NOAA Visits the University of West Florida
Carrie T. Stevenson
Coastal Sustainability Agent
Escambia County Extension
Two high-ranking leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) discussed “Science Response & Priorities Going Forward: BP Deepwater Horizon Spill” during an August visit to the University of West Florida (UWF) in Pensacola. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, current NOAA Administrator, opened by saying the “spill has been unprecedented” and their estimate of the amount of oil released was 4.9 billion gallons. She noted that as the lead agency for the federal response effort, NOAA mobilized satellites, underwater gliders, boats, and planes, along with using modeling to look at oil movement, currents and ocean dynamics to guide response efforts. Dr. Lubchenco stated that the spill brings to light the interconnectedness of the health of the Gulf with the health and survival of the people living on the Gulf, and that NOAA is concerned not only about visible oil impacts but the long term socioeconomic impacts of that much oil in the Gulf ecosystem.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator Photo Credits: Carrie Stevenson
Steve Murawski, Chief Scientist for NOAA Fisheries, stated NOAA is in transition from first response to long term restoration, and the agency is in a “decadal mode” of restoration. The natural resource damage assessment process has begun, which includes loss of beach tourism and impacts on fisheries and people. He stated that there are at least five key scientific questions that they’ll be looking to address in the aftermath of the spill. These are:
Tar balls are still occasionally washing ashore, although smaller and mixed with more sand. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller
Distribution, fate, and impacts of oil
How does the concentration and distribution of oil impact seafood safety and abundance/mortality of marine organisms?
What is the timing of reduction of impacts following well capping?
How does the presence of millions of gallons of dissolved oil impact Gulf hypoxia risk?
Short and long term impacts on coastal ecosystems and human dimensions
Mr. Murawski went on to discuss the status of the oil within the Gulf. Ultraviolet fluorimetry has shown oil diluting and dropping in density over time, even at depth. However, he believed at least 50% of the oil was still “out there.” Most oil droplets dissolved by dispersants and wave action have been suspended at 1000-1300 m below surface. One of the biggest concerns in the open water during the height of the spill was that oil-eating bacteria would cause major hypoxia, and if so BP was under orders to stop dispersant use if the dissolved oxygen (DO) level dropped below 2 mL/L. All measurements showed it rarely measured below 3, usually at 3.5-4 mL/L.
Additional science priorities, per Mr. Murawski, include plankton assessment, microbial-driven oil degradation rates (half-life, temp basis), lab exposure studies of oil & dispersants, fisheries abundance & distribution, wetland impacts, hypoxia and carbon loading, socioeconomic impacts, and integrated ecosystem assessments. Life cycle studies looking at the reproduction of finfish and invertebrates with oil exposure will also be a priority. To keep up with ongoing research and share information, a searchable online database has been established at http://gulfseagrant.tamu.edu/oilspill/database.htm
Several members of UWF’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation (CEDB), including professors Dick Snyder, Wade Jeffries, and Will Patterson, were recently awarded almost $750,000 for continuing research to establish baseline studies for long-term monitoring, study overall impacts of dispersant use, and analyze oil impacts on sediments and fish. UWF faculty members from the archaeology and economics departments have also been involved in responding to the spill.
During a question & answer session immediately following the talk, an audience member asked whether a hurricane would pull water from 3000 ft down, where the dissolved oil is located. The NOAA representatives stated that hurricanes stir only the water surface, but could redistribute oily sand in beaches. The debate over buried oil was brought up; with one professor asking whether digging out oil currently sequestered in the soil is would do more damage than leaving it in. If the sediment is anoxic at that level, oil will just sit and not degrade, but a storm may be helpful because it will bring it out of the sand and allow oxygen exposure to break it down more.
In response to the contrasting messages regarding the now-infamous NOAA pie chart showing 75% of oil is “gone,” Dr. Lubchenco stated they are trying to be accurate when talking about degradation rates. Before releasing the chart, rumors ranged from the oil being “no big deal” to an “underwater river of black,” and the goal of the pie chart was to estimate how the oil is broken apart. NOAA maintains that “diluted” or “out of sight” doesn’t necessarily mean benign, but they are committed to working with the scientific community to assess damages.