Thursday, June 13, 2013

Getting back to the Gulf

As part of ongoing studies at Chris Reddy's lab at Woods Hole and his colleagues at Florida State's Mag Lab (supported by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative as part of the Deep-C Consortium) and Dave Valentine at the University of Southern California Santa Barbara, we have been studying how the remnants of the Deepwater Horizon spill change or "weather" along Gulf beaches. We believe that finding any oil on the beaches can have a silver lining as weathering helps us learn how nature responds to oil spills, to determine whether clean-up is needed, whether the toxicity of the oil is changing, and prepare and respond to future spills. 

So far, we have made great strides showing that a lot of the oil was oxidized, which was surprising and unprecedented at this scale, and it did it fast (Aeppli et al, 2012). Much of the latter work was done by Dr. Christoph Aeppli who is leading this field operation, along with Ben Freiberg, a guest student from Skidmore College, and myself (Bryan James). Yet, we still don't know how the oil is oxidized and other factors that promote these reactions. And we don't know if the oxidized compounds behave differently in the environment or are more toxic. 

Packing up our supplies for our early flight
out of Boston: Dr. Christoph Aeppli
(post doc), Ben Freiberg (an undergrad at
Skidmore College) and me, Bryan James
(an undergrad at University of Toronto). 
To help us address these questions, we are "Getting back to the Gulf" to collect more samples to study and add to our sample repository, which also provides samples to other interested parties, too. For me, this is trip number two to the Gulf despite just finishing my first year at University of Toronto majoring in engineering as it's my third summer in the Reddy Lab. (On my first expedition, when I was only 17, I made an audio slide show of a trip).

For this trip, we will start in Pensacola, FL and road trip to as far as Grand Isle, LA to collect specifically tar balls in the surf and on the shore as well as collecting oiled rock scrapings from jetties. 

To study the rock scrapings, I will use the device I designed and built for cutting thin slices of oil from rocks. The device is a combination of a hot wire cutter and a microtome. The hot wire cutter slices the oil which we freeze using dry ice (solidified carbon dioxide). This strategy prevents the smearing and shattering of slicing frozen oil with a knife edge. We freeze the oil because room temperature weathered oil exhibits properties of stickiness and fluidity which makes cutting one millimeter slices difficult. 

Hot Wire Cutter that I (Bryan James) made for slicing oiled rock scrapings.
(Photo credit:  Bryan James)

Our motivation is to realize the impact a crisis can have years after the event. In addition, to experiment and hone our scientific reasoning skills and and to ask the question, Why?

Below are some images of our first day on the beaches.  For more images (and captions) check out our photo gallery

Posted by:
Bryan James
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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