Where will spilled Gulf oil go? Three months later, officials and residents are still asking

July 18, 2010 - via Palm Beach Post

Starting today, Florida oceanographers will have good reason to ask, "Where's Waldo?"

The robotic, underwater glider, set to launch off the Keys, will patrol for oil contamination to a depth of 100 feet, from southeast of Marco Island to north of the Dry Tortugas. It joins seven other gliders searching the Gulf for subsurface oil, four off the Florida coast and four near the Deepwater Horizon well site.

                                                              Photo courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory


The gliders each cost $150,000 to build and $25,000 per month to run. They help tell what's in the water and where it's flowing.

But the handful that have been deployed are a drop in the bucket, compared with what's needed in the vast Gulf, researchers say. When the Deepwater rig exploded April 20 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, coastal residents, fishermen and environmental agencies needed to know one thing: Where would the oil go?

Three months later, they're still asking.

The rig explosion has laid bare a gaping hole in basic research into ocean currents. In this case, the paucity of data has major implications for those with an urgent need to track spills, protect marine life and industry and predict hurricane force.

"The reason we get good short-term weather forecasts is that we have a real-time observation system in place," said George Maul, head of the Florida Institute of Technology's Marine and Environmental Systems department. "For the ocean we have fairly good estimates of surface conditions, but we don't really know what's happening beneath the surface. It's like doing meteorological forecasts without radar."

Scientists say what research has been conducted has proven useful, but that funding has been spotty.

On June 8, one-and-a-half months after the oil leak began, a team of scientists aboard a University of Miami research vessel discovered an underwater oil plume that had entered the Loop Current and threatened to flow unimpeded to the Florida Keys and beyond. The team placed satellite-tracked drifting buoys in the oil to follow its movements. Instrument stations also were suspended below the surface to detect oil, water temperature, salinity, organic material, and oxygen levels to a depth of 800 meters.

"At the time, the need was there and it wasn't being done," said Tom Lee, a semi-retired professor of oceanography from the University of Miami, who was on the cruise. "People were really scrambling around, to try to make reliable forecasts of where the oil would be going and where the subsurface plumes might be going, and I think they're much better today than they were Day 1 of the oil spill. If we had this type of observation system in place, then immediately there would have been more direction as to where the cleanup operation should be focused."

In 2009, Congress passed the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act to formally establish a forecasting program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Previously, ocean observation was largely funded through Congressional earmarks to regional associations, but the creation of a national program has not increased funding.

NOAA's budget for the Integrated Ocean Observing System has fallen from $53.5 million in 2005 to $34.6 million in 2010, with a presidential budget request for 2011 of only $21.2 million. NOAA's Science Advisory Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Sarasota and subsurface ocean observing appears nowhere on the agenda.

"There's no systematic measurement of what's happening in the Gulf, even now," said Mitch Roffer, owner of Roffer's Ocean Fishing and Forecasting Service.

Limited observational data leaves researchers with an inability to accurately predict the course of subsurface oil plumes, so most coastal communities still don't know if or when oil might come to their shores. Even hurricanes are more predictable than the path of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

"There are very few ocean observations being taken in the Gulf of Mexico or in the South Florida area," Lee said. "There used to be more. Five, six years ago there were more continuous observations going on that would send the data back in real-time" to labs where they could be used with computer models for forecasting, he said.

For weather forecasting, floating buoys and orbiting satellites gather ocean surface data. Of the 1,029 sea stations monitored by the National Data Buoy Center, only 39 take subsurface ocean current measurements.

Subsurface ocean temperatures and currents in locations without sensors are measured sporadically by dropping probes from ships or airplanes. But the drops must be repeated to monitor changes over time. Without updated observational data to compare with modeled predictions, forecasters cannot test their computer model accuracy and make adjustments.

"We're getting information from satellite imagery and aerial recognizance, but that's just telling us what's on the surface of the water," said Allison Chase, an ocean policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council. "Once you get into the water column, we're not monitoring that as well."

On June 15, British Petroleum announced a $10 million grant to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 21 research centers in Florida. The money will be used for quick research into the impacts of the oil spill, but will not be nearly enough to fully deploy a system of coastal, surface, subsurface and deep-water monitors called the Florida Coastal Sentinels Program, which FIO scientists say is needed.

"It will get us going," Kumar Mahadevan, president and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratories, a member institution of the FIO, said of the grant. "I guess we're all a little disappointed in BP. I hope they recognize the size of the problem."

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