How things change

Yesterday and half of today, we were unable to conduct science operations because of a jammed gear in the clutch in one of the engines.  Thanks to the heroic efforts of the ship’s crew to repair the problem quickly, we are back in business.  We are almost back to the spill site, where we are anxious to re-occupy the four stations nearest to the leaking well.  We probably can’t get very close (perhaps within a mile) tonight as BP is trying to cap the cut off riser pipe.  Tonight, we’ll get within a mile or so.  We want to see how things have changed since the flow increased between the cutting of the riser pipe and the attempt to cap it.

Before going further, I want to acknowledge the hard work of everyone in the Walton Smith science party.  I am also indebted to Captain Shawn Lake and the ship's crew of the R/V Walton Smith.  We could not have accomplished so much without the Captain and crew's help.  This rapid response cruise was planned quickly (in four days) and most of the science team had never sailed together before.  Everyone has worked extremely hard and done whatever was asked – even if it meant working the night shift for mapping CTD casts.  Together we’ve accomplished a great deal.  As I write this, our 66th CTD cast of the cruise is being launched. I’ve gotten many questions and emails in response to the blog.  Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to write.  If I don't answer your question, please remind me to!  The majority of questions I’ve gotten involve the effects of dispersants, whether the bottom water can be aerated to promote breakdown of oil and gas, whether and how remotely operated vehicles are being used, and the impacts of oil on pelagic fauna and birds.  Quite a few people have asked how we are protecting ourselves while working in the vicinity of the spill. Dispersants are a complicated topic.  No one that I have spoken to about this has a full understanding of what the full range of dispersant effects of  might be.  How do dispersants influence microorganisms and microbially-mediated processes?  I don't know.  How do they impact  fish, larvae, phytoplankton, shrimp?  I don't know the answer to that either.  I do know that the dispersants seem to be doing  a good job of breaking up the oil  into smaller particles and that keeps the oil off the beaches but I am not convinced this is a good thing because there are so many potential unknown effects of dispersants. The EPA provided us with a meter to measure the concentration VOCs (volatile organic carbon) in the air outside the ship (and inside too).  We are monitoring VOCs and if necessary are wearing respirators and TYVEC suits.  Most of the time, however, we move away from the sampling site so that we can sample the bottles while breathing fresh air.  I think anyone working in the area of this spill should be doing the same – monitoring the air quality with a VOC meter constantly, wearing gloves all the time when handling plume samples, and wearing respirators when necessary. Several people have asked whether there is a way to introduce oxygen into the deepwater to correct any significant oxygen deficit.  We don’t know yet whether that will be necessary because we don’t know whether oxygen will reach stressful low levels (<2 mg/L).  However, it could be fairly difficult to do aerate the water at the depths (1100m) we are seeing oxygen depletion.  So I’m not sure that is a solution to deepwater oxygen problems.

Oddly enough, several folks asked about the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are being used out here.  Right now, most of the ROV in use out here belong to BP; most of them are working around the leak site.  Another ROV, the MBARI “Gulper”, that is working off the NOAA ship Gordon Gunther.  There are three sea gliders working in the area right now, two Navy gliders and one iROBOT glider.  The data from the iROBOT glider is available here. The navy glider data is available here. When working close to the leak site day before yesterday, we had some spectacular views of the Discovery Explorer drill ship (left photo).  The drill ship, the Top Kill rig (middle of photo), and the Deep Driller 2 (DD2) rig (right of image) are pretty close together (right image). Tonight the drill ship is burning off methane (in a huge flare) as they attempt to cap the cut off riser.  I wish my camera took better night photos because this is quite a site, particularly with a beautiful orange half moon seemingly floating aside the drill ship.

We saw a lot more oil on the surface today….it’s just everywhere out here.  I hope they are able to cap the well tonight.  In the meantime, we are running a line of stations that extends from 1 to 20 miles from the leaking wellhead to see how far out we can track this feature.  Tomorrow, we’ll be doing more sampling at stations throughout the general area of this plume.  For those who are interested, the approximate dimensions of the area where we’ve found plumes is 14 nautical miles long and around 3 nautical miles long.