Regular blogs will be posted on this page from members of The University of Southern Mississippi's Oil Spill Response Team.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Tuesday, June 1, 2010||
This was a banner day. A red letter day. One of the best days in my science career ever. Yes, even better than the day we first discovered the plumes, if you can believe that. Why? Let me start at the beginning. A few days ago, I mentioned the camera system that we have along and what it’s all about and how it works. But I didn’t elaborate on why we brought it, so now’s the time to do that.
When we first encountered the oil slick on the Pelican almost a month ago, we (Arne and I) were struck by how similar the oil under the surface looked to marine snow aggregates. We both agreed that we needed to bring the snow camera out here to get some profiles to see if the aggregates are settling all the way to the bottom and whether a mechanism like this could result in oil being removed from the surface. Okay, fine; that was about surface oil.
A week later, we found the deep plumes using the CDOM fluorometer and, while that was exciting enough, we wondered if these deep (1300m or so) layers also had aggregates in them. I sent some pictures to Alice Alldredge, the long recognized queen of marine aggregate science, and she forwarded the email to Uta Passow who is also at UC Santa Barbara. Uta agreed that it looked like marine snow aggregates could indeed play a role in oil transport so we set out immediately to submit an NSF RAPID proposal to request funds to pursue this exciting idea.
In the meantime, Mandy Joye received NSF funding for a cruise to follow up the Pelican results and she invited me along. My first question: “May I bring my snow camera?” “Of course,” she replied so here I am at sea with this camera. AND??? Well, tonight, for the first time ever, I present to you some images of oil aggregates in a plume that is found at about 1100m near the well spill site. Yes, all of that surmising, conjecturing, wondering, looking, and thinking paid off because the images you see here show a simply incredible view of the makeup of the plume. As you can see, they’re out of focus. Why is that? Well, God has a wry sense of humor and, while He gave me the blessing of confirmation of oil aggregates in the deep plume, He elected to keep my ego in check by making all of the images out of focus. I checked and re-checked the settings on the camera and they’re all correct so it’s still a mystery why the focus is off. (Ian Walsh is taking my place here on the Walton Smith tomorrow; He’ll figure it out. He’s smart!).
Still, the images are amazing and we can learn so much from them. Note the color, the size, the orientation, the layering, well, there are so many cool things about these images that I hardly know where to start. So I won’t. I’ll let you puzzle over these images just as I am doing. Look and think to your heart’s content. And I’m not showing you all of the cool stuff. Like the near whiteout one that could be a cloud of gas hydrate crystals? Maybe? So much to study!
Oh, and the Good Morning America team (Sam Champion) came out to the ship to interview us; we should be on the show tomorrow. But the exciting thing is these pictures! Oh my! I’m still on cloud nine.
This is the last sitrep for this cruise; I’ll post other information from Ian but I’ll be on dry land for at least a while.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Monday, May 31, 2010||
Last night was a really long one. I was on CTD duty so we did cast after cast, all on the southwest side of the spill where the signals are the strongest. But the highlight of the day (aside from my afternoon nap) was the first deployment of my camera. We started fooling around with it at about 03:00 but didn't get it on its way to the bottom until about 04:30. Part of the delay was due to moving the CDOM fluorometer over to the camera frame but mostly this was due to shallow tests. I wasn't sure where to set the focus so we tried three settings before we found the right one. Each trial required opening the housing, connecting the camera to my laptop, establishing communications, setting the focus at a guessed distance, disconnecting, programming, sealing, attaching it to the frame, lowering it into the water, waiting for it to take a few photos (10 second interval), recovering, drying, removing, opening, shutting off, removing card, examining the photos, guessing at a new setting, and then repeating the process. Complicated by the fact that it's 04:00 in the morning and I'm not as fresh as I could be.
The good news is that everything worked very well and I got hundreds of photos. The bad news? The battery in the strobe light was built (by me) in 1995 and it's a nickel cadmium (NiCd) rechargeable. These are notorious for not lasting very long so I'm pleased that it worked at all, but it appears to have died when the camera was at about 900m, just ABOVE the layer of interest that we're calling a 'plume'. Very frustrating but that's life sometimes.
Okay so you can see the picture. What in the world are you looking at? Well, keep in mind that this camera uses a collimated strobe light to define a volume of water so that I can count the objects and determine their abundance. What you're looking at is a volume of water that is about 9" across and about 3.5" deep so maybe 2 liters or so. The objects are mostly organic debris and a few zooplankton. But the larger comet-like objects are what is interesting about this photo. I don't know, for sure, what they are but they resemble normal "marine snow" aggregates with one notable exception: they're upside down! Most marine snow has a comet shape like that but the "heads" usually point down. Not these; the "heads" are on top. And they're orange. Most "snow" is white or, rarely, brown. Also, you only see these in the upper 100m or less; not a single one from there down to about 900m when, alas, my strobe quit.
Want to hear a wild conjecture at what these are and what they mean? Given that they're orange, upside down, and only found near the surface, our working hypothesis is that they're aggregates of oil as well as normal marine organic matter. The orange comes either from the oil or maybe from dispersant and they're upside down because the oil part is buoyant but the "other" parts are, well, not buoyant. So the heavy things are pulling down and the light things are pulling up and that draws it out into the streamers (comets) that you see here. Again, this is just a conjecture; we have a proposal pending with NSF to investigate this phenomenon further.
Why? Because, if the hypothesis is correct, these aggregates "could" be sinking and, if that's true, they "could" be moving toward the sediment. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You decide; I just collect the data and try to figure out what it means.
On tonight's agenda: you guessed it: CTD's and lots of them! We just never get tired of seeing the data stream and trying to figure out what it all means. Okay, I lied; we do get tired, but it's still interesting. At about 03:00 or so, I'm hoping to try another camera lowering, and so we'll see how that goes. I'm planning to lower quickly to 900m and then slowly from there to 1,550 so that I get pictures from the part of the water column (a.k.a. the "feature of interest tentatively known as the plume") that wasn't covered last night. More later!
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Sunday, May 30, 2010||
Life here on the Walton Smith goes on; we're in a pretty solid routine and are gathering a lot of great information. We've revisited some of the same places that we studied on the Pelican cruise and it looks like some of the signals, including the CDOM, are getting stronger. Our working hypothesis here is that the oil continues to leak out so the concentrations continue to increase and that's what we're seeing.
At one station, in particular, we saw the readings go, literally, off of the chart. Yes, we had to rescale our plots so that we could see the top of this peak so it is a very strong signal, meaning that there's a lot of "oil" down there.
Of course we don't know for sure that it's even oil at these depths. Do we? Well, we have two very good indications now:
Our hypothesis about the signal being due to oil is looking better and better all the time. But not everyone agrees. Just today, in fact, a BP executive is quoted as saying that "the oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes." He went on to point out that oil floats because it has a specific gravity that is less than that of water so it HAS to float. He's right, you know. Oil does float. But not always right away. If the droplets of oil are small enough, they can stay submerged for a very long time. An analogous situation is the water droplets in a cloud. Sure, they're water and water is a lot heavier than air but those droplets stay aloft for a long time. At least until you pack some of them together into a raindrop and then they'll drop out of the sky. We think that the oil (if it is oil) in these submerged layers might behave the same way. If the droplets are small enough they will remain submerged for a very long time.
How can we test this hypothesis? We can take lots of samples of the water in the layers and see if it has oil mixed in with it. And we can lower a camera into these layers to see if we can see anything that might be oil. That's what I'll be doing in just a few minutes so, hopefully, I'll report on that tomorrow. What do I expect to see? Well, not huge globs of oil. But I might see a "cloud" of oil droplets and that will be just fine.
Two pictures are included for today's SITREP.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Saturday, May 29, 2010||
We arrived in port in Gulfport at about 05:00 after a very long, hot, miserable night WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING! If you live up north, that's not such a big deal, but Mississippi in May in a small room, well, it wasn't so very pleasant and no one slept very well. The culprit? The AC uses seawater to cool the heat exchanger and there are even two of them than can but alternated but, as you might have guessed, they were both very clogged with oil and had to be dis-assembled and cleaned. That requires fresh water and we ran out last night so it just wasn't so very nice. See? I'm complaining again; I better knock it off or a glider will be doing my job before you know it.
Once in port, we opened the portholes and let in some air and that really helped a lot but it wasn't until later in the day that the AC started to catch up. It's fine now so we're smiling again.
The main reason for coming in to port was to drop off the journalist, Justin Gillis, which we did. He filed his story from the ship and it appeared on the front page of the New York Times again. We all think he did a splendid job in all regards; he's an excellent writer and it was a pleasure having him along.
The next chore for the port call was to buy some dry ice to preserve some of the samples. Lindell arrived at 07:00 to drop off some tidbits for the camera frame and for Dongjoo's Go-Flo bottles so we used our van to drop Justin at the airport and to pick up the dry ice from the Walmart in Ocean Springs. 200 pounds of it. I didn't even know Walmart sold dry ice. We cleaned them out. At the checkout line, they had to weigh each package of ice to charge us by the pound (about $1.50) so that took awhile but it was nice to get out.
On the way "home" (to the ship), NPR called to ask if I had time for an interview. I was driving but agreed to talk with them and later learned that they aired it on "All Things Considered" later in the day. It was kind of early and I hadn't slept all that well and I was driving so, if I made any sense at all, it's a miracle.
Then, just before arriving back at the ship, CBS News called to ask if they could do an interview and, after a few calls, they sent Fernando Suarez to the ship and he interviewed both myself and Mandy (see photos). I'm not sure how they had a videographer so close but they did and he arrived within a half hour of the first phone call so it was pretty good (actually suspiciously good) timing. Lindell was here for all of this so she took photos and smiled a lot. I really like her smile!
As soon as the interviews were over and the rest of the ship's company returned from their errands (about noon), we dropped the lines and departed. We're now about 4 hours from Ground Zero and are planning to circumnavigate it at a radius of 3 miles to complete about 8 stations, looking for the deep "CDOM" as always. Dennis is going to bed so I get to run the CTD again, which I don't mind at all. We are expected to get there at 1:30 so we'll see how it goes. We're starting on the northeast quadrant where the USF people found their plume so we're really curious to see what that looks like.
I'm posting some photos. These include some of the ship at the pier (note oil above the water line, my camera frame (with Dongjoo and others for scale), the rosette that we're using, and one of Lindell smiling. Okay, that's more of a smirk but it's the best I got today. It sure was nice to see her, if only for a few hours.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Friday, May 28, 2010||
The first part of the day was spent doing CTD casts. Cast after cast. Only 3 of us were awake all night long so it was peaceful. To recover the CTD package, it takes one person to drive the ship and run the winch and two of us on deck to guide it over the side and into place. Very routine work and very productive. We followed the plume almost due west until the water shoaled (900m) and it disappeared. Interestingly, it was mostly missing on the other side of the shoal where the water was over 1100m again so I guess the plume isn’t just spreading out at a constant depth but is actually being carried by the currents.
Ho hum, another day at sea.
Until about 3:00 in the afternoon when something really amazing happened: The iRobot Seaglider detected the plume using its CDOM sensor! This might not seem like a big deal to some of you but, to me, it’s huge and for several reasons:
And in other news, we learned the researchers on the Weatherbird found a new plume to the northeast and a scientist from LSU found one to the northwest so maybe there is a lot of oil below the surface that we are only beginning to map. Lots and lots to do.
At this moment, we’re headed in to port to drop off the journalist, pick up another, and then head out for more sampling. We’ll be back in port on the 2nd for a similar reason and we’ll just keep on going for another week or so. The weather has been good and the food excellent so I’m not complaining. Except for the AC; I sure do with it was working. Clearly, I’m not a glider or I wouldn’t even notice so I better shut up or I’ll be replaced!
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Thursday, May 27, 2010||
Today on the Walton Smith was a very good day. We did lots and lots of CTDs and followed the plume at least 11 miles out, which is where we are right now. This is far enough that the CDOM (oil?) signal is beginning to fade but the transmissometer signal (murkiness due to bacteria?) is increasing and the oxygen levels are decreasing (bacterial respiration as they chow down on the "oil?"). That's exactly what we saw last time so no surprises, but it's nice to be repeating the stations and confirming those results.
Neither has been on a ship before; Susan is a data manager and Dan is a computer programmer and they have been assigned to help us record and verify our samples which will be a big plus for us. They are required to submit reports that include every sample at every depth at every station (hundreds of bottles!) as well as maps and shape files (for GIS) on everything we do. We will certainly have a complete record of this cruise when they're through!
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Wednesday, May 26, 2010||
It's hard to believe that I'm back here at Ground Zero again after having been on shore for scarcely a week. But life throws curves at you sometimes and here I am. This time, I'm on the R/V Walton Smith from the University of Miami. Another difference this time is that I'm the only Mississippian; the rest are from the University of Georgia. Well, except for Justin Gillis of the New York Times; he lives in Manhattan so he's not even a Southerner. This cruise is also not funded by NOAA, like the last one was. Instead, it's funded by the National Science Foundation through a RAPID grant to Dr. Samantha (Mandy) Joye who is also a partner in NIUST and who is working on samples from the last cruise. Or at least she will be when she gets back on shore.
|JIM FRANKS (GCRL) Tuesday, May 25, 2010||Click here for an audio blog from Jim Franks, senior research scientists at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, from onboard the R/V Tommy Munro in the Gulf of Mexico.|
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Sunday, May 23, 2010||
Work is ongoing with the oil spill in the Gulf. Last week I finished with an expedition to the spill site. Basically, we tried to stay just outside the affected area to get water and sediment samples. In this way, we can compare future collections against these baseline figures and make intelligent determinations about the impact of the spill. We found there's actually quite a bit of oil that has not reached the surface. If it can sink to the floor, there are bacteria there that can begin breaking it down. However, we simply do not know how quickly these bacteria can begin work, and we do not know the impact of the vast amount of chemical dispersants in use at the site of the well. I'll be going back to the Gulf on Tuesday for another expedition. Again, we'll be looking to collect as much data as possible from uncontaminated areas, while revisiting some of the sites of previous data collections to see how these areas have been affected since our last collections. I had an interview with Katie Couric today in Grand Isle, Louisiana to answer some questions about the impact on marine life. Below are some pictures. —Vernon
|JIM FRANKS (GCRL) Sunday, May 23, 2010||Click here for an audio blog from Jim Franks [part 1 | part 2], senior research scientists at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, from onboard the R/V Tommy Munro in the Gulf of Mexico.|
|JIM FRANKS (GCRL) Saturday, May 22, 2010||Click here for an audio blog from Jim Franks, senior research scientists at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, from onboard the R/V Tommy Munro in the Gulf of Mexico.|
|JIM FRANKS (GCRL) Friday, May 21, 2010||Click here for an audio blog from Jim Franks, senior research scientists at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, from onboard the R/V Tommy Munro, 300 miles in the Gulf of Mexico.|
|JIM FRANKS (GCRL)
Thursday, May 20, 2010
|Click here for audio blog from Jim Franks, senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, from onboard the R/V Tommy Munro 325 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.|
|JIM FRANKS (GCRL) Wednesday, May 19, 2010||Click here for audio blog from Jim Franks, senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, from onboard the R/V Tommy Munro 250 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. [2.3 mb .wav file, 4 minutes, 54 seconds]|
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Saturday, May 15, 2010||
Our cruise is drawing to an end and we are now looking forward to some rest and the pleasure of analyzing our data. Today, we finished the last CTD cast and then did a long (~30 miles, 7 hours) transect with the Acrobat to look at the gradient in oil (fluorescence signal) as we steamed away from the cruise. I’ve posted a few images of this process on the web site but it’s worth mentioning that everyone on board was pleased and even impressed with how will this towed package worked.
Until our next research enterprise,
DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Friday, May 14, 2010
Another day has come to an end as we complete our cruise. Another very long day. We started out the day in some pretty rough conditions but we were able to complete lots of CTD casts, in search of the limits of the deep plume of oil. We followed it as far as 30 miles from ground zero and, while the fluorescence signal (related to the oil) died out within about 10 miles, the oxygen and beam attenuation signals persisted faintly as far as 20 miles from the well. It appears that the extent of the most significant part of the plume is about 5 miles wide by maybe 15 miles long. There are several of these but the strongest is at 1300m, give or take a few, and its depth seems to change with distance from the well and with time. Clearly this is a dynamic system and there is a lot to be learned here so we will be requesting some input from plume experts and physical oceanographers.
Below, video of the "homely" CO2 monitor in action.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Thursday, May 13, 2010||
Southern Miss Marine Science graduate student DongJoo Joung is featured in the video below making some spectral measurements at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Joung is a Ph.D. student in marine science who has ongoing chemical studies in this offshore region which are funded through a National Science Foundation grant awarded through Southern Miss Marine Science Professor Dr. Alan Shiller.
Below, Joung takes spectral measurements:
Some days you have great, calm weather and smooth seas and, well, some days are like today. Not so great, nor calm, nor smooth. It wasn’t awful, I’ve seen a lot worse, but it was enough to slow us down and to prevent us from engaging in some of our planned sampling. For example, Dongjoo, the grad student from USM, likes to use the small boat to collect his samples in order to avoid contamination from the ship. Well, it was too rough to launch the small boat and, even if we had launched it, I don’t think they’d have had much fun in it today. So, instead of this approach, he used a long, plastic pole with a bottle attached to the end. I took some photos of this ritual and posted them on the ftp site. I say “ritual” because there was the ceremonial swishing and dipping, followed by pouring and capping and it was all accomplished in a very prescribed manner. But that’s how real trace metal chemists are; they are necessarily paranoid about contamination and will go to whatever lengths are necessary to get the best samples possible. Dongjoo also does the spectral measurements and I posted a photo of him using the ASD (even he doesn’t know what that stands for; we’re swimming in acronyms) to measure the color of the sky and water.
That’s all for tonight; tomorrow I’ll describe the “interesting” pCO2 sensor that we’ve also been working with and we’ll post more photos to the re-organized ftp site.
Below, a short video of the careful water sampling:
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Wednesday, May 12, 2010||
Today we made what may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of the trip. Or it could be nothing; it’s too early to tell. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we are most interested in the oil that is NOT at the surface and that is therefore not visible to satellites or aircraft. Because we are the first scientists on the scene (and apparently the only ones so far), we have the opportunity to survey the area surrounding the well using the techniques at hand, including the Acrobat profiling towed vehicle that I described last night. This process went very well and we were able to confirm that the signal did, in fact, increase when oil was visible to observers on deck and it decreased when no oil was apparent. Following the completion of a complete, 10 x 10 mile box around the well, we made a normal station at a point southwest of the well, including sampling for trace metals, a box core and a CTD with the fluorometer attached. Unlike other casts, this one recorded the presence of several layers of “material” at depths from 700 to over 1300m. Intrigued by this discovery, we decided to try to map this feature to see if it was emanating from the well, so we lowered the CTD at sites 2.5 and then 1.25 miles from the well. As expected, the signals (fluorescence, oxygen depletion, and beam attenuation, which is a measure of water clarity) all increased as we approached the well. We spent the rest of the day acquiring samples to the south, southeast and then northwest of the well and concluded that the highest signals are to the southwest.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Tuesday, May 11, 2010||
We remain pleased that the weather is much better than forecast and we continue to work productively. Wind has been generally light and the seas have been favorable but we are beginning to pick up some swell from the south that complicates our deck operations. Our team was frustrated in the early morning hours by two box cores that failed to recover any sediment in 1336m of water and we finally gave up and hove to at about 04:00 but were up and working again by 7:30. Our first station (site 29) was 9.6 miles northeast of ground zero and had medium oil (heavy sheen, patches of emulsified oil) on the surface. After sampling there, we launched the Acrobat for the first time. This is a towed vehicle that has a movable plane on its bow that allows it to climb and descend through the upper water column as it is towed behind the ship. It has the normal CTD (Conductivity = salinity, Temperature, and Depth) sensors but we also put our CDOM fluorometer on it as well. As noted in previous emails, this sensor is intended to provide indications of the presence or absence of oil through a fluorescence process. By towing it through the water, we obtain a two dimensional cross section of the oil distribution. We plan to tow this between all sampling stations and we are currently towing it around Ground Zero in a box with 9 mile legs, a process that should take all night. I get the first watch to I’m here from 22:00 until 02:00 when Max will take over. The watch isn’t all that hard; just watch the computer screen, change log files now and then, check the tow lines, and go out on deck to check for surface oil now and then. Oh, and drink coffee; I think that’s required.
Regards from 5 miles east of ground zero, steaming north,
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Monday, May 10, 2010|| Today’s was an incredibly hectic day with activity focused on the exchange of personnel and equipment during a brief port call. We arrived in Cocodrie at around 6:00am and Arne and I left at 07:30 for the USM facility at the Stennis Space Center towing a 24’ trailer to transport a lot of gear back to the ship. We have a very full agenda and, if we only accomplish half of the planned activities, we will have done well. I’ll list below some of the activities that we’re planning to engage in and will highlight each of these over the next few days as we see how they play out.
As always, please let us know if we can better serve the needs of scientists interested in helping with these studies.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Saturday, May 8, 2010||
This was an interesting day, with some surprises, including the announcement that the dome that was intended to capture the escaping oil had been clogged by the formation of gas hydrates. The irony of this report is that our Gulf of Mexico Gas Hydrates Consortium has been studying this phenomenon for nearly 10 years at a nearby site with funding from NOAA, MMS, DOE, and support from NIUST. As you probably know, hydrates are formed when, under the right conditions of temperature and pressure, gas and water combine to form a crystal lattice that resembles white ice. This material forms spontaneously in nature as well as inside pipes and equipment placed on the seafloor during hydrocarbon recovery efforts. Our studies have focused on investigating the rates of formation, the stability, and the composition of the hydrates as well as the interaction between the chemistry and the biological community living in proximity to the hydrates on the seafloor. Scientists from around the world have collaborated in this endeavor and an impressive array of novel sensors and sampling equipment have been developed and deployed at this site, including some that remain in place. The web site for more information is http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/mmri/programs/gulf_res.html and I suggest that you contact Carol Lutken (cc’d above) for additional details.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Friday, May 7, 2010||
Below is a short video showing what it's like traveling between sampling stations. Get your sea legs under you, it gives the sensation of the rolling waves.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Thursday, May 6, 2010||We are still in the vicinity of Ground Zero and are continuing to collect sediment samples on several transects from the spill site to points north and west. We are looking for the effects of the oil with seems to be leaving the surface and settling towards the seafloor at an unknown rate. I have attached two photos: The first (6891 at left) shows the NIUST team in action, recovering the box corer. This is a very heavy device that is more complicated than it looks and these guys are experts at making it work so we have had 100% success in obtaining useful cores. Each core takes about 2-3 hours because of the time it takes to lower this device to 1500m, recover it, remove the box from beneath it, sub-sample the mud in the box, clean all of the excess mud up, and re-load it for the next core. Pictured are, from left to right, Chris Berkey (the freelance photojournalist who has promised to give us copies of his excellent photos), Matt Lowe (from Ole Miss; a genius at getting things into and out of the water), Dr. Arne Diercks (USM grad and current employee, also Chief Scientist for the cruise), and Andy Gossett (also Ole Miss; can make anything or make anything work). These guys are all masters at what they do and the coring operation always runs safely and without a hitch.
The second photo (6887 at left) shows the surface of the water at the current sampling location. Okay, so it's not all that photogenic but it gives you a really good idea of what we're seeing out here. On the surface is a very light sheen of oil, as you'd expect to see with an oil spill. Along with that are the tan clumps of oil ranging in size from pea to pancake. Some of these can be very filamentous in shape but others are just ragged clumps of oil, appearing almost as if there were some kind of fiber involved. Most interesting to us, however are the smaller clumps (I'm calling them oil aggregates) that appear below the surface. It's counter-intuitive to see "oil" sink below the surface but you have to remember that this isn't motor oil, it's crude oil and there are all kinds of compounds in it, including many that are heavier than water. Apparently, the dispersants that they are spreading on the surface (using C-130's and ancient DC-3s that have been retrofitted with turbo-prop engines) are causing this oil to coagulate into these relatively large clumps. This reduces the amount of surface area, which causes drag, for the amount of oil volume, so if they're heavier than water, they'll sink more rapidly than they would have, had they not aggregated. The question is, what happens to this oil after it leaves the surface? How rapidly does it sink? How far down has it been able to travel so far? What effect is it having on the midwater ecosystem? What will its ultimate fate be? We are planning to bring some novel gear along next time to investigate some of these questions but it's clear that some long term monitoring will be required to address many of these issues.
One of the instruments that we'll bring along next time is a small (some call it "micro") Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). We'll use this to qualitatively describe the concentration of oil aggregates in the surface layer down to about 75m, which is as far as it can go. We'll also be looking at the plankton in the water and maybe even the nekton (fish) if any come around. In addition, NIUST has a really large ROV that is capable of placing and recovering relatively large instruments on the sea floor and we expect to have that on site in the weeks to come but not for the next leg.
A final note: I've been surprised by the total absence of dead animals out here. Granted, it's an "oligotrophic" environment (blue water, low nutrients, sparse concentration of anything living) but still, I was expecting to see the occasional dead fish, oiled bird, rotting jellyfish. Instead, we've seen flying fish that skim along the surface, and schools of needle fish and others that seem oblivious to the oil and that's a surprise. It's still early so the toxic effects may not have had their full effect but this clearly demands some closer investigation.
|DR. VERNON ASPER (DMS) Wednesday, May 5, 2010||Attached is a photo taken by me [below], just seconds ago. If this sends easily, I’ll send more.
The second photo is of 3 of the large ships working over the leak. Two of these are from Norway; all have at least one ROV in the water and they also have cranes with large cables lowered over the side. We don’t see where they are pumping down dispersant to the actual leaks; no sign of large hoses or the like. Also visible in this picture is the drilling rig that has been placed nearby to relieve the pressure from the leak. We tried to contact anyone who would talk to us; on the “DD 3” (Development Driller III). We asked how close we could get; they said to stay 500 meters away which is amazing; we expected a much larger “CPA” (closest point of approach).
There are also lots of large ships to the east of us; they are working to skim the oil off of the surface. We saw one large plume of black smoke rising from a point several miles to the east so they are working to burn off some of the oil as well.
One interesting observation is that the brown aggregates are mostly below the surface, some of them several meters down. This raises the question of where all of this material is going and what effect it will have on the ecosystems. As you know, there are lots of midwater organisms the feed on the normal, organic, marine aggregates that we call “marine snow” so I wonder if these potentially toxic aggregates might find their way into the food web as well.
We are now hove to about 1 mile from ground zero. We will be acquiring some water samples and then some sediment samples and I will be bringing some of this material back for us to study with the rest of it going to scientists at NOAA and other universities. This sampling scheme was put together very quickly by our Principal Investigator (Ray Highsmith) working with Arne Diercks (the Chief Scientist on this cruise) with the help of others form NOAA and other agencies. We are going to be back in port on Sunday morning and hope to be able to pick up some gear and supplies so that the next leg of the cruise can apply more optimal sampling to address specific questions.