Investigating the Spill

USF’s R/V Weatherbird Carries Scientists to Investigate Oil Spill Damage


By Vickie Chachere

St. Petersburg, Fla. (May 3, 2010) – The R/V Weatherbird II carrying a crew of USF College of Marine Science researchers will set sail this week to survey damage to the marine environment caused by the monstrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The USF scientists will spend eight to 10 days in the northern gulf, surveying both damage to the zooplankton and ichthyoplankton near the spill area and assessing the environment east of the spill on the continental shelf. Scientists are particularly concerned about these two organisms because of their importance in the marine food web and for the future of gulf fisheries.

The researchers are tentatively scheduled to set sail either Tuesday evening or by midday Wednesday.

A dozen researchers from USF and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute will conduct the studies during the eight to 10 days cruise, said Ernst Peebles, an associate professor of biological oceanography. The information gathered will be used to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determine the impact of the spill on marine organisms.

Ichthyoplankton are the eggs and larvae of fish found mainly in the upper waters and which drift in the gulf currents. Zooplankton represents a broad category of tiny organisms whose also serve as important markers for scientists studying marine health.

“These are the animals that are impacted the most because oil floats,” Peebles said.

The scientists also will determine the size and frequency of oil droplets emanating from the leaking well, information which can be used to determine the spill’s future impact on gulf ecology. Using a rare scientific device called a SIPPER, which is able to capture images of microscopic items below the ocean’s surface, the scientific team will be able to gather data on the size and distribution of the oil droplets coming from the damaged well.

Peebles said that information will allow analysts to calculate the toxicity of the oil as it spreads through the gulf.

Florida has declared state of emergency due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began April 20 with a rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said 200,000 gallons of oil were flowing from the damaged well as the state of emergency was expanded today to 13 more counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota, Citrus and Hernando counties.

The research cruise also will gather data from areas of the gulf not yet impacted by the spill to establish a baseline by which to compare future samples. Peebles said that information will allow scientists to establish the full impact of the oil spill and estimate a recovery time for the gulf – which could be decades.

The USF College of Marine Science contingent also will include David Jones, Ralph Kitzmiller, Holly Rolls, Kara Radabaugh and Drew Remsen.

Meanwhile, on Monday Florida university system Chancellor Frank T. Brogan announced the establishment of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force to provide assistance to local, state and federal agencies in dealing with the Gulf of Mexico spill and its aftermath.

The task force consists of scientists and scholars from the Florida State University working in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and other State University System institutions as well as the University of Miami and other private colleges.

"The explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico has created an emergency situation with potentially severe environmental, economic and public-health impacts on coastal states," Brogan said.

USF is represented by researchers Robert Weisberg, Chuanmin Hu, Yonggang Liu and Lianyuan Zhengan. Weisberg, an expert on currents in the gulf, has created scientific models showing that if the oil gets into the gulf’s loop current, within days it could be pushed to the Florida Keys, around the peninsula and then up the state’s east coast.

Weisberg heads the Ocean Circulation Group at the College of Marine Science, a group of researchers using the latest in ocean monitoring technology to track conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. The group’s extensive work in understanding water movement in the gulf has allowed them to construct models showing the spread of oil in the gulf. To view the animated models, click here.



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.