By Dave Schwab
Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists are doing their part to aid in the Gulf oil spill crisis, deploying state-of-the-art "gliders" to track oil content and flow.
The submersible craft goes to a depth of 500 meters, moving up and down in the water every three hours while taking measurements traveling slowly at half a nautical mile per hour.
Daniel Rudnick is professor of oceanography at Scripps. He has teamed up with Russ Davis, a professor emeritus of oceanography. Davis designed the glider. He and Rudnick use three gliders on a regular basis to take measurements up and down the California coast.
A few weeks after the spill, Rudnick and Davis were contacted by the United States Geological Service and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asking if they had any technology on instrumentation that could be used to study the oil spill.
One of their three gliders had been out of service for repairs. The glider was fixed and diverted to the Gulf.
Rudnick said he obtained funding to use the glider in the Gulf from small grants acquired from the National Science Foundation.
"We went out with the goal of sensing oil in the water and measuring currents that can be used in modeling and predicting the circulation of oil," he said. "Anybody who wants to understand the currents in the Gulf of Mexico to get a better handle on where the oil is going would be interested in our data."
The U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) solicited the help of Scripps with its instrumentation and expertise after the Gulf spill.
In June, Rudnick sent a submersible glider to the Gulf to monitor ocean properties — salinity, pressure, acoustics and currents — to evaluate the effects of the oil spill. The glider also has a fluorometer, a sensor measuring oil in water to detect subsurface oil.
"From what I've seen from results from the submersible, subsurface oil was limited to less than 20 kilometers, about 10 miles, from the well," Rudnick said. "The evidence is there wasn't a very extensive underwater plume. It's a big ocean. There's a lot of water, and by the time the oil gets very far from the well, it disperses."
Working in favor of oil cleanup efforts, said Rudnick, is the fact that the Gulf of Mexico has historically had a significant amount of natural oil seepage, which the natural environment has compensated for.
"There is bacteria residing in the Gulf of Mexico that lives off oil, eats it," he said. "This has been beneficial."
Rudnick said results from his submersible have left him cautiously optimistic about prospects for Gulf cleanup.
"I'm not as concerned as I might have been a couple of months ago," he said. "We'll see how it plays out over the next months and years."
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, according to Wikipedia. The spill stemmed from a sea-floor oil gusher that resulted from an April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 platform workers and injured 17 others. On July 15 the leak was stopped by capping the gushing wellhead after it had released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil.
Click here to watch an interview
with Scripps professor Jeremy Jackson on lessons learned from previous oil spills.