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Studies of DeSoto Canyon and Shelf Demonstrate Upwelling During Hurricane Isaac

Deep-C Consortium Scientists Survey Ocean to Better Understand Movement of Tar Balls in Gulf Mexico


RSMAS-flight 8-12UM team during a pre-flight briefing with NOAA’s flight crew at MacDill Air Force Base. Photo credit: Jodi Brewster.

As Hurricane Isaac barreled toward New Orleans, a team led by University of Miami (UM) Professor and Deep-C (Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico) Co-Principal Investigator Nick Shay was planning NOAA’s P-3 aircraft missions to fly into the storm. Dr. Benjamin Jaimes and UM senior research associate Jodi Brewster and graduate student Ryan Schuster prepared and loaded 39 profilers into the plane. Their goal: to drop these profilers into the storm at optimum locations where they could collect measurements of ocean heat content, salinity and currents during the hurricane.

“We wanted to collect data from the DeSoto Canyon area where the Deepwater Horizon incident occurred, so we could capture the upwelling as it was occurring,” said Shay, who is an expert on the Loop Current and regularly studies weather in this region. “We used operational products that we developed for NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS) to study the warm and cold core eddy ahead of the storm to establish drop points and deploy three different types of devices that penetrate to depths of 4,500 feet.”

The experiment was planned as a component of NOAA's 2012 Hurricane Field Program, coordinated by the Hurricane Research Division at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. Prior to Hurricane Isaac the team flew over the area and deployed 54 devices to collect baseline oceanic and atmospheric data over the shelf and shelf break. After the storm, the team worked with the flight crew at NOAA’s Aircraft Operation Center located at MacDill Air Force Base to deploy another 67 probes and get a post-hurricane snapshot of the area tying the response from several research flights. The information from each of the flights is being analyzed by scientists, and for input into both research models that are being developed for Deep-C as well as operational models at forecasting centers.

RSMAS-flight-brewster 8-12
UM graduate student Ryan Schuster prepares and loads profilers into the plane.

“From previous hurricanes like Ivan and Frederic we knew this area was prone to upwelling, and deep sea responses to the events taking place in the atmosphere. These areas have high humidity and strong surface wind activity which may lead to tar balls washing ashore – which may have the same chemical fingerprint as the oil spill. We are interested in this possibility, and the long term impacts it might have on the coastal ecosystem,” said Shay.”

Hurricane Isaac presents a unique opportunity to investigate that possibility. Since the Deepwater Horizon accident, Deep-C scientists have visited and revisited sites along the Gulf Coast that were affected by the oil spill. A team scoured the beaches as recently as one week before Hurricane Isaac, looking for samples of oil that have mixed with sand to create what are referred to as "sand patties." Immediately following the storm, those Deep-C teams led by Deep-C investigators Dr. Chris Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Dr. Wade Jeffrey of the University of West Florida, returned to the beaches and collected additional samples.

sampling 8-30-12
WHOI's Karin Lemkau collects a sample in Gulf Shores, AL just after Hurricane Isaac.

“Our intent,” Reddy said, “is to determine if these post-storm samples contain oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill and, if so, if they are in fact a result of the upwelling and deep sea responses to the recent hurricane.” One of the ways the fate of the oil can be determined is to study an effect called weathering — that is, how oil that is discharged into the environment changes over time. Weathering affects the properties of spilled oil and according to Reddy, oil from the deep bottom is likely to have weathered differently than samples already on the shore prior to the storm that were simply unearthed or exposed by the winds and rain of Hurricane Isaac.

“We are doing a careful and prudent analysis of the samples found to determine if they are, in fact, Deepwater Horizon oil from the deep sea,” Reddy said.

The Deep-C consortium is a long-term, interdisciplinary study investigating the environmental consequences of petroleum hydrocarbon release in the deep Gulf of Mexico on living marine resources and ecosystem health. The consortium focuses on the geomorphologic, hydrologic, and biogeochemical settings that influence the distribution and fate of the oil and dispersants released during the Deepwater Horizon accident, and is using the resulting data for model studies that support improved responses to possible future incidents.

The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the University of West Florida are all Deep-C member institutions.


Nick Shay

The University of Miami’s mission is to educate and nurture students, to create knowledge, and to provide service to our community and beyond. Committed to excellence and proud of the diversity of our University family, we strive to develop future leaders of our nation and the world. Founded in the 1940s, the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has grown into one of the world’s premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. Offering dynamic interdisciplinary academics, the Rosenstiel School is dedicated to helping communities to better understand the planet, participating in the establishment of environmental policies, and aiding in the improvement of society and quality of life. Dr. Lynn "Nick" Shay’s research interests include: upper ocean response and coupled atmosphere-ocean interactions, coastal ocean circulation processes, surface wave current interactions and atmospheric and oceanic boundary layer interactions.

Chris Reddy

Dr. Chris Reddy is a senior scientist in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Department of marine chemistry and geochemistry. Since April 2010, he has devoted most of his research efforts to studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. He has studied numerous other oil spills including oil leaking from a Japanese warship sunk in 1945.  WHOI is a private, independent, non-profit organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.


Wade Jeffrey

Dr. Wade Jeffrey is a professor of biology at the University of West Florida (UWF) where faculty, staff, and students are active in marine ecology, fisheries, economics, tourism and oil bioremediation. UWF has been on the forefront of the response to the DwH spill since the first few weeks, and brings considerable skills and knowledge gained from this experience. The Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation (CEDB) is a small environmental research group focusing on microbial processes and biogeochemistry in the open ocean, estuaries, and watersheds, including bioremediation and pollution studies, working with academic departmental faculty in Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Studies. 


Deep-C was a four-year, interdisciplinary study of deep sea to coast connectivity in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.Deep-C is no longer an active research project.  The information on this website is for historical reference purposes only. 

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