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UT Marine Science Institute Awarded Grant to Complete Gulf Oil Spill Research

UT Marine Science Institute Awarded Grant to Complete Gulf Oil Spill Research
DROPPS scientists use lasers to investigate how plumes of oil and dispersant move through a water column. That movement changes when other animals, such as this marine invertebrate called a ctenophore, are present. Photo by Jeffery Cordero.

A consortium led by The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) is receiving $4.5 million in the third multi-million-dollar grant since 2012 supporting research on the impact of oil spills and dispersants on the Gulf of Mexico. Coming less than a month after Hurricane Harvey caused significant damage on the UTMSI campus, the announcement was made by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a $500 million research program funded by British Petroleum in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.

This is the initiative's final two-year funding cycle, and UTMSI's consortium, Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies (DROPPS), will have received over $20 million – or about 4 percent of the total funding – by the time the initiative ends. The new grant will be used to conclude work, initiated in 2012 and expanded in 2015, to improve understanding of the environmental and human-health consequences of marine oil spills under the leadership of marine scientist Ed Buskey.

Spanning seven institutions and multiple disciplines—from physics to chemistry to biology to computer modeling to health care— DROPPS researchers study how oil breaks up as a result of waves, turbulence and chemical dispersants, as well as how dispersants affect marine life at various levels of the food web. This includes the fish and other marine life that humans eat. Data collected by consortium members are being used to improve computer models that predict how oil travels when a spill happens and what impacts can be expected for marine life from a spill and the efforts to clean it up using chemical dispersants. Such a computer model is useful for governments, oil companies and environmental groups in the immediate aftermath of an oil spill, allowing for better decision-making and triaging to contain the long-term damage from a spill.

"The ultimate goal is to synthesize everything we have learned and make a model that allows decision-makers to make informed choices after an oil spill, including about when to use a dispersant versus other methods of cleanup," Buskey said. "Already, we have made a great deal of progress in understanding the physical and biological processes that predict the consequences for marine environments and human health when oil spills happen. The final step is bringing this research to a resolution, including by honing the real-world applications that will help to minimize future oil-spill harms."

Previous research by the consortium resulted in key scientific discoveries, such as a finding that dispersants leave behind tiny droplets of crude oil eaten by microscopic marine zooplankton, called copepods. Researchers confirmed that the zooplankton, which are consumed by many other types of marine life, ingest oil and toxins themselves, causing them to slow and become more susceptible to predators. The finding has implications for other parts of the food web, including the seafood that people eat.

Joining Buskey in the DROPPS consortium is UTMSI scientist Zhanfei Liu, as well as researchers from the University of South Florida, Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Texas A&M Corpus Christi and SINTEF – Norway, the organization working on the computer model.

In addition to the DROPPS consortium, UTMSI scientist Andrew Esbaugh also received funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative as a co-principal investigator in another consortia led by the University of Miami. That consortium, Relationships of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in fish for Validation of Ecological Risk (RECOVER), includes research Esbaugh is leading on the effects of crude oil on fish early in life. Over the summer, Esbaugh published research about oil's detrimental effects on decision-making by coral reef fish, especially early in life—a study funded in part by the initiative. His research will continue to look at the physiological, behavioral and molecular effects of crude-oil exposure in fish including mahi-mahi and red drums.

Together, the newly funded University of Texas Marine Science Institute projects total over $4.9 million over two years—an investment that benefits the hard-hit Texas Gulf area in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, both by supporting UTMSI researchers and improving understanding about marine resources that local industries, communities and individuals depend on.

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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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