Slick Science

UM faculty are researching Gulf gusher from all sides


Barth Green

The Rosenstiel School’s 96-foot research vessel is helping scientists track the path of oil plumes in the Gulf.

By air, by sea, and by satellite, University of Miami scientists are capturing and providing valuable data to help mitigate the worst oil spill in our nation’s history. In the months since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform set forth an unprecedented economic and environmental disaster, the University has been a vital contributor to emergency response led by NOAA, FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and other major organizations.

Several departments University-wide are working with local, state and federal agencies through the Oil Spill Academic Task Force (OSATF), a consortium of scientists and scholars from the State University System of Florida, private universities, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. As oil closes in on the Florida coastline, the University is fostering community response planning by hosting public meetings and panel discussions with local and national government officials and researchers.

With its large fleet of environmental monitoring equipment and army of ecological experts, the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is playing a key role in assessing damage and predicting short- and long-term effects.

“As in the recent Haiti disaster, we are collecting sophisticated satellite images from several global providers that we can provide to government entities that are directly involved in disaster relief efforts,” says Hans Graber, professor and chair of applied marine physics at the Rosenstiel School and director of the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing (CSTARS), which operates the massive satellite antennae acquiring detailed images of the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding regions.

After completing a two-week National Science Foundation-sponsored cruise to sample submerged plumes near the Deepwater Horizon site, researchers aboard the University’s 96-foot catamaran, the RV/F.G. Walton Smith, were first to discover an oil plume located off Florida’s southwest coast heading toward the Dry Tortugas. This ship continues to help assess subsurface oil plumes. Approaching the spill from above, Rosenstiel School professor Nick Shay has spent countless hours aboard NOAA aircraft dropping probes into the Gulf to learn more about the loop current that’s shaping the path of the massive oil slick.

UM scientists are plugging the data they acquire into sophisticated computer modeling programs, which generate interactive graphs depicting the dynamics of the oil-water mixture in the Gulf. Many of these educational and predictive tools, as well as links to various related resources, are available on the Rosenstiel School’s comprehensive oil spill response website, www.rsmas.miami.edu/oil-spill.