Two South Florida universities will receive a total of $37.5 million to continue researching the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the worst spill in U.S. history that killed 11 workers, spewed 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico and unleashed a host of environmental ills scientists are still struggling to understand.
The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science won $29 million. Nova Southeastern University received $8.5 million.
The money is part of a $500 million, 10-year independent research program BP established about a month after the spill, as criticism mounted over the failed clean-up effort. Earlier this week, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative’s 20-member board awarded $140 million to 12 research teams, including one from the University of South Florida.
“This is not just an academic thing,” said UM engineer Tamay Özgökmen, whose team of 40 scientists won $20 million to continue studying how oil moves through the ocean. “We are trying to bridge science and academia with application.”
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UM marine biologist Martin Grosell received another $9 million for research into the damage Deepwater oil causes to fish. A study he published earlier this year — which was disputed by BP — found oil damaged the hearts of tuna and impaired the swimming of mahi-mahi.
Since the spill, BP says it has spent about $24 billion for cleanup costs and compensation to businesses damaged by the crude, including fishing guides and hotels. The company also agreed to pay the Justice Department $4 billion after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the workers’ deaths in January 2013. And in September, a federal judge found the company acted recklessly, exposing it to another $18 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act.
The Gulf of Mexico research program is one of several created in the round of legal settlements and image-managing that occurred after the spill.
While much of the research has focused on the environmental toll, the mechanics of oil movement play a critical role in cleaning up future spills, Özgökmen said.
To clean up a spill, workers need to know where oil is going, how fast and what shape it’s in. Surface oil, for example, needs to be at least three-quarters of an inch thick to be cleaned up effectively. And if scientists can better understand how oil spreads, they can create forecasting models.
“It’s like a hurricane prediction,” Özgökmen said.
After methane seeped into the Deepwater drilling rig and triggered the explosion, oil spewed from a pipe 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface for 87 days. Cleanup crews thought the oil would move slowly. But it was hard to know: the deep ocean largely remains an uncharted frontier where no light penetrates, temperatures are just above freezing and pressure is intense. At the surface, crews raced to clean up oil blown by winds and spread by dispersants.
Complicating cleanup is how the oil spreads. It fragments, breaking apart in places, thinning and becoming concentrated in long narrow streaks. Figuring out the pattern is key, Özgökmen said.
“This sounds simple, but it turns out we don’t know what velocities are at the surface of the ocean,” he said.
But Özgökmen found the oil spread about 25 times faster than anyone expected. In his first study, which he expects to conclude in the next several weeks, Özgökmen examined how well models tracked currents. Where the explosion occurred, 45 miles off the Louisiana coast, water from the Mississippi River, coastal regions and the deep ocean converged for a mash-up. And little is known about current patterns because they move so far offshore. So Özgökmen released hundreds of “drifters,” small floating buoys with GPS that can be tracked by satellites.
“Within the first few days, it spread much, much faster than anybody anticipated,” he said.
The team also found that freshwater from inlets repelled surface oil, keeping nearby beaches clean.
“It’s like a wiper on your car,” he said.
The real-life tests also provided valuable insights into shortcomings in existing models, he said. To get a better handle on what those shortcomings are, Özgökmen plans to add about 60 scientists to the team and outfit the drifters with more sophisticated sensors that record temperature and salinity, which can better record the kind of current being measured.
The point of the research, he said, is not just to understand the Deepwater disaster, but better respond to the next spill by being able to tell cleanup workers how the oil is likely to spread throughout the ocean’s layers.
The work could also provide an unexpected benefit by helping scientists understand how the ocean affects climate change since shorter, swifter surface currents absorb more carbon than larger, longer currents, he said.
“The research is driven by the Deepwater Horizon,” he said. “But we always try to think, ‘is this just an investigation of something that happened four years ago? Or will it be applicable in other areas?’ ” he said.