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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Slick Technology

Air Date: Week of

The Thomas Jefferson, a NOAA research vessel. (Photo: NOAA)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ship, the Thomas Jefferson, recently left on a nine-day mission to study subsurface oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Host Jeff Young talks with the ship’s commanding officer Shepard Smith about the high-tech advanced gear that the boat is outfitted with in order to track oil plumes on the move.


YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The oil washing ashore and moving in sheens in the Gulf is a sickening sight. But it’s only part of the picture. Underwater plumes of oil have been detected, some of them tens of miles long and thousands of feet down. But there is little information on that oil’s chemical makeup, how it’s behaving and how it might affect marine life.

One of NOAA’s top research vessels, the Thomas Jefferson, is on a nine-day mission to help answer some of those questions. We talked with Commander Shep Smith just after the Thomas Jefferson set sail from New Orleans. Smith says the Thomas Jefferson has been equipped to seek out underwater oil.

SMITH: We have deployed a crude oil sensor on what’s called a moving vessel profiler. This is a really clever device that we deploy off the stern of the ship that can take a cast while we’re under way.

So, normally, in order to get physical properties of the water column you would have to stop the ship and lower an instrument down through the water column taking measurements with onboard sensors. This device will allow us to essentially free-fall those same sensors through the water column without stopping the ship, which will allow us to cover a much greater area in the same amount of time.

YOUNG: It sounds to me like you’re actually going to be able to, sort of, track these plumes- not just stopping and dropping place to place, but following it where it goes.

The Thomas Jefferson, a NOAA research vessel. (Photo: NOAA)

SMITH: Clearly, if there is a submerged plume it’s not a stable feature and we would want to continue to monitor and measure the progress of it and the size of it over time.

You know, where we have the highest confidence in a water sample with laboratory analysis, to say that what we’re observing truly is oil and it’s related to the spill, but on the other side we can cover much greater territory with much higher resolution with the sonar systems and the moving vessel profiler.

YOUNG: I mean, it sounds very exciting, it’s like sea hunt for oil, but on the other hand, it’s gotta be a little depressing, knowing that what you’re measuring is signs of possibly great damage to a great resource in the Gulf of Mexico.

SMITH: Well, I think you put it very well, and it’s very sobering. This is actually our second trip out here. When we passed by the spill site on our way in to New Orleans last week we were excited, as you said, getting all this gear ready, we were finally getting to the spill site and when we finally got there it got very quiet and everybody was really quite sober about what we were seeing.

YOUNG: Commander Shep Smith aboard the NOAA research ship, the Thomas Jefferson. Well, so far, three independent research teams have reported finding oil travelling in underwater plumes. Louisiana State University oceanography Professor James Cowan led one of those teams. The LSU’s submersible robot found oil deep off the Louisiana Coast.



Find out more about the research vessel Thomas Jefferson


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