Research team checks "flow" around oil spill site

Devices called "drifters" are the primary instruments in this oil spill-related research.
Devices called "drifters" are the primary instruments in this oil spill-related research.

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Scientists are tossing strange-looking devices into the waters around the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site.

It's part of a half-million dollar research effort looking at ocean flow.

The research team is based at the University of Miami. Their three week experiment, funded by BP through the Gulf of Mexico Initiative, is looking at how gulf waters move at the surface.

The information they gather could be very useful in the future.

"We have 300 of these that we're putting out," said one of the researchers, pointing to a strange looking contraption on deck.

Devices called "drifters" are the primary instruments in this oil spill-related research. The rather basic contraptions look a bit like PVC pipe with sails attached.

The only high-tech attachment is a small GPS monitoring device.

"We're heavily focused on physical processes in the ocean. And what we're really trying to understand are what drives transport. What moves things through the ocean," explained Dr. Bruce Lipphardt, one of the oceanographers involved with the experiment.

The team deployed 90 "drifters" over the past week. They're passed off the large research vessel to teams on smaller work boats.

Once dropped in the water, around the spill site, the drifters will "go with the flow" of the ocean.

"If you throw drifting things into the water, those legrangian things give us the ability to measure all sorts of things: Temperature, salinity, position. As the flow is evolving. That's an important distinction," said Dr. Lipphardt.

It seems existing models of ocean flow, at least in the area where the oil spill happened, were notoriously unreliable.

Dr. Tamay Ozgokmen is the project director.

"We were looking at the ocean models day in, day out. And they were effectively wrong day in, day out," Dr. Ozgokmen said about checking existing models at the time of the oil spill.

Granted, it's a complex challenge to effectively predict the flow of an ocean. Updating the models applies not only to oil spills.

"We have the oil spill in mind, but it has direct applicability to harmful algae blooms and search and rescue problems and any number of other coastal environmental crises," said Dr. Lipphardt.

Deploying more than 300 drifters is unprecedented. Most studies use just 10 to 20 devices.

"The ocean moves, as I expressed before. It changes a lot. In scientific terms, it has a lot of degrees of freedom. And to catch all of these, you need like detectives watching all the motion," said Dr. Ozgokmen.

The research team visited the Port of Gulfport Monday morning to re-fuel and pick-up supplies. They deployed 90 of the "drifters" over the past week and will deploy 180 more this week.

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