Jeff Baguley, a faculty member in the College of Science, has been studying the soft-sediment ecosystem of the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico since 2000. His expertise and research has come in handy for his role as a member of a team studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill of 2010. Their results were published recently in the online scientific journal PloS One.
The paper is the first to give comprehensive results of the spill's effect on deep-water communities at the base of the food chain, in the soft-bottom muddy habitats of the Gulf of Mexico. The team specifically sampled biological community structure and measure of contamination simultaneously using a device called a multicorer.
"The tremendous biodiversity of meiofauna in the deep-sea area of the Gulf of Mexico we studied has been reduced dramatically," Baguley, an ecologist in the department of biology, said. He is an expert on meiofauna, small invertebrates - microscopic animals such as nematode worms and copepod crustaceans - that range in size from 0.042 to 0.300 millimeters and live in both marine and fresh water.
"Nematode worms have become the dominant animal group at sites we sampled that were impacted by the oil," he said. "So though the overall number of meiofauna may not have changed much, it's that we've lost the incredible biodiversity. It could take decades for the ecosystem to recover."
When the results of the bottom sampling were announced to the media, in a joint news release with his collaborators, the project received national and international attention with news articles in publications along the Gulf Coast, science and environmental publications and as far away as Great Britain.
"Research such as this is a great example of how the University interacts on a national level with research that makes an impact," Jeff Thompson, dean of the College of Science, said. "Jeff's ongoing projects are impressive and illustrate to students - and the community - the important role science has in our society."
The research team, including members from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and representatives from BP, spent two months taking core samples at each of 168 stations covering much of northern Gulf of New Mexico. The data from 68 of those stations is reported in the present manuscript, and the authors used statistical procedures to reduce an enormous data set to a single number that represents oil spill impacts.
In his work on the Deepwater Horizon impacts, Baguley is a member of the official NOAA Natural Resource Damage Assessment, one of the trustees working for the government and part of the Deepwater Benthic Technical Working Group.
He is a co-principal investigator on the research project and one of the authors of the PLoS One paper, along with the lead principal investigator Paul Montagna Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
"As the principal investigators, we were tasked with determining what impacts might have occurred to the sea floor from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill," Montagna said. "We developed an innovative approach to combine tried and true classical statistical techniques with state of the art mapping technologies to create a map of the footprint of the oil spill."
The researchers used chemical analysis to look for signatures of DWH oil, while simultaneously counting and identifying species of meiofauna and macrofauna (slightly larger, but still small animals such as polychaete worms). In this way, the presence of oil and drilling-related compounds could be compared with the number of deep-sea animal groups present and the abundance of different organisms.
"Normally, when we investigate offshore drilling sites, we find pollution within 300 to 600 yards from the site," Montagna said. "This time it was nearly two miles from the wellhead, with identifiable impacts more than ten miles away. The effect on bottom of the vast underwater plume is something which, until now, no one was able to map. This study shows the devastating effect the spill had on the sea floor itself, and demonstrates the damage to important natural resources."
The oil spill and plume covered almost 360 square miles with the most severe reduction of biological abundance and biodiversity impacting an area about nine square miles around the wellhead, and moderate effects seen 57 square miles around the wellhead.
Baguley said more detailed investigations are underway that will provide information on the how the deep-sea communities have responded to the oil spill and if community structure is changing over time.
"This is not yet a complete picture," said Cynthia Cooksey, NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science lead scientist for the spring 2011 cruise to collect additional data from the sites sampled in fall 2010. "We are now in the process of analyzing data collected from a subsequent cruise in the spring of 2011. Those data will not be available for another year, but will also inform how we look at conditions over time."
The research team, which included members from University of Nevada, Reno, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, is conducting the research for the Technical Working Group of the NOAA-directed Natural Resource Damage Assessment.
Others working on the study with Montagna, Baguley and Cooksey were NOAA scientists Ian Hartwell and Jeffrey Hyland.
The PLoS One paper can be found at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070540.