Newswise — OXFORD, Miss. – A scientific consortium led by the University of Mississippi has been awarded $20 million over three years to study lingering environmental effects of the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The funding is part of $112.5 million awarded to eight research teams by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GRI, a group formed to help understand and mitigate the impacts of hydrocarbon pollution and stressors of the marine environment, with an emphasis on conditions found in the Gulf of Mexico. The GRI was established with a 10-year, $500 million commitment from BP.
The UM-led consortium, which includes scientists from 14 research institutions, is to study "Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG)." The spill provides an unprecedented opportunity to examine the effects of hydrocarbons – either from natural seeps or man-made spills – on a deep-water ecosystem, said Ray Highsmith, lead investigator on the study and director of the UM National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology, or NIUST.
"This is a grand experiment following the grand experiment, in a way," Highsmith said. "The BP spill was a gigantic man-made experiment that scientists could never do, so this is a tremendous opportunity to study real-world conditions that we could never replicate and then use that information to predict what will happen when we have future spills."
"The results will illuminate the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, and enable appropriate responses should there be future releases not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but anywhere that oil and gas is produced in ocean environments," said Rita R. Colwell, chair of the GRI Research Board. "They will also assist local, state and federal agencies in their work to remediate the consequences of the oil spill in coastal and marine environments. The long-term contribution of this research will be of major benefit to industry, governments and the people who live along the Gulf of Mexico coast."
The grant recipients were announced earlier this week after a competitive merit-review process. Competing consortia submitted funding proposals in July. The winning proposals get funding for three years, and the teams can apply for up to two, three-year renewals of funding.
"This project demonstrates the University of Mississippi's leadership role in addressing challenges affecting our state and nation and in bringing together the best possible minds to address those challenges," said Alice Clark, UM vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs. "It is also a testament to the high-quality, highly competitive research being done by our scientists."
A major factor in the ECOGIG winning proposal is that all the participating scientists and institutions were hand-picked based on their expertise, said Highsmith, who came to UM after more than 20 years as a professor of marine science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and 15 years as director of the university's Kasitsna Bay Laboratory.
"Everybody in this group is well-established in the fields they represent, and they have demonstrated that they can do the work we proposed," he said. "This is the best group I've ever worked with. I did a lot of work in Alaska on the Exxon Valdez spill, but that was a more centralized approach, and I had a lot more people going out and collecting samples than I did doing science."
The research team includes physical oceanographers, marine biologists and chemists. Besides UM, the institutions represented are Columbia University, Florida State University, Georgia Tech, the J. Craig Venter Institute, Oregon State University, Penn State, Temple University and the universities of California at Santa Barbara, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Southern Mississippi and Texas.
The ECOGIG project is a diverse study with several goals, Highsmith said. They include: - Analyzing the remaining effects of the oil spill on the physical and biological components of the Gulf of Mexico, ranging from the ocean surface to the seafloor. "We're far enough past the spill that a lot of the immediate impacts are not visible anymore," Highsmith said. "We have to get down there and really look under the surface to see what is happening with the remaining oil and how it is affecting the different organisms in the area." - Translating observations of conditions in the Gulf into predictions of how future spills may affect sensitive areas. - Learning more about oil spills, including how crude oil and crude oil treated with dispersants behave and affect ecosystems at a variety of depths. "The area of the Macondo blowout is pretty deep water, and this is where the oil companies are moving for exploration and production," Highsmith said. "That's why it's critical to study this area and gather as much information as we can, so that we'll know what to expect next time." - Comparing data from the Macondo blowout spill with that from natural oil seeps.
Crude oil seeps naturally from the seafloor in hundreds of locations across the Gulf of Mexico, Highsmith said. Conducting experiments at those sites and comparing the data with spill-affected sites and unaffected "control" sites will help scientists understand natural processes that break up oil and apply those findings to disasters such as the Macondo blowout.
The project also includes an outreach effort, in partnership with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, to educate and inform the public about the team's findings. This effort will include a range of programs, such as classroom activities aimed at college students and public presentations for any interested parties.
Two UM scientists have major roles in the consortium's work.
Marc Slattery, UM professor of pharmacognosy and director of the NIUST Ocean Biotechnology Center, plans to study the oil's effects on deep-water corals by taking samples of coral at sites in the spill's vicinity and comparing them with samples from other areas where there was no oil.
Corals are a unique resource and many species are considered endangered, said Slattery, who has studied corals as potential sources for new medications for more than a decade.
"We don't know one way or another what we're going to find," Slattery said. "It's exciting because this is an opportunity to A, stat to gather some information on deep-water corals, which is rare in itself; and B, to then see if there has been any impact on them from this grand-scale experiment down there."
Leonardo Macelloni, a research associate in NIUST's Seabed Technology Research Center, based in the university's Mississippi Mineral Resources Institute, will be in charge of developing high-resolution seafloor maps and photo mosaics of study sites. He will work closely with NIUST's autonomous undersea vehicle team employed through USM and located at the UM Field Station.
Many NIUST staff members also will be involved in administration and support efforts for the various research projects, Highsmith said.
NIUST researchers have studied an area of the Gulf called Mississippi Canyon 118 for many years, so they have baseline data for a variety of comparisons, he said. The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling at the Macondo Prospect, an area about 9 miles from MC-118, at the time of the disaster.
After the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in April 2010, a NIUST team was the first academic group conducting sampling missions in the area for several weeks, which helped scientists and government officials understand the extent and severity of the spill.
"I think that helped us a lot in getting this funding," Highsmith said. "It gave us credibility studying this spill, not some general data from way back. We were the first ones out there last spring, so we were studying this spill from the beginning, and that established our leadership in this area."
For more information on research programs at the UM National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology, go to http://www.niust.org/
For more stories from the University of Mississippi, visit http://zing.olemiss.edu/