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Where did the BP oil and dispersants end up in the Gulf? USM researchers hope to find out

Oil flows out of the Deepwater Horizon site in 2010 after the rig above it caught fire and exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. 172 million gallons of petroleum into the Gulf.
Oil flows out of the Deepwater Horizon site in 2010 after the rig above it caught fire and exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. 172 million gallons of petroleum into the Gulf. BP PLC via AP File

Among the 31 research projects that will share $50 million in Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative are three from the University of Southern Mississippi.

BP gave the initiative $500 million to study the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, and this latest round includes $35 million for eight research consortia and $15 million for 23 small research teams such as those at USM.

“The findings from these studies benefit society by informing new strategies to prevent and mitigate any negative effects of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or elsewhere,” said Dr. Rita Colwell, Chairman of the GoMRI Research Board.

The USM teams will track Gulf floor sediment, will study fish RNA, and will attempt to close gaps in what is known about Gulf fish and their diets.

Where did it go?

A team led by Arne Diercks will be looking at the Gulf floor and studying the sediment there.

They’ll determine whether the oil spilled by Deepwater Horizon and the dispersants used to break up the oil are stationary, are moving along the Gulf floor or are suspended in the water.

Effect on fish

Joe Griffitt will be leading a team at the Gulf Coast Research Lab’s new Ocean Springs Toxicology Lab that will be investigating how the genetic material in fish reacts to exposure to oil and dispersants.

“We can look at the expression activity of all of these genes simultaneously,” he said. “We can compare animals exposed to oil to those that weren’t and see exactly what’s happening on a molecular level.”

They will primarily study fish exposed to oil and dispersants in the lab, but it will also include some fish from the Gulf.

Closing the gaps

“The overall goal of the project is to address major knowledge gaps for the Gulf of Mexico,” said Frank Hernandez, who’ll lead scientists from USM, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Oregon State University.

“Much of what we know about the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is limited to shallow coastal waters and upper ocean regions, even though over 90 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s volume occurs at depths greater than 200 meters. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the deep Gulf of Mexico, and the lack of baseline data for this region was a major impediment to the damage assessment efforts.”

He said as oil exploration heads deeper into the Gulf, that increases the chances of another disaster and makes the need for a baseline even more critical. They’ll be studying larvae that chase plankton from the depths of the ocean toward the surface.

“Using plankton samples collected from deep waters of the Gulf in 2010 and 2011, we hope to describe this complex food web and the migration behaviors of fish larvae in order to develop ecosystem models that will allow us to estimate the consequences of Deepwater Horizon and future oil spills,” Hernandez said.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton

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