Assessing a Nightmare


From activating high-frequency radar units to listening to the calls of sperm whales in the vicinity of a broken Gulf of Mexico wellhead, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego are being tapped to track the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Currently Scripps is involved in three research projects that provide information to gulf oil spill responders:

  • Oceanographer John Hildebrand has deployed a HARP unit eight miles north of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. Additionally, student researcher Josh Jones joined the NOAA research vessel Gordon Gunter on June 15 and deployed a towed hydrophone array that can listen for the calls of sperm whales off Florida’s west coast. The vessel is also carrying three more HARP units that Hildebrand said would be deployed on the Florida panhandle and one more off the Texas coast.
  • Researchers at the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center (CORDC) at Scripps brought three Gulf Coast high-frequency radar stations online on May 1, providing the first data of surface currents near the site of the spill. The stations now provide detailed data of Gulf of Mexico currents used in NOAA daily forecasts of the oil spill’s trajectory. Operators of the High-Frequency Radar National Network  hope to install five more units along the Gulf Coast to expand the coverage area of current mapping. In addition, the CORDC team hopes to revive a project funded by BP in 2007 to install a radar unit on a gulf oil rig. The researchers and the petroleum giant are negotiating project logistics now.
  • On June 7, Scrips physical oceanographer Dan Rudnick’s research team deployed a Spray glider to the gulf that had originally been destined for a survey off the California coast. The programmable gliders dive and surface along pre-determined courses and collect a variety of data. While the team is still interpreting data about potential plume visualizations along the glider’s track, the glider in the gulf is providing valuable real-time data about ocean temperature and salinity that can improve the accuracy of models simulating the spread of the oil.

Research teams from Scripps and around the country are forming further plans to assess the spill’s physical scale, ecological effects and potential to wreak more havoc during hurricane season.

In August 2009, Scripps geochemist Miriam Kastner and colleagues collected data on oxidation rates of hydrocarbons at a site less than 10 miles from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. The information can indicate how much of certain gases released from the seafloor, such as methane, are taken up by bacteria in the water column and how much reaches the surface. It can therefore assess marine ecosystem health in a given area because increased activity by methane-consuming bacteria removes oxygen from the water and can make ocean regions uninhabitable to many marine organisms. Kastner and her team have proposed to return to the same site to make comparative measurements in the wake of the spill.

At Scripps Day on June 11, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt   recalled that the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant incident in 1979 led to sweeping reforms in the nuclear industry. The Scripps alumna suggested that the consequences of oil spills now carried such high environmental, economic, and health costs that the industry would need to get far more sophisticated in emergency response planning, human factors engineering, deep sea intervention, and many other areas of offshore drilling operations.  These reforms could lead to creation of systems of failsafes that are now common in the operation of nuclear facilities.

 “It is frustrating to see how hard the scientists and engineers from both the federal government and from BP have worked in Houston to try to figure out after the fact what commands might have been sent to the Blow Out Preventer (BOP) so that they can ascertain what the status is of that complex safety system,” said McNutt. “Its data logger was destroyed along with the Deepwater Horizon. Why isn’t there the equivalent of an aircraft ‘black box’ that would survive such a tragedy in order to help piece the event back together?”

More than two months after the initial well failure, Scripps researchers said they believe its full ecological effects may never be known. Meanwhile, other scientists say the spill the surface oil slick is spreading in a pattern anticipated by a Scripps research project called SCULP (Surface Current and Lagrangian-drift Program) from the 1990s.

Between 1996 and 1998, Scripps oceanographer Peter Niiler and colleagues deployed 342 SCULP drifters at various points along the Gulf Coast east of the Mississippi River mouth.  In no more than 90 days, some of the drifters had circled the Gulf of Mexico as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula. They had been pushed there by a single tropical storm.  Some traveled around the state of Florida and traveled north on the eastern seaboard in that same timeframe.


“When we get a tropical storm, what a lot of this oil that’s east of the Mississippi River mouth is going to do is go right over to Texas,” said Niiler, “because that’s what the drifters did.”

Scripps marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson said he believed this spill could end up being 30 times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. Jackson said spills he studied off Panama’s coast 1986 and 1987 were not nearly as large as either of those, depositing some 20 million gallons of oil, but still killed mangroves and grasses along 100 kilometers (55 miles) of coastline. He added that 25 years later, wildlife there still has not fully recovered despite intensive replanting efforts.

“The initial visible impact is just the beginning of a long story,” said Jackson.


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