Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A once in a lifetime experience

I had planned to write a daily post during the trip to the Gulf Coast. But honestly, after long days in the hot sun and sands, I was exhausted. So, this blog post is about my personal experience on the Reddy Lab’s recent visit to the Gulf, from start to finish.

Me (Ben Freiberg), Dr. Christoph
Aeppli, and Bryan James.
I, along with two colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), just finished a surgical strike to the Gulf of Mexico (four states in 2.5 days), collecting samples believed to be from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’m Ben Freiberg, a guest student this summer in Dr. Chris Reddy’s lab at WHOI. Having just completed my first year of studies majoring in environmental science at Skidmore College, the opportunity to participate in a scientific outing like this was incredible.  

Recording a collected sample
(Photo credit: Bryan James)
Having been in the Reddy Lab for only two weeks, I have gone from taking safety classes, washing glassware, and analyzing past samples (with state-of-the-art technology), to hands-on field work in the Gulf. Having grown up a Northern boy in Michigan and Massachusetts, I was excited for my Southern initiation, which would also mark my first sampling road trip. 

All I can say now is that this was a great experience for an undergrad, since younger students are not usually included in new research or allowed to touch expensive instruments.  

It was a whirlwind trip, starting Day 1 with a 2am wakeup, and a shuttle ride to the airport (leaving my house at 2:40am). Then, we picked up the rest of the team: Bryan James (University of Toronto undergrad) and Dr. Christoph Aeppli (post doc). Since our plan was to travel west from Florida to Louisiana, we started in Pensacola, where the first order of business was finding a Walmart. We needed supplies and some additional snacks for the road. 

Bryan James (left) and Dr. Christoph Aeppli freezing and recording a rock scraping sample
(Photo credit: Ben Freiberg)
Working with samples back at the lab, I quickly learned the difference between sample types. The oil recovered can be categorized into two distinct groups. The first is sand patties, which are oil with sediments mixed in (approximately 60-80% sediment). The second is rock scrapings, which are pieces of oil that cling to rocks, typically in jetties. In the first couple weeks at WHOI, I handled a number of samples, so I was familiar with their general appearance. I had also learned that the oil that leaked from the Macondo well takes on a characteristically red hue on the beaches and sometimes still has a sweet oil smell, similar to automotive gasoline. That information came in handy when scouring the beaches, looking for samples.

The first samples I collected during our trip were sand patties, which can be found both in the surf and up on the beach. In Perdido State Park, a majority of the patties were floating in the surf, so wading out and catching them made for an interesting task. But, this exercise was gladly accepted in the unfamiliar humid heat. After filling a satisfactory number of jars with sand patties in Perdido, we continued on to Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan, Alabama. All three locations contained enough samples to fill approximately 30 small jars and vials, combined. While on the road, I learned even more about oil spills and oil degradation, since I was traveling with two well-versed researchers. This aided both my field and lab work because it helped me to further understand previous oil research. 

Team lead Bryan James reaching for a hidden rock scraping (Photo credit: Dr. Christoph Aeppli)

This is me (Ben Freiberg) moving a large,
sediment filled rock scraping
into a sample jar on Dauphin Island
(Photo credit: Bryan James) 
As I looked for samples on the beaches, I realized how working for the Reddy Lab has changed my perspective. If I had walked along these beaches a few months ago, I would probably not have noticed any oil. Now knowing what to look for, I saw countless beach patties. 

On Thursday morning (Day 2), the sampling team began the day with a hearty breakfast at a local favorite: Waffle House. After consuming the recommended daily value of saturated fat and cholesterol, our team boarded the ferry to Dauphin Island. On the short trip across the bay we passed countless offshore oil platforms. Having never travelled to the Gulf Shore, the sheer number and size of oil platforms was astounding. Upon arrival on Dauphin Island, we drove to a nearby jetty and began collecting rock scrapings. The samples were scarce, but our team managed to collect enough to fill a few tablespoon-sized vials.  

Dr. Christoph Aeppli displaying a labeled vial at Gulfport, MS
(Photo credit: Ben Freiberg)
After leaving Dauphin Island, we drove to Gulfport, Mississippi. Since the spill occurred approximately three years ago, the oil samples were harder to locate than in previous years, and our group found only thin coin-sized films along a previously oil rich jetty. After spotting more coin-sized splotches of hidden oil, we decided to move rocks around the jetty to expose concealed oil. This process of “digging” revealed enough rock scrapings to fill a couple of sample jars (around the size of ½ measuring cup). While “digging” took a lot of physical exertion, we were able to procure a few extra jars worth of samples, which would have otherwise been left behind. 

Following some more authentic Southern cuisine (Krispy Kreme doughnuts), we drove to New Orleans for our last night of the trip, and I was able to experience nighttime on Bourbon Street, accompanied by Bryan and Christoph. Early the next morning, we drove to Grand Isle, Louisiana, and hiked through the sand dunes in search of oil clinging to the long grasses. Having no luck in the sand dunes, we began walking along the beach, and started spotting small sand patties that ranged from dime to quarter-sized. We also found a couple of darker sand patties that did not have the red coloring of Macondo well oil, so we collected those as well. After accumulating multiple jars worth of sand patties, we headed back to New Orleans to make our flight and connection to Boston. The day came to an end, when we arrived back in Woods Hole around 1:30am. 

Bryan James and me (Ben Freiberg) standing on a tree stump
on Dauphin Island (Photo credit: Christoph Aeppli)
This was truly a once in a lifetime experience, gathering oil samples along the Gulf Coast. At times, sampling along warm southern beaches seemed more like vacation than work, especially compared to last week’s glassware cleaning “expedition” in the lab. Between the alligator and crawfish gumbo (no longer called “crayfish” after crossing the Mason-Dixon line) and wading through questionably murky water to find rock scrapings, the trip was one that I will never forget. I am looking forward to returning to the Gulf Coast this July, and hope the next journey will be as successful and memorable as the last.  

Posted by:

Ben Freiberg, Visiting Student
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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