Loop Current Threat Prompts Second Venture

College of Marine Science models show oil entering the gulf’s Loop Current, prompting second voyage.


By Vickie Chachere


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 18, 2010) – USF oceanographers had not even stepped off the R/V Weatherbird II in its return from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill when College of Marine Science models showed oil entering the gulf’s Loop Current, prompting preparations for a second venture to investigate the potential threat to the Florida Keys and the state’s Atlantic Coast.


Projections from the Ocean Circulation Group show oil from the northern gulf spill entering the Loop Current. Forecasts say – assuming persistence of the Loop Current and absent significant dispersion and evaporation of the oil – the slick may reach the middle Keys in the Florida Straight by May 26.


The R/V Bellows will take a crew of USF and state of Florida researchers to the Loop Current, about 80 to 100 miles off Florida’s gulf coast, to do an early assessment of oil beneath the surface. NASA satellite images show the oil has entered the current, but scientists do not know if a massive, underwater cloud of oil has also reached the swift moving water which would carry the oil through the Keys and up the Atlantic Coast.


Early plans are for USF researchers to conduct water sampling and used advanced sensors to assess if oil under the water’s surface could be heading toward the sensitive Keys ecosystem. That 5-day research trip could begin as early as Wednesday.


“It’s not hard to see what’s happening on the surface,” said College of Marine Science Dean Bill Hogarth. “We feel fairly confident it has reached the Loop Current.”


The Weatherbird II returned Monday from 12 days gathering data on the impact of the oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico, including two days in the thick of the oil spill.


Meanwhile, USF scientists will begin examining data and images of microscopic plankton and fish larvae which are key to healthy gulf ecology. Scientists said a visual assessment of conditions in the gulf saw mixed evidence of the impact of the oil on marine life – in some areas inundated with oil, live plankton was visible, in others it was not.


“We’re just now starting to analyze it,” said researcher Drew Remsen of the data and underwater images gathered. “But it’s looking like we’re going to be learning quite a bit.”


Scientists used a USF-developed device called a SIPPER – an advanced underwater imaging system capable of capturing images of marine life nearly 1,000-feet below the water’s surface. And while the scientific analysis has yet to be completed, venturing into the oil spill clearly left the researchers with lingering impressions of the magnitude of the spill.


“It’s a tragic event, very tragic,” said Weatherbird II Capt. Matthew White.


The researcher said they did see evidence of life within the oil: a pod of dolphins, a school of fish and a sperm whale. Live zooplankton was detected in the oil-impacted waters on the edge of the spill zone.

About 40 miles southeast of the spill, the Weatherbird II encountered patches of weathered oil floating on the gulf’s surface. The Loop Current is to the southeast of the Deepwater Horizon well, which has been spewing more than 210,000 gallons of crude oil into the gulf since April 20.


Scientists have determined there is a large underwater plume of oil, raising questions about how that mass will move through the gulf and what impact chemical dispersants have had in spreading the oil – perhaps to the Loop Current.


Weatherbird researchers called the decision to use dispersants the “lesser of two evils” – had British Petroleum not done so, the oil would be washing up on environmentally and economically sensitive beach areas, they said.


However: “the ecosystem of the deepwater gulf is not insignificant,” said USF biological oceanographer Ernst Peebles.


“It will affect a great deal of animals man has never even seen, and isn’t used to seeing,” Peebles said, describing the deepwater shrimp and other creatures that inhabit the gulf’s deepest waters and play important role in the gulf food web. “This ecosystem is not irrelevant.”


Hogarth intends to send the Weatherbird II back into the gulf for another spill-related research venture, but plans are in the preliminary stages.


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