USF Oceanographer Testifies on Capitol Hill

At Oil Slick Hearing, Muller-Karger Calls for Greater Scientific Resources to Assess, Track Spill


By Vickie Chachere


WASHINGTON (May 20, 2010) – The scientific community’s ability to accurately assess and track the potential movement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill through the Gulf of Mexico is being hampered by an inadequate ocean observing system, USF marine biologist Frank Muller-Karger testified before a Congressional panel Wednesday.


Muller-Karger, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, said questions on the amount of oil underneath the waters – which are not visible to NASA satellites which have been able to document the oil floating on the gulf surface – and how it could spread through the swirling currents of the gulf can’t be fully answered given the tools scientists now have.


“What we have very little information about what is going on below the surface,” Muller-Karger said. “We have no established, observing network.


“I think there is an enormous amount of oil below the surface that unfortunately we cannot see. And that’s where knowing how the Gulf of Mexico moves and carries water around is going to be enormously important.”

Muller-Karger was one of four scientists called to testify by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, who has been an outspoken critic of British Petroleum’s conduct in the aftermath of the April 20 spill. Joining Muller-Karger on the panel were: Steve Wereley, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University: Richard Camilli, Associate Scientist of Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Michael Freilich, Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

Markey has challenged the veracity of statements made by BP about the amount of oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon well and gathered the scientists on Capitol Hill to explore if independent scientists have accurate information on the flow rate of the oil and ways to mitigate the spill.

“The ocean in the gulf right now is very sick, and there are no emergency rooms for oceans,” Markey said. “We are going to have to deal with this the best we can and the more information we can get, the better off the gulf region will be in the years ahead. But it will be years.”

Markey called for a “widespread scientific effort to determine the impact of BP’s oil spill. ” Satellite imagery, acoustic technology and remote sensors are some tools scientists have now, but are not enough, the researchers said.

Muller-Karger is a biological oceanographer whose expertise is in analyzing of digital data obtained by satellite and airborne sensors to understand the oceans. He called for the creation of an ocean observing system akin to the nation’s weather observing system.

“We are caught in a situation of ignorance to what is going on below the surface,” he said.

The Loop Current is a “conveyor belt” that moves some 27 million cubic meters of water a second through the Gulf of Mexico. This is a warm stream that is pulling oil from the spill southward toward the Florida Keys, the Straits of Florida and the Atlantic Coast. What’s unknown, though, is if other currents in the gulf could pull the oil in a different direction, and how the density of the oil fractions themselves move up, sideways, or down toward the deep sea floor, he said.

The Loop Current is about 800 meters deep, and flows about 100 miles off the west coast of Florida. As the current moves south through the Florida Straits, it becomes shallower and comes very close to Florida. Among the marine animals that inhabit the current are sperm whales that dive to that depth to consume squid, but the edges of the Loop Current also sustain plankton, fish, and large crabs on the bottom.

The difficulties in tracking and assessing the Deepwater Horizon Spill, he told the panel, exacerbate the difficult task of understanding how the oil contamination could impact the ecology of the gulf and the states which border it.

“My concern is that while we do see the sheen on the surface, we need to keep in mind this is a 3-D structure that is growing all the time,” Muller-Karger said.

“While this thing is being diluted with dispersant at a rate we have never done – hundreds of thousands of gallons into the environment – this plume will settle at intermediate depths. It will spread sideways. Some of it will actually sink, not all of it will rise.”

Compounding the problem is that scientists are not exactly confident that BP’s estimates of how much oil has spilled – the company once put it at 210,000 gallons a day. On Thursday, the company conceded that original estimate might not have been accurate and said there was no reliable way to know.

Muller-Karger said he believes there is an “enormous” amount of oil below the water’s surface that cannot be seen by NASA satellites, making an underwater observing system even more necessary. Unfortunately, the closest thing to that is an integrated observing system created by academic scientists that has only had seed-funding from federal authorities.

“I am asking you to help the academic community organize to deploy observing systems in a network to map the oil as it spreads,” Muller-Karger said. “This is going to be a problem we are going to have to live with for years as opposed to months.”


Muller-Karger’s Opening Presentation to the  House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment

Watch an Archived Video of the Hearing


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.