Dispatches from the Gulf: Film examines the effects of Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster may no longer be a buzzword in the media, but the effects of history’s largest oil spill on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico are still on the minds of marine scientists around the world. Gulf seafood seems to be recovering, but biologists are keeping a close eye to the seafloor, where much of the oil has settled into the sand. Take a closer look at the lingering effects of the spill Tuesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a special screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf.

This April 20 will mark the sixth year after the massive failure and subsequent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, also known as the Macondo Prospect, an offshore drilling platform 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blast claimed the lives of 11 workers and from a depth of 5,000 feet, pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas into the Gulf over a period of 87 days. A month after the disaster, BP, the operator of the prospect, announced it would commit $500 million over 10 years to the study of the effects of the spill.

GULF OF MEXICO - APRIL 21:  In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.  An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

GULF OF MEXICO – APRIL 21: In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

In addition to the tragic loss of life, many environmentalists expected a total collapse of the ecosystem leading to further economic effects in the fishing and seafood industry, yet as early as five years later, CNN reported fish landings had returned as well as the oyster population.

“According to the Food and Drug Administration, tests on edible seafood show no excess hydrocarbons in the region’s food supply,” Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine of CNN.com reported. “The spill’s effects on other species are less clear. … But perhaps the greatest unknown is what, if anything, millions of gallons of oil on the deep seafloor are doing to the overall environment of the Gulf itself.”

Our own Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway is one of the scientists keeping watch. She flew over the disaster while the oil was still free-flowing, visibly bubbling above the surface of the water from the break at depth. To her, the Texas coastline is the least of her concerns.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

“The oil can wash up in globs, which is bad for folks walking or playing on the beach,” Petway said, “but the real problem is that the oil stays in the environment even though they have removed a huge quantity of it. A lot of it has sunk.”

On the bottom of the Gulf, the oil has created a mat of tar, leaving the sand impenetrable to oxygen and light, Petway explained, eliminating everything beneath the mat from the habitat. Chemicals from the oil are leaching into sandy and muddy seafloors, making hydrocarbons difficult, if not impossible to dissolve or wash away.

“Just because you don’t see anything on shore anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Petway said. “Ongoing research is being done as to the effects, and it is constantly being updated.”

Watch the screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The film will recap the unprecedented response effort following the disaster and delve into the research of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Tickets $18, members $12. For one night only!

You can learn more about the delicate Texas coastal ecosystem at the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology.

Sharks are now oversharing…but you will want to follow them!

half-mount2-blogYoung or old, nature lover or couch potato—everyone has some fascination with sharks.

HMNS is bringing in some great opportunities to learn about these predators who have dominated the oceans for millions of years. Leading shark researchers will be at HMNS during the next two weeks to share the latest information on our local sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and the grand-daddy of them all, the great white.

On February 25 marine biologist Dr. Glenn Parsons from Ole Miss will share the findings of his 40-year career of researching shark behavior, ecology and physiology in the Gulf of Mexico, which harbors about 65 species of sharks. Sharks here are exposed to both natural stressors including changes in water temperature and oxygen availability and anthropogenic stressors that are caused by humans, pollutants and fisheries.

This is Katherine getting her and tag checkup aboard the OCEARCH vessel.

This is Katherine getting an ultrasound and tag checkup aboard the OCEARCH vessel.

Unprecedented research on great white sharks and other large apex predators will be presented by shark researcher Dr. Greg Stunz of the Harte Institute and Texas A&M Corpus Christi with OCEARCH founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer on March 4. In order to protect the species’ future while enhancing public safety and education, researchers with the OCEARCH collaborative are now generating previously unattainable data on the movement, biology and health of great white sharks. The images they will show on the Wortham Giant Screen will be insanely amazing.

Of course you can also get up close and personal with two different shark species at the Museum in the Shark! touch tank experience, where biologists will share shark tales and shark tails.

HMNS Distinguished Lectures

“The ABC’s of Sharks: Attacks, Biology and Conservation
Glenn Parsons, Ph.D., Ole Miss
Wednesday, February 25, 6:30 p.m.

“Great White Sharks, Tracking The Ocean’s Apex Predator”
Greg Stunz, Ph.D. and Chris Fischer, OCEARCH
Wednesday, March 4, 6:30 p.m.

Tickets & more info: www.hmns.org/lectures


Need to keep up with a busy shark who is always on the go?
Now you can stay connected to your favorite shark via a phone app, Twitter and Facebook!

shark-tracker-app-iconOCEARCH’s Global Shark Tracker app lets you observe the navigational pattern of sharks that have been tagged with satellite tracking technology all for the purpose of shark conservation.

OCEARCH facilitates unprecedented research by supporting leading researchers and institutions seeking to attain groundbreaking data on the biology and health of sharks, in conjunction with basic research on shark life history and migration.

OCEARCH is a leader in open source research, sharing data in near-real time for free through the Global Shark Tracker, enabling students and the public to learn alongside PhDs. The Landry’s-developed STEM Education Curriculum, based on the Global Shark Tracker and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), is being launched for grades 6-8 in the fall of 2013 nationwide.

Over 50 researchers from more than 20 institutions have collaborated with OCEARCH to date with over three dozen research papers in process or completed. Research expeditions are conducted worldwide aboard the M/V OCEARCH, which serves as both a mothership and at-sea laboratory. Utilizing a custom 75,000 lb. capacity hydraulic platform designed to safely lift mature sharks for access by a multi-disciplined research team, up to 12 studies are conducted in approximately 15 minutes on a live mature shark. Powered by five Cat engines, the M/V OCEARCH is capable of Global Circumnavigation.

Here are screenshots showing the favorite hangouts of Wyatt, Sam Houston and Madeline—a few sharks in our neighborhood. 

Screen-Shot-2015-01-22-at-2.39blog

Screen-Shot-2015-01-22-at-2.38blog

Screen-Shot-2015-01-22-at-2.40blog

 

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.