USF Scientists, Weatherbird II Returning to Spill Zone

The 10-day trip will try to determine the oil spill’s impact on microscopic organisms and the ocean ecosystem.


By Vickie Chachere News Manager


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Aug. 6, 2010) – Fourteen scientists will spend the next 10 days aboard the R/V Weatherbird II  conducting experiments in the Gulf of Mexico to determine the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the delicate ocean ecosystem.


The Weatherbird II will depart from USF’s College of Marine Science complex at Bayboro Harbor at 6 p.m., Friday, Aug. 6. The mission will take the scientists and six crew members to the northern Gulf of Mexico and back to an area where USF scientists discovered the clouds of degraded oil in late May.


This is the Weatherbird II’s third mission to the oil spill zone since the April 20 blowout of the BP-run Deepwater Horizon well created the nation’s largest environmental disaster. The Weatherbird II is scheduled to return to St. Petersburg on Aug. 16.


The goal of this cruise is to investigate the impact of the BP oil spill on the northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, particularly the microscopic organisms that make up the lowest levels of the food web.  Results will be compared to observations and measurements obtained during the May R/V Weatherbird cruise in the same region and the July 2010 baseline cruise on the R/V Bellows on the west Florida shelf. 


“We think it’s important for the people of the State of Florida to know what’s going on in the sediments, to know what’s going on in the food chain,” said College of Marine Science Dean William Hogarth. “We don’t know what the long-term impacts are.”


The cruise will revisit the area north-northeast of the ruptured well where USF researchers documented the presence of two clouds of degraded oil deep in the Gulf.  A 400-meter layer was approximately 30 meters (100 feet) thick, and was observed 45 nautical miles from the Deepwater Horizon site and the second layer at 1,000 to 1,400 meters was approximately 24 nautical miles east of the Deepwater Horizon site. The clouds have been linked by chemical fingerprinting to the BP well.


In the latest venture, scientists will be performing a series of experiments to:


  • Determine hydrocarbon concentrations in water column and sediment samples and to gather samples for further fingerprinting.
  • Assess benthic, microbial, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fish communities in relation to oil concentrations through toxicity studies (bacteria); their abundance; species composition and health indicators.
  • Validate subsurface oil trajectories models created by USF’s Ocean Circulation Group, which in May were successful in leading researchers to locate the subsurface oil clouds.


The cruise is funded by USF’s Office of Research and Innovation.


During the cruise, two unique pieces of technology will be deployed to aid scientists in their work: the SIPPER, USF’s patent-pending underwater imaging tool which is capable of capturing digital images of both microscopic organisms and oil droplets in the depths; and an underwater mass spectrometer, which will give scientists immediate information about the chemicals present in the Gulf waters.


Long considered the premiere chemical analysis tool, the ion trap mass spectrometer provides on-site, real time identification and quantification of chemicals. The unit traveling throughout the Gulf spill zone on the Weatherbird II can identify chemical contaminants and provided data on the quantity of chemicals present.  David Fries, senior development engineer at USF’s Center for Ocean Technology, holds the patents on two generations of this cutting-edge research tool.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.