NOAA Leads Oil Spill Study
It will take years to know full effect, says scientist
Surface oil in the Gulf of Mexico is 75 per cent gone, experts say, but what about the long-term effects of the crude oil that has made its way into the ecosystem? A study to answer that question is being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The narrow peninsula of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, with the choppy Shrewsbury River on the west and the enormous Atlantic Ocean on the east, is home to one of NOAA's research centers, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
The center is studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the environment. The Deepwater Horizon well exploded on April 20 this year, spewing about 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over a period of 86 days. The well was capped on July 15.
The center is filled with aquariums of black sea bass, flounder, and striped bass. Scientists must fully understand a species before any studies of environmental impacts can be done on it, said Dr. Noji, head of the Ecosystems Processes Division. Scientists need to know what is normal first so they can recognize what's not, he told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.
"One of our center's research vessels, the Henry Bigelow, often is sitting right over the spot where the oil leak is," Noji said. "Not many boats are doing that."
The boat is taking samples to be studied at the lab—not an easy thing to do, especially since the oily water also contaminates the air and is dangerous to humans as well as wildlife.
"Before going, each scientist is fitted with special head gear for breathing," Noji said. "They each wear a respirator with an oxygen tank."
Water samples are collected in one- to four-foot specially-made plastic containers that are coated with Teflon. The water in the containers is then put into smaller glass bottles, which are refrigerated. The samples must be studied within seven days after being taken.
"The information from each agency in the Gulf is put into a main database to be used by experts to determine the effects from the leak," Noji said. "One thing we are doing is taking water samples right off the New Jersey coast and below as an early warning system should any contamination from the Gulf leak come this way," he said.
The center is looking for many things, including signs of subsurface oil.
"We use acoustic imagery to do that," he said. "We use acoustics that bounce off the oil to help get data about how much oil may still be in the water and we may take sediment samples to measure contaminants on the floor in the Gulf, too."
Another NOAA job is to determine if the fish are safe to eat. Dr. Nancy Thompson from the NOAA lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts is in the Gulf setting up a Sea Food Safety program where trained experts smell the fish. This seemingly simplistic process has proven to be accurate, Noji said.
"Of course, very sophisticated analysis on fish tissues is also done to tell if it's safe or not," he added. "We are catching fish to see if there's anything there. We're also measuring the concentration of oxygen in water."
The United States Geological agency and the EPA have estimated that 75 per cent of the oil that leaked into the Gulf is gone.
"Some of the oil evaporated," Noji explained. "Some of it broke up into tiny specs (dispersed); some dissolved like a sugar cube does in water; some of it was taken care of by nature, by natural organisms (bacteria) that use the oil; and some is under the surface in the sediments on the floor of the Gulf."
NOAA has been given the job of coming up with a plan for long-term study and recovery from the spill. NOAA and other agencies will be doing studies for years, many of them from the Sandy Hook laboratory.
"What (some people) are saying right now is that they don't find a whole lot of evidence of damage to the ecosystem," Noji said. "We all believe that a lot more research needs to be done however."
GULF OIL SPILL RECOVERY SPECIAL REPORT
Kid Reporters investigate how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is being cleaned up and how the spill has impacted the people, animals, and environment of the Gulf coast. Their reports -- along with other useful resources -- can be found in the Gulf Oil Spill Recovery Special Report.
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Danielle Azzolina is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.