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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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One step away
June 8, 2024

Aggies study effects of spill

John Kessler, professor of oceanography, shed new light on the effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and captured the attention of international news media with his research on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Kessler and a team of graduate students are studying the natural gas that is being released by the oil spill and its effects on the marine environment. Kessler returned from received $160,000 from the National Science Foundation.
“The objective of our cruise is to study the natural gas component of the oil spill, predominantly methane, which is estimated by BP scientists to be about 40 percent of the material escaping the broken pipe,” Kessler said in a “Scientific American” blog about his research. “Methane is potent greenhouse gas and a possible contributor to the loss of dissolved oxygen from the Gulf.”
Levels of methane were found to be approximately normal in the surface waters of the Gulf, but tests of deeper water told a different story.
“Below approximately 1,000 meters, the concentration of natural gas and methane in the ocean waters jumps by a factor of one million,” Kessler said. “The ramifications of this are the topics of our current studies.”
Microorganisms that feed on methane and other natural gases have been known to cause annual “dead zones” in the Gulf, patches of oxygen-depleted water that can result in the death of all marine wildlife in the area. In addition to testing the distribution of natural gases in the waters of the Gulf, the research team also investigated their effects on the reduction of oxygen and the bacteria that consume them.
Kessler and his team of graduate students sailed from Gulfport, Miss. on June 12 on the research vessel Cape Hatteras, which is operated by the oceanography departments of Duke University and the University of North Carolina. They were joined by David Valentine, a professor of geochemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The team spent long hours sampling the waters of the Gulf, searching for clues that would indicate how much gas was being released by the broken pipe and what effects it was having on the environment.
“After several days of waiting, we were given a period of 24 hours to sample the area around the broken pipe on June 16,” Valentine said. “We sampled for 24 hours straight that day, even though we had all been awake for almost 12 hours already.”
Kessler, Valentine and other members of the team chronicled their time in the Gulf with a blog on the website of Scientific American magazine. A Discovery Channel film crew was also on-site to shoot footage for a special about the team’s research, and Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey was onboard to document their work. In addition, NBC Nightly News, the BBC and an Austrian television network have also scheduled interviews with Kessler and his team.
Kessler said his team is thankful for the once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity provided by the oil spill, but their excitement is tempered by the environmental effects of the disaster.
“It’s great to have this opportunity to study a unique geological phenomenon like this,” said Eric Chan, doctoral student in the oceanography department, “But seeing the water covered in oil like this truly is a disheartening scene.”

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