Eckerd students complete their second research cruise in the Gulf with a focus on oil spill recovery
For the second straight year, students at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg went aboard a research vessel to take samples from the Gulf of Mexico this past spring.
Between May 22 and June 2, about 25 students transited to the northern Gulf as part of the Scientist at Sea program. They were exposed to cruise-based field science while continuing to monitor the health of the Gulf after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Eckerd’s partners and collaborators for this project include the University of South Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Tampa Bay Watch, State of Florida Institute of Oceanography, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Thea Rind, a sophomore majoring in marine science, said learning aboard the Research Vessel Weatherbird II was a unique opportunity. She worked the night shift, pulling sediment from the Gulf.
"I learned so much from that experience,” she said. “It meant so much to be able to be part of that and to see how the research gets done behind the scenes."
And as part of the Scientist at Sea class, Rind also studied data collected between 2015 and 2016.
She focused on single-celled microorganisms in the sediment called benthic foraminifera, which are used as bio-indicators of health.
"So, I've actually found that the ecological status, which is kind of how the area can support life has actually gone down, which is surprising because it's had an extra year to recover from the oil spill," she said.
Rind hypothesizes that nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River could be also be affecting spots already impacted by the 2010 BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill.
During the Scientist at Sea Symposium hosted by Tampa Bay Watch in December, her study and poster were recognized.
Rind said she'd love to continue this study by creating a map for the years since 2016.
Dara Balter and Jackson Tunehim
Dara Balter and Jackson Tunheim, both juniors majoring in marine biology, were also awarded for their look into benthic foraminifera.
Studying samples of certain abundant species between 2011 and 2022, they noted how the microorganisms changed over time: how their numbers fluctuated and how their species diversity changed within different depths.
“We're realizing that they all didn't experience the same thing past the oil spill. Some fared better, some didn't," said Balter.
“We are hypothesizing based on our graphs that there could be competition between benthic foraminifera. And if it's not competition, it could be one species thrived better than the other after the oil spill."
But she said it's really hard to draw conclusions because benthic foraminifera were not catalogued in these areas prior to the spill.
Tunheim said their project was part of a continued effort at Eckerd for the last decade or so.
“We're building a core bank, and we're building a better understanding [of] the environmental response to this oil spill …and learning how to better respond to incidents in the future, and we now know what the recovery period is like if we keep working on this,” he said.
Balter said she was “blessed” with the day shift on the boat, but felt like she was on a TV show when a storm hit causing 10-foot swells.
“They were huge, sideways rain, and we're out there operating all of our stuff and taking our samples. It was such an awesome experience. It made me have this personal connection to the work I was doing,” she said.
On the research vessel, junior Rachel Flickinger was trained on a water filtration system studying water radioisotopes – they're just radioactive versions of chemicals in the ocean.
"There isn't a lot of research on water radioisotopes in the Gulf of Mexico at all, so our goal was mostly just to like, get a baseline for what's there," she said.
The oil drilling process releases contaminated water containing radioactive materials, Flickinger said.
So, she decided to track particular radioisotopes to try tracing that contamination.
Flickinger said hopes other students build on this first data set in years to come.
Eckerd presented her with the Presidential Outstanding Poster Award.
Flickinger also had the night shift while out on the water.
“We saw a lot of cool stuff … like glow in the dark jellyfish off the side, and like dolphins and sharks and like the squid that like would eat the flying fish ... It was just very neat to be out in the middle of the ocean like that,” she said.
Rosalie Cruikshank, a junior who’s double majoring in marine science and environmental studies, broke her arm a week before Eckerd’s voyage so she missed it, but she did get to join the U.S. Geological Survey on its cruise in November to the northern Gulf off the coast of Louisiana to collect sediment samples.
For the past five months or so, she has been helping USGS with old sediment samples from 2008 to 2020, but she got to actually collect fresh samples on this recent trip.
“It was really cool to see that beginning part of the process. And then, it was my first time being on a research cruise. I was a little worried about getting seasick, but luckily, I didn't,” she said.
Cruikshank was recognized for her research on the long-term time series particulate flux… flux is just an amount of material over a certain area over a given amount of time. She essentially helped collect sediments falling in the middle of the water column.
“And from that, we just measured the total amount of mass in the samples, the and then the composition of calcium carbonate, biogenic silica, particulate nitrogen, and organic carbon,” she said.
She said it’s important to have a long-term time series to help minimize the impacts of weather events.
“In some of my data, we saw that from year-to-year, there were really big variations in the fluxes. And so having such a long-term time series that kind of averages them out and gives you a better idea of what the climate is over time instead of being impacted by like bigger weather events, and it's important to establish the time series to evaluate against future environmental change,” she said.
Cruikshank said she plans to continue working with USGS, writing up some of this work and eventually publish a paper on it.
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