USF Ocean Expert Weisberg Testifies In Washington

USF Ocean Expert Weisberg Testifies in Washington on Gulf Oil Spill Science Shortcomings


By Vickie Chachere News Manager


WASHINGTON (June 15, 2010) – Robert  Weisberg, a USF Distinguished Professor of physical oceanography, testified Tuesday before the U.S. House of Representatives on gaps in the nation’s scientific capabilities to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, calling for greater cooperation among agencies in sharing of scientific data that would expand scientists' capabilites to monitor the spill and its effects.


Weisberg, whose advanced modeling systems have allowed officials to track the oil’s movement through the Gulf and led fellow researchers to find vast underwater clouds of oil in the depths of the gulf, testified before the House Natural Resource Committee’s Subcommittee On Insular Affairs, Oceans And Wildlife. The subcommittee called the hearing on the question: “Ocean Science and Data Limits in a Time of Crisis: Do NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service Have the Resources to Respond?"


Weisberg is one of the world’s leading ocean circulation experts and models created by USF’s Ocean Circulation Group have been watched worldwide as more than 1.7 million gallons of oil have poured into the gulf each day since the April 20 well explosion.


He told members of Congress that academic scientists might have had greater capabilities to track the spill and the large underwater clouds of degraded oil had ocean monitoring systems not been cut in recent years. Furthermore, there needs to be a greater exchange of information between  government agencies and marine scientists to allow those who have developed specific systems which can be used to track the spill be more effective.


Of particular concern, Weisberg said, is the subsurface oil clouds - more commonly known as plumes. Last month, USF College of Marine Science researchers followed Weisberg's models to an area northeast of the ruptured wellhead where they discovered large areas of degraded oil suspended more than a quarter-mile down.


"Ocean circulation and the whole organization of ecology is a three-dimensional problem," Weisberg told the subcommittee. "We know the region of the continental shelf break, where the depth drops into the abyss, is sensitive for our reef fish. If there are contaminants in high levels to impact those communities, we need to know about it.


"The worst thing we can do is wipe out the fundamental habitat of our reef fish. Just because we can't see it doesn't mean it's not a threat. It may be a worse threat than what we can see."


Responding to questions from Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, regarding the exchange of data between government agencies and academic scientists, Weisberg said there are data gaps which are hampering a more complete understanding of the spill.

While the Ocean Circulation Group has been providing other agencies with forecasts and model reports, Weisberg said there are important pieces of information he needs from the agencies to produce more specific, long-term forecasts. That data has not been available, he said.

“I am frustrated that I think I can do a better job of what I am doing if there was an information flow to me,” Weisberg said. “And that has not occurred 57 days into this tragedy. That’s a pretty strong statement, but I think it’s an important one to make.”

“No single model is adequate. This is a universal problem and we have to begin approaching it in a comprehensive manner.”

This is the second time Weisberg has been called to Washington since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig set off the nation’s largest environmental catastrophe. Last month, Weisberg was called to Washington to brief members of Congress on the movement of the oil through the gulf, including the entrainment of oil in the Loop Current which travels from the northern gulf toward the Florida Keys, through the Straits of Florida and up the state's Atlantic coast.



To watch the archived video of the hearing, click here.

To read Weisberg's written testimony click here.


Vickie Chachere covers science and technology and can be reached at 813-974-6251.