Gulf Monitoring System Sought

Florida Institute of Oceanography and USF are pushing for a system that will gauge the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

 

By Vickie Chachere

USF News

                 

ORLANDO, Fla. (May 26, 2011) – As marine scientists from across Florida gather to compare notes on the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Florida Institute of Oceanography and the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science say a comprehensive and coordinated Gulf monitoring system is needed to guard against future disasters and propose using a portion of fines expected to be paid by oil giant BP to pay for it.

 

The proposal has been presented to some members of Congress and is supported by the Gulf Research Collaborative, a cooperative of academic marine science institutions from the five Gulf states, said Bill Hogarth, acting director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography – Florida’s representative to the collaborative.

 

------- View USF Special Report on the Gulf Oil Spill -------

 

The $1 billion cost of the system would come from the proceeds of fines imposed on oil giant BP and others held responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill under the federal Clean Water Act. The fines, which by some estimates could total as much as $20 billion, also would provide another $4 billion for an endowment which would provide long-term funding for the system and Gulf research.

 

“If we’ve learned anything from (Exxon Valdez spill in) Alaska is we need to get an endowment set up to fund the observing system and enough funds to support the system and monitoring and research,”  Hogarth said.

 

Discussion on the system came on the first day of a two-day gathering of researchers studying the impact of the oil spill, capping Florida’s first comprehensive scientific look at the impact of the 4.9 million barrel spill. Twenty-seven projects ranging from examining shortfalls in current Gulf observing systems to the impact on all levels of the sensitive ecosystem are underway, funded by $10 million provided to the FIO by BP.

 

While many of the projects are not yet complete, scientists did note some significant findings. Among them:

 

·         The Gulf had limited and at times inadequate systems to monitor the movement of both surface oil and the deep-sea plumes which formed when oil burst from the well and chemical dispersants were applied at depth. USF Physical Oceanographer Robert Weisberg said most of Florida – with the exception of the Panhandle – was spared oil contamination when an eddy in the northern portion of the crucial Loop Current detached and stayed that way during the worst part of the spill. This year, the eddy formed at the same time, but quickly reattached. “We really did luck out last year,” Weisberg said, noting that in the future the state cannot count on such fortuitous circumstances. 

 

Better current modeling systems would help officials more accurately predict where and how oil would spread and more effective protection of the coastline could be deployed. USF Biological Oceanographer Frank Muller-Karger is working with a group of researchers on creating a 4-D remote sensing system that would incorporate satellite imagery into the process of tracking and analyzing spills, hurricanes and even freshwater incursion from the flooded Mississippi River into the Gulf.

 

·         USF Chemical Oceanographer David Hollander, who has been examining the composition of the subsurface plumes, said further chemical analysis of the plumes found most of the toxic elements in the oil stayed within the plumes rather than rise to the surface where they would evaporate. Those “BTEX” compounds - benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes – are known carcinogens, creating “hyper” toxicity in the plume and less toxic surface oil, he said.

 

·         USF and FIO have been awarded a $400,000 research project with the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate a surge in anecdotal reports of fish suffering from strange lesions, discoloration and fin rot since the spill occurred. Scientists do not know if the spill is the cause of the creatures’ conditions. In one FIO-funded project led by the University of West Florida, remote-operated vehicles diving in the Gulf captured images of fish with missing fins that appeared to have rotted off. The upcoming project, led by Hogarth and USF Biological Oceanographer and fisheries expert Steve Murawski, will enlist commercial fishermen in a detailed transect of the Gulf from the Florida Keys to Louisiana to document the mysterious ailments and investigate potential causes.

 

While the FIO projects will continue into next year, scientists said their understanding of the impact of the spill has been hampered by inadequate observing systems and uncoordinated response as the spill unfolded. The hope is that an integrated observing system and a coordinated long-term research program focused on the Gulf’s health will prepare researchers to respond to future disasters.

 

The Gulf Observing System would be comprised of multiple sensor and sensor delivery systems, such as research vessels, remotely operated vehicles, satellites, communication systems, buoys, acoustic sensors, robotic technology, and autonomous observing platforms. Additional laboratories, data management and computer modeling systems would round out the effort.

 

“You have to have a combination of tools to address the issues a crisis brings about,” Muller-Karger said.

 

Congresswomen Kathy Castor (D-FL), who has supported academic scientists working on the spill and was briefed last week on the status of on-going research projects, said she is  concerned about a “dirty blizzard” of petroleum byproducts that have been found on the ocean floor.

“The findings also highlight the need for long-term environmental recovery and research in the Gulf of Mexico,” Castor said.  “The Gulf ecosystem, fisheries, the food web and water quality all impact Florida’s economic future.  Therefore, we must join together now to secure 80% of the Clean Water Act fines and penalties for the BP blowout for Gulf coast environmental restoration and economic recovery, especially in light of state budget cuts to university research and marine sciences.” 

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