More research needed



Until the gusher is shut off, there’s no way to calculate the damage to the Gulf, predict the cumulative effects or find effective ways to deal with it, a group of scientists told the Sun Herald this week.

One thing they do know is that more research is needed.

“I don’t think the clock has started,” said Dr. Bill Hawkins, director of USM’s Gulf Coast Research Lab. “I think it will start when this gusher is stopped. We can try to understand what’s happening, but not until the clock starts.”

Referring to satellite images of the spill, Dr. Mike Carron, director of the Northern Gulf Institute, said, “The surface part is getting bigger and bigger. … It’s not leaving the Gulf. It’s accumulating. This is a moving target.”

The Science Roundtable includes professors Vernon Asper and Steven Lohrenz, who is also chair, at the USM Department of Marine Sciences; Jim Franks, senior research scientist with the Research Lab; and Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center.

LaSalle said they still don’t know how much oil it takes to have an impact on a bird. There are no set levels.

“We don’t have good information,” he said. He said they do know that eating oil damages a bird’s gut, whether they’re coated with it or not.

Studying the oil spill has consumed these scientists’ time since late April and will continue to do so.

Carron described recovery as long-term.

“It’s not like you flush the toilet in the Gulf,” he said. “This stuff stays.”

And without known quantities of oil, “you’re just shooting in the dark,” he said.

Had they known earlier how much was gushing and where it was going, it would have changed the scientific response, Lohrenz said.

The group this week addressed whether it’s possible for Mississippi to dodge the bullet that is this mega spill, what a hurricane west of Mississippi would do, why the sinking oil is important and what currents in the Gulf are doing and why they have concerns about whale sharks, large fish and birds.

Early research

Two weeks into the spill, Asper found himself on a research vessel headed to deep water to map the floor of the Gulf.

Knowing BP had begun using dispersants to sink oil from the spill, they switched gears, grabbed tools and personnel and went looking for what the dispersant might be doing to the oil.

What they found stirred debate until recently, when other research vessels began to confirm large plumes of dispersed oil below the surface.

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