Who Is Tracking Spilled Oil In The Gulf?

A team of ocean scientists has a plan to track the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but so far they have no funding. Team leader Ira Leifer explains the proposed study. He says basic questions about the oil spill, such as where the oil is going, are not being answered.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

BP says the flow of oil from the runaway Gulf well has been halted, at least for now, but even if no new oil is being added to the water, there is still a lot to learn about the millions of barrels that are now part of the Gulf ecosystem, like how much oil is in the water, where is it going, what happened to it.

These are some of the basic questions that a team of top ocean scientists would like to get answered. They've come up with a plan to study the spill. The problem is they can't get the money, about eight-and-a-half-million dollars, or - to start collecting the data. And something - what's holding that up?

Here to talk about it now is Ira Leifer. He's the team leader of the Deep Spill 2 Experiment. He's also the chief mission coordinating scientist for the NASA Airborne Remote Sensing Response Team, and he is a marine scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's talking with us today from Washington, where he's just given a talk on the remote sensing of oil to NASA. Thanks for talking with us, Dr. Leifer.

Dr. IRA LEIFER (University of California, Santa Barbara): Good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us about your journey and your mission and what you would like to do. What is the plan that you would like to get funded?

Dr. LEIFER: Well, what we're trying to do is hypothesis-driven science to understand where, why and what regarding the oil spill at the sea bed, throughout the water column. Where does the oil go in the deep sea, in the middle of water column, slightly near the surface, at the sea surface and in the atmosphere?

But more important than where is why. Why does it go into the deep sea? And try to understand and learn from this regarding, say, hydrate effects or evaporation or dissolution in the deep sea so we can understand what's happening to improve models, predictions and response - and finally what, in which different components of the oil are going to go in different places. And we'd like to know and understand why the more component of the oil that are toxic go in one area versus another, since that's what actually causes the damage to the ecosystem, the more toxic components.

FLATOW: Well, this gusher has been going on for weeks and weeks. Is no one actually studying these - to answer these questions?

Dr. LEIFER: There are a lot of scientists who are out doing measurements and measuring different aspects. What I put together, which to my knowledge is not being done or proposed, is an integrated scientific experiment.

So the problem is that the people, for example, who might be looking at the sea surface to try to understand how globs of oil get into the subsurface and float under the sea surface, they need to know what's coming up from below.

The scientists studying that have their own needs. And so what I tried to do is put together a very coordinated package so that the answers from one area can be immediately fed into the experimental design for another area - sort of the integrated part is how you leverage and synergistically learn far more scientifically about the mechanisms.

FLATOW: So this is you know, the bad news is that you have this oil gusher, but you're trying to find some sort of silver lining in that you can actually conduct an experiment to study how the oil moves in such an unfortunate situation like this.

Dr. LEIFER: Yes. I think of it as that - if we learn from this horrible catastrophe, then when some accident occurs in the future, we'll not repeat the same mistakes, for example, of Exxon Valdez.

And in 2000, there was Deep Spill 1, a small release experiment to try to understand exactly these processes that we want to study. That study had technical difficulties and weather, did not prepare sorry, did not provide definitive answers. And so the rationale remains the same - that study was not repeated - that we need to have a large, integrated study to actually understand the processes of this kind of an event from the event, not to study the so to speak damage of a tornado after a tornado is gone by looking at the smashed houses to learn about tornados.

FLATOW: Now, your project has a price tag of about eight-and-a-half million dollars. That doesn't seem to be very much.

Dr. LEIFER: It's very in the scheme of things, it's not significant at all, and I do not believe that price is any of the problem that we've been having in getting BP to support this.

Congressman Markey has indicated that BP should, in fact, fund something of this nature as an important way of determining response, figuring out how much oil is out there, calibrating the important work of the flow rate team, and so on.

And so I think more the question comes up - is BP trying to prevent this kind of science from happening? Not from a financial point of view but from they'd rather not learn these kind of things that we'd hope to learn.

FLATOW: And so Congressman Markey of Massachusetts, correct, has asked BP to contact him, and any response so far?

Dr. LEIFER: The same response no, none, just silence.

FLATOW: And I guess time is of the essence here.

Dr. LEIFER: Time is of the essence, if the experiment is to be able to study the real, actual catastrophe. Otherwise, I believe that we'll take this team and attempt to do the study at some time in the future on a natural seep, which of course is much smaller, or possibly in another country elsewhere, if there's another oil spill.

I'd also like to, you know, propose that science experiments like this and many others should be contingency planned so that when there is an oil spill, they're immediately implemented with funding from any one of multiple sources available. So rather than three months into an event trying to discuss how to do it, but from day one science and learning so that we can be more prepared for the future is a critical part of the mission.

FLATOW: The fact that BP has stopped the gusher, at least temporarily for now - it seems to be holding - does that make your work still relevant?

Dr. LEIFER: The work would be - I mean, it will be relevant for the future, but in terms of having something to study, if they've completely stopped it, we would have the opportunity of looking in the mid-water column and upper-water column, where oil is still moving along, and then doing the other components at a natural seep.

I'd also like to mention that we would integrate this into the NASA response, the remote-sensing data that's been collected, using new techniques to map oil and figure out how much oil is on the sea surface. And that as well could also be done at any time, and one of the nice things is that BP does not control the airspace.

FLATOW: Do they control the waterspace? I guess what I'm asking is, if you got the $8 million you needed, would you have access to the space on the water that you need?

Dr. LEIFER: I would certainly hope that we would have access to the space on the water and to the site. However, we came up with a contingency plan, should BP, after funding the experiment, decide not to give us access, that we would then go to a natural sea barrier in - not too far away, where I was doing research this last summer, and add methane and create a system that we could study there as well as studying the upper-water-column surface properties, what's happening, to explain why there's oil at other levels.

But yes, in that case the dominant purpose will have been thwarted, I would say, by BP.

FLATOW: How is it that BP can deny you access to the Gulf of Mexico?

Dr. LEIFER: Well, I assume what would happen is that miraculously certain critical operations would somehow be scheduled during the time when we were there. I mean, several of our team members have done scientific experiments and investigations in the vicinity of the well in the last month.

And so there's no safety or reason, objective reason why the experiment could not be done, and we would be very happy to work with any logistic requirements of BP. But I would always be paranoid and worry that something would miraculously crop up at the last minute that would prevent our team, as we steam to the site, from actually doing any science at the site, in which case we came up with a back-up plan to go nearby.

FLATOW: Why isn't the federal government helping you out? Like for example, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, why aren't they partnering with you to do basic research that's right in their Gulf?

Dr. LEIFER: I mean, we, I think - well, there are two things. One is the mechanism, which I can't claim to be an expert. But we would need to set up a funding mechanism that is not the normal approach, which takes a long time, because of the urgency.

And there certainly are NOAA assets that could be used to help, but there are also things that we'd need to contract and so on. The plan as well is that in collecting this data, we would widely integrate it with other NOAA and scientists from USGS and elsewhere to try to make sure that the results that we have are leveraged.

And one of the reasons that we sought to distribute the plan widely for is not just to bring it to the public's attention but also to other scientists so that they could know what we were doing, contact us, and then we could design a better experiment.

FLATOW: So are you looking still for input from other scientists?

Dr. LEIFER: Most definitely, and the current plan, which is primarily focused to maintain itself focused, on the physical and chemical properties and processes in the water column and surface and atmosphere, really, we would hope and desire to link that up with scientists who are studying the ecosystem impact and biological effects that we have not put in the plan, just to keep our focus.

FLATOW: And if other scientists are listening, they'd like to see a copy of the plan, they can go to our website at sciencefriday.com, which has a link to your plan. So are you optimistic you'll get the money? Or, you know, this could be another science failure.

Dr. LEIFER: I go through rollercoaster waves of optimism and feeling not optimistic, and then new things occur. I think even if we do not get to do this experiment this time, the exercise will have been worth it, and there are other ways to try to learn these things, not ideal from natural seepage because I mean, it's estimated that 600,000 tons of oil enters the world's ocean from natural seepage every year, which is comparable to this spill. It's globally distributed. So many of these aspects could be learned from those small seeps that are widespread.

FLATOW: All right, I'm going to have to stop you there, Dr. Leifer. Thank you for taking time to be with us. Good luck to you.

Dr. LEIFER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Ira Leifer is the team leader of the Deep Spill 2 Experiment.

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