Dispatches E-News: Keys to the Past, Drifters & Oil Degradation in Beach Sands (10/03/18)

The Present is the Key to the Past

For marine scientist David Hollander (USF), there’s an idiom that underscores much of what inspires him about geology: “The present is the key to the past, but the past provides a window to see into the future.” With that in mind, he and his team have studied the ecological impacts of 1979’s Ixtoc oil spill in the southern Gulf of Mexico in order to predict how long recovery might take from 2010’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the northern Gulf.

After a difficult research trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and countless hours of study back at the USF labs, the team discovered that it takes roughly a decade for most of the system to clean and restore itself; however, it does not return to the same ecological position. What occurs is an ecological evolution to another stable state.


GulfCast: The LASER Cruise: Drifters

When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, it was difficult to know where the oil might end up. The LASER team’s goal was to study how the oil spreads out via ocean currents, so they could create predictive models for future spills. Thousand of drifters would be required to execute the experiment, but existing drifters were extremely expensive due to the GPS component. Two years were spent designing specialized drifters into a low-cost, packable version that performs well in the open ocean and is biodegradable.


Grad Student Karthikeyan Uses Genetics to Understand Microbial Oil Degradation in Beach Sands

Petroleum hydrocarbons released by oil spills can accumulate on beaches and in nearshore sediments, potentially creating health risks for humans and coastal organisms. However, the highly variable conditions of beach environments make it difficult to determine the long-term behavior and fate of hydrocarbons in sands and sediment.

Smruthi Karthikeyan combines bioinformatics and oil degradation data to examine microbial responses to oil in beach environments and identify populations that act as bioindicators of oil degradation and toxicity. Documenting microbial indicators and producing oil degradation models for environmental managers can help with future oil spill response plans for coastal zones.

Photo courtesy of Smruthi Karthikeyan.


Dispatches from the Gulf 1: Science • Community • Recovery
In the years after Deepwater Horizon – the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history – a global team of scientists is working together to understand its environmental impact on humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem with the ultimate goal of learning how to better cope with future oil spills.
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Dispatches from the Gulf 2: Research • Innovation • Discovery
Experience remarkable stories from the unprecedented scientific mission to study the continuing impacts of Deepwater Horizon find new ways to ease the devastation. Includes the never-before-documented drama of bottlenose dolphins struggling to survive, and the capture of one of the world’s largest predatory sharks.
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