While British Petroleum scrambles to stop the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is shipping an undersea glider to the Gulf Coast Friday to study currents and conditions and try to measure oil in the water.
Conservative estimates say more than 20 million gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf waters since the Deep Horizon oil well ruptured April 20. The glider, also called Spray, that Scripps is sending to the Gulf Coast was scheduled to be deployed in the Pacific to study the effects of climate on California’s coast — but, said Scripps oceanographer Daniel Rudnick, in “national interest” the Scripps team is redirecting it to the Gulf. “This is a national effort and we’re collaborating with our colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; we’re just trying to do our part by taking some of the assets we have and devoting them to something that is of great national interest,” Rudnick said.
The irony is BP — the energy company responsible for the spill — has funded Scripps’ studies to track ocean currents and conditions in the Gulf since 2004. Using GPS and a remote control system, the glider’s operator can chart its path. The Spray moves to a testing location and drops more than 1,600 feet underwater. At that point, it glides in the water, scanning horizontally for distances up to 2 miles. The test lasts about three hours, and operators can retrieve data at the end of every test.
Using the data, they can redirect the glider from a laptop and sometimes an iPhone. Some data is transmitted immediately online, and the glider’s path and some measurements can be monitored at spray.ucsd.edu. “It’s going to give us data on oceanographic conditions and currents, and that’s very valuable information to the folks trying to model the flow and make predictions about where the currents are going.
The reason we care is we’d like to know where the oil is going to go,” said Rudnick. When the oil leaks from the ocean floor, teams use dispersants to keep it from creating a huge surface slick that eventually reaches land. Oil that reaches the surface is the slick you see in photos; but dispersed oil gathers in a subsurface slick. Studying the subsurface oil is also critical to knowing where the oil will move. “We’re doing something we’ve never done before; we’re trying to measure and detect the oil in the water,” he said. “This is new territory for so many of us. In principal, though, we should be able to measure the oil in the water using the same sensor we use to measure chlorophyll. And, if we’re completely successful, we’ll be able to see where the oil subsurface is.”
Rudnick said the data provided by the Spray is “fundamentally valuable.” “Having this capability to observe the ocean does have value, especially when we have very urgent problems like the oil spill,” he said. Researchers in Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab are also deploying a high-frequency acoustic recording package (HARP) to the Gulf to record marine mammal and other sounds to document which marine mammals are in an area impacted by the oil slick.