Oil spill creates research opportunity for students

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By Mike Bell – News Editor

The Deep Horizon oil spill has caused an as-yet immeasurable amount of damage to Florida’s ecology and economy, but for U. North Florida’s coastal biology program, and ones like it across the state, the tragedy has also become a teachable moment.In light of the tragic spill, research funding from BP and an increased awareness regarding coastal issues may strengthen biology departments in state universities, said director of coastal biology, Courtney Hackney.

BP has dispersed about $10 million for research to the state-funded Florida Institute of Oceanography.

The institute comprises several universities and some non-for-profit research groups and was created to give students field research experience while in college.

The $10 million will fund immediate research to establish a standard for comparison in areas which the oil has yet to affect.

Without baseline data about marine life in areas where oil could spread, scientists would not be able to gauge how severely the oil affects a population.

Baseline data facilitates research and streamlines any future litigation that will arise over the spill.

“For instance, people have said ‘ok, all these populations have been affected by the Exxon Valdez, whereas Exxon said: Well. you don’t know that,'” Gelsleichter said.

In some cases, increasing research opportunities may spill over into the private sector.

“If I get one of these grants, I’ll have to hire extra people. All my students have projects; there’s no body left to work on these kinds of projects,” he said.

Newly created research opportunities will nonetheless be a boon for UNF coastal biology. Students will do about 90% of the research that UNF has proposed to the FIO, Hackney said.

Some schools have committed money to begin research before the FIO distributes grants in a few weeks.

Joe Butler, department chair and biology professor, has already begun research with students in the gulf.

Hackney said even a three-month-old deep sea oil geyser can have its silver lining, if only a glint.

“This just brings home the points that the people working on the coast have been saying,” he said. “We don’t know enough about the coast to know what’s there, much less the damage caused by something like a spill.”

With better regulation, the EPA could have prevented the use of oil dispersants, which cause more harm by allowing oil to mix with water and distribute evenly throughout the water table, Hackney said.

If the oil was on the surface, like it was before dispersants were added, it would be easy to calculate the spill’s impact, but scientists do not know enough about the gulf currents to estimate where deep-water oil will travel, he said.

“It’s the unknown part of this that scares us the most,” Hackney said.

As the spill’s long term effects surface, so will more opportunities for funded research.

Gelsleichter expects BP to pump out another $90 million to $100 million for long term research.

He said he plans on teaching a class on environmental toxicology. Students will utilize baseline samples Gelsleichter’s colleagues have collected and toxic samples being collected right now for lab work and to complete research.

Florida State legislators almost disbanded the FIO two years ago, but the spill has brought a renewed awareness and, with that, university funding.

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