April 18, 2019  

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Southern Miss Maintains Vigorous Research 5 Years after BP Oil Spill

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Southern Miss Marine Science Professor Vernon Asper documents the oil spill seen on the surface of the Gulf waters a few days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. (University Communications photo)

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that occurred on April 20, 2010 not only triggered an unprecedented contamination of the northern Gulf of Mexico, but also yielded an unparalleled research effort to gauge the effects of the massive oil spill.

Five years after the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, scientists at The University of Southern Mississippi continue to lead the way in mapping and analyzing the oil spill’s effects on the Gulf waters’ fragile ecosystem.

“I don’t think anyone involved in the aftermath of this disaster really understood the magnitude of what took place. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could imagine happening,” said Dr. Monty Graham, chair of the Department of Marine Science at Southern Miss. “Nobody has completely wrapped his or her arms around everything associated with the oil spill. Five years later we are still making new discoveries tied to the spill, and this will most likely continue for decades to come.”

The British Petroleum-leased Deepwater Horizon platform was drilling approximately 50 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast when an explosion and subsequent fire destroyed the rig. Eleven people died in the blast and 17 others were injured. The explosion ruptured a well beneath the water’s surface, creating an oil leak that lasted 87 days. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil was pumped into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting 16,000 total miles of coastline from Florida to Texas.

Almost immediately USM scientists from the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) and Stennis Space Center began investigating and processing the damage caused by the spill. Less than two weeks after the disaster, the University assembled an Oil Spill Response Team to coordinate the University’s efforts in monitoring the spill’s repercussions.

“USM has been at the forefront of the oil spill research almost since day one,” said Dr. Read Hendon, director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at GCRL. “Having the northern Gulf of Mexico quite literally in our own backyard positioned us strategically and practically to be a lead institution in studying the spill.

“That, coupled with USM’s diverse range of expertise in marine and coastal sciences, has allowed the University to serve a prominent role in this process over the last five years. That role will continue, and likely expand, in the coming years as we strengthen our scientific capacity along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Hendon points out that Southern Miss scientists have secured funding to study the spill’s effects from a variety of sources, including: the National Science Foundation Rapid Response Program, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment – at both the state and federal levels.

Southern Miss faculty members have published dozens of peer-reviewed papers related to the oil spill and many of those have been cited numerous times. A paper submitted by Dr. Arne Diercks, assistant research professor in the Department of Marine Science, (Diercks, A.R., R.C. Highsmith, V.L. Asper, D. Joung, Z. Zhou, L. Guo, A.M. Shiller, S.B. Joye, A.P. Teske, N. Guinasso, T.L. Wade, and S.E. Lohrenz, 2010. Characterization of subsurface polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at the Deepwater Horizon site. Geophysical Research Letters 37: L20602, doi:10.1029/2010GL045046.) was the first to document the submerged plume of oil/gas deep beneath the ocean surface. The Diercks et al. paper has been cited more than 90 times in the past five years.

“There has been considerable USM research that examined the fate of the oil/gas that was dispersed,” said Dr. Alan Shiller, director of the Center for Trace Analysis in the Department of Marine Science. “This included papers examining the microbial bloom which consumed the submerged gas plume, nutrient distributions that may have controlled the microbial bloom, and carbon isotopes in plants and animals as indicators of what became of the hydrocarbons that were metabolized.”

Continued monitoring and research of the spill led to the formation of the Center for Gulf Studies (CGS) in 2013. The Center serves as a focal point for new, long-term research and socioeconomic initiatives along the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Jessie Kastler, coordinator of program development at GCRL’s Marine Education Center, notes that multiple types of research are continuing. Among those:

  • Lab and field and modeling studies
  • Organism life histories and molecular responses to oil
  • Water movement on both large scales across the Gulf and small scales of water drops at the sea surface
  • Dispersant interactions with oil and water
  • Development of safer materials to disperse oil in future spills

“In addition to learning much about oil behavior as a result of physical ocean processes and impacts on organisms from the tiniest plankton through the largest fish and mammals, researchers are constantly developing new tools and techniques to study those impacts,” said Kastler. “These studies will continue for years to learn specific pieces of information that will be joined to draw a complete picture of how the Gulf and its organisms responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

The University added a significant tool to its Gulf research arsenal earlier this year with the purchase of the Point Sur Research Vessel from San Jose State University. The 135-foot Point Sur Vessel was built in 1980. It can accommodate 13 researchers and technicians, and a crew of eight. For day cruises, it has a capacity of 40 researchers. The main deck covers 1,100 square feet and includes a primary laboratory and wet laboratory. It reached the Port of Gulfport last month and will be permanently docked there.

“I can tell you that we would not have been able to obtain a research vessel of this stature if the BP oil spill had not occurred,” said Graham. “Because more attention was being paid to the Gulf, additional resources became available and we were able to get the Point Sur here. The research capability of this vessel and possibilities for exploration are truly endless. Having the Point Sur at our disposal expands the reach of our oil spill study and further elevates the University as a research leader.”

No one could have accurately predicted the devastating oil spill that saturated the northern Gulf of Mexico five years ago. Just as no scientist or researcher can succinctly predict the ultimate outcome for life affected above and below the Gulf waters.

“I think the real lesson that most have learned from this disaster is that there is so much basic information about our coastal and marine ecosystems that we still do not know,” said Hendon.

Echoed Graham: “The oil spill was a watershed moment for the University. It has provided the most extraordinary teaching and learning opportunity that you can imagine. The oil spill – better than anything – connected people to the northern Gulf. Lives are still being impacted by the spill, and we remain committed to studying those impacts as the recognized leader in Gulf Coast marine science.”