Plunge 4,000 feet deep from your seat at Nautilus Live this week — it’s shipwreck time

Beginning last Wednesday, July 17 through this Thursday, July 25, the Nautilus and her two ROVs, Hercules and Argus, will be exploring a shipwreck located in the Gulf of Mexico. The wreckage site was discovered by Shell Oil while scanning a lease location. Because the ship has not yet been identified, it is being called the “Monterrey Shipwreck,” after Shell’s name for their proposed project.

The site will be the deepest shipwreck to be systematically investigated in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to its depth, the wreckage cannot be explored through usual means (through the use of SCUBA teams).

That is where Hercules and Argus come in. A team of scientists will be able to safely view and analyze the site from the Nautilus as it bobs more than 4,000 feet above the actual wreckage.

Nautilus Live

This particular shipwreck is referred to as “time capsule” wreckage. The ship is suggested to be extremely well preserved due to how deep it is and the lack of nearby oil and gas infrastructure. Using sonar data, the site appears to be tightly contained and an outline of a hull that is 84 feet long and 26 feet wide can be seen.

The goal of this project is to thoroughly map and document the wreck site while also recovering artifacts for analysis and exhibition. The team on the Nautilus is hoping to answer several questions about the wreckage: What is it? Whose ship was it? Why was it out on those particular waters? How was it lost? What caused it to sink? All of these answers may rewrite history and clarify forgotten events in the history of the Gulf of Mexico.

As exciting as studying a newly discovered ship wreck might be, the adventures of the Nautilus as well as Hercules and Argus don’t stop there. Over the next several months, the Nautilus will be studying several fascinating underwater sites. This includes visiting the deepest point in the Caribbean and studying an underwater mountain. The research team will also work off the coast of Puerto Rico and analyze the site of a 7.2 underwater earthquake that caused a tsunami!

They will also be studying underwater volcanos, including Kick’ em Jenny, the most active and dangerous underwater volcano in the Caribbean Sea. Experience these findings with the team from the Nautilus live in the Burke Baker Planetarium here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Be transported to the ocean floor each day at 1 and 3 p.m. via telepresence technology and rove the sea bottom, making discoveries and interacting live with the Nautilus research team. For more information on this exclusive partnership and to purchase tickets online, click here.

Oil Spills and their Impact on the Environment

Today’s Guest Blogger is Wes Tunnel, Ph.D. , marine biologist who has studied oil spills and their impact on the environment. For over 40 years he has helped develop the National Spill Control School. Dr. Tunnell, is Associate Curator of Malacology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Associate Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies and Professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Dr.

Studying oil spills is not something many scientists do as a planned area of study for their advanced degree. Unless they are at a university near a major spill, they likely will not get engaged in studying oil spills unless one happens “in their back yard.”

That is exactly what happened to me early in my career as a marine scientist, and it is what happened to many scientists across the northern Gulf of Mexico last year (2010) with the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill.

Gulf Coast Oil Spill

I first had the opportunity to start learning about oil spills and their effect on the environment in the mid-1970s when our university received a grant to develop the first oil spill training program in the United States.

It took about two years of gathering information and interviewing people for the leaders of this program to establish the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (then called Texas A&I University at Corpus Christi). The week-long classes established for the School included specialists lecturing on the biological, chemical, and physical aspects of oil and its impact on the environment, and it also covered aspects of policy, law, social impacts, clean up techniques and strategies, and a whole realm of related topics. Attendees would see newly created movies, as well as vintage ones of previous oil spills, and they would get field experience in working with booms, skimmers, and other clean up techniques.

However, for me, this was all just book learning, and I had always been a proponent of hands-on, field oriented biology for the best understanding of any topic.

Well, on June 3, 1979, when the Ixtoc I oil well blew out in the southern Gulf of Mexico, it looked like I might get that chance. By early August, the predicted 60-day movement of oil proved true as South Texas beaches were coated for over 150 miles between the mouth of the Rio Grande to north of Port Aransas. The oil ranged from 5 to 10 yards in width and 3 to 15 inches in thickness along this entire stretch of coast. It was sickening, and I thought our beloved beaches would be ruined forever.

Working with funding from NOAA, we ran 13 transects along the length of Padre Island from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande.

These extended from the third sandbar offshore to the upper extent of the intertidal zone. Since we knew the oil was coming, which often is not the case, we were able to do pre-spill samples before the oil arrived and then post-spill samples after it arrived.

In general, we found reductions in numbers of organisms (not numbers of species) by 80% in the intertidal zone (area where the waves wash the shore) and 50% in the subtidal zone (offshore bar and trough zone, where the waves are breaking). Although this news was devastating at first, we were pleased to find out that the beaches had recovered fully in about 2.5-3 years. A combination of fast weathering of oil (biological, chemical, and physical break down of oil) and fast reproductive abilities of most beach organisms allowed for this quick recovery.

John W. Tunnell, Jr. Ph.D.

Although this story of impact and recovery is much more complex than what is related here, we did not have sufficient funds to track the exact timing or impact, since research funds were cut off. This is typical of many large spills, so we don’t have the kind of information to answer many of the question that were flying last summer. The commitment of BP to fund the Gulf Research Initiative at $500 million total, or $50 million per year, over the next 10 years should greatly help our knowledge of dealing with and understanding future spills. Funding from NSF, NOAA, EPA, and other federal and state agencies should add to this knowledge also.

Learn more on oil spills and their impact on the marine environment from Dr. Wes Tunnel at his lecture on Monday, August 29 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Deepwater Update

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfortunately is still leaking crude oil into the environment. Despite the best effort of several companies, our government and individuals, the oil spill has yet to be stopped.

The “top kill“, a method where a drilling solution (called “mud”) was pumped down into the well to overpower the pressure of the crude oil, was tried 3 times before it was considered a failure. It is the same effect as using water to stop Coca-Cola from coming out of a shaken bottle. If the water has enough pressure it can overcome the pressure of the Coca-Cola, and keep the soda in the bottle.

screensh33
Creative Commons License photo credit: pppspics

Then the cap containment system was tried. It involves removing the damaged pipes above the blow out preventer. A new pipe can then be connected to the old pipe allowing the oil to be collected by the Drillship Discoverer Enterprise (no not that one, or that one either). All the pipe cutting, sealing, and maneuvering is being done under water and using Remotely Operated Vehicles (check out my previous blog). They first tried to cut the pipe using ROVs with a diamond tipped saw. Unfortunately the saw became snagged and they had to use a shear, a large device that come form the top to grip down on the pipe, tear away the rest of the pipe, making a jagged edge. The more jagged the edge the harder it is to fit the new pipe so that no oil leaks out. This cap has been placed and it has been taking away some of the crude oil. Every day it takes more and more up to Discoverer Enterprise, but it has not fully contained the leak.

Relief wells are still being drilled on two sides of the well. These will open up a different path for the pressure to take, hopefully allowing the main well to be sealed. While this is still the mostly likely way to stop any oil from leaking into the ocean, it will take 2 more months to complete.

Louisiana is creating artificial sand bars to stop the oil from washing up into the wetlands. There has been some controversy over these. They will move massive amounts of sand to form small artificial sandbars and prevent the oil from coming into the wetlands. The oil would wash up on the artificial sandbars and then could be collected and removed from the area. Scientist are concerned that there may be unforeseen environmental damage done by creating these artificial sandbars. They do not want to act too rashly in the short term and cause more environmental damage in the long run, like the environmental damage done by dispersants that were used in the clean up of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

How can you help? There are a number of different national and state organizations have geared up meet this challenge. Here are few.

Home Sweet Oil Platform

Beyond Petroleum
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

We all breathed a sign of relief this weekend as Gustav spared the Houston area.  We hope that the hurricanes backed up for landing on our continent follow his example and fizzle out before causing as much harm as we have seen in the past century.  Katrina and Rita caused untold damage from which we are still struggling to recover.

The Gulf of Mexico normally produces about 1.5 million barrels a day of U.S. crude: 2% of global oil production and about a quarter of our domestic output. Many damaged platforms and oil rigs in the Gulf were sunk or put adrift after Katrina and Rita.  

This appears alarming at first,  and of course, oli platform cost us millions of dollars to replace – to say nothing of the production lost.  But the story is not all dark.  Our guest blogger,  Lindsey Goodier from the Oil and Gas Investor tells us more…

I learned something new yesterday – did you know that oil platforms are home to thousands of underwater creatures?

reef fish & soft coral
Creative Commons License photo credit: jon hanson

The protection provided by the platforms attracts a variety of fish and the structures become home to corals, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Over the past 20 years, over 200 platforms that are no longer used have attracted many sea creatures. The conglomeration of sea creatures at these oil platforms has served as a learning center for marine life observation.

Especially in the Gulf of Mexico, the habitat the platforms create for fish is of value to fishermen. Since the GOM is a flat plain, comprised of mud, clay and sand with very little natural rock bottom and reef habitat, the platforms are one of the few places that habitats can form. Without oil platforms, fish and other marine life would be far more dispersed, making commercial fishing, recreational fishing and diving more difficult.

As observed and documented by the Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) diving scientists, invertebrates and plants attach to petroleum platforms within weeks of their placement in the marine environment. Within a year, the platform can be completely covered with plants and sessile invertebrates, attracting mobile invertebrates and fish species, and forming a highly complex food chain.

Now, I won’t be so naive as to ignore the fact that oil spills do occur. Yes, living under an oil platform can be a risky way of life. But the benefits of community living for these creatures seems to be greater than the risk of an actual spill. And the enjoyment that they bring to humans who can observe communities of marine life is the greatest benefit of all.

Lindsay Goodier is the Online Editor for OilandGasInvestor.com; check out her blog, Oil Rules.

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