Largest Research Expedition of its Kind Near the Site of Deepwater Horizon Incident

Following the catastrophic explosion and subsequent spill of oil from the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, scientists have embarked upon a 3-week expedition aboard the R/V Walton Smith to determine how surface ocean currents near the site influence the fate and transport of pollutants. This research is an important next step in understanding how surface ocean currents transport pollutants.

“In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill it became clear that understanding the various scales of oceanic currents and flows lies at the very heart of being able to improve our understanding and prediction of oil spills,” explained Dr. Tamay Ӧzgökmen, University of Miami (UM) Professor. “In this case we are like detectives uncovering clues and following the ‘trail’ to find out exactly where pollutants might go.”

This is the first time that a study of this size has been deployed to map surface currents found in the Gulf of Mexico. Previously, only a small number of monitoring devices had been set adrift along the currents.

This new study will release more than 300 custom-made buoys known as “drifters” as part of the Grand Lagrangian Deployment (GLAD.

Gas from the damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead is burned by the drillship Discoverer Enterprise May 16, 2010, in a process known as flaring. Gas and oil from the wellhead are being brought to the surface via a tube that was placed inside the damaged pipe.

“The drifters will collect a wealth of oceanic information that will be plugged into predictive models to help us better understand the role of near-surface ocean flows in spreading and dispersing materials in the marine environment,” said UM Professor and Chief Scientist Brian Haus, who will oversee the release of drifters from UM’s 96-foot catamaran, the R/V Walton Smith.

The drifters will continue roaming the currents for a few months after the GLAD experiments are concluded, and all information will be shared wit the U.S. Coast Guard to help improve their search and rescue operations.

“This joint research operation between the USCG and CARTHE combines our expertise and resources – it is a partnership that can truly save lives,” said Art Allen, a physical oceanographer with the USCG Office of Search and Rescue in Washington, D.C.

Allen has already helped deploy five drifters from an aircraft in preparation for the main experiment. These drifters helped scientists determine the best locations for the larger deployment.

The field work, in combination with laboratory experiments and the development of interconnected modelling systems, will create a comprehensive four-dimensional description of the oil/dispersant fate and transport in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Our research goes well beyond the Deepwater Horizon incident,” Ӧzgökmen said. “These experiments are complex and painstaking, but the results will be key to generating vast improvements in how and where emergency responders are deployed in the event of another oil spill or at-sea emergency.”

Source: University of Miami
Image Source: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, via Flickr

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