Grants allow RSMAS to monitor oil spill effects

A model result of the Gulf predicting the distribution of oil related particles on the surface above and around the spill site on July 12-22. Courtesy Villy Kourafalou

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico flowed for weeks over the summer. Contaminating ecosystems and disrupting communities along the Gulf Coast, it was the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.

Though Miami and most of Florida were spared from the immediate damage, three professors at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), Nick Shay, Rod Zika and Villy Kourafalou, are concerned with the disaster’s lasting effects as well as how to prevent future spills.

With $1.4 million in BP funds distributed by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, the RSMAS researchers are investigating solutions through three extensive studies.

Shay’s research will consist of mapping the distribution of oil below the surface. The project will not be able to predict spills, but can improve ocean models for coastal areas that may be in harm’s way after an oil spill. The research will involve the usage of satellite imagery and sensors deployed from an aircraft to generate real-time maps.

“The ocean is constantly moving, and sometimes things end up where it’s a puzzle to all of us,” Shay said. “It’s important to understand where these spills could potentially end up, given the importance of the loop current and its energetic eddy system in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Zika and his team are trying to find out where in the ocean the oil is hiding. Ph.D. candidate Wilson Mendoza, Zika’s research assistant, explained how they will use scanning fluorescence, as well as other analytic methods, for the study.

Mendoza, who wrote the proposal for the project, emphasized that not all oil is the same and all decomposing organic matter gives off fluorescence.

Mendoza’s team is developing an impression from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill using samples collected during trips to the Gulf of Mexico. The fluorescence imaging technique will shine light at different wavelengths on the samples. The data collected from scanning the samples with light will help determine if the fluorescent matter is oil from the spill.

“The Florida Department of Environmental Protection gave us samples additional samples of oil from the rig,” Mendoza said.

The research will be extensive because for each sample there are 5,000 fluorescents to be examined.

“There are so many questions we cannot answer because the spill happened so deep under water,” Mendoza said. “When oil that deep mixes with water, it is subject to changing form because there are so many variables acting on the organic material.”

Kourafalou is studying water current and circulation patterns in the gulf that influence where the oil will end up. Using high-powered computers, she will generate models that show potential pathways of the oil. The data will be compared with research from the University of South Florida and Florida State University.

“Its hard to know, I’ve never experienced something of this magnitude,” Kourafalou said. “We need to be prepared scientifically. A lot of research is the best way to measure and predict the outcome.”

Christopher Watson may be contacted at