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UT researcher investigates Deepwater Horizon oil spill impact on coast
Date:9/12/2011

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico, Annette Engel, associate professor in earth and planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, grabbed all the lab materials she could spare and headed down to the Louisiana coast.

Engel and dozens of scientists from across the country pooled their resources to conduct research they knew would be needed once the oil began spilling into the Gulf to determine what the coastal ecosystems were like before the inevitable spill. It took almost three months for the well to be capped.

Now, Engel and her fellow researchers, led by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), will be able to finish what they started with a three-year $12 million grant to study the effects of the spill on coastal ecosystems. The award is from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI), an independent research program and board established by British Petroleum, the White House and the governors of the five Gulf Coastal states.

Traveling along the coast by boat and by foottaking samples of water, sediment, grasses, oysters, fish and insectsthe team of researchers are evaluating the changes in the quality and quantity of oil, how the oil altered aquatic sediment and wetland soil stability, and the impacts that environmental stressors like oil have had on the coastal ecosystems and commercial fisheries.

"Our examination starts at the microbial level," said Engel. "Microbes can efficiently break down different compounds in oil by consuming oxygen. But removal of oxygen from already low-oxygen environments like wetland soil can create stress for grass roots, for example. If the marsh grass dies, insects disappear, and birds do not come around. Grass die-off can also lead to lower soil strength and marsh shoreline erosion. So, you have these cascading stress effects, all because oil was introduced into the ecosystem."

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Contact: Whitney Holmes
wholmes7@utk.edu
865-974-5460
University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Source:Eurekalert

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