The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is emerging as one of the great environmental disasters in U.S. history. This is focusing attention on the scientific groups that study the oil escaping from the Deepwater Horizon well. Much like the situation after the 1979 Ixtoc disaster that spilled almost three supertankers' worth of oil in the western gulf, the answers to where the oil is going and what it is affecting are being provided by marine scientists from a number of universities and laboratories.
In 1979, professors William M. Sackett and Ted Van Vleet from the University of South Florida's Department of Marine Science responded to Gov. Bob Graham's concern about Florida's marine environment. They collected and analyzed tar balls from the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The surprising result was that the abundant tar balls found concentrated in open waters of the eastern gulf were not from Ixtoc but primarily derived from oil tankers washing down the walls of their tanks and discharging the oily water at sea.
For BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, scientists and engineers from USF's College of Marine Science are again leading efforts to understand the distribution, movement and interactions of the plumes of oil spreading through the gulf. A wide array of analytical techniques, including satellite remote sensing, chemical/physical/biological sensing and mathematical modeling, are being applied. It is a daunting challenge to understand the movement and the interactions of the plumes of oil. Indeed, a complete understanding of this immense disaster is unlikely to emerge.
However, the insights from the research are a tribute to the long-term support USF's College of Marine Science and Center for Ocean Technology have received from U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. Thanks to his backing, contracts from the Office of Naval Research — starting in 1994 and continuing through 2011 — support the development of many of the advanced sensing and monitoring systems being deployed to monitor oil and the gulf ecosystem. These funds also supported the monitoring buoys deployed offshore as well as the mathematical modeling surrounding this oil spill, hurricane storm surge and Red Tide. The underwater mass spectrometer that SRI St. Petersburg and their colleagues at USF are deploying, as well as other equipment, monitoring systems and remotely operated vehicles being used, would not otherwise be available to address the daunting environmental challenge presented by this oil spill. We can all be thankful that one of our leaders had the vision, the insight and the courage to provide sustained support for science that is critical to understanding our complex marine environment.
While it is depressing to contemplate what is happening in the gulf, it is important to credit someone who consistently supported critical science even though he knew it would open him to criticism about congressional earmarks. Further, it was the sensor development program Young championed for USF at the Defense Department and the engineering talent associated with USF's College of Marine Science and Center for Ocean Technology that attracted SRI International to select St. Petersburg as the site for its new research center. Thankfully, SRI's scientists and engineers are collaborating with their colleagues — including those at USF, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Florida's State University System — who are also dedicated to understanding this vast oil spill and committed to applying their intellect and advanced technologies to what will almost certainly become a decade-long effort.
Peter R. Betzer is dean emeritus of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.