UCSB Marine Science Institute’s research professor of oceanography Uta Passow and her team received a $22.5 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to continue research on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for another three years.
Global oil and gas company British Petroleum — the corporation leasing the oil rig that exploded spring of 2010 and sent millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf — funds the GRI to support research on the effects of the incident. Passow’s team is working on one of eight projects that were allotted $112.5 million overall and will examine the effects of the oil and other dispersants to limit environmental damage.
The team consists of nearly 30 principle researchers from universities nationwide, each specializing in a particular aspect of the spill’s environmental impact. Passow said she will focus on the spill’s connection to the increased buildup of “marine snow,” composed of silt and other particles that settle on the ocean’s floor.
“My role [includes] looking at the flux of this [marine] snow; somebody else is looking at what happens with the organisms living on the sea floor [and] somebody else is looking at the food web in the water, so there is a huge amount of work,” Passow said. “We came together because we looked carefully for people to fill certain [areas of] expertise so that we could try to look at the whole system.”
Passow said the research involves analyzing sediment traps that collect particles as they sink to the ocean floor.
“These are big funnels which are weighed down with an anchor that is on the sea floor, so the trap is just floating above the sea floor and everything that sinks falls into it,” Passow said. “We can see if oil or dispersants fall into the trap [and] we can also see if lots of organisms die and fall into the trap. We can measure the organisms that ate some of the oil [to see] if they ingested it.”
According to Passow, the team will use the additional funding to install more than one trap at a time.
“I have money now to buy more traps,” Passow said. “Together with my collaborators in Mississippi, we will put another three or four in. We put them in different places, but we also put them on the same spot but at different depths.”
The BP Corporation worked with the federal government to create the GRI program shortly after the oil spill occurred.
According to GRI Director of Public Affairs Kevin Wheeler, several states impacted by the spill selected the initiative’s members to ensure their work remained objective.
“We held a symposium at LSU in Baton Rouge; several hundred researchers came and we held an open forum to discuss what the research needs were,” Wheeler said. “The White House asked that states get involved, so then the Gulf States appointed people to the research board — all of them scientists, none of them political lackeys.”
The Gulf oil spill differed from previous incidents because the leak occurred in deep waters near the ocean floor, according to Passow.
“In past oil accidents, the oil leaked at the surface,” Passow said. “This one is so very different because it leaked at such great depths and the distribution pattern is very different. Only a fraction of the oil came up to the surface; we do not really know where the rest went, so we are going to have a lot of learning to do.”
Wheeler said private funding is integral to supplement the federal government’s diminishing financial contributions due to the constricted budget.
“Fifty million dollars a year for 10 years is a significant investment — it is relatively unprecedented,” Wheeler said. “With all the deficit issues that are going on, a lot of the federal science agencies are not going to have robust budgets for the next few years. This is a timely effort to make sure that ocean sciences continue to make some progress on an important issue.”