Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

September 14, 2012

VSU professor studies effects of BP oil spill

VALDOSTA — After the 2010 explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling site and the subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a lack of information regarding the effects of the spill were uncovered.

That is why a team of researchers and scholars — including Valdosta State University biology professor Dr. James Nienow — began identifying the impact of the spill in a proactive attempt to gather comparative information if this ever happens again.

Nienow studies the microalgae, specifically diatoms, dinoflagellated, and related protists, in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.

“This area of the Gulf is very untouched for this sort of thing,” said Nienow.

Microalgea sit at the base of the food chain, serving as the primary source of food for many animals found in the aquatic systems.

“If you wipe out all the plants in the area, you’re going to have famine,” said Nienow. “Even if they hold up, they might travel further up the food chain.”

On one end of the spectrum, you could have plant life wiped out completely which affects animals in the area, and on the other end, you could have microalgea that have been affected by the oil spill that survive and move up the food chain such as getting eaten by a fish, then having that fish caught and eaten by a human. In this instance, the oil spill far surpasses damage of the ocean. It is these sort of questions that Nienow tries answering.

While initially Nienow was able to look for obvious cell defects, they were found in small numbers because there was no previous work to compare the data. There was no way to determine if that was an abnormality in that area or not. By collecting samples of the base food now, scientists and researchers will have a more comprehensive idea of the effects if this were to happen again.

Nienow’s research is funded through a $217,612 subaward from Florida State University as part of the “Deep-C” or the Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico project.

Funded by the BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, this project is a collaborative effort of several academic institutions to determine the biological, physical and chemical state of the Gulf following the release of crude oil and gas.

“It involves people all over the world,” said Nienow.

The Deep-C project includes five main areas of research: modeling, geochemistry, ecology, physical oceanography and geomorphology, and habitat classification.

After the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, Nienow began taking samples off shore that September.

“That’s when they were still cleaning oil off the beaches,” said Nienow. “And that’s when we found we needed more research.”

Nienow and his team have hundreds of samples which they study under a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) at VSU.

In January 2011, Nienow began taking monthly cruises along the Gulf, starting at the bays and eventually ending up about 50 miles offshore. He is usually accompanied by a graduate and/or undergraduate students from VSU who are assisting with the project.

“People from VSU have been on 11 cruises so far,” said Nienow.

Right now, the project is funded for three years and they have cruises scheduled through 2014.


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