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Energy Tomorrow Radio: Episode 112 - Research on Oil and the Subsea Environment

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted July 13, 2010

In today's episode, I interview Dr. David Vaughan of the Mote Marine Laboratory at Summerland Key, Florida, about his research on oil in the water from the Gulf spill and its potential effects on the subsea environment.

Dr. Vaughan says that his current research shows no detection of oil or oil dispersants in southwest Florida or the Florida Keys. He also explains how the Franklin Eddy is preventing oil from entering the Loop Current and from moving around the tip of Florida to the Atlantic Ocean.

Use the audio player below to listen to information about the article and follow along with the show notes. I hope you find the podcast informative.

00:17 News reports indicate that tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon accident are washing up on beaches throughout the Gulf Coast, and many people are asking about the potential spread of oil in the Gulf and even along the East Coast. Dr. David Vaughan of the Mote Marine Laboratory at Summerland Key, Florida, has been conducting research on Gulf currents and has been looking for oil in the water along the Florida coastline. Dr. Vaughan is with us today on the telephone.

00:49 Please tell our listeners about Mote Marine Laboratory and the type of research conducted by you and your staff.

00:55 Dr. Vaughan: Mote Marine Laboratory is a private, non-profit organization that's been working in the public realm for more than 55 years. It was started by the first lady of sharks, as we call her, Dr. Eugenie Clark, and has spread into working with not just sharks, but with dolphins, whales, turtles, fish, and now some of the research we're doing in the Florida Keys: coral reefs.

1:23 One of the research projects that I noticed is mentioned on the website involves autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. What are they, exactly, and what do they do?

1:35 Dr. Vaughan: The autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), or gliders or underwater robots, are vehicles that have been used by Mote Marine Lab and a few other organizations and universities to study the water and water samples for longer periods and farther down than manned submersibles or manned vessels can operate.

2:00 How are you using those devices to look for oil from the Macondo well which has been leaking oil for the past two-and-a-half months?

2:06 Dr. Vaughan: One of our programs in aquatic ecotoxicology has been, for many years, working on studying red tides, a toxin that comes out of an algal dinoflagellate in the Gulf of Mexico and causes havoc on beaches and with fish populations. We had an underwater vehicle that was out there testing for red tides, and as soon as the issue of the oil spill came up, we quickly got with some of the people who make those vehicles and the scientific instruments in it, and adapted it to be able to test for carbon dissolved organic matter in the frequency that oil and dispersants are in.

2:54 And what are you finding so far?

2:57 Dr. Vaughan: We're finding a mixture of results, because besides Mote Marine Laboratory helping manage about three or four of these in southwest Florida, we also have most of these being posted through the Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory with four others that are up near the oil spill in the upper Gulf. We've been able to compare the results from ones closest to the oil to the ones down here in the Keys, the farthest away from the oil.

3:31 And are you finding oil close to Florida at this point?

3:37 Dr. Vaughan: No, we're very lucky, especially in southwest Florida, and especially down here in the Keys, that so far we've escaped any detection of oil or dispersants in our areas. We're very pleased of that circumstance, because it could be worse. As many people know, there is a specific type of movement of water or current in the Gulf of Mexico called the Loop Current, and there is potential for the Loop Current to bring the oil within a very short period of time to southwest Florida and to the Keys, but as of this moment, that is not the case.

4:18 Is there any evidence to date that suggests that even some highly emulsified oil, oil that has been in the water for quite some time, might make it into the Loop Current and could come all the way around to the East Coast?

4:33 Dr. Vaughan: Well, that's the normal pattern of the Loop Current. The Loop Current is a body of hot water that comes up from the Caribbean between Cuba and the Yucatan portion of Mexico, and comes up like a river, just like the Gulf Stream, up into the central part of the Gulf of Mexico toward where the oil spill is located. Then it moves right toward the eastern portion of the panhandle of Florida, then usually straight down, close to the Keys, before joining the Gulf Stream at the Straits of Florida. However, this time, a fairly unusual phenomenon happened that happens now and then: the Loop Current has changed shape. The whole upper portion of the loop current has encircled and formed a separate eddy, called the Franklin Eddy. That has really protected the southern portion of the Gulf of Mexico from receiving any of the oil from the upper portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

5:53 Well that's certainly good news for the Keys. About three weeks ago, there were reports of tar balls in the Florida Keys, but according to tests, the oil didn't come from this particular leaking well. So you're getting oil that washes up on beaches in the Keys and various places in Florida, but it isn't necessarily coming from this well. Where does it come from?

6:17 Dr. Vaughan: That's a good point. The few times when tar balls were detected and reported, it ended up that they weren't from the source of the oil spill; instead they were from some other unknown sources. It could be that we do get these kinds of small numbers of tar balls on a regular basis, but everyone was on the lookout and aware to look for it, or, as some suggested, it may have been a spill of opportunity that others used to discharge oil at a time when they thought that it wouldn't be detected by them.

6:58 Good point. How would you describe the potential impact of oil from the leaking well on the subsea environment? How could, perhaps, corals be affected?

7:10 Dr. Vaughan: There have been many studies about oil and its effect on areas such as marshes and on sea birds and mammals and things like that, but there hasn't been as much research done on the effects on things like coral reefs, and that was one of the fears of the natural resources mangers here in the Florida Keys, because the entire Keys are a national marine sanctuary. The Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and BP are also concerned about what could happen if fresh oil could came down this way. Many people have not had experience with what the effects are directly on coral reefs. The good news is that corals are down on the bottom and that most of the time oils rise to the surface and cause a problem at the surface. One of the things that would cause a problem is that corals spawn in the summers and they give off eggs and sperm that float to the similar to fish eggs, so there would be a problem of coral reproduction if we did get oil even at the surface.

8:26 You're doing some studies right now on corals, oils and dispersants?

8:30 Dr. Vaughan: That's correct. We're taking the opportunity of this being the time of the season when corals reproduce by collecting some of our own coral larvae--the very small, juvenile, free-swimming form of coral that is about the size of a head of a pin--and we're doing what is called bioassays: we're checking an impact or an assay on the biological life of coral larvae to see if it impacts it while it's swimming, or impacts it while it's trying to settle on the bottom. We're doing those tests right now on regular oil, weathered oil and dispersants themselves.

9:18 I hope we'll have an opportunity to check back in with you and get the results of your testing. It sounds quite interesting.

9:27 Dr. Vaughan: Yes that would be nice. So far we've been very lucky to have these AUVs out in the water, taking samples and letting us know that our waters are okay and all-clear so far, but we do need to do these tests to see what would be the effects if we did get oil in this area.

9:46 I have one final question: there are news reports that foreign drilling companies are expected to drill in Cuban waters perhaps as soon as next year, and the companies there are not going to be subjected to U.S. drilling regulations. Has that been a cause of concern for you and for your research?

10:08 Dr. Vaughan: All drilling done within the area that could impact the coral reefs here in the Florida Keys is of concern. They each have their own different levels of concern just because of what we were talking about before: the potential of water currents that could or could not drive them our way. Most of the research by places like the Coast Guard has looked for the impact of oil from something like a tanker spilling oil in our direct region. But very little has been done to see what the effect would be if oil spilled far enough away, such as in the upper Gulf, or fairly close, 100 miles away in Cuba, and what that impact would be on our corals. The Florida and Gulf straits in the Florida Gulf Stream section between Cuba and the Florida Keys also set up a semi-barrier between us and that country. Another area that could be impacted is the Gulf Stream which turns the corner up to southeast Florida, including Miami all the way up to Jacksonville.

11:21 Interesting point. Again that's something we'll need to watch in the future. Dr. David Vaughan, thank you so much for providing your insights on Energy Tomorrow Radio, and I hope we have an opportunity to talk with you again soon.

11:33 Dr. Vaughan: That sounds very good. I really like being part of a technology with AUVs that is helping us look at environmental problems.


Jane Van Ryan was formerly senior communications manager and new media advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), where she wrote blog posts and produced podcasts and videos. Before coming to API, Jane managed communications for a large science and engineering corporation, and for a top-tier research and engineering university. A few years ago, you might have seen her in your living room when she delivered the news on television. Jane officially retired from API in 2011 and now freelances as an independent communications consultant when not gardening at her farm in Virginia.