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NOAA Ocean Science Mission Changes Course to Collect Seafloor and Water Column Oil Spill Data

May 6, 2010

A team from the Natoinal Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST) recovers a box corer used to gather sediment samples from the ocean floor.

A team from the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST) recovers a box corer used to gather sediment samples from the ocean floor.

High resolution (Credit: NIUST/NOAA)

A NOAA-sponsored ocean mission, set to explore for deep sea corals, has been redirected to collect seafloor and water column data from areas near the Gulf of Mexico oil spill source.

Researchers from the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST) are on a university research ship to obtain core sediment samples from the seafloor and water samples from the water column in areas near the Deepwater Horizon spill source. The samples are expected to provide important information about the abundance of marine organisms and the presence of chemicals in ocean water and sediments--information for a baseline against which to measure change if those areas are affected by sinking oil.

The university fleet research vessel Pelican, operated by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, departed Cocodrie, La., late Tuesday and arrived at the spill source on Wednesday. They will return on Sunday for more supplies, and go back to the site later that week.

The ship had been outfitted and ready to support a different NOAA-funded mission, but it was scrubbed in favor of gathering timely and much-needed data close to the oil spill source.

“This sampling mission is one of many NOAA responses to the oil spill,” acting NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA Research Craig McLean said. “It fills an important gap in researching the interaction of spilled oil and the ocean environment. The samples will help us better understand affected ocean resources.”

“We plan to sample as close to the well head as is safe, reasonable and allowable,” said Ray Highsmith, executive director for NIUST and principal investigator for both the original and revised mission. “We then plan to travel northwestward toward our long-term study site.”

Oil on the surface of the water near the sampling site.

Oil on the surface of the water near the sampling site.

High resolution (Credit: NIUST/NOAA)

That study site is about nine miles from the oil spill source and the home of the Gulf of Mexico Consortium’s Methane Hydrate Seafloor Observatory. In the seven years of the observatory’s development, scientists have collected a wealth of geologic, physical, chemical, and biological data describing the area—data that could be important in measuring changes there that stem from the oil spill.

With NOAA’s agreement to change missions, scientists and technicians on the ship and ashore worked quickly to adjust staffing and resources.

The research team brought aboard a large box corer used to take seafloor sediment samples and installed a large reel of cable to allow the corer to operate at depths equal to the spill source at 5,000 feet. An instrument called a CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) will measure the water’s conductivity, temperature, density and oxygen concentration at various water column depths, while bottles on the CTD obtain water samples.

Before the ship departed, Chief Scientist Arne Diercks and scientists and crewmembers received Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training as required by OSHA for those involved in the clean-up of hazardous substances. Oil is considered a hazardous substance.

Based at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and the University of Southern Mississippi at the Stennis Space Center, NIUST is a partnership of the University of Mississippi, University of Southern Mississippi and NOAA, funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Samples from the mission will be studied by NOAA and by labs at the universities of Georgia and North Carolina and others that are members of the Gulf of Mexico Hydrates Research Consortium.

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