N=629) of respondents who agreed to participate in subsequent follow up surveys.

Specifically, the proposed research asks the following research questions: Q1: What are the impacts of disaster-related trauma on children and families exposed to the 2010 DH oil spill, both in terms of physical and mental health effects as well as social consequences, such as increased risk behaviors, and decreased economic and educational opportunities? Q2: What is the relationship of primary and secondary stressors on these outcomes? Q3: What attributes of children and families are related to greater resilience to negative disaster-related impacts? Conversely, what attributes of children and families are related to greater vulnerability to negative impacts? Q3a: How does resilience/vulnerability vary across key sociodemographic groups, economic/occupational types (e.g., fishers and oil/gas workers), and families with different levels of social capital (e.g., social network structures and trust) or attachment to the social or natural environment? Q3b: What role do online social networks play in facilitating resilience? Q4: What sorts of issues are children confronting as a result of the oil spill and what sorts of measures do children, families, and community stakeholders see as being needed in response? Q5: How do all of the above change over time?

The ultimate goals of this research project are to: 1) Assess the public health and social impacts of the DH oil spill with a special focus on children and their families; 2) Identify attributes of children and families associated with resilience to negative disaster impacts and, conversely, attributes of children and families associated with vulnerability to negative disaster impacts; 3) Build a three wave panel dataset that allows for the assessment of within-unit change (i.e., children and their families) related to impacts, resilience, and vulnerability; 4) Train graduate students in disaster resilience research to help build the next generation of scholars dedicated to these issues; and 5) Make the information generated from this project actionable with the aim of helping facilitate disaster resilience and mitigate vulnerability.

This project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in the RFP-V funding program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Colwell Named National Academy of Inventors Fellow

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Dr. Rita Colwell

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) congratulates its Research Board Chair Dr. Rita Colwell for her selection as a National Academy of Inventors Fellow. This honor is the highest professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific innovative spirit in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that make a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.

“Dr. Colwell is an amazing innovator and inventor,” said Margaret Leinen, GoMRI Research Board Vice-Chair. “She has more than a dozen patents, most in computational biology.  Her company, CosmosID, includes innovations and inventions of hers applying next generation DNA sequencing to the human micro biome.”

Reflecting on this award, Dr. Colwell said, “I am honored to be selected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). It is gratifying that there is an organization like the NAI which recognizes the important role of academia in the translation of university-based research and discoveries into products benefiting society.”

Colwell is the recipient of other notable awards such as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council for Science and the Environment; the National Medal of Science; the Stockholm Water Prize; the Mahathir Science Award; and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star from the Emperor of Japan. Colwell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Swedish Royal Academy of Science, Irish Royal Academy of Science, and the Bangladesh and Indian Academies of Science.

Dr. Colwell is a nationally-respected scientist and educator, having held  positions as the Director of the National Science Foundation, National Science Board member, President of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and Professor of Microbiology and Biotechnology at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has authored or co-authored 17 books, more than 800 scientific publications, and has been awarded 61 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education.

The National Academy of Inventors was founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society. The academy publishes the multidisciplinary journal, Technology and Innovation, Journal of the National Academy of Inventors.

The GoMRI community joins in the accolades of Dr. Colwell’s exceptional contributions to science and direction as Chair of the GoMRI Research Board.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

DEEPEND Infographic Poster Visualizes Vertical Migration

3934DEEPEND investigators served as consultants for their partner Oregon Coast Aquarium’s educational infographic about diel vertical migration – the largest animal migration phenomenon on earth. The consortium has printed several copies of the poster to distribute to teachers as well as a large banner for use during outreach events.

Download your own copy of the poster here!

 

ACER Word Wednesday Series Discusses “Trophic Cascade”

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Food webs in kelp forests with and without sea otters showing the impacts of a trophic cascade. Source: Brumbaugh AMNH-CBC, http://research.amnh.org/biodiversity/crisis/index.html

The recent article explains that changes to one level in a food chain can sometimes result in changes in other levels, called a trophic cascade. Trophic cascades can be top-down (changes in the top trophic level impacted levels down the food chain) or bottom-up (changes in the bottom trophic level impacted levels up the food chain).

Read the full article here.

Identifying the “Missing Link” Between River-Induced Fronts and Hydrocarbon Transport

Researcher Oscar Garcia-Pineda demonstrates some of the methods the team uses to collect imagery and samples of floating oil near MC20. (Provided by Villy Kourafalou)

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Imagery from the project’s high-resolution Gulf of Mexico model represents sea surface salinity distribution when Mississippi waters extended offshore toward the southern Gulf and interacted with the Loop Current (August 2014). (Provided by Villy Kourafalou)

The flow of the Mississippi River into the northern Gulf of Mexico may have caused circulation patterns and fronts that significantly influenced the transport and fate of Deepwater Horizon oil. However, the Gulf’s complex topography and the proximity of variable oceanic currents to the Mississippi Delta make it difficult to monitor and model these processes.

 

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. Villy Kourafalou a grant to investigate and quantify how river-induced fronts and the circulation patterns they create affect hydrocarbon fate and transport in the presence of complex topography and oceanic circulation patterns, such as the Loop Current. The project seeks to improve the accuracy of hydrocarbon pathway predictions using novel satellite data analyses, field surveys, and data-guided high-resolution physical oceanography and oil spill simulations to target missing knowledge links, particularly oil spreading and thickness under different environmental conditions.

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An ASTER satellite image of the project’s May 2016 field campaign and the sampling experiments that targeted areas of different thicknesses. Multiple oil thickness gradients are visible from thin rainbow-sheens to very thick dark-metallic areas of floating oil and emulsions. (Provided by Oscar Garcia-Pineda)

“We want to accommodate this specific oil parameter [oil thickness] that has been challenging to estimate and, therefore, largely missing in oil spill prediction,” said Kourafalou. “We plan to derive a methodology to measure oil spill spreading and thickness and perform comprehensive oil spill simulations that accommodate this additional information.”

The team uses photo-GPS reconnaissance air and boat surveys and optical sensor and synthetic aperture radar data collection to measure the thickness and optical signature of floating oil near a known active leak (Taylor Energy platform, MC20) in the Mississippi River Delta. They conduct their field work during different seasons, environmental conditions, and manifestations of the Mississippi River plume, including low- and high-discharge conditions and interactions with the Loop Current. The researchers will compare field survey measurement to the collected remote sensing data to refine existing algorithms, models, and maps of Deepwater Horizon footprint and surface oil thickness.

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Satellite images based on MODIS (top) and ASTER (bottom) high-resolution satellite data collected May 8, 2016. (Provided by Chuanmin Hu and Oscar Garcia-Pineda)

The researchers will re-simulate Gulf of Mexico conditions from 2008-2017 using their high-resolution Gulf of Mexico Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model (GoM-HYCOM), which includes mesoscale Gulf processes and fronts and filaments associated with the Mississippi River plume dynamics. These simulations will help the team carefully study the interactions between Mississippi River and Loop Current frontal dynamics and quantify their influence on hydrocarbon transport, particularly when the Loop Current exports Mississippi River waters southward.

Using their observations of oil thickness and spread, the team will initialize an oil spill simulation for the Deepwater Horizon incident period with more detailed oil slick properties and forcing data. After validating the simulation with satellite data products and available Deepwater Horizon data, the team will investigate how ocean currents and other features, especially river-induced fronts, influenced the surface spreading of Deepwater Horizon oil. Repeated simulations will examine the oil’s transport behavior under various environmental and circulation conditions.

 

 

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Researchers analyze and measure samples collected from the MC20 site to characterize oil thickness. (Provided by Oscar Garcia-Pineda)

The researchers believe that an improved understanding of coastal, shelf-break, and deep-sea interactions could have important implications for oil spill science and for resource management and disaster response. “Oil exploration often takes place off wetlands and rivers, where released hydrocarbons become subject to river-induced currents and fronts,” said Kourafalou. “Understanding how these factors influence oil pathways will help improve the predictions of oil spill models and guide response and recovery efforts.”

 

 

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Imagery of sea surface salinity for a period when Mississippi waters extended offshore toward the southern Gulf of Mexico due to interactions with the Loop Current (August 2014). A special algorithm derived salinity from the ocean color MODIS satellite data (top), which provides substantially improved resolution of features compared to the available salinity imagery from Aquarius satellite data (bottom). (Provided by Chuanmin Hu)

The team is producing outreach products that engage both local coastal communities and the international science community, including middle-school science class materials designed to motivate student career paths in STEM fields and “science made easy” videos distributed through social media.

The project’s researchers are Villy Kourafalou at the University of Miami, Oscar Garcia-Pineda at Water Mapping, LLC, Lars Robert Hole at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, and Chaunmin Hu at the University of South Florida. Their project is Influence of River-Induced Fronts on Hydrocarbon Transport.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Sea Grant Releases Brochure on Oil Spill’s Mental Health Impacts

3854The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative is pleased to announce a new informational brochure about how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affected the mental health of some Gulf Coast residents. The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team reviewed published science and worked with experts to develop this brochure for a broad range of audiences, particularly those who live and work across the Gulf Coast.

The brochure The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s impact on people’s health:  Increases in stress and anxiety highlights impacts on individuals and coastal communities, which varied based on job type, community attachment, and previous disasters encountered.

The Sea Grant Team offers public seminars across the Gulf Coast. Click here to view upcoming science seminars and read about recently-held events. To receive email updates about seminars, publications, and the outreach team, click here.

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GoMRI and the Sea Grant programs of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Mississippi-Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) have partnered to create an oil spill science outreach program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

C-IMAGE Releases Aerial Video of OneGulf Expedition

3771Researchers from the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE, a GoMRI funded center) studied fish and seafloor sediments across the southern, western and northern Gulf of Mexico. Their goals were to understand the lasting impacts of oil spills and to develop baseline levels in Gulf waters.

This aerial footage shows a sample of the work our researchers perform while aboard the R/V Weatherbird II. These studies include using a sediment multicore, bottom longline fishing, and plankton tows (bongo nets).

This research was made possible by a grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative/C-IMAGE II.

ACER Blog Explains Mass Spectrometry

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The mass spectrometer used to measure nitrogen compound in sediment samples to calculate denitrification rates. Photo credit: B. Mortazavi

The entry explains that a mass spectrometer, or mass spec for short, has become an important tool in many aspects of science including genetics, biochemistry, pharmaceuticals, environmental science, geology and ecology. The mass spec is an instrument that tells us the masses of specific chemical elements in a sample. Briefly, a mass spec works by converting all of the chemical elements in a liquid, solid or gas sample to ions (‘ionizing’). The instrument then sorts or separates the ion based on their mass (specifically their mass to charge ratio) by applying a magnetic or electric field. A detector then records the specific ions present at specific times in the stream of ions.

An ion is a charged (positive or negative) molecule. A mass spec creates these charged particles by firing electrons at the sample until it all breaks apart. The ions are then shot into an electric or magnetic field. This field causes the ions of different charge to move to the detector at different rates from the chamber where the field is applied. Just as a lighter box is easier to shove than a heavier one, lighter ions are deflected more than heavier ones and reach the detector first.

For more educational entries from the ACER blog, head to the ACER Happenings page.

GoMRI RFP-V: Impact of Deepwater Horizon oil spill on behaviors of fishers in Gulf of Mexico (Saul)

The Avoiding Surprises: understanding the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the decision making behaviors of fishers and how this affects the assessment and management of commercially important fish species in the Gulf of Mexico using an agent-base project is lead by Steven Saul, Arizona State University.

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Researcher Steven Saul

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill disrupted the livelihoods of many individuals living along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, ranging from those in the tourism industry to those who fish the Gulf’s waters for a living. Many of those in the fishing industry, and the sectors that depend on it had to modify their operations (i.e. alter their fishing locations, target species, gear used, or trip duration) in the months after the spill due to spatial closures restricting access to potentially polluted waters. Some of the fishing effort during this time was redirected towards assisting with the cleanup efforts associated with the oil spill. This re-tasking had a direct effect on fishing catch and effort in 2010, and perhaps beyond, depending on whether behaviors that were modified due to the oil spill were maintained in the years ahead or if there was a return to the original behavioral patterns that existed before the incident.

To assess the status of commercially important fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Marine Fisheries Service relies heavily on information on fish catch and fishing effort that is compulsorily provided by the fishing industry to the government. This information is used to estimate trends in fish abundance over time and serves as inputs to tune the fish population models that are used to establish fishing regulations, such as annual catch limits. At the present time, it is not well understood how the oil spill closures affected the catch of fish and the amount of time/effort fishers needed to use to catch those fish. As a result, it has been difficult for the National Marine Fisheries Service to use the 2010 year of data as a proxy for the trends in abundance that year due to the substantial behavior changes that occurred in the fishing fleet. A biased index of abundance could affect the abundance estimates and the estimated catch limit trajectories stock assessment models provide for future years, as recruitment in future years is dependent on the biomass available in previous years, which is in turn, affected by the fishing mortality that year. Such biases could result in socioeconomic losses to the fishing community by either triggering unnecessary reductions in catch, or conversely increases in catch under conditions where biomass is actually reduced.

To improve our understanding of these dynamics, the goal of this project is to develop a spatially explicit bioeonomic model of some the most important commercial fishery species and the fleets that harvest them in the Gulf of Mexico. The project continues the work initiated by the PI and his collaborators, whom have developed a spatially explicit model for the West Florida shelf that incorporates the behavior of four reef fish species (red grouper, gag grouper, red snapper and mutton snapper) and two commercial fishing fleets (handline and longline) (1). The new proposed model will extend the geographical scope of the current model to the entire US shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, will include additional species (brown shrimp, pink shrimp and menhaden) and two new fishing fleets (shrimp trawlers and menhaden purse seiners). Additionally the model will be modified to incorporate the direct effects of oil pollution on the survival of adult fish and shrimp and the reduction in recruitment caused by impacts of oil on spawner fitness and larval survival. In addition to understanding fleet dynamics, the model will also be used to evaluate long term responses of these populations to the disturbances caused by the oil pollution and by the imposition of fishing closures. Alternative responses to the spill will also be evaluated to understand the scope of the possible effects of different sizes of oil spills on the recovery of these populations.

Click for access to GoMRI’s YouTube videos of RFP-V Projects…

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This project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in the RFP-V funding program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Provides 1st Large-Scale Blue Crab Transcriptome Resource for Insights into Oil Exposure

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A female adult blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) from a coastal Louisiana marsh. Photo credit: Bree Yednock.

Louisiana scientists conducted genetic sequencing on oil-exposed blue crabs to identify genes involved in the blue crabs’ short-term responses to oil. They found approximately 200 genes were significantly up- or down-regulated in gill and hepatopancreatic tissues and about 4,000 genes differed in how their transcripts were spliced together after oil-exposure. The gene expression changes suggest that broad physiological changes may result from oil exposure. This research also revealed new candidates for genes that detoxify and metabolize oil-derived compounds. The authors published their findings in BMC Genomics: De novo assembly of a transcriptome from juvenile blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) following exposure to surrogate Macondo crude oil.

The Deepwater Horizon spill contaminated northern Gulf of Mexico marsh habitats with dispersed crude oil where the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), an economically important species that supports a national commercial fishery, live. Previous studies on oil’s effects on crustacean gene expression have been limited to a small number of stress-response genes for a few brachyuran crab species.

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University of Louisiana Lafayette postdoctoral researcher Bree Yednock dissects a juvenile blue crab in the laboratory at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Photo credit: Joe Neigel.

This study’s experiment used juvenile blue crabs so that exposures could be conducted in relatively small volumes (3 liters) of water. The researchers used an oil concentration of 2.5 parts per million to produce a stress response that would not be lethal. After the exposure experiments, the team extracted RNA samples from eight juvenile blue crabs (half treated with oil), copied the RNA to DNA, and analyzed the mixtures of DNA sequences using Illumina sequencing.

Over 174 million sequences resulted in 73,400+ assembled transcripts grouped across 52,500+ genes. The researchers compiled the sequencing data into a transcriptome (the set of messenger RNA molecules in cells) and validated it against existing partial sequences for five protein-coding genes. They identified many alternatively-spliced transcripts (where a single gene codes for multiple proteins) in the blue crab transcriptome. Two newly-identified candidates for detoxification and metabolism of oil-derived compounds are genes that also process and metabolize foreign compounds in humans. The team cautioned that patterns of gene expression must be carefully interpreted to avoid confusing treatment effects from other sources of transcriptomic variation.

The sequences generated by this study can contribute to future ecological, biochemical, and population research on differential gene expression or genetic markers. The authors suggested that future studies investigate the potential that widespread differential splicing in response to oil exposure could prevent the translation of genes not immediately involved in stress responses.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at R3.x175.000:0002 and R2.x214.000:0002.

The study’s authors are Bree K. Yednock, Timothy J. Sullivan, and Joseph E. Neigel.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to University of Louisiana at Lafayette Department of Biology for the project The Environmental Effects of an Oil Spill on Blue Crabs in the Gulf of Mexico and the Dynamics of Recovery: Integrating Oceanography and Molecular Ecology.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Investigating Louisiana Dolphins’ Reproductive Health After Deepwater Horizon

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Megan Tormey (left) and Cynthia Smith (right) of NMMF conduct a voluntary ultrasound examination of a Navy dolphin in San Diego Bay, California, utilizing a heads-up video display (virtual reality glasses) to view the ultrasound image in real time. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Concern about how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may continue to negatively affect wild bottlenose dolphins living in the spill’s footprint remains high. Researchers supporting the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) studied live and stranded dolphins in the heavily affected area of Louisiana’s Barataria Bay and reported that exposed dolphins exhibited increased lung disease, adrenal gland abnormalities, late-term pregnancy losses, and an 80% reproductive failure rate – four times greater than dolphins from unaffected areas. So how are the dolphins doing now?

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. Cynthia Smith a grant to further investigate the dolphins’ reproductive impairment after the oil spill. Many stranded perinatal dolphins (perinates) in this region showed evidence of fetal distress and subsequent death in the womb and exhibited high reproductive failure rate. This project seeks to better understand how oil spill exposure impaired the reproductive health of this population through more precise physiologic measures and to assess how long these negative reproductive effects could last.

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NMMF’s Cynthia Smith (left) and Randall Dear performing ultrasound on a bottlenose dolphin during a previous NOAA-led health assessment. (Photo by Todd Speakman, NOAA; NMFS permit #18786)

The project’s veterinary and research teams will care for dolphins from the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program that have documented health histories and receive ongoing assessments to develop advanced diagnostic techniques that will be applied to Barataria Bay dolphin capture-release field studies. The techniques will help identify fetal, placental, and maternal abnormalities potentially contributing to increased reproductive failure. The teams will use blood-based hormone testing for fetal and placental health evaluations and to assess potential mechanisms driving reproductive failure.

 

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Dolphin Y01 pushing a dead calf in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in March 2013.
(Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

Examinations of live, pregnant Barataria Bay dolphins and comparisons with documented Navy dolphin pregnancies will help establish current maternal health, pregnancy status, and fetal and placental health scores. The researchers will track the reproductive health of Barataria Bay dolphin mothers using boat-based monitoring. Parallel studies will evaluate dead adult and perinatal dolphins stranded during the study period for lesions and cause of death. The team will assess tissue samples from dead perinates for evidence of fetal distress, inflammation, and signs that a breath was taken outside of the womb. Then they will compare results with tissue analyses from historical Navy perinate losses to identify potential risk factors and predictors of late-term perinatal losses.

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Ultrasound image of a dead dolphin fetus acquired by NMMF’s Cynthia Smith and Veronica Cendejas in Barataria Bay 2011 (NMFS permit #932-1905/MA-009526). (Provided by Cynthia Smith)

The project’s researchers believe that the development of advanced technologies and establishment of baseline reproductive health data will enhance the medical evaluation of Barataria Bay dolphins and advance diagnostic capacities for small cetaceans.

Smith elaborated, “This research will lend insight into the progression of disease states that are likely contributing to loss and inform our understanding of the potential timeline for recovery with regard to successful reproduction. Once we define why these animals are losing their babies, we can help determine the best way to develop strategies for their protection and recovery.”

 

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Ultrasound image of a live dophin fetus acquired by NMMF’s Cynthia Smith and Veronica Cendejas in Barataria Bay 2011 (NMFS permit #932-1905/MA-009526). (Provided by Cynthia Smith)

This project’s researchers are Cynthia Smith, Lori Schwacke, and Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) and Teri Rowles of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Their project is Investigation of Mechanisms for Reproductive Failure in the Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to Understand Population Recovery Scenarios for Cetaceans.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

How Grad Student Cui Uses River Diversion Models to Inform Oil Spill Remediation

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Linlin creates a movie of the Lagrangian particle tracking to determine the impacts of Davis Pond diversion on salinity gradients in the Barataria Bay. (Provided by Linlin Cui)

When oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill began approaching land, one proposed response was to divert Mississippi River water and sediment into the marshes to try and push surface oil more towards the Louisiana-Texas shelf. Linlin Cui is investigating the impacts of Mississippi River diversions on Barataria Bay hydrodynamics to help inform how future oil spill responders plan and execute freshwater diversions. Her research and its products provide tools for combating the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and for conserving and restoring healthy and productive ecosystems.

Linlin is a Ph.D. student in Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Oceanography and Coastal Sciences program and a GoMRI Scholar with CWC.

Her Path

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Linlin (left), Haosheng Huang (center), and Soroush Sorourian (right) discuss the research process in Huang’s office. (Provided by Linlin Cui)

Linlin grew up in a small fishing town near China’s Yellow Sea. Her childhood included fond memories of tasting new types of seafood and of fishermen selling fresh catches at the local seafood market. Most of China’s eastern coastal areas, including Linlin’s hometown, experienced rapid economic growth since the early 2000s. Booms in the manufacturing industry contributed to serious environmental issues, including coastal water pollution. Today, various fish species are decreasing in number and declining in health and size. “Many people in my small hometown do not know how to protect the coastal environment,” said Linlin. “Seeing all these heart-breaking changes made me wonder if I could do something about it.”

Linlin learned about numerical modeling during the senior year of her marine science undergraduate studies at Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology. Numerical modeling allows researchers to conduct studies using limited historical data and analyze their dynamic processes in accurate and quantitative ways. She studied numerical modeling more closely through Shanghai Ocean University’s fisheries research master’s program, where she independently developed an East China Sea mesoscale meteorological model that was used to investigate the passage of typhoon and enhanced air-sea fluxes. Fascinated by the great potential of numerical ocean models, she joined Dr. Haosheng Huang’s research group 2013 and began work on GoMRI-sponsored coastal ocean and estuarine dynamics studies.

Her Work

A major diversion is under development to push Mississippi River water and sediment into Barataria Bay to help restore coastal Louisiana wetlands affected by Deepwater Horizon oil. Linlin used the Finite Volume Community Ocean Model (FVCOM) to characterize how these diversions may impact Barataria Bay hydrodynamics, including salinity gradients and oil’s residence time in the Bay and adjacent continental shelf, and to predict possible oil slick transport trajectories for future events.

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Linlin and her classmates collect data during an Estuarine Ecology course field trip to Grand Isle. (Provided by Wei Huang)

Linlin helped create and validate a high-resolution FVCOM hydrodynamic model grid for the Louisiana-Texas continental shelf with a horizontal resolution of 10 meters for Barataria Bay. The model uses coupled hydrodynamics-wave-sediment data to simulate oil-particle interactions, oil deposition and resuspension, and sediment erosion and transport in response to frontal and tropical disturbances. Her preliminary simulations showed that Davis Pond and mid-Barataria diversions decreased salinity in the lower Barataria Bay by as much as 5 parts per thousand and decreased oil residence times from 27 to 2 days. “Reduced salinity can cause significant reductions, displacements, or enhancements to fish and shellfish species based on their different tolerances and responses to salinity changes,” she explained.

Linlin’s modeling results can be used to help plan emergency response efforts to disasters such as oil spills. Policy-makers and resource managers can use the model to inform the planning and execution of water and sediment diversions, including identifying the ideal time to open diversions and the optimal volume of water.

Her Learning

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Simulation depicting the Barataria Basin’s surface salinity and current fields after the opening of the Davis Pond diversion. The diversion is intended to push oil from the Gulf oil spill away from coastal wetlands. (Provided by Linlin Cui)

Linlin’s research experiences helped her grow as a scientist and as a member of the scientific community. Working with Dr. Huang, she learned about new meteorological and oceanic models that could be applied to her research. She also became more involved in the scientific community through her participation in conferences such as the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference, the State of the Coast Conference, and the Estuarine and Coastal Modeling Conference and participation in weather research and forecasting model training sessions. She said, “All of the excellent feedback and suggestions from other experienced researchers that I received from these conference and training experiences have broadened my horizons and improved my research.”

Her Future

Linlin hopes to continue her research through a postdoc position in physical coastal ocean research. She recommended that students considering a science career should pursue a field that they truly love and accept failures when they happen, “Failure is a natural process and always part of scientific research – don’t give up easily.” She emphasized the importance of working closely with advisors and learning from their expertise and being involved in the science community.

Praise for Linlin

Dr. Huang highlighted Linlin’s capability and growing knowledge in her field, stating that she is well-versed in the tools required for her research and able to learn new software quickly and apply it. He noted her persistence and carefulness when conducting research, citing her numerical model’s triangular grid as an example. The grid’s construction took more than six months of diligent computer work, delineating characteristic water channel networks and wetlands and engineering structures based on Google Earth imagery and the LiDAR digital elevation model. She validated the model with observational data, but the grid still required adjustments and revisions. “The work is painstaking and requires great patience,” said Huang. “Linlin is determined and has gone through the process enthusiastically.”

Huang praised Linlin’s positivity and ability to work with other researchers, “Linlin is quite polite and friendly to the faculty, staff, and other graduate students in our department. She generously shares her working notes and experiences in high-performance computing and scientific visualization with other students in my group and with people in our university.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Linlin Cui and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the CWC website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

ACER Launches Fact Sheets Series

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Introducing ACER is a brief introduction to who ACER is and what they do.

The ACER fact sheet series focuses on the goals and emerging research of the consortium and will consist of 15 total fact sheets, with two fact sheets per each of the seven ACER research groups discussing their research and publications.

The first sheet, Introducing ACER, shares the importance of diversity and resilience to the consortium’s research. The following fact sheets will include a research group spotlight that includes an overview of their experiments, preliminary results, key words, and pictures. These are an excellent classroom resource for science teachers on current research in the northern Gulf Coast and for those with a general interest in oil spill research.

Currently ACER has released three fact sheets: Introducing ACER, Consumer Group, and Wetlands Group. Stay tuned for more to come!

Fact sheets are available in print or online at http://acer.disl.org/outreach/factsheets/.

GoMRI RFP-V: Unraveling the Biotic and Abiotic Chemical Evolution of Macondo Oil (Rodgers)

The The State-of-the-Art Unraveling of the Biotic and Abiotic Chemical Evolution of Macondo Oil: 2010-2018 project is lead by Ryan P. Rodgers, Florida State University.

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Researcher Ryan P. Rodgers

Once released into the environment, petroleum undergoes physical processes that modify its native composition (water washing and evaporative losses) and chemical processes (largely oxidative, i.e. photo-oxidation and biodegradation) that we and others have shown results in an increase in oxygen-containing chemical functionalities of the predominately hydrocarbon matrix to ketone, hydroxyl, and carboxylic acid functionalities. Efforts to date have documented these weathering trends for Macondo well oil (MWO) from approx. 10 months post-spill to the present. It has been demonstrated that a pool of persistent oxidized petroleum-derived material increased with increasing weathering of MWO in the environment. However, not much is yet known about the molecular structure of the oxygenated transformation products, its environmental fate, or potential effects, as these oxidized products lie largely outside the conventional gas chromatography analytical window. However, there now exists technology to quantitatively track how the various oil-weathering processes (evaporative, water washing, photo-oxidation and biodegradation) change the petroleum composition at a molecular level. For example, it has been demonstrated that ultra-high resolution mass spectrometric analysis allows identification of 1000’s of oxidative weathering products.

This project aims to apply these techniques in order to understand how these weathering processes occur, to quantify rate(s) of oxygenated oil weathering product formation and degradation, and characterize toxicological effects on the ecosystem. More specifically, this project aims to answer the questions: (1) How does the molecular composition of MWO oil change over time? (2) Which compositional changes are caused by photo-oxidation? Biodegradation? How does the structural / chemical composition of the oil influence oxidation? (3) How does this compositional change influence toxicity of weathered MWO? (4) What is the overall fate of MWO on a time scale of 8 years?

This project will track the continued weathering of MWO and focus on early sampling dates (0-10 months) immediately after the spill, where a rapid formation of oxygenated products is hypothesized, as well as highly weathered samples (to be collected up to eight years after the spill). The proposed analytical methodologies will capture bulk and molecular level, biotic / abiotic temporal compositional changes in the MWO as it weathers in the environment. The efforts will generate a compositional database of the quantitative and qualitative weathering of MWO. Second, analysis of field samples will be combined with controlled laboratory experiments of MWO photo-oxidation and biodegradation. Third, MWO and other oils, their structurally defined fractions, and all weathering products for each, will be screened for toxicity (narcosis), and observed effects will be linked (correlated) to the molecular compositional change in MWO during weathering. Finally, since the structural dependence of weathering will captured herein, along with each fractions toxicity (and water soluble fractions), a simple model will be constructed based on the quantitative yields of each structural fraction, its associated weathering products, and rate of formation. Thus, simple quantitative fractionation of any future contaminant could potentially be used to predict the rate, mass, and type of weathering products formed. The model will be validated against field data collected from the Deepwater Horizon disaster and other recent oil spills.

Click for access to GoMRI’s YouTube videos of RFP-V Projects…

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This project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in the RFP-V funding program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Describes Oil Slick Differences in Natural Seeps and Deepwater Horizon

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Figure 3 in the publication. Map of surface oil from Deepwater Horizon across a cumulative footprint of 149,000 square kilometers, April 24, 2010 to 3 August 3, 2010. Provided by Ian MacDonald.

Scientists analyzed synthetic aperture radar satellite (SAR) imagery to compare the magnitude and distribution of floating oil from natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico and the Deepwater Horizon spill. They found fundamental differences in the surface footprints of chronic background sources (seeps) and large transient anthropogenic discharges (Deepwater Horizon). They published their findings in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans: Natural and unnatural oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico.

The study team reviewed 166 SAR images and found 914 persistent natural seeps across the Gulf (from 1997-2007). These seeps collectively discharged about 500,000 barrels of oil per year and covered approximately 775 square kilometers of ocean surface.   Over 90% of these seeps are located west of the Mississippi River delta, well away from the Macondo well.  The researchers estimated that slicks from these seeps had an estimated average thickness of 0.1 millimeter (about 1/1000th the thickness of a human hair) and remained near their source, dispersing in 8-24 hours by natural processes.

The Deepwater Horizon spill released several million barrels of oil during 83 days from a single point and covered an average of 11,200 square kilometers of ocean surface. Approximately 30%-50% of this oil reached the ocean surface with an average thickness of approximately 70 millimeters.  Subsea dispersant treatments, recovery, and burning operations reduced surface oil volume but increased the distribution area for the remaining oil.

The study authors acknowledged that determining oil thickness on surface waters is very challenging. However, the technology to do so has improved as author Ian MacDonald explained, “SAR can see through clouds and works in darkness. SAR detects layers of oil because oil tends to flatten out the waves and ripples on the ocean surface.”

The team created an animation of Deepwater Horizon surface oil, updated every 12 hours, from April 24 to August 2, 2010. The animation demonstrates the effects of wind and response efforts, particularly dispersant injection, on surface oil as MacDonald explained, “When we compared two periods of equivalent wind speeds before and after subsea dispersant application, which began around 2 June 2010, we see that the volume of surface oil decreased by 21% after subsea dispersant treatments.  However, the area over which the remaining oil was distributed increased by 49%.”

Video Credit: Animation provided by Ian MacDonald

Data used in this study are available as supporting information in Data Sets 1, 2A, 2B, and Movie S1 and at GRIIDC dataset doi:10.7266/N7KW5CZN. Satellite images listed in supporting information Table S1 are archived at the Alaska Satellite Facility. Interpretations of satellite images listed in supporting information Table S2 can be viewed at http://gomex.erma.noaa.gov/.

The study’s authors are Ian MacDonald, Oscar Garcia-Pineda, A. Beet, Samira Daneshgar Asl, L. Feng, G. Graettinger, D. French-McCay, J. Holmes, Chuanmin Hu, F. Huffer, L. Leifer, Frank Muller-Karger, A. Solow, Mauricio Silva, and G. Swayze.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf-2 (ECOGIG-2) consortium. Other funding sources included the Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory (DE-NT0005638), the National Science Foundation (EF-0801741), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (M12PC00003), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NNX13AD08G).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

How Grad Student Seubert Interprets Gulf of Mexico Resiliency Using Predator Diet

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Emily displays a shortfin mako she and her team encountered while conducting longline surveys. (Provided by Emily Seubert)

Major environmental disturbances such as oil spills can alter a marine ecosystem’s structure and even cause species losses or additions in impacted areas – changes which may have long-term consequences for an ecosystem’s functions.

Emily Seubert investigates the diets of marine predators in the northern Gulf of Mexico food web to better understand how the Deepwater Horizon spill may have affected the Gulf’s functional diversity and resiliency. “It is our duty as residents of this planet to protect and care for it,” explained Emily. “The more we understand, the more knowledge we can spread to others and help protect our world.”

Emily is a marine science master’s student with the University of South Alabama and a GoMRI Scholar with the Alabama Center for Ecological Resilience (ACER).

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Emily throws out a baited gangion as she sets the bottom longline. (Provided by Emily Seubert)

Her Path

Emily spent the summers of her Seattle childhood exploring Puget Sound tide pools and being awestruck by orca whale pods that would surround her family’s boat. These experiences drove her desire to study marine science. Emily completed a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at the University of California, Davis in 2013 and began a master’s degree in marine science at the University of South Alabama and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in 2015. Her desire to learn more about ecosystem interactions and functions sparked her interest in joining her advisor Dr. Marcus Drymon to study effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on species diversity and food web interactions.

Her Work

Functional diversity refers to an ecosystem’s particular biological processes, functions, and characteristics. Previous studies have suggested that the Deepwater Horizon spill reduced the abundance and diversity of consumers at various trophic levels in the Gulf food web, likely altering ecosystem function. Community-level changes documented post-spill showed elevated numbers of predator species compared to pre-spill observations, which could indicate a restructuring of the northern Gulf food web. Emily assesses stable isotope ratios in apex predators (top of the food chain) and mesopredators to investigate the post-spill food web and quantify functional groups, which will help her identify shifts in the system’s functional diversity.

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Emily (left) uses a knife to peel back the skin of a bull shark so she can use a biopsy punch to extract a sample of white muscle tissue. (Provided by Emily Seubert)

Emily extracts blood and muscle tissue samples from predatory shark, ray, and fish species collected in waters around the Chandeleur Islands, Mississippi Sound, and Mobile Bay. She analyzes the samples for carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur stable isotope ratios. Emily explained that carbon 13 – the stable isotope of carbon – does not fractionate as it moves through the food web; therefore, carbon’s stable isotope ratio is useful for identifying the source of organic matter that fuels a food web. Similarly, sulfur does not fractionate and its stable isotope ratio can help differentiate between benthic and pelagic food webs. Unlike carbon and sulfur, nitrogen does fractionate with each change in trophic level, making it a useful indicator of trophic position. The combination of these three stable isotope ratios allows Emily to identify each sampled organism’s role in the food web and determine if its functional role overlaps with other organisms.

Emily uses this information to look at the ecosystem as a whole to determine what the area’s functional diversity indicates about its resiliency after an environmental disaster. She explained that having more functionally diverse species increases an ecosystem’s resiliency to disasters: “The more functionally diverse an ecosystem, the greater its resiliency and its potential to recover from a disturbance like an oil spill. Think about an ecosystem with only three roles or trophic niches to fill, and you’ve lost one in a disaster. That ecosystem would suffer a lot more from losing one species or niche than a more robust ecosystem with ten roles or trophic niches.”

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Emily uses a hypodermic needle to extract blood from the caudal vein of a blacktip shark. (Provided by Emily Seubert)

Understanding the resiliency and robustness of ecosystems can help inform recovery and restoration plans for future environmental disasters. Researchers and responders can use this information to determine which ecosystems are more vulnerable to environmental disasters and will therefore need more protection and better management. “If a disaster-affected ecosystem exhibited low numbers of apex predators and high numbers of mesopredators, we should manage our fishing pressures on those higher-level organisms,” explained Emily. “In that scenario, we can suspect that something is offsetting the balance, and relieving our fishing efforts on top predators may help bring the system back to equilibrium.”

Her Learning

Emily has found that, while the scientific process seems straightforward, learning how to juggle fieldwork, lab work, classes, presentations, and conferences can be challenging. Her ACER research provided her with valuable experience in planning, executing, and managing research and in clearly communicating her research and findings, helping her grow as a young scientist and professional. “The difference between where I started and where I am now is night and day,” said Emily. “I gain more confidence and knowledge with every obstacle and task I face. I know that I am growing as a scientist every day, surrounded by amazing mentors and a fantastic support team.”

Her Future

Emily plans to complete her master’s degree by the end of 2017 and find a position that allows her to travel and work in various labs around the country or even the world. She believes that working with different organisms, ecosystems, environments, and people can help her better understand our natural world. “As I have done throughout my career, I will continue to keep my eyes and ears open and to never stop learning,” she said.

Emily recommends that students interested in marine science should take chances and venture outside of their comfort zone. Her path took her far from home to an area she never anticipated and researching species she knew little about. However, she says she cannot imagine working with a better ecosystem, study species, or advisor for her master’s research, “I feel extremely lucky and blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and I never would be where I am if I hadn’t taken chances.”

Praise for Emily

Emily’s advisor Dr. Marcus Drymon said it has been a pleasure to work with Emily as she matures into a seasoned researcher. He praised her “palpable enthusiasm” for her research and her cheerful wit, calling her an integral part of his project. “I’m proud of the progress that Emily has made,” he said. “I see enormous potential for Emily’s work to contribute to a broader understanding of ecosystem resiliency.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Emily Seubert and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the ACER website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Smithsonian Features Luminous Critters Living in the Deep, Dark Gulf

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A close up profile of an adult anglerfish female from the Linophryne family collected in the northern Gulf of Mexico. © 2016 DEEPEND/ Dante Fenolio

Scientists are finding fascinating discoveries in the largely unknown deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Some fishes, invertebrates, and bacteria have evolved a special adaptation to living in dark conditions using bioluminescence. What’s new is the discovery of specific bacteria species that live symbiotically on anglerfish and emit light.

The Smithsonian recently published an article about these anglerfish and bacteria based on research funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Scientists with the DEEPEND consortium comb through mountains of marine samples and microbial DNA sequence data to help us better understand risks when events like the Deepwater Horizon strike.

Read the article Meet the Tiny Bacteria That Give Anglerfishes Their Spooky Glow to find out how fish who don’t produce their own light pair up with bacterium that do.

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GoMRI and the Smithsonian have a partnership to enhance oil spill science content on the Ocean Portal website.

This research was made possible in part by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Deep-Pelagic Nekton Dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico (DEEPEND) consortium. 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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

GoMRI RFP-V: Reproductive Failure in Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Recovery of Cetaceans (Smith)

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Researcher Cynthia Smith

Concern about how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may continue to negatively affect wild bottlenose dolphins living in the spill’s footprint remains high. Researchers supporting the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) studied live and stranded dolphins in the heavily affected area of Louisiana’s Barataria Bay and reported that exposed dolphins exhibited increased lung disease, adrenal gland abnormalities, late-term pregnancy losses, and an 80% reproductive failure rate – four times greater than dolphins from unaffected areas. So how are the dolphins doing now?

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. Cynthia Smith a grant to further investigate the dolphins’ reproductive impairment after the oil spill. Many stranded perinatal dolphins (perinates) in this region showed evidence of fetal distress and subsequent death in the womb and exhibited high reproductive failure rate. This project seeks to better understand how oil spill exposure impaired the reproductive health of this population through more precise physiologic measures and to assess how long these negative reproductive effects could last.

Click for access to GoMRI’s YouTube videos of RFP-V Projects…

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This project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in the RFP-V funding program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Rita Colwell Honored with International Award for Tropical Medicine Research

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) congratulates Dr. Rita Colwell for receiving the 2015 Mahathir Science Award.

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Dr. Rita Colwell

The international award, given annually by the Mahathir Science Award Foundation and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, recognizes scientists who have pioneered tropical research breakthroughs. Colwell was honored for groundbreaking research, innovation, and scientific leadership in the ecology of infectious diseases and advanced technologies to halt their spread.

Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Chair of the GoMRI Research Board, is one of the world’s leading scientists studying cholera. The first woman to win the award, Colwell discovered that cholera bacteria can enter a dormant stage that, under proper conditions, revert to an infectious state.

Reflecting on this award, Dr. Colwell said that “It is an honor to be recognized for the work done over the past forty years on cholera. I am grateful to my many splendid students, visiting scientist colleagues, and collaborators in this very rewarding research. To alleviate suffering and curb the spread of disease are our goals and we are pleased to have made progress on both.”

A few highlights of Colwell’s tropical medicine research: She wrote the first computer program to identify marine bacteria, and her use of computational tools to study microorganisms helped establish the field of Bioinformatics. She was one of the first scientists to recognize the impact of climate change on the waterborne microbial world, and she pioneered the use of remote sensing for disease prediction, including using satellite imaging, to track and predict outbreaks of cholera.

Other notable awards Colwell has received include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council for Science and the Environment; the National Medal of Science; the Stockholm Water Prize; and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star from the Emperor of Japan. Colwell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Swedish Royal Academy of Science, Irish Royal Academy of Science, and the Bangladesh and Indian Academies of Science.

Dr. Colwell is a nationally-respected scientist and educator, having held  positions as the Director of the National Science Foundation, National Science Board member, President of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and Professor of Microbiology and Biotechnology at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has authored or co-authored 17 books, more than 800 scientific publications, and has been awarded 61 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education.

The GoMRI community joins in the accolades of Dr. Colwell’s exceptional contributions to science and direction as Chair of the GoMRI Research Board.
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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Identifying Toxic Components in Fresh and Weathered Crude Oil

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Ph.D. student Rebecca Lichtler prepares hydrocarbon solutions for toxicity studies in cultured cells. (Photo by Charles Miller)

Hydrocarbons associated with oil spills can have harmful effects on humans and organisms, yet little is known about the specific compounds that contribute to toxicity. The ability to identify and quantify oil’s key toxic compounds will help improve predictions of future spills’ effects on human health and marine ecosystems.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative recently awarded Dr. Charles Miller a grant to identify toxic compounds within fresh and weathered Deepwater Horizon crude oil. Miller’s team hypothesizes that a relatively small group of chemicals accounts for most of oil’s toxicity and hopes to identify these oil compounds that are crucial to understanding toxicity.

Oils from different sites and sources vary in composition and toxicity, and oil components change radically with time and weathering. There are sixteen polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) compounds that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as reference compounds for use in environmental studies. Researchers will explore oil compounds not included in the sixteen reference PAHs to expand our knowledge about the toxicity of these less-studied oil compounds.

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Ph.D. student Ahmad Alqassim prepares a chemical solution for cellar analysis. (Photo by Charles Miller)

“There are oil compounds that are more prevalent and complex than the sixteen reference compounds, but they have been studied either very little or not at all,” said Miller. “There are thousands of chemicals in oil that we have no toxicity data for at all – we don’t know what they do.”

Miller’s team will conduct genetic assays to identify oil compounds that activate the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), a protein in all human cells that can signal the expression of genes related to serious adverse health effects, including cancer. They will separate crude oil samples into fractions that will each be combined with human stem cells to identify those that activate the AhR. The researchers will then refractionate the identified fractions into smaller groups of chemicals and run them through the assay again. They will repeat this process to isolate individual compounds responsible for oil toxicity.

Miller hopes this research will provide important guidance into which oil compounds should be assessed in order to gauge a spill’s toxicity. “Some spills are more toxic than others, and we don’t always know why that is,” he said. “If we knew which chemicals to watch for, it could help estimate how toxic a spill may be.” Tracking these toxic compounds during future spills will help researchers and responders better understand the severity and persistence of the potential risks associated with oil contamination.

This project’s researchers are Charles Miller, Jeffery Wickliffe, and Mark Wilson of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Edward Overton of the Louisiana State University Department of Environmental Sciences. Their project is Toxicological Properties of Specific Aromatic Hydrocarbons Isolated from Fresh and Aged Crude Oil from the Deepwater Horizon Spill.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Watch: DROPPS Researcher Delivers Televised Talk on Oil Degradation

3783In April 20, 2010, the Gulf of Mexico had its greatest mishap in record time with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, wherein an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil (peaking at more 60,000 barrels) per day were released into the Gulf for 87 days, for a total of 3.19 million barrels for the entire duration. The ecological impacts of this spill have become one of the subjects of extensive research.

Dr. Hernando Bacosa is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His lecture at Del Mar College, “Biodegradation and Photooxidation of Spilled Oil in Northern Gulf of Mexico,” presented some recent findings about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s ecological impacts and was televised on Channel 19 Spectrum Cable and Grande Cable in Corpus Christi.

Visit the DROPPS website.

ACER Blog Explores “Primary Production”

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A four level trophic pyramid sitting on a layer of soil and its community of decomposers. Source: By Thompsma (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When scientists consider ecosystems, you will more often hear the term primary production. What is the link between these terms? Are they the same thing? Why do scientists measure it?

Photosynthesis is the process by which light energy is used to power chemical reactions that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) to carbohydrates. Here, light energy is used to split a water molecule into 2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen. The energy from that action is then used to create a carbohydrate, in this case, the sugar glucose from carbon dioxide (what you breathe out when you exhale). Scientists also refer to this process as carbon fixation as an inorganic form of carbon has been converted to (fixed into) an organic molecule that contains carbon.

Photosynthesis is the process forming the base of the food chain. Photosynthetic organisms are the only organisms capable of taking an inorganic form of carbon and, using an energy source, making food. Other organisms are dependent on this ‘manufactured’ food, so the amount of photosynthesis determines the amount of food that is available to all other organisms in the food chain or web. The amount of food made over time is called primary production. Put another way, primary production is the amount of carbon fixed over a period of time measured for a specific area. It is primary as it is the base of the food chain and it is production as organic matter is produced from inorganic matter.

Primary production is typically reported as grams of carbon per some unit of time, such as g carbon per day per square meter. If we talk about the organisms that eat, that is consume, this primary production, we can use the term secondary production. This is the amount of new flesh (biomass in scientific lingo) created, either by organisms growing larger or heavier, or from making new organisms by reproducing. The higher the consumer is in the food chain, the higher the level of production (for example: tertiary (3rd), 4th or 5th levels).

Read the full post here.

For more educational entries from the ACER blog, head to the ACER Happenings page.

GoMRI RFP-V: Genomic Responses to Deepwater Horizon and high-throughput biological assays (Thomas)

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Researcher W. Kelley Thomas

The Genomic Responses to the Deepwater Horizon event and development of high-throughput biological assays for oil spills project is lead by W. Kelley Thomas, University of New Hampshire.

Within the GoM, the benthic environment is biologically hyper-diverse, performing critical ecosystem functions that have consequences for the ecology of the entire GoM region. Benthic communities are strongly impacted by oil spills, which render them a valuable tool for assaying and monitoring the impacts of contamination. However, the characterization of these communities has been impractical for large- scale deployment due to the tedious and time-consuming nature of the taxonomy required to accurately describe these communities. This project leverages recent and dramatic advances in DNA sequencing technology that have transformed the process of rapid, accurate, and cheap assays of community biodiversity. To achieve these goals, the project team brings together the interdisciplinary expertise in marine biology, taxonomy, genomics and bioinformatics necessary for the development of a meaningful and robust technology and has formulated three objectives.

Objective 1: Use targeted sequencing of individual benthic eukaryotes to generate a representative sample of diverse genomes from which to select an expanded set of nuclear and mitochondrial loci for targeted mining of shotgun metagenomic data.

Objective 2: Assess eukaryotic community structure across space and time via high-throughput sequencing of environmental metagenomes using a new and expanded array of nuclear and mitochondrial marker genes.

Objective 3: Establish Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and reproducible bioinformatic workflows for environmental monitoring of oil spills. This will include establishing a database for integration of taxonomic and molecular datasets, and dissemination of tools and educational resources.

Click for access to GoMRI’s YouTube videos of RFP-V Projects…

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This project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in the RFP-V funding program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

 

Rapid Response Study Documents Marine Microbial Response to Hercules Gas Blowout

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The 2013 Hercules 265 blowout released large quantities of methane into the Gulf of Mexico for two days until the well self-sealed. (Photo by Dr. Bonny Schumaker president and founder of On Wings of Care onwingsofcare.org)

Research consortia involved in the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) self-organized a rapid response to characterize the waters around the Hercules 265 rig. They found evidence of an immediate response from the surrounding environment’s microbial community to elevated methane concentrations. Using radium isotope measurements, researchers created a timeline of bottom water exposure to the rig’s output. They published their findings in Deep-Sea Research II: Hercules 265 rapid response: Immediate ecosystem impacts of a natural gas blowout incident.

The Hercules 265 blowout occurred on July 23, 2013, releasing large quantities of methane into the northern Gulf of Mexico for two days. Members of five research consortia (ECOGIG, GISR, CWC, C-IMAGE, and CARTHE) went to the gas blowout site to study the impacts on the marine environment and better understand the nature and timescale of the microbial community responses. Researchers deployed surface drifters and collected water and nutrient samples just a few days after the initial blowout and returned approximately one month later to assess the area’s recovery.

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(L-R) Dr. Terry Wade (Texas A&M University, GISR) and researchers Matthew Rich (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, CWC), Sarah Weber (Georgia Tech, ECOGIG), and Joye Battles (University of Georgia, ECOGIG) were among the team who conducted field work during the second leg of the Hercules 265 rapid response cruise. (Photo by Max Wike)

The team’s estimates of methane presence suggested that the gas flow was greatly reduced or halted when the well self-sealed. They also observed clear biogeochemical evidence of a marine microbial ecosystem response, including a significant drawdown of dissolved oxygen to hypoxic conditions, the incorporation of methane-derived carbon into the food web, and measurable methane assimilation and nitrogen fixation rates. Measurements taken one month after the initial sampling showed that the ecosystem had returned to background conditions.

The researchers emphasized the importance of focused rapid response efforts and repeated sampling to further understanding of microbial responses to sudden environmental distress from oil and gas operations. Study author Sarah C. Weber commented, “Thanks to the coordinated efforts of researchers at sea and on land and colleagues from various consortia, we were able to begin sampling within just days of the blowout and collected unique datasets that told a coherent story about the blowout’s impact on the water column. This research is significant because it shows that a natural gas blowout can have a rapid and measureable impact on the local microbial community, as well as on the local oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen cycles.”

The study’s authors are Sarah C. Weber, Leigha Peterson, Jessica J. Battles, Brian J. Roberts, Richard N. Peterson, David J. Hollander, Jeffrey P. Chanton, Samantha B. Joye, and Joseph P. Montoya.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at R1.x132.134:0127; R1.x132.134:0066; R1.x134.073:0012; R1.x132.134:0032; R1.x132.134:0073; R1.x132.134:0074; and R1.x139.145:0012.

See related stories for more information:

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) consortium, the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE), the Coastal Waters Consortium (CWC), the Gulf of Mexico Integrated Spill Response Consortium (GISR), and the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE). Other funding sources included the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research Program (NGOMEX09).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Grad Student Pasparakis Looks to Fish Embryos for Long-Term Oil Spill Answers

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Christina analyzes different life stages of mahi-mahi embryos under a stereomicroscope. (Photo by Dan DiNicola)

Studies that investigate the effects of oil exposure on developing fish are typically conducted at otherwise non-stressful ambient conditions, which may result in conservative impact estimates. Christina Pasparakis is studying the combined effects of oil exposure and other environmental stressors to create a more comprehensive assessment of Deepwater Horizon impacts.

Christina is a marine science Ph.D. student at the University of Miami and a GoMRI Scholar with the RECOVER consortium.

Her Path

Christina grew up on Key Biscayne, a south Florida island, where she developed a deep appreciation for the ocean and marine life. She was five years old when Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida, including Key Biscayne’s once-flourishing Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. A few years later, however, salt marshes and mangrove ecosystems brimming with new forms of marine life had replaced the invasive Australian Pines that once dominated the park. “Watching the island regenerate after such a profound natural disaster, I learned a valuable lesson: nature is, in fact, remarkably resilient,” she explained. “It solidified my interest in studying nature and its incredible ability to adapt to changing conditions.”

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Christina makes a high-energy water-accommodated fraction (HEWAF) from surface oil. These WAF dilutions will be used in exposure experiments with embryonic mahi-mahi. (Photo by Dan DiNicola)

As Christina completed her biology master’s degree at San Francisco State University in 2013 and entered the University of Miami’s Ph.D. program in marine science, news about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill deeply saddened her. She became increasingly concerned as the spill’s ecological severity grew over time. When her advisor Dr. Martin Grosell started a multi-year oil spill research project in 2015, which continued his Natural Resources Damage Assessment oil-impact studies, Christina began researching oil’s effects on the developing Gulf fish whose spawning period temporally and geographically overlapped with the Deepwater Horizon event.

 

 

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Christina hydrates a microplate used for high-throughput oxygen consumption data in small organisms, such as embryos and larvae. (Photo by Dan DiNicola)

Her Work 

Recent studies suggest that oil toxicity may cause cardiovascular and morphological abnormalities in the embryonic and larval stages of developing fish. These sublethal effects of oil exposure may have subtle, yet ecologically significant, long-term consequences on entire fish populations. Christina is currently focused on understanding factors that affect developing embryos’ buoyancy, a critical aspect of their survival that helps promote dispersal and positioning of hatched larvae in the food-laden upper water column.

 

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Stereomicroscope images of early life stage mahi-mahi at different developmental periods. The embryos (top) are 2 days post-fertilization and a few hours away from hatch, while the larvae (bottom left and right) are 2-3 days post-hatch. (Image by Christina Pasparakis)

Christina conducts exposure experiments on mahi-mahi at early developmental life stages using varying concentrations and types of oil (such as surface oil or source oil) and different environmental stressors, such as UV radiation, temperature, and salinity. She then quantifies changes in embryonic buoyancy over time, measures their sinking rate and nitrogenous waste excretion, and uses optical and imaging systems to assess oxygen consumption, cardiac function, and overall development. “All of these variables have significant implications for fish survival and growth to later life-stages,” explained Christina. “For example, embryos sinking down the water column earlier in development could place them in unfavorable conditions for hatching and post-hatch feeding and may increase predation risk.”

So far, Christina’s research has found that larvae who were exposed to oil as embryos displayed increased oxygen consumption rates, indicating elevated metabolic rates and the potential for corresponding increases in energy depletion. She observed depletions in embryonic mahi-mahi yolk sacs, the sole energy substrates for most developing fish embryos, which confirmed the projected energy depletion. Her results are the first to demonstrate increased energy demand and energy depletion in oil-exposed fish embryos and larvae.

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Christina at the University of Miami-sponsored Ocean Kid’s Day, a program that invites children from low-performing, high-needs elementary schools to participate in a day of marine science adventures. Here, she shows a young girl how early life stages of live mahi-mahi look under a microscope. (Photo by Elena Papademetriou)

Her Learning

Christina’s Ph.D. research has taught her the importance of creating a strong foundation of knowledge and expertise before jumping into an experiment. Troubleshooting the oxygen-sensing system she used to measure oxygen consumption was a long, tedious, and often frustrating process that did not produce any useable results. Reflecting on that process today, however, she has a much different perspective. “Those months of troubleshooting and method development were arguably some of the most valuable and character building experiences of my Ph.D.,” she explained. “It helped me test my boundaries and taught me that creativity and improvisation are critical skills in science.”

Christina believes in the importance of investing in future scientists. She initially found training and supervising undergraduate volunteers in the Grosell lab especially challenging and asked for a different lab duty. However, Grosell insisted that a person can only excel by improving on their weaknesses and assigned her even more undergraduates – it was ultimately one of the most fulfilling aspects of her Ph.D. “I learned how to be simultaneously critical and motivating and became a much more qualified mentor and teacher,” she said. “Watching my current undergraduate volunteer grow as a scientist and conduct experiments alone has been very rewarding and has solidified my passion to teach in the future.”

Participation in outreach activities with local students through the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science has been an important part of Christina’s growth. She volunteered with Ocean Kids, a University of Miami-sponsored program that introduces at-risk grade school students to science. She also helped with Women in Science Day to inspire young girls to pursue scientific careers. “My volunteer activities provided an effective way to motivate younger generations to care about the sustainability and preservation of our ocean and fisheries,” said Christina. “I believe spreading knowledge about the destructive consequences of environmental catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will help prevent these disasters from happening in the future and better prepare us for when they do occur.”

Her Future

Christina wants a career that will allow her to study, learn, and teach about oceans and their ability to adapt and recover during periods of rapid environmental change. She hopes to continue spreading awareness about the current state of marine ecosystems and how global climate change, increased pollution, and environmental disasters risk oceans’ sustainability and diverse marine life. “Motivation requires optimism,” she concluded. “Despite recent studies displaying dire projections for the future, we must find a way to focus on the positive and believe in the resilience of nature.”

Praise for Christina
Dr. Grosell noted that, in addition to pursuing her own research, Christina plays a central role in numerous collaborative projects with visiting scientists and University of Miami colleagues. “The ability to develop equipment and techniques for sophisticated measurements is a hallmark of an outstanding Ph.D. student. In Christina, these skills are combined with strong writing skills, and she consistently connects well with broad audiences,” said Grosell. “I view Christina as an exceptionally strong young scientist with immense potential.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Christina Pasparakis and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the RECOVER website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Sea Grant Releases Brochure on Oil Spill and Fish Lesions

3735The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative is pleased to announce a new informational brochure about the connection of Deepwater Horizon and fish lesions reported in the winter following the spill. The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team reviewed published science and worked with experts to develop this brochure for a broad range of audiences, particularly those who live and work across the Gulf Coast.

The brochure Skin Lesions in Fish: Was There a Connection to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill? explains what fish skin lesions are, what factors might cause lesions, and what fish lesion data can tell us about the oil spill.

The Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team offers public seminars across the Gulf Coast. Click here to view upcoming science seminars and read about recently-held events. To receive email updates about seminars, publications, and the outreach team, click here.

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GoMRI and the Sea Grant programs of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Mississippi-Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) have partnered to create an oil spill science outreach program.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Advances Food Web Matrix for Improved Atlantis Ecosystem Model

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Researchers dissect a fish gut to analyze its diet and learn about predator-prey linkages. Photo provided by Cameron Ainsworth.

Researchers analyzed diet information for 474 unique fish species to quantify likely contributions of prey to predators’ diets for an improved marine food web matrix model. They identified previously missing predator-prey linkages, recategorized predators and prey into functional groups based on ecological factors, and quantified error ranges to reflect diet variability and data quality. The revised matrix improved Atlantis ecosystem model hindcasts for the entire Gulf of Mexico and predicted population trends more accurately. They published their methods in Fisheries Research: Progression of a Gulf of Mexico food web supporting Atlantis ecosystem model development.

Marine management strategies have shifted focus from analyzing individual components to entire ecosystems for improved future marine ecosystem sustainability. Ecosystem models often consider the diets of hundreds to thousands of species, making it necessary to group species together by niche and dietary habitats. This study contributes improvements to the Atlantis Marine Ecosystem Model – a three dimension biogeochemical model representing ocean physics, nutrient cycling, and high trophic level dynamics and fisheries – that serves as a strategic tool to assess Gulf of Mexico ecosystem dynamics.

The research team performed hierarchical cluster analysis to determine functional groups that have similar prey requirements, then produced a food web diagram representing the interactions between predators and prey. The researchers compared this study’s diet matrix with ten Gulf of Mexico food webs and determined where variation in food web structure exists. A hindcast from 1980 to 2010 using Atlantis showed an improved fit to observational data and reduced error in biomass projections using the revised diet information.

The team found that the revised matrix more closely resembled deepwater food webs than nearshore food webs, suggesting greater variability in predator composition and prey resources in nearshore areas. The missing prey linkages identified in this study may help inform decisions about where targeted sampling efforts should be applied to fill gaps in the current literature and create a greater distinction between inshore/nearshore and reef fish. The researchers noted that integrating additional diet information from other nearshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico would improve the representation of estuarine-dependent interactions and area-specific species assemblages.

This study’s data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at DOI: R4.x267.182:0003.

The study’s authors are Joseph H. Tarnecki, Amy A. Wallace, James D. Simons, and Cameron H. Ainsworth.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II). Other funding sources included the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Southeast Regional Office Marine Fisheries Initiative (NA13NMF4330171), the Marine Resource Assessment Program at the University of South Florida (95-NA10OAR4320143), and the National Sea Grant College Program (NA10-OAR4170079).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Examines Gulf Killifish Rapid Adaptive Resistance to Contaminants

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Benjamin Dubansky hauls traps to collect Gulf killifish. Photo by Anton Falcone.

Scientists conducted exposure experiments on Gulf killifish populations with known adaptions to common environmental contaminates to determine how rapid adaptation affects future fish health. The researchers found that larvae from killifish that adapted to dioxin-like compounds exhibited higher resistance to oxidative stress and carbamates than did killifish larvae from areas with little-to-no known toxicant exposure. These findings suggest that adaptive toxicant resistance may involve multiple mechanistic pathways.  The team published their findings in Aquatic Toxicology: Cross-resistance in Gulf Killifish (Fundulus grandis) populations resistant to dioxin-like compounds.

Previous research identified that killifish populations in the Houston Ship Channel, which has a long history of industrial pollution, rapidly adapted to resist developmental cardiac deformities caused by a complex mixture of toxicants. The expectation was that the toxin-resistant adaptation passed on to the next generation but came with physiological trade-offs such as increased sensitivity to other environmental stressors, such as hypoxia. However, no such tradeoff could be established.

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Contaminated site along the Houston Ship Channel where elevated levels of toxicants are coincident with resistant populations of Gulf killifish. Here, traps are set in a small tidal cut amid trash and debris to collect resistant fish for study. Photo by Benjamin Dubansky.

Author Benjamin Dubansky noted the significance of the study’s findings, “It is astounding to see not only a fish population that appears to be unbothered by PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and other contaminants that would otherwise be lethal, but also that this trait is transmitted from one generation to the next.” He continued, “However, we did observe some interesting differences between populations, which are now driving the research in new directions to help better understand the long-term effects of toxicant exposure on fish populations.”

Author Warren Burggren emphasized the study’s contributions to understanding oil spill impacts and recovery, “In a research area where there are such frequent findings of long-term environmental disruption and damage, it’s encouraging to see that some key organisms can develop resistance to human-induced environmental degradation. This encourages us to think that some effects can be mitigated relatively quickly through the natural characteristics of the organisms.”

The study’s authors are Elias M. Oziolor, Benjamin Dubansky, Warren W. Burggren, and Cole W. Matson.

Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi: 10.7266/N7513W6W; doi: 10.7266/N78S4MWF.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Relationship of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in Fish for Validation of Ecological Risk (RECOVER) consortium. Other funding sources included the Baylor University’s C. Gus Glasscock, Jr. Endowed Fund for Excellence in Environmental Sciences and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Grad Student Fiore Investigates Oil Spill Impacts on Gulf Economy and Fisheries Resiliency

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Jacqueline Fiore is an economic analysis and policy Ph.D. student at Tulane University. (Provided by Jacqueline Fiore)

Natural and manmade disasters often involve long-term effects, but the majority of follow-up research tends to focus on the biophysical impacts rather than the social. Jacqueline Fiore, a Louisiana resident, understands how disasters such as hurricanes and oil spills can impact local industries, citizens, and ecosystems.

Jacqueline, a Ph.D. student in Tulane University’s Economic Analysis and Policy program and a GoMRI Scholar with the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC), uses applied economics to study the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s socioeconomic impacts on Gulf fisheries, assess their ability to recover, and help inform future oil spill response.

Her Path

Jacqueline’s journey into oil spill research began on the other side of the globe after she completed a bachelor’s degree in communications and two master’s degrees in epidemiology and economics. She worked for Michigan State University conducting epidemiological studies on malaria in Malawi, Africa with the National Institutes of Health Malawi International Center for Excellence in Malaria Research program. While she enjoyed this research, Jacqueline felt that she was still searching for her “niche” and realized that she wanted to learn econometric methods for public health research.

Jacqueline entered Tulane University’s Ph.D. program in economic analysis and policy. Her advisor Dr. K. Brent Venable introduced her to the CRGC studies on Gulf communities’ resilience to large-scale environmental disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Jacqueline joined the project’s economics sub-team with her other two advisors RAND Corporation economists Drs. Craig Bond and Shanthi Nataraj and uses economic analysis to study the oil spill’s impact on the fishing industry.

Her Work

Jacqueline explained that the concept of resilience refers to human communities’ ability to respond, reorganize, and recover during and following a damaging event. She continued, “The dynamics of certain indicators, such as fisheries landings and revenues, can provide information about the abilities of fisheries to withstand and recover from oil spill events.”

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Jacqueline presents her preliminary findings at the CRGC All-Hands Meeting in Mobile, Alabama, in June 2016. (Photo by Elizabeth Thornton of RAND Corporation)

Jacqueline contacted approximately 70 fisheries and tourism representatives for insight into the best data sources for her research and identified National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) commercial fishing data and state-maintained trip ticket datasets as the most comprehensive sources for pre- and post-spill data. She then worked with the CRGC economics sub-team to identify the best model specifications for analysis. She plans to combine these specifications with public- and restricted-access data to assess the spill’s effects on fisheries landings for select Gulf fish species.

Jacqueline’s research will quantify impacts to fisheries landings in pounds and revenues over time, accounting for variables such as number of fishing trips, type of gear used, and total area fished. She will complement anecdotal accounts and time-series data with an econometric assessment to place the spill’s economic impacts in context with the impacts of the 2005 hurricane season. Ultimately, Jacqueline hopes that her findings will help the fisheries industry and associated communities prepare for the way various Gulf fish species and fishers may respond to future disasters.

Her Learning

Jacqueline discovered that the research process can be challenging, particularly when working with human-related data. She recalls learning about and adhering to data confidentiality rules when using government datasets, adjusting her economic models to match each data source’s availability and variables, and even reframing how she communicated her findings to various audiences. For example, she adapted presentations of her preliminary results at CRGC All-Hands Meetings to better suit an audience without an economics background. Rather than focusing on her work’s detailed methods and techniques, which the audience would not be familiar with, she focused on graphs that illustrated trends in her findings.

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Dominik’s Seafood Inc. – a shrimp processing plant in Bayou La Batre, Alabama – is one of the many local Gulf-area businesses that could benefit from Jacqueline’s research with the economics sub-team. (Photo by Jacqueline Fiore)

Jacqueline also experienced how her research can impact and be impacted by a wide range of people. CRGC All Hands Meetings are attended by the consortium’s technical and stake holder advisory committees, principal investigators, research staff, and graduate students, allowing Jacqueline to gain valuable feedback about her findings from a diverse audience. Fellow researchers offered insights into why some fish species may have been more affected after the spill than others and theorized how fisheries closures might cause some fish species to appear more resilient than they may actually be. She also met with Deepwater Horizon-impacted community members and observed seafood processing plants on a field trip to Bayou La Batre, Alabama. The plant’s employees may use her results to identify which fish species may be the most affected and to estimate financial impacts should another disaster occur.

Her Future

Jacqueline plans to complete her Ph.D. in spring 2018 and hopes to pursue a research program or program management position where she can use her training and expertise in economics and epidemiology. She is particularly interested in industry- or government-initiated projects that are implemented in an academic or private sector, because she “enjoys multidisciplinary collaboration, quick turnaround, and the ability to measure her findings’ impact on the target audience.”

She has found that a person’s career path can evolve based on interactions with others, job opportunities, and academic training and advises that students take time for self-reflection on their life experiences. “Try to learn something from each opportunity and challenge you encounter,” she said. “Your initial goals may look much different from the final outcome.”

Praise for Jacqueline

Craig Bond and Shanthi Nataraj praised Jacqueline’s enthusiasm and contributions to their work. “She not only does what would be expected of a research assistant – conducting literature reviews and data analyses – she also goes above and beyond and contributes to the intellectual design of the effort. Perhaps as importantly, she always does so with a smile,” said Bond. They explained that Jacqueline is considered a full partner on the research, “She has become a valuable colleague over the past two years, and we look forward to our continued collaboration.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Jacqueline Fiore and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the CRGC website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Identifies Ocean Processes That Drive Surface Material Clustering

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The spatial distribution of Lagrangian divergence energy in the Gulf of Mexico is represented in this 3 km model simulation for the period of July 20, 2012 to August 30, 2012. See Figure 8 in the publication for more detailed comparisons that show local peaks. Image provided by Gregg Jacobs.

Scientists analyzed Gulf of Mexico model simulations to understand the flow processes that drive clustering of buoyant material such as Sargassum, oil from seeps and spills, and debris on the ocean surface. They observed similar clustering patterns from the deep ocean and continental shelf, though the processes driving clustering differed between areas. Smaller-scale ocean features prompted stronger surface divergence and were the dominate driver of initial material clustering. As the effect of small-scale features on clustering diminished over time, larger-scale processes drove continued clustering. Understanding how different ocean processes determine the way materials accumulate on the surface can improve the effectiveness of oil spill cleanup efforts. The researchers published their findings in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans: Ocean processes underlying surface clustering.

Lagrangian divergence is the major force that contributes to clustering of material at the ocean surface. This study examined the effects of various surface ocean processes on Lagrangian divergence using data from the Grand Lagrangian Deployment or GLAD (deep ocean surface water) and the Surfzone Coastal Oil Pathways Experiment or SCOPE (continental shelf surface water). The team focused on surface clustering influenced by submesoscale to mesoscale ocean features (500 m to 500 km horizontal scales).  These small- and large-scale processes control cluster formation, deformation, and dispersal. The scientists conducted a series of numerical ocean model simulations with increasing resolutions – each of which captured a different spectrum of phenomena – to systematically investigate ocean processes.

Study author Denny Kirwan stated, “This work along with the companion paper of Huntley et al. (2015) have begun to unravel a perplexing mystery: in an ocean that is known to disperse material over great distances, how is it that stuff at the surface tends to cluster? It is only in the last few years that computing technology along with high-resolution data acquired by CARTHE with GoMRI support has it been possible to coalesce the fundamental technologies and begin to address this problem.”

Study author Gregg Jacobs noted the progress in oil spill response that this research contributed to, “Addressing hazardous spills has previously taken into account ocean forecasts that predict where currents will transport ocean material. Now, we have an initial understanding of clustering and have simulated how to address a hazardous spill taking into account the additional clustering forecasts, which shows that cleanup efficiency can be increased by a factor of 20 over a few days.”

Technologies of ocean forecast systems and Lagrangian dynamical understanding from different institutes working together have resulted in synergistic capabilities that enable scientists to make advancements for future applications.  This study’s team has made fundamental science advances, resulting in their submission of a patent application based on the new algorithms and insights. Jacobs noted, “There remain many difficult problems, and the CARTHE consortium continues to resolve many intertwined problems that affect our natural resources.”

Data from model experiments is available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative under DOI numbers: 10.7266/N7FQ9TJ6, 10.7266/N76Q1V5G, and 10.7266/N72Z13F4, or by contacting author Gregg Jacobs.

The study’s researchers are Gregg A. Jacobs, Helga S. Huntley, A. D. Kirwan, Jr., Bruce L. Lipphardt Jr., Timothy Campbell, Travis Smith, Kacey Edwards, and Brent Bartels.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment II (CARTHE II).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

OneGulf Voyage Gathers Unprecedented Marine Samples for Two Oil Spills

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The cruise map of the One Gulf Expedition shows the 69 long-line stations (red circles) completed in 40 days. Researchers caught over 2,400 fish to study the impacts of Gulf oil spills. (Credit: C-IMAGE Consortium)

An international science team recently completed a 4,000-mile expedition to learn more about the long-term fate of two of the world’s largest subsea oil spills, the 1979 Ixtoc-I and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon. The 40-day Gulf of Mexico voyage continued their 2015 field campaign, contributing to a multi-year Gulf-wide analysis of these oil spills and the marine environment’s response and recovery.

Aboard the R/V Weatherbird-II, researchers with the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II) collected thousands of bottom-dwelling fish, sediment, water, and plankton samples from the Yucatan Peninsula and Bay of Campeche to the Texas shelf. A land-based team combed Mexico’s Campeche, Tabasco, and Veracruz shorelines for evidence of residual oil.

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Erika Fredrik (USF) collects deep-sea sediment samples used for microbial studies with GoMRI partners. (Credit: C-IMAGE Consortium)

“It’s unprecedented to undertake this type of research,” said University of South Florida (USF) Professor and C-IMAGE Director Steven Murawski. “Planning logistics, acquiring permits, and organizing resources needed for 40 days at sea in international waters is very difficult; and we appreciate the many agencies and groups that helped make this expedition possible.”

The samples collected during the 2015-2016 expeditions contributed to the first set of Gulf-wide baseline data, enabling scientists to characterize the Gulf’s present condition. Analyses of biota and sediment will help identify if there are relatively pristine (oil-free) areas of the Gulf and inform impact assessments of future spills.

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Ph.D. student Usman Muhammed (ETH-Zürich) transfers a core of Gulf sediments into storage for future chemical analysis. (Credit: Benjamin Prueitt, C-IMAGE)

A significant challenge in assessing Deepwater Horizon impacts is not knowing contamination levels before the spill.  One way that the OneGulf scientists are addressing the lack of pre-2010 spill data is to study areas impacted by Ixtoc-I and forecast what Deepwater Horizon-impacted sites may experience in 30 years. “We hope to be able to fully characterize oil residue still remaining along the Mexican coasts,” said USF Marine Geochemist and team lead Patrick Schwing. “The samples we collected will help us identify the spatial extent, thickness, and any lasting impacts and study the products of this oil’s natural weathering.”

 

 

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Dan Razionale, an undergraduate student at Eckerd College, collects pore water from a sediment core to test for levels of nutrients and trace metals. (Credit: Benjamin Prueitt, C-IMAGE)

The OneGulf team, however, did not start from zero to investigate the Ixtoc-I spill. Endowed Chair of Biodiversity and Conservation Science and Professor Emeritus John Wes Tunnell at the Harte Research Institute was studying corals off the Texas coast when the Ixtoc-I spill began. He documented where oil washed ashore and, even though funds ran out, continued taking students back to oil-impacted areas for years afterward. He guided the C-IMAGE researchers to the same locations that he had been monitoring. Tunnell and researchers with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Adolfo Gracia and Elva Escobar-Briones played vital roles in designing studies to examine Ixtoc-I impacts.

The Ixtoc-I and Deepwater Horizon spills share many similarities and present a unique opportunity for comparative analysis. Here are some topics that the team hopes to learn more about:

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Researchers collect fish bile samples for toxicity analysis. Bile indicates how fish are metabolizing remaining oil levels. (Credit: C-IMAGE Consortium)

A Similar Marine Snow Event?

Recent studies (Passow, 2014; Brooks, et al., 2015; Hastings, et al., 2015) reported evidence that marine snow associated with Deepwater Horizon created a mechanism for oiled particles to reach the seafloor, which may serve as long-term storage for contaminants that could potentially reenter the water column (Chanton, et al., 2015). One question scientists have is: how long will sedimented oily particles remain in the environment, potentially affecting bottom-dwelling fish and sediment-dwelling organisms?

Researchers on the OneGulf voyage think they may have uncovered a clue.  They found a layer of oily sediment buried under the seafloor near the Ixtoc-I site. Lab analyses of these sediment core samples will determine a possible source of this oily layer, and if the oil signature is consistent with an Ixtoc-I spill point source, then the answer may be possibly decades.

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Researchers on the Tunnell Trek collect a sediment core adjacent to a mangrove forest impacted by the 1979 Ixtoc I spill. (Credit: C-IMAGE Consortium)

Food Web Impacts?
Ongoing investigations are addressing questions about short- and long-term impacts on the marine food web following the Deepwater Horizon spill. Recent studies (Murawski, et al., 2014; Synder, et al., 2015 and Tarnecki, et al., 2015; Wilson, et al., 2015) suggest that hydrocarbons associated with Deepwater Horizon may have entered the coastal food web; that some demersal fishes in oil-contaminated waters exhibited elevated hydrocarbon concentrations and experienced shifts in diet and trophic level; and that there was a short-term increase in observed fish lesions that declined as hydrocarbon concentrations decreased.

OneGulf researchers will compare tissues, blood, and bile from bottom-dwelling fish caught off the Veracruz coast, the most likely place where Ixtoc-I oil settled, to biological samples collected near the Deepwater Horizon site and unpolluted areas. They will use these data to establish if fish experience elevated hydrocarbon levels or lasting effects of exposure in the entire Gulf or just near Deepwater Horizon and Ixtoc-I sites.

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Isabel Romero and Patrick Schwing chisel a tar patty in Montepio, Mexico. Submerged tar still gives off surface oil sheens in tide pools along the shore. (Credit: Ethan Goddard)

Long-Term Shoreline Contamination?
Some of the most visible evidence of Deepwater Horizon contamination was weathered oil found in beached tar balls and sand patties (Aeppli, et al., 2012), oil buried in sand (Hayworth, et al., 2015; Yin, et al, 2015; Zuijdgeest and Huettell, 2012), and fouled vegetation (Judy, et al., 2014). How long will hydrocarbons from this weathered oil persist in and possibly harm northern Gulf coastal environments?

Another clue for answers may come from the OneGulf voyage. The land-based team found oily tar balls and slabs on beaches and in barren mangrove areas along Campeche, Tabasco, and Veracruz shorelines that they believe may be potentially from Ixtoc-I. Analyses of these recent collections is ongoing, and the team hopes the results will help provide insights about possible long-term coastal contamination and impacts from Deepwater Horizon.

What’s Next?
In one sense the cruise is over, but in another sense it is just beginning. Murawski explained, “The really hard work of cataloging, analyzing, and interpreting the significance of these results has just started.” Dozens of scientists and technicians from Europe, Mexico, Canada, and the United States will spend years refining our understanding of how the Gulf works and how subsea oil spills impact its large and diverse ecosystem.

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A piece of tar and asphalt found on Mexican shores. The tar layered some of the beach sands and still smelled of oil when broken. Future analysis will determine the lasting decadal effects of tar on the shores and in the mangroves. (Credit: Isabel Romero)

Scientists studying other important Gulf of Mexico issues are benefiting from the OneGulf expedition, too. The C-IMAGE team collected surface water samples for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Harmful Algal Bloom group who are studying the diversity and spread of Gulf blooms including Red Tide (K.brevis). Two international Ph.D. students joined the voyage, Usman Muhammed with the Technical Institute of Zürich (ETH-Zürich) who studies carbon cycling and Diana Torres Galindez with the UNAM who studies deep-sea fishes. An official from the Mexican fishery service, INAPESCA, assisted the C-IMAGE efforts and collected offshore shark species samples.

“We have learned a great deal about the Gulf’s health after the Deepwater Horizon spill,” Murawski said. “But we can’t stop here. There’s remarkable scientific potential in the southern Gulf as well.”

More Information:

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Finds No Obvious Recovery from Oiled Island Shoreline Erosion

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Oil on the shoreline of Bastian Bay, 10 September 2010. Photo by R. E.Turner and reproduced with permission.

Louisiana State University scientists quantified Louisiana island erosion pre- and post-Deepwater Horizon to determine the shoreline retreat rate when oiled, the length of time that oiling effects lasted, and whether or not there was recovery. They observed that the average oiled and unoiled island width, length, and erosion rate before the spill were similar, and that the oiled islands’ erosion rate increased about 275% in the first 6 months after the spill. The oiled islands’ average enhanced erosion rate declined over 2.5 years but was about twice that of the unoiled sites after 2.5 years. There was no evidence of reversal in the aggregate. These findings suggest that oil damaged the emergent vegetation’s belowground biomass, and that islands are a sentinel of future losses because they are more sensitive to shoreline stressors than nearby wetlands embedded in a contiguous wetland landscape. They published their findings in Marine Pollution Bulletin: Islands in the oil: Quantifying salt marsh shoreline erosion after the Deepwater Horizon oiling.

Deepwater Horizon oil reached approximately 1055 km of Louisiana’s shoreline, equaling about 65% of the total oiled shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico and 95% of the oiled wetland area. Some islands in Louisiana estuaries were oiled while others were not, offering a natural platform to examine differences in response to oiling. This study’s team used publicly-available aerial photographs taken between 1989 and 2012 to measure the length and width of 46 islands using a distinctive geomorphic feature on each island as a reference point. The team quantified the multi-year compromises to vegetation and scaled these impacts within the context of the background marsh erosion and management permits.

Study author R. Eugene Turner summed up their findings, “Our study suggests that the erosion of islands without oiling have a much faster erosion rate than wetlands embedded in a contiguous landscape, that the increased erosion lasted for several years, and that no ‘natural recovery’ is apparent. The impact on endangered birds is clear – one rookery was abandoned and others have a shorter life span.”

Quantifying the salt marsh system’s immediate responses to oiling over a broad geographical area may help inform our understanding of how multiple stressors influence these systems. The authors anticipate that quantifying oiling effects on vegetative stress and shoreline erosion will be of interest to wetland conservation because of the estimates of coastal island lifetime with and without the oil effects.

The data used in this paper are in the Supporting Online Materials and publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information & Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at https://data.gulfresearchinitiative.org (DOI: http://doi.org/10.7266/N72J68WS).

The study’s authors are R. Eugene Turner, Giovanna McClenachan, and Andrew W. Tweel.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Coastal Waters Consortium II at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Study Introduces Computer Science Students to Problem Solving Using Deepwater Horizon Imagery

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Professor Mingrui Zhang designed a team-based educational project and mentored his students as they developed a user-interface Java program, tested software functions, and implemented decision-making algorithms. Photo by Winona State University provided by Professor Zhang.

University professors developed a team-based educational project using satellite images of Deepwater Horizon surface slicks to introduce first-year computer science students to socially-relevant problem solving. The professors guided students in designing and applying an algorithm to address an open-ended problem of outlining oil contaminated areas. The project’s use of realistic scenarios highlighted the societal contributions of computing careers. The developers published their project in the IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference Proceedings: Real-world problem solving in entry-level programming courses: A case study on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

 

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Computer science student teams try out software functions that distinguish oil from water. Photo by Winona State University provided by Professor Zhang.

The multi-phase project tasked students to design an image processing algorithm and implement computer software for analyzing surface slicks and outlining oiled areas. Phase one introduced students to “breaking news” on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the problem of mapping oil slicks on satellite images. Students developed a user-interface Java program to visualize ocean color satellite images. Phase two moved forward toward a solution by students suggesting and trying out software functions that distinguish oil from water. Phase three had students using data analysis to create scatter plots and develop linear functions to separate oil pixels. Then students implemented a thresholding algorithm with decision-making and repetition statements to outline oil slicks and evaluate results.

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First year computer science students use satellite imagery of Deepwater Horizon to outline oil-contaminated areas. Photo by Winona State University provided by Professor Zhang.

“Computer technologies are widely used in solving real-world problems. However, those problems are seldom used in teaching introductory-level computer science and engineering courses,” explained study author Mingrui Zhang. The developers expect to continue and strengthen this type of project for beginning computer science students in the coming years.

The IEEE Education Society disseminated the project Image Processing Algorithms for Identifying the Gulf Oil Spill to different universities around the world, which computer science general education and digital image processing classes have adapted. Most students who took the class said the project was a stimulating and intellectually challenging activity that increased their interest in problem-solving with computers.

The study’s authors are Mingrui Zhang, Chuanmin Hu, and Guleng Amu.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II). Other funding sources included the IEEE Real World Engineering Projects program and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Researchers Seek New Insights from Decades-Old Spill

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Undergraduate students Nichole Clark (left) and Rachael Kalin (right) transfer a sediment core aboard R/V Justo Sierra. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

The Ixtoc I blowout happened in the Bay of Campeche over thirty-five years ago, so why are scientists studying this spill now? Because understanding what happened to Ixtoc I oil may help predict if and how Deepwater Horizon oil will degrade, persist, and impact northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystems over the next few decades.

A Little Background

The 1979 – 1980 Ixtoc I wellhead erupted in 56 meters of water and released 3.5 million barrels of oil into the southern Gulf of Mexico. This spill is an important historical analog for the more recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the northern Gulf. Both spills affected coastal and deep-water biological systems as oil moved through the water column to the sea surface, causing widespread slicks that were treated with dispersants.

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Martín Ramírez, Shannon O’Leary, and Kristina Deak collect samples from a fish caught aboard R/V Weatherbird II. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

In 2015, researchers with the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II) completed two expeditions covering over 11,000 kilometers in the southern Gulf using the R/V Justo Sierra and the R/V Weatherbird II. The team collected sediment cores, water samples, and fish tissues for the first-ever assessment of fish health and sediment contamination across Gulf habitats. This expanded record will provide much-needed baseline information if there are future spills or other environmental events and provides comparative data between Ixtoc I and Deepwater Horizon events.

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Chief-scientist David Hollander and researcher Isabel Romero discuss R/V Justo Sierra’s anticipated path through the Gulf of Mexico. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

Challenges…

Both expeditions required customs clearance for sampling equipment and permission to collect scientific samples within Mexico’s federally-enforced marine exclusion zone around the Ixtoc-I site. Over thirty researchers from seven countries needed visas and customs clearances prior to departure. Once underway, the teams experienced several unexpected weather events as they traveled long distances to obtain the samples. Principle Investigator Steve Murawski stated:

The collaboration of the US State Department, the Mexican State Department (SRE), the Mexican State oil company PEMEX, and several other agencies was critical to the success of these expeditions.

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Researchers on the R/V Weatherbird II collected “ear stones” or otoliths (pictured) and other biological materials from fish to gather information about their development. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

…and Successes

Despite complications, the teams exceeded their expedition goals. Researchers collected sediment cores from 70 sites (14 – 3,200 meters depth), including several less than 5 kilometers from the Ixtoc I site and along the western Gulf (south of Texas), Campeche, and Yucatan Peninsula coasts. They collected over 700 fish from 25 stations in Mexico’s territorial sea. Scientists collected almost 5,000 blood, bile, and tissue samples (muscle, liver, fin ray, eye, and otoliths) from dominant Gulf of Mexico species like red snapper and golden tilefish, more than 400 ichthyologic photos, and 22 plankton samples. They also collected water samples from all sediment-coring sites and while in transit from Tuxpan, Mexico, to St. Petersburg, Florida – the Gulf’s longest axis.

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Researchers on the R/V Justo Sierra and crew look on as Patrick Schwing transfers a sample from the sediment corer. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

Cruise coordinator and R/V Justo Sierra co-chief scientist Patrick Schwing commented:

The real success story is how well the science party and the R/V Justo Sierra crew functioned as a team. I am grateful for all the hard hours that everyone worked. By the second site, the entire science team had the deck and laboratory operations down to…well…a science.

Adolfo Gracia, the R/V Weatherbird II’s science lead for Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico, stated:

We can hardly wait to see the findings and compare them with existing data of sediment oil and biological analyses recorded in the Ixtoc I area.

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R/V Weatherbird II crew members cast longlines to catch prominent species of Gulf fish for sampling. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

David Hollander, the R/V Justo Sierra chief-scientist, said:

This research has the potential to reveal new and exciting results that provide a better understanding of long-term chemical and ecologic impacts and allow us to better predict the recovery times of impacted benthic environments in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Preliminary research is already revealing the value of these expeditions. A previous C-IMAGE study discovered evidence that marine snow connected to Deepwater Horizon created a mechanism for oiled particles to reach the seafloor. Initial analyses suggest a similar event may have occurred around the Ixtoc I site and may have affected benthic marine life. Researchers will compare tilefish captured off the Veracruz coastline, the most likely resting place for Ixtoc I oil, to catches near the Deepwater Horizon site and unpolluted areas in the northern and southern Gulf. They can use these data to establish if tilefish experience heavy PAH exposure in the entire Gulf or just near Deepwater Horizon.

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David Hollander and Isabel Romero show a sediment core they collected. The core will be cut open and analyzed to determine the composition of Gulf sediment at different points in history. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

What’s Next?

While C-IMAGE II researchers are still seeking a sample of unweathered Ixtoc-I oil, the samples collected during these expeditions will jumpstart our understanding of this spill. Future analyses will identify chemical and biological changes in the sediment cores, such as shifting redox conditions, changes in benthic meiofauna abundance and diversity, and changes in microbial communities. Researchers will also assess fish stock health by determining PAH compound concentrations in fish and looking for genomic responses and sublethal symptoms related to long-term environmental hydrocarbon exposure. Water samples will provide researchers a rich dataset of water quality, dissolved and particulate organic matter inputs, plankton densities, and concentrations of tiny plastic particles for use in future studies.

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Brittany Verbeke removes a sediment core from R/V Weatherbird II’s sampling equipment. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

C-IMAGE’s efforts to uncover new information about fish and oil spill-impacted sediments will help society better understand past spills and better respond to future spills. This research is a significant step toward increased knowledge about the southern and northern Gulf and the Ixtoc I and Deepwater Horizon spill sites. C-IMAGE plans to continue offshore sediment and fish sampling from Mexico through Texas to Louisiana during summer 2016.

 

 

Learn More!

These podcasts provide audio stories about this research:

These study summaries provide findings from recent C-IMAGE research:

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The team aboard R/V Justo Sierra gather around the sediment multicorer Firesinger. (Provided by C-IMAGE)

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems II (C-IMAGE II) consortium.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

NBA Player Makes Science the Star for Miami Youth

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James Jones of the Miami Heat, along with the University of Miami mascot, sits with the Crew 22 camp kids at the opening ceremony. (Photo provided by CARTHE)

NBA Champion James Jones took the stage for young fans this July, but not to talk about sports. Instead, his goal was to get kids excited about cutting-edge science happening in their home town.

Over 40 kids participated in his week-long Crew 22 Training Camp hosted by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science.

Jones and his wife Destiny started the James Jones Legacy Foundation to reach under-served youth in Miami. Growing up in the inner city, Miami native Jones wants kids in tough circumstances to know they have more options than they realize, saying, “We believe that allowing young people an opportunity to experience a college setting as part of our programming has the potential to transform the lives of these children.”

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Professor Josefina Olascoaga assists camp kids in simulating the effect of the Earth’s spinning on currents by using a rotating tank and dye. (Photo provided by CARTHE)

After warming up the crowd with upbeat music, friendly banter, and just a little basketball talk, Jones let the kids see a different side of him. “I was a finance major in college and an academic all American,” he said, “I used basketball to get an education, but I’m not just a basketball player.”

Jones encouraged the kids to make friends with the science mentors, learn something new, and get outside their comfort zone. Then, he turned the program over to the enthusiastic CARTHE team and joined the group to learn right alongside them.

 

 

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CARTHE Outreach Manager Laura Bracken teaches the group about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the importance of understanding how oil moves in the ocean. (Photo provided by CARTHE)

Laura Bracken, the CARTHE Outreach Manager, opened with the video “Bob the Drifter,” an animated depiction of their high-tech tracking devices that go with the flow of ocean currents, helping scientists understand how things move in water. She gave the example of the rubber ducks that, to this day, land in different parts of the world after a container full of them fell from a cargo ship in 1997. Professor Josefina Olascoaga, a physical oceanographer with CARTHE, asked the kids what they thought caused currents, getting answers like “wind,” “rain,” and “animals.” Using a rotating tank, she and post-doc Guillaume Novelli helped them see how the Earth’s spinning affects currents by adding dyes and watching swirling eddies form, taking the dyes in different directions.

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Campers watch as an airborne drone equipped with cameras is remotely maneuvered to capture images of them boarding the shark-tagging research vessel. (Photo provided by CARTHE)

Now, the team had the opening to relate currents and the oil spill. Bracken asked how many of them knew about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Only two raised their hands. The team explained what happened and how they were using science – and really cool equipment – to answer questions about how oil moves in the ocean. The kids got to see drifters and drones that CARTHE used in the GLAD and SCOPE experiments to understand surface currents in deep and in near-shore waters.

The week’s high-interest activities included a toad fish lab, a wave tank, sea slugs, corals, an aquarium, and aviation. A highlight of the program was a day spent catching and tagging sharks. Jones, who joined the kids every day, said he loved being able to expose them to things most people only see on television. “A lot of them thought this would be something similar to going to the zoo or the Seaquarium, but they’re actually out here baiting lines and taking blood and tagging sharks,” said Jones. “It’s something you see on Discovery Channel but rarely get a chance to do in person.”

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A drone’s perspective of the Jones Crew 22 campers as they gather to board a research vessel and tag sharks. (Photo provided by CARTHE)

CARTHE Director Tamay Özgökmen explained that, given the constant electronic distractions of our ADD world, outreach programs must be creative to bring science to the masses. He believes partnering with celebrities, such as sports stars and musicians, to host educational events provides an avenue to introduce new concepts when people are relaxed and open to ideas that might not ordinarily interest them. For this reason, CARTHE participated in the Tortugas Music Festival in April, where they spoke directly with over 500 individuals and brought scientific discovery to thousands. They hope to expand their reach to non-college audiences through films and other visual/audio media.

 

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The CARTHE team chats with James Jones about the amazing experiences that the Crew 22 kids had during their week-long science camp. From L-R: CARTHE Outreach Manager Laura Bracken, post-doc Guillaume Novelli, Miami Heat Forward James Jones, CARTHE Director and Professor Tamay Ozgokmen, and Professor Josefina Olascoaga. (Photo provided by CARTHE)

And, partnering with the Jones Crew 22 camp has done just that. “I’ve always taken pride in finding new experiences,” said Jones. From the opening ceremony, where he got kids cheering and dancing, to the camp’s end, where he learned as their peer, Jones made science fun. Now, while most of these kids can say that Jones wears a size 16 shoe, they might also be able to tell their friends where the loop current goes, how currents move oil, or what it’s like reeling in a five-foot shark. For Jones and the CARTHE team, that means the week was a success.

Visit the CARTHE website for more information.

 

 

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This research was made possible in part by grants from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE). 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 www.gulfresearchinitiative.org.

Teens Explore Oil Spill Impacts on Wetlands through Science and Art

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Student April Olivier’s acrylic painting, “Window of Time.” April created this during the CWC Art and Science Camp saying, “In my artwork, I depicted the deterioration of the marsh and land loss over time.” Provided by Murt Conover.

Each summer, parents send their children to camp, trying to match their interests while broadening their horizons. This year, the parents of ten Louisiana students hit the jackpot: the Coastal Waters Consortium (CWC) inaugural Art and Science Camp. This camp challenged participants, engaging both their analytical and creative talents to learn about a locally-relevant and nationally-important subject matter—oiled marsh lands.

For decades, academic institutions have witnessed the arts and sciences compete with each other for funding, recognition, and validation. However, the events at this year’s CWC Art and Science Camp proved that the two disciplines are not only compatible but complementary.

Murt Conover, the Senior Marine Educator for CWC, funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), had been thinking about a combined discipline workshop such as this for years. The idea for the camp moved from dream to reality after a local artist, Karen Alice Clanton, approached Conover with questions regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill following her attendance at a CWC-hosted Coastal Roots workshop. Clanton, whose work focuses heavily on the Louisiana coast, and Conover soon developed a partnership, organizing a summer camp that emphasized the importance of both art and science as tools for communicating environmental concerns. For Conover, this workshop was a “breath of fresh air” because it was outside the traditional Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) focus, bringing together artists and scientists and reaching students who are not typically interested in science-related activities.

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Students created artistic renderings in the field while receiving information from both scientists and artists. Photo by Murt Conover.

The camp took place June 8-11 in Cocodrie, Louisiana, and introduced teenagers to art and science – not as rivals but as allied subjects. The students (ranging from 8th to 12th grade) came from varying backgrounds, some with a noted interest in science and others in art. Students spent their days performing research and experiments about coastal wetlands and then translating what they learned into pieces of art. Upon their arrival, the campers and their parents learned about local professional artists, such as Walter Anderson, from camp instructors and local artists Clanton and Jennifer Koppin. They also heard about GoMRI-funded research that focuses on understanding the impacts of the oil spill on the ecosystems that they would be encountering during the camp. The following days were a melding of science and art.

The mornings began with students going into the wetlands aboard kayaks and research vessels and gathering samples of water, sediment, vegetation, and marine life. They learned about wetlands vegetation and impacts of disasters on them directly from scientists with CWC who are currently conducting research in these areas: Dr. John Marton (marsh biogeochemist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, LUMCON), Dr. Brian Roberts (marsh ecologist at LUMCON), and graduate student Elizabeth Robinson (studying oil impacts on blue crabs at Louisiana State University). Afternoons consisted of laboratory work analyzing the samples they collected and generating data from them. Then, they went into studios to recreate what they learned through art. Some camp activities included experiences in both disciplines simultaneously.

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Hands-on science, such as collecting samples of marine life in the marsh, helped students gain a deeper understanding about the science that they later used in their artistic depictions. Here students were on board the RV Acadiana. Photo by Murt Conover.

For example, some boat trips consisted of sketching wildlife while listening to an expert explain the surrounding vegetation and the impacts of pollution on various species. The camp finished on a high note, with students holding a gallery show for their families and staff from LUMCON and CWC.

The art aspect of the camp provided an entirely new method of teaching the students about coastal wetlands. While students had no trouble understanding and learning from their experiences in the field, translating the science into works of art helped them look at the material from a completely different angle, fostering a deeper understand of the information. Conover explained that students would “ask the art teachers about composition one minute and then come to me the next minute asking about the details of the organisms they were drawing, wanting to make sure they were accurate.” As the students developed their artwork, it became obvious that they assimilated their experiences from field work and the lab by the visual imagery they created to share their learning.

The students were extremely enthusiastic about the camp, exceeding Conover’s expectations. One student remarked, “I came for the science, but I really learned a lot about art.” Meanwhile, another student who had attended the camp strictly to create art found that she loved working in the field and expressed that she was now considering pursuing wetlands biology once she entered college.

What began as an experiment to educate students on coastal wetlands through art and science soon became a life-changing experience. The impact of the camp on students and teachers set the stage for future CWC Art and Science camps, opening the door to not only education, but expression.

“Magic happened,” said Conover, “I can’t say it any other way.”

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Coastal Waters Consortium (CWC). 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 http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

Louisiana Scientists Present Marsh Research in Public Workshop Series

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On board the R/V Acadiana, Dr. Tara Duffy and workshop participants collect marine and water samples in marsh waters. (Photo credit: Jessica Hernandez)

An old philosophical question asks, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Similarly, if a scientist makes an important discovery and people do not hear about it, will it matter?  Scientists are conducting research about oil and other impacts on coastal marine environments. Sharing this unfolding science with communities most affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a priority for them.

Marine educator Jessica Hernandez with the Coastal Waters Consortium (CWC) voiced the importance of this outreach, saying, “What is scientific research if we cannot share it with the public?” To do this, educators and scientists with the CWC have established a series of public education workshops to highlight recent research about the chemical evolution, biological degradation, and environmental stresses of petroleum and dispersant in the Gulf of Mexico and their effects on coastal and shelf ecosystems.

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Dr. Chuck Wall presents research on marine life that live in marsh sediment. (Photo credit: Jessica Hernandez)

Dr. Chuck Wall and Dr. Tara Duffy, postdoctoral research associates with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), led the first Gulf Lagniappe Public Education Workshop on October 26, 2013 at the DeFelice Marine Center in Cocodrie, Louisiana. Attendees listened to presentations, explored the bay, used laboratory equipment, and—in true Louisiana fashion—enjoyed a delicious chicken and sausage gumbo lunch.

Dr. Wall focused on two research areas—the hypoxic or “dead zone” in the Gulf and the effect of oil on the tiny creatures that live in salt marsh mud. He talked about the abundance and diversity of these mud-dwelling critters and explained his work that uses samples from both oiled and non-oiled areas to understand how oil exposure affects them.

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Dr. Tara Duffy helps participants use laboratory equipment to study marine larvae. Photo credit: (Jessica Hernandez)

A fisheries expert, Dr. Duffy spoke about her work with the early life stages of blue crab, anchovy, red snapper, and trout to study the impacts of oil exposure on these animals at this delicate developmental stage. She described lab experiments that exposes larvae to oil and records how the organisms respond.

After the presentations, participants traveled by boat around the local estuary and used trawl nets to collect marine samples. They experienced the biodiversity – both plants and animals – that live right offshore and that are at risk. After the bay tour, the group looked at plankton specimens under a microscope. Viewing these tiny organisms, integral to the Gulf of Mexico’s food web, brought home the many lessons of the day on the interconnectedness of the environment.

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On board the R/V Acadiana, workshop participants identify marine animals caught when trawling in marsh estuaries. (Photo credit: Jessica Hernandez)

One attendee explained the desire to continue learning about the research saying, “Unless you are in this career, the aspects of this life and the ecosystems all around us are never in your mind,” adding that it was important to know “the things we do that impact them and how they impact us.”

The CWC will host another all-day Gulf Lagniappe Public Education Workshop on Coastal Wetlands Formation, Functions, and Susceptibility on November 23 at the LUMCON facility in Chauvin, Louisiana. For more information, go to the CWC website. To register directly online, go to http://blogcwc.weebly.com/events.html.

This research was made possible in part by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Coastal Waters Consortium. The GoMRI is a 10-year, $500 million independent research program established by an agreement between BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon incident and the potential associated impact of this and similar incidents on the environment and public health.

Tulane Scientists Hold Oil Spill Q&A Event with Vietnamese Fishing Community

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Louisiana Shrimp being weighed before sold. (Photo: Kerry Maloney/Louisiana Seafood News www.Louisianaseafoodnews.com)

Many people outside of the Gulf Coast region are not aware of the large population of Vietnamese residents who live across this area, in concentrated communities from Texas to Alabama.

Arriving as refugees during and after the Vietnam War, they settled along the Gulf Coast to work in the booming commercial fishing industry.  Today, the business of catching and processing seafood for sale around the country remains an important economic driver for their community. As a result, the Macondo oil spill profoundly affected the livelihoods of many Vietnamese residents of Louisiana.

In order to address the concerns of this unique community, a joint team of researchers from Tulane University’s School of Science and Engineering and School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine provided information and fielded questions on a Sunday in July at a Vietnamese Catholic church in Houma, Louisiana. Titled, “Is it safe? The Oil Spill, Dispersants, and Frequently Asked Questions,” the event took place after mass with about 20 community members in attendance.

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Tulane University held an outreach event on July 21, 2013 at Our Lady of Holy Rosary church in Houma, LA, to address issues related to the oil spill. The church is attended by the local Vietnamese community, many of whom work in the seafood industry. (Photo courtesy of C-MEDS)

Vijay John of Tulane University, Director of the Consortium for the Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems (C-MEDS), explained that in order to adequately answer all the questions, it was important that both Schools be represented at the meeting, saying, “The C-MEDS consortium is centered at Tulane University and is in close proximity to the communities that were most directly affected by the Deepwater Horizon incident. In addition, the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane has an extensive research and outreach program on the health impacts of the oil spill.”

Debi Benoit, a Research Board member of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), began the session by explaining the history and mission of GoMRI. Then Vijay John, along with undergraduate students who work with him on dispersant studies, gave brief talks about what dispersants do and why they were used in the oil spill response. Using demonstrations to show the crowd how they worked, the presenters brought up a volunteer child from the audience to shake vials to make emulsions form. Dr. Jeffery Wickliffe, a Tulane toxicologist, ended the talk by explaining the methods researchers used to test seafood for safety.

At the conclusion of the talk, the questions began. “I earn my livelihood shucking oysters. How would I know if the oysters I am working with are contaminated?” “If I develop a skin rash 6 months after working with seafood, where do I go? Who do I turn to?”  “My seafood catch is poor. How do I know if it is due to the spill?” “If the state closed certain areas due to contamination, would the water flowing between the closed and open areas not bring oil or other toxic materials into our catches?” And, “Should we be concerned about health hazards even now if we inadvertently come into contact with a contaminant?”

The audience was very polite, but their questions clearly showed that they had concerns about short- and long-term effects of the spill, both on their health and on their ability to provide for their families. The speakers listened with concern, answering questions with the latest scientific research. Dr. Wickliffe fielded quite a few health questions and was extremely helpful in addressing the audience’s concerns. The team also directed the community to organizations and resources that might be a source of ongoing support with health or economic issues. Because of the success of this program, Tulane researchers plan to hold similar events with local community groups in the future as a way of engaging those most affected by the oil spill and sharing their science findings with them.

The Consortium for the Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems (C-MEDS) received a research grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). The GoMRI is a 10-year, $500 million independent research program established by an agreement between BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon incident and the potential associated impact of this and similar incidents on the environment and public health.

CWC Involves All in the Family in Oil Spill Marsh Science

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Alan and Anissa Holekamp enjoyed looking at a juvenile blue crab that was caught in the trawl aboard the R/V Acadiana during Dads and Daughters Day. (Photo by Murt Conover)

“My mom would love this boat ride.” “I wish my child could walk the marshes.”

Murt Conover, Senior Marine Educator and Aquarist with the Coastal Waters Consortium (CWC), often hears comments like these when leading teacher and student groups at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) facility. She thought it seemed like a “no brainer” to put parents and kids together in outreach programs, and thus the inaugural Father/Daughter and Mother/Son Discovering Coastal Waters Science events were born.

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Mothers and sons identified, sorted, and counted the species caught in a trawl in Terrebonne Bay aboard the R/V Acadiana. (Photo by Murt Conover)

Conover loves planning educational activities that get local families outside in the marshes and waterways to learn about the delicate ecosystem that surrounds them. They also learn about impacts from natural and manmade hazards that affect this region, one being the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. She explains, “We like to get people to experience it first hand, because ownership leads to responsibility. We have a very ‘get your feet wet and hands muddy’ philosophy as far as education goes!” But the events are not just pretty nature walks. Participants often gather samples and analyze them in the LUMCON lab using state-of-the-art research technology. “We do the scientific process from start to finish,” Conover says proudly.

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Groups of dads and daughters conducted experiments to learn about how oil can behave in currents before and after it has been dispersed. (Photo by Murt Conover)

Earlier this year, close to Valentine’s Day, CWC hosted a Dads and Daughters Day. They began with a ride on the R/V Acadiana to see the beauty of the Louisiana coast and to experience the kinds of tasks scientists perform on a research vessel. That afternoon, the group conducted oil-spill related experiments in the lab. After the experiments, they finished the day learning about marsh habitat.

CWC hosted a Mothers and Sons Day in May in honor of Mother’s Day. This event was similar to the Dads and Daughters Day, but because of the warmer weather, they constructed Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and tested them outside. Both the moms and the sons enjoyed working with this research technology and being out in the field. One son said, “We walked into the marsh. That was a first for me. We saw little house-like areas made of sticks.” He added, “I’m glad to see the oil spill didn’t kill all of the animals.”

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Mother Shawn Duplessis and her son Brady learned the names of the vegetation found on a natural ridge in the salt marsh. (Photo by Murt Conover)

One of the main goals of these programs was to acquaint locals with current research being done to learn about the environmental response to the oil spill, and participants’ feedback showed success. One mom gave this family outreach event the perfect review, commenting, “I wasn’t aware of the structure in place for studying oil spill impacts. It is comforting to realize that compassionate and competent people are researching independently, because without the independent research, it would be hard to trust the data provided to the public.”

Conover enjoyed watching the father/daughter and mother/son dynamics as they learned about the coastal environment. And since her own father came to support her efforts, the father/daughter event was even more special. She laughs, “Having my dad there that day, I got the same kind of experience as the other girls. It was fun to be the educator and the daughter.”

Both inaugural events had full attendance and participants and staff were pleased with these learning experiences. The CWC plans to host similar family-themed events in the coming months.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) with the Coastal Waters Consortium. The GoMRI is a 10-year, $500 million independent research program established by an agreement between BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon incident and the potential associated impact of this and similar incidents on the environment and public health.