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LSU, Ohio State partner to track species affected by Gulf oil spill

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Researchers from LSU and Ohio State are using supercomputers to map the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on fish species in the area.

Researchers from Louisiana State University and the Ohio State University are using supercomputers to map the extent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its impact on fish species in the area.

The goal? To establish a baseline for measuring and predicting the biological impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Using systems at the Ohio Supercomputer Center, LSU ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty and Ohio State biomedical informatics specialist Daniel Janies repurposed a computer application originally designed to track infectious diseases to collect to reinterpret data for oil, dispersants and fish -- including those at great depth.

With several applications under his belt to track the flu in real-time -- including those for H5N1 avian flu and H1N1 swine flu -- Janies and his team partnered with OSC staff to run code on the center's IBM Cluster 1350 Glenn system. (For the computer geeks out there, the system has 9,500 cores and 24 terabytes of memory.)

Interested? The real-time geographic information system is called DEPTHMAP, and it's publicly accessible online. With it, the researchers can see which species' habitats are affected by the spill over time.

That includes commercial favorites such as grouper, snapper and croaker. It also includes ecologically-important species such as batfish and sharks.

By collecting data at intervals, the researchers can reveal changing distributions, deaths, lost spawning seasons and year classes, and even extinctions.

Here's what they're looking for, and why:

  • How the expanding spill will affect migrating and spawning organisms that travel through the Gulf. This helps wildlife officials better manage these situations in the future.
  • Which species migrating at great depths will be most severely impacted by concentrated plumes of sub-surface oil and dispersant. Example: pancake batfish that feed on chemical-covered plankton.
  • The interaction between important fisheries and non-commercial and commercial fishes in sites of subsurface oil plumes.
  • How the plumes might affect the life-history stages of different fish species.

Their work is one part of a larger effort by universities and federal agencies (NASA, NOAA, USGS) to track the spill.

"Without historical baseline data like that we are mapping, future faunal surveys will not illustrate the impact of this deep-water oil spill," Janies said in a statement. "We will make the maps and underlying informatics tools we develop available to a wide community of users via the web, such that other resource managers and researchers can leverage our efforts for a wide variety of species of interest."

Photo: Florida Grouper (Paul Cizek/Flickr)

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure