USM marine scientist: Oil spill impact could last a decade - - The News for South Mississippi

USM marine scientist: Oil spill impact could last a decade

Photo Source: Dr. Vernon Asper Photo Source: Dr. Vernon Asper

By Steve Phillips – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - USM's Dr. Vernon Asper is keeping a close watch on the oil spill and its impact. The marine scientist  has twice visited the Deepwater Horizon well site on research trips.

The focus of Dr. Asper's research has been sub surface" oil; those so-called "oil plumes." But, as he explains, another term besides plume provides a much better description.

"We figure that people from airplanes and using satellite imagery, they can study the surface oil. If you're out there on a ship, you ought to do something nobody else can do, so we're studying the sub surface oil. Plus, we're oceanographers and we have the equipment to do that," said Dr. Vernon Asper. "So we were studying the oil that's just below the surface and the oil that's way down there, thousands of feet down there. And that's the most interesting I think."

He says those "oil plumes"deep beneath the surface would be better described as "clouds."  Just as clouds in the sky consist of tiny droplets of water, the undersea clouds have tiny droplets of oil.

"What happens is as the oil is being ejected from the well at high pressure with all the gas mixed in with it, it kind of forms this oil mist in the water. And these particles, because they're so small, they rise up until they reach a neutral buoyancy level and they spread out, just the way water droplets do in clouds," he said.

"Regarding these plumes or clouds of oil, a lot of people want to say there's more oil down there than is on the surface and it's this great big catastrophe waiting to happen. I don't view it that way. I think the concentrations down there are really, really small. They're in the parts per billion range. And that's a small concentration. On the other hand, if these clouds are very large, that can still be a lot of oil," the researcher says.

With hurricane season now underway, some people have expressed serious concerns about what might happen if a hurricane should mix with the oil spill. Dr. Asper believes that's a legitimate worry.

"You look at what Katrina did without oil.  You take even a moderate storm with a little bit of a storm surge and you bring that oil in on the marsh, you push it ahead of the storm, and it could be pretty bad," said Dr. Asper.

With so much oil now affecting Louisiana's marshes and covering wildlife there, we asked Dr. Asper if it's only a matter of time before Mississippi faces a similar fate.

"I don't think anything is inevitable. It's been six weeks now, so it's quite possible we'll be entirely spared. We can hope and pray for the best," he said.

During two research trips to the oil spill site, Dr. Asper was struck by the strong odor of the leaking oil and its appearance.

"The different types of oil you see out there. When the oil is really thick, it's this black syrupy stuff. When it gets a little weathered and a little mixed with the water, then it turns brown. Then sometimes with dispersants in it, it turns orange," he described.

Dr. Asper has been studying sub-surface oil, the so-called plumes.  And while BP may have denied their existence, Dr. Asper says the company's own research describes the plumes.

"They did some experiments. There's a thing called Project Deep Spill+". And if you look at their results, their results predicted there would be a plume at about this depth with about this composition. And so we didn't just stumble on this, we went out looking for it because we expected it to be there," he said.

Dr. Asper and fellow researchers believe Mother Nature will help decompose those underwater "plumes" or "clouds" of oil over time.

Regarding the use of dispersants, Dr. Asper says he's solidly "on the fence."  The main benefit is breaking down the surface oil.

"On the other hand, we don't know much about the dispersants. We don't know what their toxicity is, how long they last, we don't know what other effects they have. We don't know getting them into the food chain, what that's going to do," he explained.

Along with his marine science career, Dr. Asper is also chairman of the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources, a board he's served on for 16 years.

WLOX News asked him about Mississippi's response to the oil spill and the ongoing efforts to protect our shore line.

"I think they're doing a great job. We've got lots of boats. And BP is spending a lot of money on surveillance. There are lots of people out there just driving around looking for the oil, so as soon as somebody sees it anywhere, they can pounce on it with skimmer boats. I just can't see anything else we could possibly be doing," he said.

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