Mopping Up the Spill

Drive about 250 miles south of The University of Texas at Austin and turn down a dusty road on the edge of Port Aransas (population: 3,370) to a cul-de-sac of sand-colored buildings, and you’ll discover UT’s Marine Science Institute. Far from Austin, it’s the rare UT unit that doesn’t make its home in the state capital.

Instead, it resides on the end of Channel View Drive, just a short walk from the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Here, along an extended jetty, sentinel-like pelicans with their webbed feet and long bills perch on ragged rocks, and the slippery heads of sea turtles perforate the dark waters. An enormous, salmon-colored freighter lumbers along the horizon. In the distance, the large metal skeleton of an offshore oilrig stands out.

Oilrigs are a common sight along this sloping stretch of Texas shoreline, both a sign of commerce and a reminder of the largest oil spill in history, the Deepwater Horizon disaster that occurred two years ago. At the Marine Science Institute, a team of UT researchers recently won a $7 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which is funded by BP. Operated autonomously, the initiative puts an expert panel of scientists and other peers to work studying the far-ranging ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The oldest research center on the Gulf Coast, UT’s Marine Science Institute was first established when a red tide algal bloom caused a massive fish kill—and all of the oyster beds were closed in Texas. E.J. Lund, a zoologist with The University of Texas, built a shack on the shores of the Gulf in order to study the dead fish firsthand.

“They didn’t know that there were red tides at the time,” Buskey explains. “They just knew that there was a big fish kill.”

Since then, the institute, with a team of 14 professors and 30 graduate students, has developed an international reputation in marine science. Most of the scientists conduct research projects in the Texas coastal area, as well as in different regions of the world. Studies range from the hormonal mechanisms of fish to the ecology of subtropical seagrass. (A visitor’s center is open five days a week, so people of all ages can learn more about the research and wildlife of the area.)

For the Deepwater Horizon project, Buskey and other UT researchers will be working with an international cohort of scientists and engineers from six other institutions from as far away as Norway. Together, this group plans to study the physics of how oil and water interact. They will also be learning more about the dispersants (or detergents) that were used on the surface as well as underwater at the head of the gushing oil well.

“We want to understand how the dispersants affected the breakup of the oil and the entire ocean community,” Buskey says. “We’ll look at the bacteria that break down the oil and how [the oil] interacts with the plankton, because these organisms form the base of the food chain in the ocean.”

At the Norway facility, engineers will stimulate an underwater oil blowup—and then cameras will record the size distribution of the oil and how that changes with the use of different kinds of dispersants. “One of the things that we want to do is look at alternative dispersants and compare how they work and their impact on the marine ecosystem,” Buskey says. “Another oil spill is going to happen. Basically, we are looking at ways that we can minimize the damage and learn lessons from this event.”

Buskey and his team will be studying the oil in enclosed tanks at a facility in nearby Rockport. “We’ll be able to add waves and movement and the turbulence of the water,” he says, “so we’ll understand precisely what happened to the food web.”

The group will also use a high-speed, digital holography for their studies of planktonic organisms. “We can create three-dimensional holograms of small spaces in waters,” Buskey adds. “This will allow us to locate all of these particles, look at them, and track them in three dimensions.”

The project will take place over three years, and if all goes according to plan, the team will apply for additional funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative that could extend through the decade. “It’s commendable how BP handled the funds,” Buskey says. “It could have been distributed through state agencies. Instead, they went to the best scientists in the world and asked for proposals that were then evaluated through a peer-review process.” For the first round of grants, more than 70 proposals were received, and eight consortia were awarded substantial funds.

As the studies are being completed, Buskey and his fellow researchers will be free to publish their findings. BP won’t have any direct involvement with the research and hasn’t required the scientists and engineers to sign confidentiality agreements (which was the case for the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989). “Scientists are supposed to be independent and committed sources of hopefully the best information that they can get,” Buskey says.

At the Marine Science Institute, many of the oil-related experiments will happen in the $21 million state-of-art new building that houses new laboratories and administrative offices for the department. “Collectively, we were heartbroken by the events of the oil spill,” Buskey adds, “ and it has inspired us to work with the problem as well.”

Top: Below 15 feet of ice in Cape Evans, Antarctica, a diver examines the effects of anchor ice formation on the ocean community as part of UT Marine Science Institute research. Photo by Ken Dunton.

Bottom: Students in the Marine Science Institute’s summer estuarine ecology class. From left: Orian Tzadik, Amanda Padilla, George Mills, and Crystal Whitford. Photo courtesy University of Texas Marine Science Institute.


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