Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NOAA Sends Two Ships to Study Loop Current and Coastal Florida Waters

A NOAA research ship and a university-owned vessel left Miami this week to begin two complementary studies gathering data on the Loop Current and area ecosystems in response to the Deepwater Horizon / BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster begins today (June 30) a two-week survey in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits. Nancy Foster is one of six NOAA-owned ships supporting the oil spill response effort. Scientists from NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami and the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center will lead the expedition to track where the oil has been and to determine where it may go. So far, oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill has not entered the Loop Current.

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.
 NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.
Credit: NOAA

Scientists will examine the presence of oil, dispersants and tar balls in the water column and collect zooplankton samples in areas affected by the spill. Scientists will also identify and count types of fish larvae found at different depths of the upper ocean.

“Our historical data and newer information will help evaluate any impact in the future, particularly as the bimonthly sampling continues,” said Michelle Wood, director of the Ocean Chemistry Division of NOAA’s AOML.

In addition, the Nancy Foster scientific team plans to monitor connectivity between the Loop Current and the Loop Current “Eddy Franklin” during the first week, and to study surface and subsurface waters in the east and north parts of the eddy during the second week. The Loop Current is a stream of warm Caribbean water that enters the Yucatan Straits, meanders northward, sometimes extending to the Gulf Coast, and exits into the Florida Straits after a sharp turn around the Florida Keys where it becomes the Florida Current. The “Eddy Franklin” is a warm water current that appears to have detached from the Loop Current sometime last week.

“Floating material – plankton or tar balls or oil – all get collected into the eddy and travel together until the ring ultimately breaks down or reattaches to the Loop Current,” Wood said.

Three drifting buoys, like the one pictured above, equipped with satellite communication, will be deployed  during the cruise of the R/V Savannah to help track currents.
 Three drifting buoys, like the one pictured above, equipped with satellite communication, will be deployed during the cruise of the R/V Savannah to help track currents.
Credit: NOAA

One of the goals of this mission is to provide an early warning to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other resource managers and scientists should the oil spill arrive at sensitive ecosystems in the region.

The R/V Savannah, operated by the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah, Ga., is sailing through the Florida Keys and western Florida shelf as part of a long-term bimonthly sampling effort for NOAA’s South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Program that has been modified to collect samples to check for the presence of oil in the region.

The Savannah scientific team, also led by AOML, will sample along the west Florida shelf, where early impacts from oil would be expected. During the cruise scientists will collect samples to determine if oil has reached the area as well as investigate a high sea surface temperature event around the Florida Keys. Three drifting buoys with satellite communication will be deployed to track currents to compliment the research from the vessel.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources.

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