The spill: UM and the cleanup

On April 20, 2010, an explosion occurred on a BP-leased drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest oil spill in history.
Since then, there has been an outpouring of aid and research from local and international communities in efforts to contain the spill, save local wildlife and determine ways to prepare in the event that such a disaster should occur again.

The University of Miami’s Rosential School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) has been on the forefront of research in the Gulf of Mexico. The school has been collecting data that can be used in gauging how much oil is still present in the Gulf of Mexico, what the effects are to marine life and the likelihood of oil spreading to South Florida and the Keys.

One of the school’s big projects over the summer was sending out its 96-foot catamaran, the RV/F.G. Walton Smith, to study submerged plumes of oil near the Deepwater Horizon site. The two-week cruise was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with funding provided by UM’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS).

“It was very saddening to be out there, but at the same time, it was cool to be able to be part of it,” said sophomore Dan Reynolds, an industrial engineering major who was part of the ship’s crew. “The smell was the most notable thing. If you looked over the side of the ship you would see oil and at times it was really gross.”

Members of the ship’s research team were the first to discover a previously unidentified oil slick off Florida’s southwest coast.

“They did see that there was some oil taken up at a considerable distance,” said Peter Ortner, director of CIMAS. “They gave the samples they took in to the analysis lab and confirmed the small amount of oil they had seen consisted of surface evidence of subsurface plumes.”

The slick, which spanned a length of about 20 miles, appeared as if it was heading toward the Dry Tortugas, a small chain of islands located near the Florida Keys. One of the major components of RSMAS research over the summer has involved studying the trajectory path for the oil that has not been recovered.

Dr. Villy Kourafalou, associate professor in the Division of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography at RSMAS, has been studying the interaction of different currents in the Gulf and looking at how water flow can affect the passage of oil, specifically for the Florida Keys.

“At first, we did everything on a total volunteer basis,” Kourafalou said. “We worked nonstop. There was no time to wait until someone came up with money.”

Kourafalou and her team of researchers began looking at the way the Loop Current, a warm ocean current in the Gulf of Mexico, was moving.

“I felt that it was totally our obligation as scientists to really use whatever we know to address this catastrophic event,” Kourafalou said. “We used everything possible- all of the tools we had- and we were in a good position to address the urgent needs of the situation.”

Kourafalou and her team have been using numerical models of ocean currents, weather forecasts and satellite modeling systems in attempts to predict different situations. According to Kourafalou, all options need to be explored since the way the water moves is very unpredictable.

“The Loop is very variable and that is something that people have to understand,” Kourafalou said. “There is no constant pathway.”

However, according to both Kourafalou and Ortner, there seems to be no evidence that there will be surface oil reaching South Florida or the Keys. The oil that is below the surface is at this point difficult to measure, but scientists at RSMAS will continue studying currents and the rate of oil degradation in the following months.

For now, the university has plans to send the Walton Smith on a 40-day research effort based in Louisiana. The boat will leave early in September and stay in the Gulf until October in order to conduct more extensive research.

“We’re going to look around with high-tech equipment for this deep material, to see its extent, to see the size distribution, to see if its coincidential with animal populations at depth,” Ortner said.

A big concern was sending the catamaran out during hurricane season. Fortunately, RSMAS was able to secure a hurricane retreat place in Louisiana.

“We weren’t going to let the boat go anywhere in this season unless we could arrange for a good hurricane dock,” Ortner said.

RSMAS faculty has also recently received funding directly from BP. The petroleum company gave the state of Florida $10 million to distribute through the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO) Council, which is the consortium of public and private Florida universities that study marine science. They had 233 proposals come in, and of the 23 that were selected to receive funding, three major projects came from RSMAS. The projects involve coastal shelf modeling, satellite remote sensing and chemistry studies, some of which will occur in collaboration with other Florida universities and marine science institutions.

To learn more about RSMAS involvement with the oil spill, visit

Alexandra Leon may be contacted at

August 25, 2010


Alexandra Leon

Senior News Writer

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