Society & Culture

Media Advisory: UGA Experts Available to discuss Gulf Oil Spill

Athens, Ga. – Several scientists at the University of Georgia are at the forefront of the response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The experts below are available to the news media for comment on the following topics:

Deepwater plumes in the Gulf of Mexico
Samantha Joye
Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Office phone: 706/542-5893
Lab phone: 706/542-6818

Joye and her team were aboard a NOAA-sponsored research cruise that discovered a deepwater plume estimated to be more than 15 miles long, 5 miles wide and some 300 feet thick at depths ranging from approximately 2,300 feet to 4,200 feet. From May 25 through June 6, her team is on a National Science Foundation research expedition to better understand and map the plume and to determine whether others exist. Joye is updating the public on her findings through a blog,, and has limited access to e-mail aboard the R/V F.G. Walton Smith.She returns to the university on Tuesday, June 8.

“Our objective is to conduct a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the deepwater plumes that were discovered on the Pelican cruise two weeks ago,” she notes. “We will be further documenting the plume’s distribution as well as measuring microbialactivity and a suite of geochemical constituents.”

Fate and consequences of spilled oil in the surface ocean
Bill Miller
Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Director, University of Georgia Marine Institute at Sapelo Island
Office Phone:706/542-4299

Miller studies marine photochemistry, or the effect of solarenergy on organic and inorganicchemical reactions in the ocean. Using samplesfrom the both surface waters and the subsurface oil plume taken from the spill zone, he isstudying the rate at whichsunlight degrades and weathers oil. This includes examining the release of products produced when oil breaks down in terms of potentially toxic substances in the water and gaseous products that will contaminate the atmosphere above the ocean.

“The weathering and breakdown of oil by sunlight in the surface ocean is a natural process that will certainly play a part in the fate of this massive oil spill in the Gulf,” Miller said. “The important questions we plan to address concern the rate of photochemical breakdown relative to the rate at which the oil is being added to the Gulf and exactly what the impacts of photochemical breakdown products for a catastrophic spill this large might be.”

James T. Hollibaugh
Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Office Phone:706/542-5868

Hollibaugh is a biological oceanographer who studies microbial activity in the sea, including the role of marine microbes in the breakdown of organic matter. He has worked in marine environments from the poles to the tropics.

“Marine bacteria are ultimately the principal agents responsible for removing spilled hydrocarbons from the ocean,” he said. “This biological process is aided by photodegradation – sunlight – that transforms indigestible oil to biodegradable material, and by volatilization that removes low molecular weight hydrocarbons. The denser tar that is left is less toxic then newly spilled oil and is degraded slowly over time by the teamwork of bacteria and sunlight.”

Ocean currents and their potential to spread oil from the spill to the East Coast
Renato Castelao
Assistant professor, Department of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Office phone: 706/542-2422

Castelao studies the dynamics of currents and the transport of materials in the ocean. He can discuss the potential for currents to carry oil from the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

“It is possible for the oil to be carried to the East Coast by the Loop Current and the Gulf Stream, especially if oil continues to be spilled for much longer,” Castelao said. “If that does occur, however, the oil would be found at about 60 miles from the Georgia Coast in the Gulf Stream, and a series of environmental conditions would have to be met in order for the oil to be transported all the way to the coast. But that is definitely a possibility.”

Potential impact on Georgia’s coastal ecosystems
Charles Hopkinson
Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Director, Georgia Sea Grant Program
Office phone: 706/542-1855 or 706/542-6009

Hopkinson studies coastal ecology and can discuss potential impacts of oil on Georgia’s coast. As the director of the state’s Sea Grant Program, he is leading an effort to gather input from the southeast’s top physical oceanographers and hydrodynamicists on how oil could be transported from the Gulf of Mexico to the South Atlantic Bight and what scenarios could carry oil to our beaches and estuaries.

“Fortunately, the likelihood of oil reaching Georgia’s shoreline is very slim,” Hopkinson said, “and if it does get here it is probably going to be very dilute. But that doesn’t mean that oil dissolved in the water might not be coming around-and that could affect the basis of the food web in offshore hardbottoms, our beaches and our coastal marshes and estuaries.”

Impact of oil on marshes and wetlands
Merryl Alber
Professor of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Director, Georgia Coastal Research Council
Office phone:706/542-5966
Lab phone: 706/542-1467

Alber is principal investigator of the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research project, which has conducted studies of the marshes and estuaries of the Georgia coast for nearly a decade. The project is in position to determine whether there are any changes in the plants and animals of the coast in response to the oil. As part of this, co-investigator Steve Pennings (University of Houston) has study sites at multiple places along the Gulf and Atlantic coast (including several on Sapelo Island, on the Georgia coast) that he plans to resample in August 2010 to evaluate the potential effects of oil on arthropod food webs.

“We hope that the oil will not affect the marshes of Georgia, but if there are impacts the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research Project is in place to detect and evaluate those effects,” Alber said.