NEW ORLEANS — With mystery swirling over how much oil may be lurking beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a research vessel leaves Wednesday on a nine-day mission: To find and study a potentially toxic stew that oceanographers fear could be catastrophic for marine life.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Thomas Jefferson, one of the most technologically advanced vessels for finding hazards on the seafloor, has been diverted from a recent trip to map the ocean floor off Galveston, Texas, to the belching Deepwater Horizon oil leak.
Like most everything involved with the spill, there are more questions than answers. "The business of trying to detect submerged oil is not a settled science," Cmdr. Shepard Smith, the ship's commanding officer, said Tuesday during a tour of the ship for McClatchy. "There isn't a great body of experience with how to do this because it's a really very unusual circumstance."
The 208-foot, 36-person ship has been equipped with a variety of methods to detect oil. Smith said researchers have some idea how the sensors may react, he but added, "We don't know for sure, because we don't know the form it might take, and we've never done it before."
The ship and its researchers traditionally focus on changes to the seafloor that could present a threat to navigation — "usually we ignore what's in the water, we're more interested in the seafloor," Smith said. To help interpret the data, scientists from NOAA and other research facilities who specialize in studying ocean water and marine life have been brought aboard.
"It's totally new, we're really testing the feasibility of the approach, we don't know whether it will work or not, but it's certainly worth trying," said one of those researchers, Larry Mayer, the director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. "What is the nature of submerged oil, if there is oil? We just don't understand its properties yet."
Some researchers have found what they say are vast plumes of oil suspended beneath the Gulf's surface, though BP has disputed those reports. Members of Congress and other researchers have been pressing the White House for weeks to do more to determine how much oil is suspended under the surface.
Smith said, diplomatically: "We're hoping to contribute to that discussion."
Oceanographers think the dispersants used to break up the surface oil have been pushing much of it below the surface. They've been agitating for underwater sampling, said Doug Rader, the chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
"I certainly am relieved that NOAA and independent scientists are now working together to get to the bottom of the mystery of the midwater oil, because it's such a potential threat to an extremely important marine element and the risk has been underappreciated," Rader said from Raleigh, N.C. "Characterizing that threat is extremely important."
The area under the water, he said, is a "main food pathway" for the oceans and "fuels a tremendous profusion of life."
The Thomas Jefferson won't map the full extent of underwater oil by itself, Smith said.
"We'll be looking at a piece of the puzzle; other research ships will be looking at other parts," he said, "But taken together, all of these observations can help the scientific community understand and estimate the nature and extent of any subsurface oil."
The vessel's first task will be to develop a methodology to find subsurface oil by testing its gear in areas expected to have high concentrations of underwater oil — namely near the spill site.
Among the gear is an echo sounder that uses SONAR and a meter tuned to detect crude oil. It will also employ a CTD sensor — a device that measures the conductivity, temperature and depth of seawater, along with 12 sampling bottles that can draw water from as deep as the ocean floor.
Working the CTD sensor will be another new addition to the ship's team: Daniel Torres, a research associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
"It's going to take a widespread group effort to try to get a hold of the extent of what's happening to the oil," Torres said. The water samples will be sent to an independent lab to detect oil.
Smith noted that the water sampling is a very slow method because it involves getting the water back to shore and sent to labs.
"It's a gigantic oil spill, but it's a gigantic ocean, too," Smith said. "The volume of oil we're looking for is actually quite minuscule in the scale of the Gulf of Mexico."
All of the equipment will be deployed with a moving vessel profiler, which allows the ship to keep moving to cover more ground.
NOAA has 19 research vessels, and Smith said the Thomas Jefferson will be working a network of research vessels and aircraft "all working in concert."
"We're not designed to be the end all, to save the day, but we hope to provide important science and research information," he said.
The trip to the spill site is the ship's second. Last week, it deployed various instruments — gliders, floats and drifters — with tiny sensors that researchers hope will give them a better sense of the loop current in the Gulf, which researchers fear could bring oil to the East Coast.
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