July 24, 2014  

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USM Conducts Oil Spill Impact Study on Mississippi Coastal Marshes

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Southern Miss graduate student Knox Flowers conducts research on plant life along Mississippi's Gulf Coast marshland. (University Communications photo)

When the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill disaster occurred along the Gulf Coast two years ago, ecologists at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg wanted to dig deep to study the impacts.

Researchers have spent most of their time at test sites like Lake Thoreau Environmental Center in the city, but the Oil Spill opened up a different eco-system to research, along with a new set of challenges.

While much research has been done on water quality and animal life along the coast, graduate student Knox Flowers led a team of researchers to study the impact of the oil spill on plants in the Mississippi marshland and look at how the coastal marshes are recovering.

“The marsh is the energy cycler for the coast, so a lot of what you see is controlled by the marsh.  When you impact the coast you impact all of the system,” said Flowers. 

Dr. Mike Davis, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, believes that the marsh plant life feeds the coastal eco-system, so studying the condition of the marsh will give scientists an idea of how the overall food web is recovering from the oil spill.

“The marsh often gets ignored in recovery efforts,” said Davis. “The marsh is a tough place to work and is muddy with lots of heat and insects. People will mostly do visual assessments, but we wanted to know what impacts there were in the marsh.”

Flowers emphasized that the researchers had witnessed damage first-hand during the project. “You can visibly see spots that have died off and the damage and some replenishment, but a lot of areas are still impacted by it. It’s disheartening at the same time,” he said.

While Flowers has wrapped up this first phase of studying plants at oil sites, he believes they have only scratched the surface to understanding the full impact of the spill on the environment.

For more information about the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Miss call 601.266.4748 or visit: http://www.usm.edu/biological-sciences