NOAA starts baseline sampling for oil spill assessment

25 May 2010
Satellite image of Gulf of Mexico oil extent taken 23 May, 2010. (Photo: NOAA)

Satellite image of Gulf of Mexico oil extent taken 23 May, 2010. (Photo: NOAA)

Data of unaffected waters is critical to measuring ecological impact of Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In response to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, NOAA’s Mussel Watch programme has mobilised three teams of scientists to test shellfish, sediment and water at 60 locations along the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida Keys to Brazos River, Texas.

The mission of this Mussel Watch effort is to collect additional baseline data on contamination in strategic areas of the Gulf shoreline so that if the oil hits a particular area, new samples can be taken that would reveal the full impact of the spill.

These preliminary samples will be tested for 60 oil-related compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). NOAA will use this data as part of the natural resources damage assessment that determines the type and amount of restoration that is required for the Gulf.

Mussel Watch has been monitoring contamination along the nation’s coasts for more than 25 years, and has long-term data on the Gulf of Mexico that will also be used to assess the effects of the oil spill.

The programme’s name refers to scientists’ use of shellfish to test for ambient contamination. When shellfish feed, they filter water through their bodies. Any contaminants present in the water concentrate in their tissues. This gives researchers a good idea of what is present in the water and also what is entering the food chain.  

Using small boats close to shore, or in some cases wading through water to pry shellfish off of shallow reefs, scientists have been working 12 hours or more each day to collect samples before oiling occurs. 

“We are working virtually non-stop to ensure we’re prepared for any scenario,” said Terry McTigue, one of the Mussel Watch researchers.  “We have to keep going, making sure we are maintaining the scientific integrity of our samples.”

Oil from the BP spill has a unique chemical “fingerprint” of constituent PAHs and other compounds that should allow Mussel Watch researchers to distinguish contamination from the spill from that coming from other sources.

The most recent NASA MODIS satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico shows the extent of the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The image was taken on 23 May, 2010. The oil can be seen as a sheen on the water surface. It is especially evident when the angle of the sun's light that is reflected off of the ocean surface is equal to the viewing angle of the satellite - called sunglint. Areas of oil contamination outside of the sunglint are not as noticeable.

 An arm of the spill is seen moving through the center of the image - this is due to some of the oil being entrained in the surface currents of the Gulf of Mexico, specifically the Loop Current.

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