A group of institutions led by the Marine Science Institute (MSI) at The University of Texas at Austin has been awarded a three-year, nearly $7 million grant to better understand how oil spills disperse in the Gulf of Mexico, and how the oil affects the ecology of the Gulf.
The grant, which is the largest in the MSI's 70-year history, is part of the $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) established by BP in the wake of last year's Deepwater Horizon incident. Eight grants, totaling $112.5 million over three years, were awarded in this round of funding.
The goal of the GRI is to support independent scientific investigation into the impact of the incident on the Gulf and the coastal states. The hope, also, is that the knowledge gained will improve responses in the event of future spills.
"People have been surprised at how quickly the oil has dispersed after this spill," says Dr. Ed Buskey, professor of marine science and lead investigator on the grant. "The only really good comparisons we have are the Ixtoc spill in the late 1970s in the Gulf and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. In both of those cases the oil stuck around for a much longer time than it seems to have done in this case.
"One of our goals is to understand why it's been so different this time around, and to see if there are lessons that can be drawn that might be useful in predicting how the oil will disperse in future events."
Buskey's project, which involves collaborators from four other universities and a number of other organizations, will focus on two primary areas. One is how the oil itself is broken up into droplets and dispersed by physical processes and organisms in the Gulf, including chemical dispersants, native marine bacteria, and the currents of the waters.
The other area, which is where Buskey's work will be concentrated, involves using high-speed digital videography, and 3-D digital holography, to model the interactions between the oil and the organisms that make their home in the Gulf.
"There's some evidence that the zooplankton I'll be studying actually feed on these oil droplets," says Buskey. "We want to better understand whether they do consume this oil, if so, how much of it they'll take up, whether it has a lethal or sub-lethal effect on them, and how those interactions migrate up the food web."
The grant, says MSI director Dr. Lee Fuiman, is testament to how central the institute's role has become in understanding the science of the Gulf of Mexico, and in responding to events and crises that are national or international in scope.
"We have a physical presence and a tradition of excellence in marine research longer than any other institution in Texas," says Fuiman, a professor of marine science. "We have some of the best marine facilities on the coast. We have, as they say in the restaurant business, location, location, location. We're literally on the beach. And all of our scientists are doing work that's international in reach, and they're able, as Ed has done with this project, to draw on talent worldwide to address problems that cross borders."
In addition to Buskey's project, MSI scientists are involved in one of the seven other projects that have been funded in this round of the GRI. MSI faculty have been involved in the scientific response to the Deepwater Horizon spill almost from the moment it happened.
"Texas is one of the five states that border the Gulf," says Fuiman, "and all those states, and to some extent the whole country, depends on the Gulf. If we can learn from this oil spill, we'll be better prepared for the next one."