Monday, November 25, 2013 - 11:34am

When the Hercules 252 rig blew out and began spewing gas, condensate and other hydrocarbons into the Gulf of Mexico on July 23rd earlier this year, UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye and colleagues from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative quickly assembled a team and plan to assess the potential impacts of the accident. Graduate students involved with the project found themselves with the rare opportunity to participate in 'rapid response' science:

Five students – Joy Battles (ECOGIG), Nathan Laxague (CARTHE), Conor Smith (CARTHE), Tiffany Warner (CWC), and Sarah Weber (ECOGIG) – suddenly found themselves at the heart of this important mission, and not as sideline players. Their educational and research background and their personal fortitude were put to the test, working as a full-fledged response team to plan and execute this “herculean” data-gathering operation.

The coordinator of this response effort was University of Georgia biogeochemist and microbial ecologist Dr. Samantha Joye, science lead for the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil & Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) consortium. She said that at-sea experience, learning how to plan and stage cruises, is a requirement for oceanography students. However, this was no ordinary field work. “Planning and executing a rapid response cruise is a different animal as time is of the essence and there is no margin for error,” Joye explained, adding, “They were all faced with an incredible challenge yet they achieved remarkable success. I could not be more proud of them.”

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[UGA graduate and current marine science graduate student] Battles and Weber together served as co-chief scientists for a portion of the cruise, guiding the water column and sediment sampling around the blowout site as well as collecting samples for later analyses of methane levels and biological activity related to carbon and nitrogen cycling. Weber explained, “We had to coordinate and execute a strategic sampling plan given the evolving circumstances of the blowout and the capabilities of our scientific gear and personnel.” Though Weber had done similar work, she said, “previous to this cruise…the responsibility had never fallen on my shoulders.”

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"As long as humans endeavor to extract oil and gas resources from the Gulf’s seabed, it is important for scientists to study the consequences of such accidental releases.” – Joy Battles, University of Georgia and ECOGIG

Battles continued speaking about the impact on the Gulf’s fragile ecosystems, “It’s easy to overlook the effects of a natural gas leak because gas is invisible to the eye, but methane is an important contributor to global warming and it plays an important role in oceanic food webs.”

Fantastic experience for these students as well as an important update on the situation from Dr. Joye. Read more about this developing situation and the positive impact the consortim of universities involved in research in the Gulf of Mexico are having on this complex situation. Several of our societal goals (energy independence and protecting the environment among them) come into conflict in the Gulf. Staying informed on progress, and regress, in this important ecosystem can be difficult, especially after dramatic events fade from the headlines.

Image: Conor Smith is shown here in a time lapse photo of one CARTHE drifter being deployed from the R/V Acadiana near the site of the Hercules rig. (Photo courtesy of CARTHE)