Posts Tagged ‘bp’

Skidaway Institute scientist shares Gulf oil spill research grant

December 17, 2014

University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Catherine Edwards is part of a research team that has received an $18.8 million grant to continue studies of natural oil seeps and track the impacts of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

Known as ECOGIG-2 or “Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf,” the project is a collaborative, multi-institutional effort involving biological, chemical, geological and chemical oceanographers led by the University of Georgia’s Samantha Joye. The research team has worked in the Gulf since the weeks following the 2010 Macondo well blowout.

The three-year, $18.8 million ECOGIG-2 program was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GoMRI.

“Our goal is to better understand the processes that have affected the oil spill since 2010,” Edwards said. “How the droplets were dispersed? Where the oil went? How it was taken up by small microbes and also the effects on animals further up the food chain?”

Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards adjusts a glider’s buoyancy with graduate students Sungjin Cho and Dongsik Chan.

Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards adjusts a glider’s buoyancy with graduate students Sungjin Cho and Dongsik Chan.

Edwards’ role in the project is to use autonomous underwater vehicles, also called “gliders,” to collect data on conditions around the spill site. Equipped with sensors to measure characteristics such as depth, water temperature, salinity and density, the gliders can cruise the submarine environment for weeks at a time, collecting data and transmitting it back to a ship or a shore station.

“We want to understand the ocean currents—how they change over time and how they change in depth,” Edwards said. “Surface measurements give us a two-dimensional picture of the ocean. Glider data in the vertical provides more valuable information for more fully understanding ocean currents and how they arise.”

The gliders will operate both in conjunction with shipboard instruments and also independently. One advantage of using the gliders is they can operate during storms and rough weather, when it may not be possible to use ships. Edwards said shipboard work doesn’t always give a full picture of ocean dynamics simply by the fact that they can only go out when the weather is reasonably clear.

When working in conjunction with research ships, the gliders can provide additional observations, significantly improving the quality of the data set. The gliders also report dissolved oxygen concentrations and optical measurements of chlorophyll and organic matter, and may also be used as a test vehicle for new instruments in development.

Edwards will use “GENIoS,” a new software package, to help navigate the gliders. GENIoS uses high-resolution forecast models of wind and ocean currents, along with information from the glider itself, to calculate the optimal path for the gliders. This will improve the quality of the scientific data collected.

GENIoS is a collaboration among Edwards, Fumin Zhang from the Georgia Institute of Technology and their two Georgia Tech Ph.D. students, Dongsik Chang and Sungjin Cho. GENIos has been tested for more than 210 glider-days on the continental shelf off Georgia and South Carolina. This experiment will be its first test in the Gulf of Mexico.

Edwards also hopes to use this project to test the gliders as platforms for new, experimental sensors developed by other members of the ECOGIG-2 team.

Others involved in ECOGIG-2 include UGA marine sciences faculty Christof Meile, Renato Castelao and Catherine Edwards as well as Annalisa Bracco and Joe Montoya of Georgia Tech.

For additional information, contact Catherine Edwards at (912) 598-2471 or


More on the oil spill and the Atlantic Coast

June 24, 2010

Earlier this month a group of experts from the institutions of the South Atlantic Sea Grant Program gathered at Skidaway Institute for a discussion of the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) oil spill and its potential effect on the Atlantic coast.

Here is an abbreviated summary of their conclusions.

Overall, the panel noted three distinct phenomena that must be considered:

(1) oil released at the Deep Horizon (DH) site and moving within the GoM, (2) oil in various forms that may be “captured” by the Loop Current and then transported into the Gulf Stream, and(3) the potential for oil in its various forms to move in a westerly direction from the Gulf Stream toward our nearshore waters and the southeastern coastline.

The experts agreed that there are some hard realities and major questions that limit even generalizing about the movement of spilled Gulf oil to South Atlantic waters. These include:

* Despite estimates by BP and federal agencies, the amount of oil that has spilled into the GoM is essentially unknown.  The actual volume of oil spilled there will affect the chances of it reaching South Atlantic waters.

*Authorities in the Gulf have no firm grasp as to where spilled oil – in its various forms and concentrations – can be found within the GoM’s water column and geographic expanse.  Where oil lies in the Gulf, and at what depth, could play a substantive role in its entrainment in and movement via the Loop Current.

* It is still highly speculative to pinpoint the location, depth, and amounts of GoM oil that might eventually be captured and transported by the Loop Current over specific periods of time. Understanding the sourcing, amount, and timing of spilled oil bleeding into this major GoM current is critical to understanding the oil’s possible ultimate transport to the southeastern U.S. region.

* Major questions exist about the nature of the spilled oil.  For instance, how much oil has dispersed or has been degraded?  How much will be degraded in coming weeks and months?  And what are the physical and chemical forms that such degraded oil will take (e.g., slicks, tarballs, underwater plumes, diluted at various concentrations, etc.).  Such degraded oil outcomes could affect how spilled oil will move.

At the same time, the panelists agreed that:

* Much is known about how general ocean circulation typically works in the GoM and South Atlantic Bight, due to our knowledge about the GoM’s Loop Current, the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, and the interrelationship between them. There was unanimous agreement that the Loop Current and Gulf Stream would be the main “conveyor” of the Gulf oil should it move to South Atlantic waters.

* The first major step in any movement of Gulf oil to the South Atlantic would be its entrainment in the GoM’s Loop Current.  In recent weeks, the Loop Current has been “pinched” at its ox-bowed (loop) narrowing, creating an eddy separated from the Loop Current itself. This fluctuation, manifested as a separated eddy, has acted as a barrier to major movement of oil into the Loop Current.  Thus, that action may have prevented and delayed the movement of oil toward the Atlantic.  See an animated depiction of this eddy in relationship to the Loop Current here.

* The separated eddy now present in the Gulf, however, will either drift to the west (which is good), as it will take entrained oil with it, or reconnect to the Loop Current in the near future (not so good); the controlling factors being seasonal weather trends and events and perhaps other factors that are now poorly understood.  A more fully developed Loop Current resulting from re-attachment could reach farther north into the GoM and therefore closer to the spill zone center, likely capturing more oil in various forms and more fully channeling it toward the Florida Straits and possibly the Gulf Stream.

Once within the Loop Current, that oil could move from the GoM to the coastal waters off Cape Hatteras, NC in about a month’s time under typical weather conditions.

* Once oil borne by the Loop Current reaches the southeast end of the Florida peninsula, it then could become captured by the Gulf Steam and move to the north, offshore of the east coasts of FL, GA, SC, and NC.

* The risk of having oil spill residuals come ashore along the southeastern coast would be greatest along the southern portion of Florida’s east coast, due to the close proximity of the Gulf Stream to that shoreline.  Factors affecting the prospects and amounts of oil reaching the shoreline include shearing and eddy effects along the Gulf Stream’s west (inshore) edge, prevailing winds and their speeds, and acute weather events.

* A second area in the South Atlantic that would be at higher risk for oil spill residuals coming ashore is at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras and neighboring Outer Banks beaches.  Again, this would be mainly driven by proximity of the Gulf Stream to the shore and weather events, but also by onshore eddies and jetting actions caused by interactions of the Gulf Stream near Hatteras with southerly flowing currents of cooler water from the north.

* Shorelines and waters between south Florida and Cape Hatteras also could experience visible oil deposits, diluted concentrations of oil, and other effects.  Manifestations of oil will likely be more highly dependent on acute weather events (significant coastal storms), prevailing wind direction and speeds over set periods of time, and seasonally-related perturbations (e.g., eddies, meanders, “spin-offs”) along the inshore (western) edge of the Gulf Stream.

* Due to the greater width of the continental shelf off of South Carolina, our shoreline and waters are less likely to be impacted by Gulf oil.  Deep hard-bottom reefs and fisheries would be more vulnerable in conjunction with upwelling of deep Gulf Stream waters associated with spin-off eddies, while coastal wetlands and estuaries would be the least vulnerable.

*The expert panel noted that the longer Gulf oil remains at sea, the more likely natural degradation of the oil could take place.  As such, it is possible that oil reaching south Florida waters may be in more visible forms (such as sheens, slugs, and tarballs); while oil that makes it to Hatteras waters may be more diluted and dissolved – and, if conspicuous at all, perhaps only be seen in forms such as water color/turbidity differences, thin oily residues on contact objects, and smaller tarballs.

The summit concluded with a brief discussion of secondary (but highly significant and concerning) effects of oil (and chemicals used as oil dispersants) reaching southeastern U.S. waters, which could include impacts on coastal fish, animal, and aquatic plant health, seafood contamination issues, and compromised coastal ecosystem functioning.  It could take years to observe, document, and experience these adverse effects.  Unfortunately, our coastal observation networks and infrastructure in and along the southeastern U.S. coastal waters and shorelines are currently inadequate to effectively monitor and measure such adverse effects in a timely manner.

As a result of the meeting, the four Sea Grant programs in the South Atlantic region will further develop a regional website regarding Gulf oil spill information, which can be found here.

Oil Spill Update — from Baton Rouge

June 3, 2010

Skidaway Institute’s Jay Brandes is attending a conference of scientists discussing the Gulf spill in Baton Rouge, La.  Here is his first report on the meetings.

Dr. Jay Brandes

This morning we had a summary by members of USGS, NOAA and NSF about what is going on in the gulf. In a word, there is a lot going on. NOAA has had surveys, modeling, measurements going on from day one (literally, the first models for spill tracking were started within 12 hours of the rig sinking). Lots of emphasis on understanding the system pre-spill, then moving towards understanding spill effects with that background. 3000 samples collected so far, all types. They all emphasize that it will be decades before the last spill effects are known/remediated.

They understand that there is a lack on information on these activities, and are working on some sort of unified web page to act as an information clearinghouse.

Is the oil coming to Georgia? (Update 5-24)

May 21, 2010

Updated 2:25 pm EDT May 24

We have been getting questions over the past few days about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Is it going to make it into the Gulf Stream, and if so, will it end up affecting the Georgia coast?”

Here the current analysis from Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Drs. Jay Brandes and Dana Savidge contributed their input to this briefing.

Much of the concern about the oil spill and the Georgia coast centers on the possibility of oil becoming entrained in the Loop Current. At present the position of the Loop Current is southward of the Deep Horizon well, so that most of the spilled oil has not been entrained into this strong current.

Graphic by Anna Boyette, Skidaway Inst.

However there are indications that some oil has begun traveling southwards on a section of the Loop current. Any oil that is entrained may eventually pass offshore of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The Loop Current is a continuous feature that exits the Gulf south of Florida and passes through the Florida Straits where it becomes known as the Florida Current (especially off Florida) or Gulf Stream. Along the east coast the flow strengthens somewhat from contributions from the Antilles Current and recirculations on the offshore side. All the named portions are known collectively as the Gulf Stream System.

The average velocity experienced by oil entrained in the edge of the Gulf Stream should be about 1 mph, or about a half a degree of latitude per day, so it would be 2-3 weeks from the earliest knows entrainment on May 17 before that first surface oil gets here.

Oil is degraded by sunlight and consumed by microorganisms. With the warm waters and intense sunshine of the Gulf of Mexico and the nearby Atlantic Ocean, those processes should be much more effective than they were during the Exxon Valdez spill. The oil will also be transformed by dilution and mixing with saltwater to become tar balls and denser oil-saltwater mixtures, which may not all be at the surface. Where and when that deeper part goes is harder to predict. Light and microbial degradation may not be as effective down deeper, and tar balls are more impervious to microbial degradation than surface oil slicks. Lifetime of the impervious tar balls in the ocean is estimated at about 1 year.

When the oil does make it into the Gulf Stream, one factor that will help protect the Georgia coast is that the Gulf Stream runs roughly 75 miles off the coast. Since the Gulf Stream is a much deeper current (about ½ mile deep) than the shallow continental shelf (about a tenth as deep as the Gulf Stream) that fringes the coastline, it does not flow near shore, but tends to hug the edge of Georgia’s broad continental shelf. Florida and North Carolina are at higher risk because their shelves are much narrower so the Gulf Stream is closer to beaches, marshes, mangroves, and sounds.

Once off the Georgia coast in the Gulf Stream, surviving entrained oil, mixtures, and tarballs would have to get across our broad shelf somehow before it could affect the beaches and marshes. Unfortunately the processes that might do that are poorly quantified or understood, so it could happen. An extreme event, like a hurricane, could potentially push oil in the Gulf Stream onto the shelf perhaps even as far as the Georgia coast. Other avenues may exist that can potentially move oil onshore as well.

However there was a previous similar incident in 1979 when the IXTOC I oil spill occurred, pumping about 20,000 barrels of oil per day for 8 months from a well west of the Yucatan Peninsula. Some of that oil was also eventually entrained in the Loop Current. Skidaway researchers sampled 10 months after the blowout off Savannah, Ga. and New Smyrna Beach Fla., and found tar balls in the Gulf Stream and on outer shelf, but no evidence of tar balls within 40 miles of the coast. Ultimately about 200 miles of Texas coastline was significantly affected.

Skidaway Institute will be able to monitor the surface ocean currents on the Georgia shelf with our coastal radar system. This system measures surface currents out into the Gulf Stream and from the Georgia-Florida state line north into South Carolina. With it, we can better gauge the potential threat to the Georgia coast from any oil that manages to get onto our continental shelf.  Unfortunately, while the entire west coast and the northeast coast of the U.S are monitored by similar radars, coverage in the southeast and the Gulf is very sparse.  You can see our coverage in the southeast here:

and in the entire country here:

Skidaway Institute is part of a consortium of research institutions called SECOORA (Southeast Costal Ocean Observation Regional Association). Our fellow SECOORA partners are also monitoring the progress of any oil in the Loop Current and Gulf Stream.

One of our SECOORA partners, the University of South Florida, has an excellent video of the projections based on several models. You can see it here.

Notice that the models don’t all predict the same paths.  Modeling is difficult in areas of the ocean where there are few real world observations to improve the model’s performance with.  Forecasters look at several models, and use their experience and good sense to predict which is most correct under different circumstances.