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Risks of Deep-water Oil Exploration

Jake Nelson in the SEER lab

Jake Nelson in the SEER lab

Gulf of Mexico map

The Gulf of Mexico contains thousands of active drill platforms (purple dots). Many drill platforms occur in shallow waters, but with more and more drilling occurring, the quest for oil continues to expand to deeper waters. Image: Jake Nelson.

Blue crab defending itself

Blue crab defending itself. The blue crab, one of the 'canary' species to be used for the risk assessment model, is so named because of its blue-tinted claws. Its shell is a mottled brownish color, and mature females have red highlights on the tips of their pincers. Prized for their meat, these crustaceans are found in brackish coastal lagoons and estuaries from Nova Scotia, through the Gulf of Mexico, and as far south as Uruguay. These bottom-dwelling omnivores have a prickly disposition and are quick to use their sharp front pincers. Blue crabs are extremely sensitive to environmental and habitat changes. Photo: NOAA.

Overall modeling problem

The overall modeling problem. To assess risk and impact of a future oil spill, the model must include a number of components. Graphic: Jim Graham.

February 15, 2013

A year ago, Jake Nelson was winding up his degree in Environmental Sciences with a minor in Fisheries and Wildlife. A background in GIS and a willingness to inquire about an undergraduate research project has now led him in an unexpected direction. Jake is now working toward a Master's degree in Jim Graham's SEER lab (Spatial Environmental Energy Research) assessing potential risk and impact of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the one that occurred with British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon.

While taking Environmental Sciences classes, Jake realized the importance and impact of GIS. He noted, "With GIS, you could represent spatial relationships between people and their environment in a map that people could understand in an impactful way."

After that realization, he took introductory classes (GEO 301, Map and Image Interpretation; GEO 360, Cartography; and GEO 365, Introduction to Geographic Information Systems). Then one day his friend, Kaylyn Van Ackeren, told him that Assistant Professor Graham was looking for GIS interns. After talking with Graham and being interested in internship, they each took his GEO 565 course, Geographic Information Systems and Science, to show what they could do.

Jake's demonstration project in Geo 565 was a large poster of the Gulf of Mexico, showing maps of oil infrastructure data, fish habitats, ocean depth, and other information. "There are over 6500 active oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. These overlap significantly with essential fish habitats as designate by NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There is a big potential for an oil spill to interact with those habitats, with negative consequences."

As a result of his work, his professor offered Jake a Graduate Research Associate position in a Master's program in Geography. Jake will work on a risk assessment model for deep and ultra-deep ocean drilling (2,500 to 10,000 feet), in collaboration with the Department of Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany, Oregon. Geologist Kelly Rose of DOE is principal investigator.

The model being developed will be a spatially-explicit population model for estuary-dependent species.

Lawrence Sim, another GRA at the SEER lab, is developing the plume and transport model to plume the oil out of the well and transport it across the surface in a realistic fashion (incorporating wind turbulence, currents, tides, etc.) to the shores.

Jake will work on modeling the habitat for four 'canary' species: brown shrimp, blue crab, Gulf Menhaden, and a finned fish that is yet to be determined. (The term canary comes from the practice of early coal miners to bring a caged canary into mines to detect dangerous gas build-ups.) The four species are selected for their own importance and to stand in for a number of other species with which they share characteristics. For example, during their life cycle, brown shrimp go from estuaries into the open ocean and back again. If an oil spill were to occur, it would start affecting age cohorts of the shrimp. Blue crabs (whose Latin name means 'beautiful savory swimmer') are sensitive to environmental changes and are an important commercial fishery in the Gulf. Gulf Menhaden is a small (8?12") filter feeding fish that spawns offshore; its eggs and larvae are carried into estuaries.

With models components of the plume, transport and fisheries habitat, researchers will be able to start testing scenarios of how oil well blowouts at different locations and of differing magnitudes will impact the four species. Jake notes, "An oil spill in Texas could have different consequences than the Deepwater Horizon spill. We'll be able to model how oil interacts with essential species habitats and then see what proportion of these species would be interacting with a toxic level of oil and thus would die off."

There is already a need for better, higher quality models, not only to see where the oil will likely go but also to estimate the possible impacts to species in the system. The information from this study will be of value to policy makers, oil spill response and cleanup teams, and environmental managers.

When asked what he sees himself doing in the future, Jake says, "Being in the academic environment is really nice; I could be a Research Assistant for the rest of my life. Federal jobs and state jobs are a possibility. Every day I see new jobs popping up with a GIS component–in the food industry, oil industries, USGS, geology–all sorts of jobs. Being able to work with GIS is becoming a really sought-after skill."

For OSU undergraduates, Jake notes that GIS classes are melting pots of academic disciplines. In addition to majors in Earth Sciences and Environmental Sciences, there is an influx of students majoring in Public Health, Engineering, Forestry, and other areas.

Jake's advice to undergraduates? "Put yourself out there. When I started doing research, I was scared because my understanding of GIS tools wasn't as much as, say, a graduate student. But as you start working with real data and real problems, the tools become a lot more familiar and applicable. You get a much better understanding of the impact you could be having. It's been pretty fun."