While NOAA is publicly backing down from the press reports of giant plumes of oil below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon spill, it is interesting to look at the research plans that NOAA previously put into place for dealing with oil spills. The most recent five year research plan from NOAA (pdf) has some interesting tidbits that relate to the ongoing spill and NOAA’s response, especially when it comes to the question of oil below the surface.

From the list of research goals, we have this on page 54 of the report:

8.4.4 Develop the information and tools to make reliable decisions in preparedness, response, damage assessment, and restoration. Thousands of incidents occur each year in which oil or chemicals are released into the coastal environment. Spills into our coastal waters, whether accidental or intentional, can harm people and the environment and cause substantial disruption of waterways with potential widespread economic impacts. In the U.S. alone, 3 million gallons are typically spilled into the water each year. Most of these spills are the result of human error, aging infrastructure, and/or bad weather. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita contributed to an estimated 8 million gallons of oil released into the coastal environment. The nation’s dependence on the marine transportation system creates an ongoing need to efficiently develop preparedness and response actions that reduce the risks of spills and minimize the impact on commerce, communities, and the environment when spills do occur.

Aside from the fact that commerce comes first in the list of impacts they wish to minimize (but, after all, NOAA is in the Department of Commerce), note that the research aim is to provide information that is to be used in preparation for spills and then for the response, which includes damage assessment and eventual restoration.

Incomprehensibly, although the primary location for US offshore drilling is the Gulf of Mexico (with Alaska also a coveted target), the NOAA Coastal Response Research Center is located…at the University of New Hampshire. It is in the description of response technologies that we find the blueprint for the response to the current disaster:

The use of alternative response technologies (e.g., in situ burning or the use of dispersants) remains an area of active research. There are two recent examples of how the use of alternative response technologies has been applied to improve response capabilities and reduce impacts to resources.

1) In situ burning was applied to an oiled marsh that resulted from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The burn resulted in removal of 80-90% of the oil from the marsh, enabling a faster recovery of the marsh environment. Post-burn monitoring studies have documented recovery, and have provided a baseline for further research in understanding long-term recovery. This effort directly affected other sites, and set a precedent for using ISB for other Katrina/Rita-related spills.

2) CRRC and the State of California leveraged resources to fund researchers to develop improved methods for modeling, monitoring, and assessing damage associated with dispersing oil. This effort has measured horizontal and vertical diffusion using synoptic remote-sensing, fluorometry, and GPS-integrated drifters and drogues using fluorescent dye mixed to simulate chemical dispersion as the tracer of horizontal and vertical micro-scale water movement. This study will directly improve NOAA’s 3-D modeling capabilities and will refine the protocol for monitoring dispersed oil.

Note especially that the analysis of dispersion is looking both at vertical and horizontal movement of the oil.

Here is an illustration from the discussion of dispersion research:

dispersion experiment

The NOAA caption for the photo:

Figure 8.5. Building on capabilities developed in the recent past, a fluorescein dye solution, mixed to a density and concentration to simulate a dispersed oil plume, was deployed during the 2006 Safe Seas exercise. The horizontal and vertical micro-scale movements of water were successfully measured, supplying needed data that will improve 3-D modeling capabilities and will refine the protocal [sic] for monitoring dispersed oil.

Perhaps the most important passage of the report is found on page 56, where there is a discussion of the issue of oil moving beneath the surface of the water:

With the growing usage of heavier crude oils and refined products, the percentage of non-buoyant oil spills has increased over the last decade. Nonfloating oils provide response challenges significantly different than for floating oils. Technology for tracking and predicting the behavior of submerged oil remains in its infancy. Currently, there does not exist robust and effective ways to remotely detect sunken oils under realistic field conditions nor sufficiently understand its ultimate fate. The lack of detection, monitoring, and modeling capabilities hampers effective protection, containment, and recovery of submerged oil. NOAA is working with the USCG and CRRC to develop an integrated and effective research strategy to improve modeling, detection, and monitoring capabilities for submerged oil.

What is NOAA doing now to increase data collection in light of the preliminary observation that significant quantities of oil may be moving beneath the surface from the Deepwater Horizon gusher?

Finally, I would note in passing that NOAA also appears to have engaged social scientists to help with the issue of information management during spill disasters:

In addition, NOAA has identified the societal, economic, and cultural consequences of spills and associated response activities on affected communities as a high priority for research. Specific project topics have been identified as a result of a recent workshop where a diverse group of social and natural scientists, responders, impacted parties, and potential responsible parties worked together to delineate research needs for improved understanding and effective response to: subsistence, social impacts, response organization impacts, risk communications, and environmental ethics issues. This area of research has the potential to greatly affect commerce and transportation by revolutionizing the response organization.

And again, in the context of social impact and risk communication, the almighty commerce comes first in the NOAA list of impacts that are important. But is the distancing from admitting there is submerged oil dispersing from the current leak and the communication to the team that discovered the submerged oil they should stop giving press interviews part of the management of the social impact of risk communication? What role are the "potential responsible parties" playing in the current risk communication strategy?

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