Major grant will continue research of BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

December 3, 2014

A $20 million grant to a consortium of science organizations will allow Eckerd College researchers and students to continue their work for another three years on the impact of the 2010 BP oil disaster.

Funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative has allowed Eckerd College Marine Science professors Gregg Brooks and David Hastings to work closely with students over the past three years to study the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on sediments in the Gulf. Eckerd will receive more than a half-million dollars of the new grant.

“My role was to look at the how the spill impacted the surface sediments,’’ explained Hastings. “Following the event, we believe a large amount of material rained down from the ocean surface to the bottom of the ocean. We sometimes refer to this event as a ‘dirty blizzard.’ At the bottom, it decomposes quickly and that process consumes oxygen. Following the oil spill, the bottom sediments had much less oxygen, and this impacted small, one-celled organisms called foraminifera. My main effort is to measure the concentration of trace metals that changes as the oxygen concentration in sediments changes.”

Brooks’ work has involved 14 students and two technicians on 10 research cruises. “We have found that there was a depositional pulse of sediments that rapidly sank to the seafloor in the few months following the spill,” Brooks explained. “The depositional pulse accumulated at rates up to 10 times higher than normal, and likely blanketed the seafloor, potentially creating anoxic conditions. The pulse quickly subsided in 2011 and accumulation rates have remained relatively constant to the present.”

The new grant, which is shared by several research groups, will allow this scientific inquiry to continue, benefitting students with hands-on work that is rare for undergraduates. “We will continue to monitor accumulation rates in order to determine if the event has truly subsided, or if such sediment pulses are merely part of the natural system,” Brooks said.

Already, the ongoing work by Brooks and his team has led to 27 conference presentations in which all 14 students have participated as first authors or co-authors, and four co-authored publications in peer-reviewed literature. It has also resulted in four undergraduate theses. For Hastings, eight Eckerd students made presentations at national conferences, in Mobile, Houston, Hawaii, New Orleans, San Francisco and St Petersburg. Seven senior theses also grew out of this work.

“The long term impacts of the spill are still in question,” Hastings said. “We continue to find impacts, and it is likely that we won’t fully understand the impacts for many years, perhaps decades. As part of this project, we are also going to explore the area affected by the Ixtoc oil spill, off the coast of Mexico in the Gulf of Mexico during 1979. We hope to more fully understand the long-term impacts of these massive oil spills.”

The $550,000 grant to Eckerd College was awarded to a consortium led by the University of South Florida College of Marine Science involving 10 other institutions in five countries. Called the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE) the consortium also includes the Florida Institute of Oceanography, the University of Miami, Florida State University, Georgia Tech, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Technical University of Hamburg at Harburg (Germany), the Harte Research Institute (Texas), Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Pennsylvania State University, Texas A&M, the University of Calgary (Canada), the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (Mexico City), the University of South Alabama, the University of West Florida and Wageningen University (the Netherlands).