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UM to lead $20 million study on the impact of gulf oil spill


Graduate students from the University of Mississippi will take to the seas this spring to study the impact of the BP oil spill.

“The UM-led consortium, which includes scientists from 14 research institutions, will examine the effects of hydrocarbons on a deep-water ecosystem,” said Ray Highsmith, lead investigator on the study. 

The research team includes physical oceanographers, marine biologists and chemists. The project is a diverse study with several goals. One is to analyze the remaining effects of the oil spill on the physical and biological components of the Gulf of Mexico. 

“In addition to Ole Miss, 13 other universities make up the consortium,” said Highsmith, who is also director of the UM National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST). “The funding for the research has not been received yet but work is under way to get the main research agreement with Ole Miss in place and then to issue subcontracts to the other universities. The major at-sea research activities, other than planning, will begin in the spring with improved weather.”

A number of Ole Miss graduate students will get the opportunity to participate in the research. The departments of pharmacognosy, geology and geological engineering will provide the team with young enthusiasts.

“This is a grand experiment following the grand experiment,” Highsmith added. “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.”

The Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in April 2010, so much of the immediate impact is no longer visible. The scientists will look deep under the surface to see what is happening with the remaining oil. It will help the researchers analyze the remaining effects of the oil spill on the physical and biological components of the Gulf of Mexico. 

“The Gulf zone is a place where 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.”

Researchers also plan to learn more about oil spills, including how crude oil treated with dispersants behaves and affects ecosystems at a variety of depths. Data from the Macondo oil reservoir where the leak occurred will be compared with data from natural oil seeps. The results will show natural processes that break up oil. The findings will be applied to investigate other disasters, such as the Macondo blowout. 

There are several ways to achieve the highlighted goals. Pharmacognosy professor Marc Slattery 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. A lot of attention will be paid to developing high-resolution seafloor maps and photo mosaics of study sites. 

“It’s exciting because this is an opportunity to gather some information on deep-water corals, which is rare in itself,” Slattery said. “Then it will help to see if there has been any impact on them from this oil spill research.”

The UM-led scientific consortium received $20 million over three years to hold the investigation. The grant recipients were announced after a competitive merit-review process. Competing consortia submitted funding proposals earlier in summer. After the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, an NIUST team was the first academic group to conduct sampling missions in the area of the spill. 

“I think that helped us a lot in getting this funding,” Highsmith said.