Thinking Tech

Just how much oil is spilling into the Gulf?

Posting in Science

Follow a team of scientists as they sail to the spill to investigate the oil plumes that have formed deep underneath the water.

University of Georgia marine sciences professor Dr. Samantha Joye set sail Wednesday from Gulfport, Mississippi, with a team of scientists from four universities to try to measure the oil plumes being formed from the spill -- how big they are, how they're distributing themselves and what their impact might be on the gulf's marine life.

You can read her blog, which she is writing every day from their boat, called the Walton Smith, here. The group is taking water samples from different depths so they can measure a long list of ingredients and processes:

...concentrations of dissolved methane, higher alkanes (like ethane and propane), inorganic carbon, and oxygen; inorganic and nutrients; oil and colored dissolved organic matter; dissolved organic carbon; hydrogen sulfide; and major salts.  We measure rates of oxygen consumption and methane oxidation.  We’re also collecting samples to determine the concentration of ATP (an indicator of relative microbial activity) and will do a separate assay to estimate the level of total microbial activity.  Finally, we collect molecular biological samples to look for different types of methane oxidizing bacteria.  Adam Rivers, from the Moran lab at UGA, will be comparing the metatranscriptome from deepwater plume samples versus samples from control depths that lack plumes.  Joanna Green from, from the Miller lab at UGA, will be doing photochemical experiments with plume waters.  The UNC group will conduct more detailed molecular biological studies of the microbial population using both DNA and RNA approaches. The USM group is doing more detailed characterizations of the PAHs and metals in plume samples and the UCSB scientist on board is characterizing the relative degradation state of the oil.  We’ve all been pretty busy.

She's also answering questions from readers (not individually, but in the blog) and posting pictures (like the one above, which shows oil in the wake of the ship), including photos of cavorting dolphins who joined the Walton Smith after it moved away from one of the plumes and entered clear water.

And she describes what it's like to be sitting in the middle of the U.S.'s worst oil spill ever. Again, from the blog:

We arrived at the spill site around 6AM.  There’s a lot of oil on the surface to the N-NE of the spill site.  The smell of oil and gas is strong. I expected to see a lot of ships in the area but I was amazed by the density of ships: there are ships everywhere, as far as you can see.

Last week I wrote about another scientist, Dr. David Valentine at U.C. Santa Barbara, who got a "rapid response" grant from the National Science Foundation to measure how the dispersants BP has been injecting into the Gulf to scatter the oil might affect oil-eating microbes that could help clean up the spill. He's also written an essay on why the amount of methane in the gulf waters, which Joye's crew is trying to measure, is an important clue to how much oil has been spilled.

Journalists at PBS Newshour think they can already measure how much oil has been spilled, based on their reporting. Here, in case you haven't seen it, is the Newshour's live feed of the oil as it spews from the broken well, along with their live tally of how many gallons of oil are being leaked (at this writing, over 20.1 million).

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure