USF Technology Used in Crisis

Weatherbird II Mission to Gulf Oil Spill Enlists Cutting-Edge USF Technology


By Vickie Chachere       

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 4, 2010) – When a crew of University of South Florida and state marine scientists set sail for a scientific mission into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on Wednesday, their research will be centered on a unique piece of technology that will provide scientists with a microscopic view of the spill’s impact on the tiniest of marine life.

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Using a patent-pending device dubbed the SIPPER, the scientists will be able to create images and capture data on zooplankton – microscopic creatures and larvae that live in the water – and the most miniscule droplets of oil, that while invisible to the human eye is nonetheless toxic to the organisms that are the building blocks of the marine food web.

The eight to 10 day research mission will take a 12 scientists on the Weatherbird II to the northern gulf and then into the oil spill. The goal: to assess the areas in harm’s way before the oil arrives and create a baseline by which to compare the oil’s impact and to provide federal officials with a detailed view of exactly how toxic the spill is to the gulf.

The SIPPER’s advantage is that it allows scientists to capture the image of what they are investigating without disturbing it in the natural environment. The device essentially is a high-tech light and camera system that captures images of what’s in the water as it moves through a metal tube – creating pictures of tiny particles in such detail that scientists can see the tiny tentacles on jellyfish larvae or inside the fragile structure of plankton without having to touch the delicate creatures. It can be used at depths as great as 300 meters - about 1,000 feet of water.

The device then translates those images into data, which are easier to analyze. Because the SIPPER captures detailed images of what’s in the water, scientists will be able to see how the sea organisms are grouped together and how they are impacted by the cloud of toxic water which emanates from the oil spill.

“The main advantage to SIPPER is it images the zooplankton without touching it. It’s a passive instrument, anything else they use nets which has the potential to damage it,” said Jim Patten, director of USF’s Center for Ocean Technology at the College of Marine Science.

“What we have learned is gelatinous organisms make up 50 percent of the biomass, which is destroyed through net tows. If you are using net tows to estimate the biomass – you destroy a significant amount of it.”

USF has developed SIPPER over a period of more than a dozen years. It is such a rare instrument that only a few are in use in other labs, yet it scientists say it will create a much clearer picture of the spill’s impact on the gulf.

Ernst Peebles, an associate professor of biological oceanography who will be on the research expedition, said federal officials cannot fully assess the impact of the spill without first having the baseline data from areas not yet impacted and without a scientific evidence of the toxicity spreading through the gulf.

The first part of the trip will take the scientific crew to just south of the spill area for clean water sampling for several days. Then they will journey to the edge of the spill area to look for signs of dead animals and into the spill itself, Peebles said. Scientists will stop short of literally getting into the thick of the spill because the amount of oil in the water will overwhelm the imaging tube that’s essential to the SIPPER capturing pictures of what’s in the water.

As troublesome as images of oil spreading through the gulf have been, the scientists say that can’t be seen warrants investigation too.

“The droplets diffuse away from the actual oil spill,” Peebles explained. “It creates large areas of toxic water that’s larger than the spill itself. Where it is, how big it is and how many animals are being exposed is what we’ll attempt to answer.”



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.