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Deepwater Horizon Research Concludes After Years Of Studying The Gulf Of Mexico

Deepwater Horizon oil spill 2010.
Deepwater Horizon oil spill 2010.

After 10 years of researching the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its effects, scientists recently published their findings.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a consortium of 17 institutions in six countries, was funded through a $500 million grant from BP. The money was spent on a variety of studies, looking at both the Deepwater Horizon incident itself, and also the long-term ecological impacts.

One study looked at a phenomenon which hadn't been seen before: the initial large plumes of oil floated in the mid-depths of the Gulf of Mexico, not reaching the surface.

Steve Murawski is with the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, which was a leader in the multinational project. He said some experimentation was done in Hamburg, Germany, where researchers established a high-pressure facility to actually simulate the explosion.

“When it exploded, the oil that was coming up from three kilometers below the bottom was not only crude oil, but it was infused with methane gas,” said Murawski. “So, when those droplets came to the blowout preventer and were released into the ocean, the gas very suddenly exploded out of the oil droplets, and that created many small particles, and some of those particles never got to the surface.”

Multiple crews also tested for contaminants, which are still found around the Deepwater Horizon rig and in the shallow water marshes of Louisiana.

“It'll probably take 100 years to bury that oil below the levels at which it's not affecting things like clams and worms and whatnot,” said Murawski.

The biggest takeaway, he said, is that we weren't ready for this event.

"The Coast Guard Commandant who was running the Coast Guard then, he said, 'Look, we were very well prepared for another Exxon Valdez tanker accident. We weren't prepared for a large scale, deep-water blowout,' and neither the industry was prepared. They didn't have the technology to cap a runaway well, a mile deep, and the government wasn't prepared," said Murawski.

He thinks the government is still underprepared, but said oil companies have since developed costly preventative technologies.

The scientists have published their findings in two books: Deep Oil Spills, and Scenarios and Responses to Future Deep Oil Spills. Their work was also highlighted in a special issue of Oceanography, the official magazine of the Oceanography Society.

“It's been a long effort, really intensive effort, one that we all really enjoyed working together as a team,” said Murawski. “I'm a little sad that the team is breaking up… because that kind of funding doesn't exist in academia, except in rare cases.”

He is now shifting his focus to mapping ocean floors, starting with Tampa Bay this summer.

“We know so much about the skin of the earth, we know about terrestrial areas, we know about the surface of the ocean, but much of the undersea ocean has been not mapped at all,” said Murawski.

“Better maps of the of the bottom topography of the oceans will help us in many fields. It will help us in understanding the impacts of coastal storm surge and the vulnerability of our coasts. It will help us in natural resource management and that includes things like managing sand resources for the beaches, managing fishes and marine mammals etc. And it also helps us with precise navigation.”

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