Over the past few weeks, we finally have seen containment of the oil leaking into the Gulf. The completion of a relief well in the coming days is expected to be the permanent solution, but the environmental and economic impacts of this disaster will continue to burden Gulf Coast residents and businesses. As attention turns from stemming the flow of oil to recovery and restoration, Mississippi is primed to lead the charge through the expertise of its universities.
Long History of Gulf Coast Collaboration
Mississippi research collaborations have existed long before the tragic Deepwater Horizon explosion. Established over 20 years ago, the Mississippi Research Consortium (MRC) is a partnership of top researchers and scientists from The University of Mississippi, Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, and The University of Southern Mississippi (USM). MRC utilizes the strengths of each university to provide support to state and federal agencies. This helps improve communication and interaction between scientists and federal officials.
The Gulf of Mexico Gas Hydrates Consortium, led by The University of Mississippi, is another valuable resource in our state. For over five years, these experts have been studying a seafloor site located eight miles from the oil rig. This research has the potential to provide important data comparing the seafloor area before and after the spill, which would give us the ability to monitor the conditions of the Gulf and understand the extent of the damage on our marine life.
Mississippi State’s leadership through the Northern Gulf Institute (NGI) and USM’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory also bring together experts in the fields of oceanography, marine biology, and coastal sciences. Collectively, these collaborations and universities have been studying Gulf Coast ecosystems for decades. The research and data gathered from these institutions may serve as a guiding light in our recovery phase.
Mississippi Universities Respond to Oil Disaster
At the onset of the BP spill, Dr. Hank Bounds, the Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Learning turned to the MRC to create a Deepwater Horizon Response Team. The team has been working to answer critical questions to identify how we can address this disaster. Some of these questions include: How does surface and subsurface oil behave? What are the impacts of oil on our wetlands? What effect does oil have on spawning of shrimp, oysters, and bluefin tuna?
Scientists from USM’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory also took action in the response efforts by collecting samples of the Atlantic bluefin tuna larvae, one of the most threatened fish of high economic value. Bluefin tuna spawn in only two areas in the western hemisphere – the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The disastrous spill causes uncertainty as to the vitality of this popular tuna.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State also have played an influential role in responding to the spill. Researchers from the University of Mississippi were among the first to collect samples and estimate the size of underwater plumes of oil. Before these samples were collected, scientists had been tracking the movement of surface oil only. Studying the behavior of subsurface oil is essential to determining the total impact of the disaster both onshore and offshore. Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s lead role in the NGI is focusing on ways to respond better to future incidents. These experts are working to develop more advanced oil-detection techniques.
The impacts of the oil spill are not limited to our unique marine life and wetlands. The harm caused to residents and local businesses is just as severe. Universities are conducting studies on the potential injuries to public health, the importance of the faith community in disaster response, and the overall economic impact of the spill. The dedication of our Mississippi-based experts provides significant contributions to the Gulf community.
Restoration Should Rely On Local Expertise
Once the relief well is completed, the federal government and BP should focus on restoring the Gulf. That is why I introduced a resolution, which was passed unanimously in the Senate, urging the administration and BP to utilize local resources and businesses in the restoration efforts, including the expertise of our universities.
Through the efforts of local researchers and collaborative initiatives in our state, Mississippi is well positioned to lead the region out of these dark days so we can recover and restore our communities. I hope that these efforts will have long-term benefits for the Gulf Coast and further strengthen the resilience of the people of Mississippi.