Drifter Study Tracks Oil Near Damaged Platform and Mississippi Delta

Scientists gain a better understanding of how spilled oil moves in the Gulf of Mexico

Scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science (UM) and their collaborators designed a unique experiment to study the movement of oil to better monitor and predict the transport path in the event of a future spill. The collaborative research team used a combination of tools which included satellites, drones and surface current drifters deployed around the former site of a leaking oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico which was damaged during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

The study took place around the platform site just offshore of the Mississippi Delta on April 18-20, 2017 and was a collaboration of two Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) funded projects: Influence of River Induced Fronts on Hydrocarbon Transport, led by Villy Kourafalou, professor of ocean sciences at UM’s Rosenstiel School, and the Consortium on Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE), led by UM professor of ocean sciences, Tamay Ozgokmen.

“This field study provided unprecedented details on how fronts created by the spreading of river waters in the Gulf of Mexico could influence the transport of hydrocarbons and their pathways toward the Gulf coasts.” said Kourafalou.

The scientists collected several types of measurements to track rapid changes of spreading oil, in tandem with changes in the spreading of Mississippi River fronts.  High resolution satellite data complemented boat surveys and floting drifter tracks. UM’s research vessel, F.G. Walton Smith, gathered radar measurments of currents and sections of temperature and salinity. CARTHE drifters, made of floating bamboo plates, and commercial drifters provided by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (MET) were deployed and tracked in real time.

“A critical aspect for observing the hypothesis of river fronts acting like natural booms in the ocean, was not relying on a single tool, but rather on multiple platforms, such as drones, satellites, ship-based marine radar as well as drifters and subsurface measurements. This collaborative model was very effective and worked well in the field.” said Ozgokmen


The research vessel F.G. Walton Smith and the vessel St. Anthony near and on surface oil, with the Mississippi River waters in the background (white line marks the river induced front); image credit: Oscar Garcia (WaterMapping LLCAnother key aspect of the study was the measurement and evaluation of oil thickness, which for the first time, is being included into high resolution model simulations of circulation and oil drift performed by UM and MET.

The findings document the close synergy between fronts induced by the Mississippi River and pathways the floating oil followed as it drifted on the ocean surface under the influence of several other factors such as winds, waves and regional circulation. The findings also add a missing component in the complex processes that moved the drifting oil during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill disaster, which occurred in close proximity to the Mississippi Delta. The updated oil drift algorithms which include oil thickness, are expected to greatly improve the ability to monitor and predict oil transport in the event of a future spill.

The field study was coordinated by Oscar Garcia of WaterMapping LLC, which also provided drone and small aircraft surveillance of fronts and oil spreading, as well as satellite data analysis, in collaboration with Chuanmin Hu of the Optical Oceanography Laboratory at the University of South Florida.

Video link: https://youtu.be/T6X2HAsYPu8

Trajectories of individual drifters after a few weeks of release, marking several potential pathways of oil toward the coastline or the Gulf interior; image credit: HeeSook Kang (UM/RSMAS).

Deployment of drifter in thin oil; image credit: Yannis Androulidakis (UM-Rosentiel School)

CSTARS Study Evaluates Oil Spill Detection Tool

Scientists led by the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing (CSTARS) of the University of Miami recently published an overview of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) as a tool to identify oil slicks on the ocean surface using satellite imagery.

SAR images were used to trace the areal extent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

SAR images were used to trace the areal extent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The researchers outlined the “capabilities and shortcomings” of SAR to identify oil slicks that enter the marine environment through seeps, leaks, illegal discharge, and other industrial, transportation, or drilling accidents. They summarized the techniques used for identifying oil with SAR, the advanced capabilities of the newer programs and instruments, and the advancing potential for SAR to be used to monitor oceans for natural and illegal spills. The team published their findings in the June 2013 issue of OceanographyOil Spills and Slicks Imaged by Synthetic Aperture Radar.

Read more

Story reprinted courtesy of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiaitve

Rumbles in the Deep

Have you ever been in a subway station, conversing with somebody, when a train goes by and you can no longer hear your friend? What do you usually do in that situation? How would you react if your conversations were constantly being interrupted by noise?

Chronic noise can be stressful for humans, but many people don’t consider how animals are affected by noise. Because sound travels so quickly underwater, and much of the ocean is dark, almost all ocean animals are acoustically sensitive and are likely to be affected by unwanted noise.

In a 2010 study, RSMAS student Erica Staaterman and her co-authors discovered that one species of burrow-dwelling shrimp, the California Mantis Shrimp, produces low-frequency “rumbles” to communicate. Just like birds or insects, these animals rumble en masse during dawn and dusk choruses. Their rumbles are distinctive – each shrimp has its own “pitch” and “rhythm” – and the sounds are likely used to attract mates or defend territories.


However, because these shrimp live along the California coastline, there is a tremendous amount of boat activity in their habitat, and thus, a tremendous amount of anthropogenic noise. Because the sounds of the boats directly overlap with the sounds of the shrimp, there is potential for “acoustic masking” – the same phenomenon that occurs when you lose the ability to converse with your friend in the subway station.

While the direct impacts of the noise on the mantis shrimp are unknown, in other animals acoustic masking interferes with basic everyday functions such as finding food, finding mates, or defending territory. In her talk at TEDxCoconutGrove, Erica shared with the audience these “rumbles from the deep” and demonstrated the interference that is caused by boat noise. She asked the audience to consider the impacts of such intangible, yet extremely important, threats to marine ecosystems.

Rumbles in the Deep is a TEDx talk by Erica Staaterman.  Currently in her fourth year at UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Erica is studying tropical marine soundscapes. Under the mentorship of UM Rosenstiel professor Dr. Claire Paris, she is working to understand the role of coral reef soundscapes in the recruitment of larval fish. After she finishes her PhD she hopes to apply her knowledge of acoustics to help mitigate ocean noise.

 Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb3gURP8wH8 

CARTHE Experiment to Study Oil Spills Underway

Researchers from the UM Rosenstiel School are in Florida’s Panhandle this week and next to study how oil and other pollutants migrate in the Gulf of Mexico. Information collected by scientists from the CARTHE experiments will be used to model the transport of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, in the event of a future spill.

For the three-week experiment, begun last week and called SCOPE – Surfzone Coastal Oil Pathways Experiment – scientists are deploying GPS-equipped drifters and other advanced instruments to track ocean currents off Ft. Walton Beach and better understand how oil may move onshore in the event of a future spill.

“In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill it became clear that understanding the ocean currents in the surf zone is vital to improve our understanding and prediction of oil spills,” said UM professor Tamay Özgökmen, director of the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbons in the Environment (CARTHE). “There are catastrophic socio-economic impacts when oil spills reach our beaches.”

UM’s Ad Reniers and his colleague Jamie MacMahan, from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., are deploying a variety of instruments, including 200 GPS-equipped drifters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and pressure and dye sensors at and below the surface at varying depths, to measure the movement of coastal ocean currents and determine how they carry oil, fish larvae, or toxins close to shore.


“This study will collect important data necessary to understand the ocean currents in the near-shore marine environment,” said Reniers, associate professor of applied marine physics at the Rosenstiel School and lead SCOPE investigator. “The information collected will be used to develop computer models of the coastal zone to improve our scientific understanding of this region in the event of a future oil spill, as well as to better understand how larvae or water pollutants travel close to shore.”

The research was made possible by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), a 10-year, $500 million independent research program established by an agreement between BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon accident and the potential associated impact of this and similar incidents on the environment and public health.

SCOPE is the second large experiment conducted by CARTHE, bringing together a wide range of scientific experts and experiments to study oil spills.

The SCOPE Experiment is a project of the UM-based CARTHE. The CARTHE program includes 26 principal investigators from 12 research institutions in eight states. Together these scientists are engaged in novel research through the development of a suite of integrated models and state-of-the-art computations that bridge the scale gap between existing models and natural processes.

For more information about CARTHE, please visit www.carthe.org or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/carthe.gomri.

Drift Away with Bob!

Meet Bob the Drifter, a specially designed tool used by CARTHE scientists to track where ocean currents take spilled pollutants, people, and larval lobster at sea. In this new Waterlust video, Bob is equipped with a GPS unit as he drifts along Gulf of Mexico ocean currents for CARTHE scientists to track where he goes and how fast he is moving.

Bob is one of the many important devises that collect data for CARTHE, the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment.  CARTHE studies ocean currents in the Gulf of Mexico to help predict where oil or other toxins may go in the event of a future spill.  This same data can be used to predict the location of people lost at sea and how far larval animals may travel before they settle.

The CARTHE team is based at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and is funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI).  It is comprised of over forty scientific researchers, postdocs, students and administrative staff from fourteen universities and research institutions.

The key to solving tomorrow’s spill-related problems lies in the research CARTHE is conducting today.  To learn more about CARTHE research, visit www.CARTHE.org.

— RSMAS Communications Team

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Check out CARTHE’s new web site at carthe.org

Carthe Homepage






The Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE), part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative based at RSMAS just launched its revamped web site. The updated web portal is devoted to interactive information and science education, allowing online users to track the progress of the groundbreaking oceanographic experiments taking place.

“Our goal is to provide visitors with an enhanced interactive experience when they are looking for information about our program and our research on ocean currents – whether they are a scientist, student, member of the press or member of the general public,” said Dr. Tamay Ozgokmen, CARTHE Director and Rosenstiel School Professor. “We are doing significant, innovative research with investigators from 14 institutions through CARTHE, and are excited to share our findings with the public.”

The CARTHE site’s new, streamlined design is clutter free, and was created in collaboration with Professor Kim Grinfeder and his team from the UM School of Communication. It offers improved navigation, links to social media resources, videos of experts, computer animations, and prominently features major news items on the home page, as well as an engaging overview video that serves as a welcome to the site.