Aquarium team helps with oil spill analysis

June 7, 2010 7:44:52 PM PDT
A team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has just returned from a research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. The Moss Landing-based MBARI team used its highly specialized autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) to survey and sample gulf waters. The AUV is called "The Gulper" because it has 10 samplers on board that can collect water from deep in the ocean.

AUV supervisor Hans Thomas returned from the oil spill mission Saturday, while the Gulper is still en route. Thomas says the high tech submersible robot did a total of six missions near the Deepwater Horizon drilling accident. The Gulper is well suited to help NOAA gather information according to Thomas.

"The ability to survey an area with high resolution and locate the highest strength signature of oil and take samples and return it to the ship are very unique capabilities. There aren't many vehicles that can do that," Thomas said.

The Gulper went on six missions in eight days collecting samples 4,000 feet below the surface. Thomas says much of the data collection was focused on sub surface oil plumes. Researchers from MBARI and NOAA will analyze the data and water samples.

John Ryan, Ph.D. is one of those studying the data. Ryan says NOAA will make the ultimate determination if the "feature" studied underwater is an oil plume created by the BP spill or if it is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

"That's the perfect question and it is the answer we are waiting for as well because there are natural hydro carbon seeps on the sea floor. And it's possible we surveyed one of them," Ryan said.

Analytical interpretation of the data should give scientists enough information to not only determine where the oil originated from, but also where it is traveling and how fast it may dissipate. That will be critical for mitigation and cleanup crews trying to get ahead of the plume and protect areas that may be in jeopardy.


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