As the massive oil spill off the Louisiana coast continues to threaten the environment and communities around the Gulf of Mexico, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are involved in frontline efforts to deal with the disaster.

The researchers listed can cover a wide range of topics, including projecting the oil spill’s spread; scientific efforts that may help lessen the impact of this or future catastrophes; and first-hand accounts from the Gulf. UNC experts can also provide knowledgeable commentary on other issues related to the disaster, such as legal ramifications of the spill.

Projecting the oil spill’s spread

Rick Luettich, Ph.D., is leading efforts to provide better predictions of where the oil spill will spread to in near shore areas using advanced computer models. A marine scientist and environmental engineer, Luettich studies physical processes in coastal systems, including the impact of hurricanes and storm surges.

  • Is operating a high-powered computer model that will be run daily, with each run producing a forecast of the spill’s movement for the following 72 hours. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The model is highly detailed, with resolutions down to 50 to 40 yards, allowing it to represent near shore areas, estuaries and marshes more accurately than other models that are currently being used, therefore making it better suited to predicting how oil will impact these environmentally sensitive areas.
  • The model can also run scenarios of what might happen if a hurricane or storm hits the area, such as how oil may be swept ashore and impact roads and other infrastructure, possibly affecting official evacuation plans, etc.
  • As well as providing predictions to federal and state officials, the UNC team plan to make the data available to other scientists and agencies to mine for details and potentially come up with other uses and practical applications for responding to the disaster.

Luettich is director of UNC’s Institute for Marine Sciences located in Morehead City, N.C. (where he is primarily based) and UNC’s Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters in Chapel Hill. He is also a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Web page: https://marine.unc.edu/people/faculty/rick-luettich/

John Bane, Ph.D., and Harvey Seim, Ph.D., are experts in ocean circulation and currents, including the Atlantic Gulf stream and the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current.

  • Can comment on the possibility that oil from the spill will be carried further afield, such as up the east coast of the United States.

Bane and Seim are marine sciences professors in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Impact on the environment/marine ecology

Joel Fodrie, Ph.D., can address estuarine fisheries and habitats throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico. He currently has research projects going on in the Gulf, where he has studied the population dynamics of fishes since 2006.

  • Fodrie’s research includes conducting large-scale, summer to fall fish surveys throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico, from the Florida panhandle to the Louisiana coast. He will be heading to the Gulf in mid-June and again in September to sample estuarine fisheries. He will be based at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab where he has conducted his research over the past four years.
  • His study of fish and habitat data will be available as “baseline data” for examining the effects of the oil spill on fishery production in the Gulf. His research is scheduled to continue over the next two years and should provide information on the impact of the accident.
  • In addition to these targeted experiments, he is beginning similar research in North Carolina.

Fodrie is a research assistant professor based at UNC’s Institute for Marine Sciences in Morehead City, N.C.
Web page: https://marine.unc.edu/people/faculty/f-joel-fodrie/

Michael Piehler, Ph.D., studies marshes and has also worked on the impacts of petroleum products on near shore ecosystems. He has published several papers on the effects of refined petroleum on native microbial communities and their potential to degrade petroleum hydrocarbons. His research covers a broad range of microbial systems including algae and bacteria living in both the sediments and water column.

  • Is currently working on a project to assess spill effects on shallow water estuarine communities.
  • Will be conducting a comparative oyster reef study from Florida to Virginia, including at some sites in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the possibility that the spill could affect those sites, he and other scientists are gathering pre-spill data to help understand the impact of the oil on those oyster reefs.

Piehler is an assistant professor based at UNC’s Institute for Marine Sciences in Morehead City, N.C.
Web page: https://marine.unc.edu/people/faculty/michael-piehler/

Andreas Teske, Ph.D., can discuss how tiny microbes present in sea water and on the ocean floor may be able to help clean up the oil spill. A microbial ecologist, Teske is an expert in microorganisms that live in extreme marine environments.

  • Using dozens of water and sediment samples taken in the Gulf in the wake of the BP spill, Teske and other researchers are conducting various experiments, such as identifying which microbes are present, how they are responding to the spill and other tests.
  • By testing artificial oil spills in the lab, researchers may be able to help determine strategies for triggering increases in microbial blooms that “eat” the oil.
  • Teske can talk about how hydrocarbon-eating microbes break down oil spills; their impact on previous spills; and the impact of other spills on marine environments.
  • Has several graduate students working in the Gulf on research expeditions studying the spill and the surrounding area.
  • Is collaborating with other researchers at UNC and elsewhere to propose various novel “rapid response” projects that could play a role in monitoring and tackling the Gulf disaster.

Teske is a professor of marine sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Web page: https://marine.unc.edu/people/faculty/andreas-teske/

Legal implications of the disaster

Victor Flatt, J.D., can address the legal liability of BP, Transocean and Halliburton for the damage caused by the blowout and oil spill, and other related issues including:

  • Potential criminal charges under the Oil Pollution Prevention Act.
  • Procedural issues, such as which courts will likely hear the cases.
  • The regulatory process and failures that allowed the licensing of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
  • The legal/policy proposed changes in offshore drilling and liability that have occurred in the wake of the oil spill.
  • The impact of the spill on likelihood and type of climate change regulation that may be coming.
  • How the proposed legal changes in offshore oil drilling could affect the North Carolina coast and economy.

Flatt is Thomas F. and Elizabeth Taft Distinguished Professor in Environmental Law in the UNC School of Law and director of the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources.
Web page: http://www.law.unc.edu/faculty/directory/flattvictorb/

Understanding underwater oil plumes

Fluid dynamics experts Richard McLaughlin, Ph.D., and Roberto Camassa, Ph.D., can explain why the oil spewing out of the BP spill is forming underwater plumes that are not rising to the surface.

  • This video from an experiment conducted in their laboratory (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Cp6fHINQ94) shows how a leak from turbulent jet (such as with the Gulf spill) is trapped underwater when it reaches a level where water density changes; however, a leak from a less turbulent jet is not trapped, and the oil rises to the surface.
  • Both researchers, along with students in their summer lab, have also analyzed video of the spill to estimate the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf.

McLaughlin and Camassa are mathematics professors in the College of Arts and Sciences. Camassa is also director of the Carolina Center for Interdisciplinary Applied Mathematics.
Web pages: https://amath.unc.edu/?people=richard-mclaughlin (McLaughlin); https://amath.unc.edu/?people=roberto-camassa (Camassa)

First-hand accounts of research expeditions

Luke McKay, marine science graduate student, can provide a first-hand account of one of the first research expeditions to visit the spill site and surrounding waters shortly after the disaster began to unfold. McKay is a second-year master’s student in Andreas Teske’s laboratory in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

  • Spent several days aboard the RV Pelican in early May, helping gather water and sediment samples. McKay was called up at short notice while travelling across the country; he detoured to Louisiana and joined the expedition as a geochemistry/microbiology sampling expert and liaison to shore-based investigators.
  • Can talk about the contamination he saw and the research carried out. McKay also took dozens of photographs during the expedition: samples are available at http://ar.gy/JT and http://ar.gy/JU; more are available upon request.
  • He and other researchers, both faculty and students, are now analyzing and conducting various experiments on the samples. Their studies will help determine what is happening to the marine environment in the Gulf and offer possible clues to help tackle the disaster.
  • Related website: https://sites.google.com/site/teskelab/Home/rapid-response-cruise-1

To find additional experts on related topics that are not included on this tip sheet, please go to our searchable experts database. http://uncexperts.dev.unc.edu/

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