Critical Research in the Gulf

Three years after the Gulf oil spill, USF researchers are deciphering the impact and looking to protect the Gulf.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (April 19, 2013) – On the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers at the University of South Florida are edging closer to documenting the impact of the spill on the Gulf ecosystem, but also playing a leading role in creating a new system of protecting the Gulf from the next environmental disaster.

Researchers remain focused on three fronts in what is considered one of the worst environmental crisis in U.S. history: determining the full extent of the spill’s damage; understanding how the Gulf ecosystem is recovering from the spill; and using newly developed scientific knowledge to design the next generation of Gulf observation systems.

Up until the 2010 spill, the Gulf of Mexico was one of the least studied bodies of water in the world despite its enormous economic and environmental value. Today, spill research projects have involved more than 1,400 researchers and students from 150 universities in 38 states and eight countries.

 “Systematic and repeated sampling of sediments, water, and marine organisms have allowed us to determine that as much as 20 percent of the oil, along with other toxic chemicals, ended up on the seafloor where it is still impacting microorganisms, deep-sea corals and fish,” said USF College of Marine Science Dean Jackie Dixon.

“USF scientists are working with others within the state and around the world to bring together experimental, theoretical, and laboratory skills to predict the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon and to be better prepared in the case of future spills,” she said.

Working through the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of public and private marine research laboratories across the state, USF researchers were among the first scientists to respond to the spill, documenting massive deep sea plumes of oil and dispersants which formed and settled on the gulf floor. USF beach scientists also documented the damage done when oil washed ashore in Florida’s panhandle both to the world-famous sparkling white sands and the delicate web of organisms that call the beach swash zone home.

Now, USF marine scientists are collaborating on spill research through the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE) which is in the second year of a three-year $11 million grant through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, the research initiative funded by oil giant BP but managed and supervised by an independent scientific panel.

The Latest Research on the Spill:

  • USF Professor Steve Murawski was a co-author with leading federal authorities in a series of scientific articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. Their findings: The scientific response to the spill produced incredible discoveries about the unique Gulf ecosystem and expanded the boundaries of technology for disaster response, but much more needs to be done in terms of research and preparation if oil companies are going to push deeper into new territories in search of fossil fuels.
  • USF biological oceanographer Frank Muller-Karger, whose laboratory has played an instrumental role in helping federal officials monitor the status of the overfished blue fin tuna population. In this study, Muller-Karger used satellite data to determine how the oil spill might have impacted blue fin tuna larvae and spawning habitat.
  • USF coastal geologist Ping Wang, whose discovery of buried, glowing oil on the pristine beaches of Florida’s panhandle, produced some of the most startling imagery of the spill, in coming weeks will publish documentation of the spill contamination and cleanup in the Journal of Coastal Research. Researchers from USF’s Coastal Research Lab have found that mechanical cleanup efforts have been effective and their research will help optimize the effectiveness of beach cleanups in future spills.
  • USF chemical oceanographer David Hollander has continued to focus on the layers of oil contamination at the bottom of the Gulf, particularly in the DeSoto Canyon, a deep abyss that plays a important role in the lifecycle of the Gulf’s fisheries. In this recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Hollander described the die off of foraminifera, which are food for clams and other creatures which are eaten by larger fish. The research remains on-going, but raises questions about whether the impact of the spill could continue to reverberate in the Gulf food web for years to come.

C-IMAGE aims to document and analyze the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill, improve the observational and predictive tools available to scientists and create better systems to predict the consequences of another deep-sea blowout as oil companies push into deeper waters.


Additionally, C-IMAGE is making a concerted effort to involve the public in the research process through an unprecedented educational and public information effort. Science teachers from public schools across Florida have joined researchers in the Gulf and taught classes via Skype. The public can follow along on their research cruises in two venues, the blog Adventures at Sea and the C-Image Facebook page.


And while scientists have already published a wide breadth of new findings on the spill, researchers also are focused on how the lessons of Deepwater Horizon might inform decision on how better to protect the Gulf in the future.


Steve Murawski, a professor of biological oceanography who holds the Downtown Progress-Peter Betzer Endowed Chair, and Bill Hogarth, FIO’s director who was dean of the College of Marine Science at the time of the spill, recently presented in Oceanography, the official magazine of the Oceanography Society, a comprehensive analysis of how an integrated observing system could help protect the Gulf in the event of future spills as well as guide restoration efforts for previous environmental damage.

Both Murawski and Hogarth are former heads of the National Marine Fisheries Service; Murawski was NOAA’s chief fisheries scientist at the time of the spill. They argue that now – as the federal government, BP and other parties move toward a financial resolution of spill damages – is when governments, academia, and industries should collaborate on creating a comprehensive system that produces a better assessment of the impact of oil drilling and other commercial enterprises on the Gulf environment so it can be maintained as a productive natural resource.

 Now is the time for bold leadership to bring observing efforts together to meet the ecosystem restoration challenges in the Gulf,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, scientists are closely watching legal proceedings which will have a bearing on future financial support for Gulf research. A federal trial now underway in New Orleans will determine the fines paid by those responsible for the spill under the federal Clean Water Act. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson led efforts to direct a portion of Florida’s proceeds to FIO – perhaps as much as $50 million. Florida scientists also could be eligible for additional resources that may amount to as much as $200 million once the legal case is decided or settled.

For their part, the scientists are committed to resolving questions related to the spill for the long haul.

“This is perhaps the largest science mobilization around an ocean-related event in history,” Murawski said. “Questions about dispersants, oil, and toxins are not easy to answer and require groups of researchers with different expertise.”

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