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June 2010

When disaster strikes, UNC researchers respond

On May 12, BP finally released a 30-second video of the oil that had been spewing from its damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico for more than three weeks. A few days later, I got an e-mail from two UNC professors, Richard McLaughlin and Roberto Camassa, who are experts in fluid dynamics. They and their students had been looking carefully at the BP video and comparing it to some experiments they had done in the past that showed how underwater plumes form.

Because of their research, Rich and Roberto knew that both the turbulence of the oil jet and the density of the surrounding water determined whether the oil shot straight to the surface or remained trapped underneath in plumes of fine droplets. To Rich and Roberto, the BP oil jet looked like the latter, and that was bad news. Not only would it indicate that the oil was gushing out at a much faster rate than BP had originally estimated, it would also mean that the oil was spreading almost invisibly far beneath the surface, endangering sea life and becoming harder and harder to clean up.

"Obviously we are concerned about this disaster," the professors ended their e-mail, "and being a fluids lab, we are naturally further interested in helping in any way which we can."

That's what our faculty -- and students -- do. They weigh in on the biggest problems we all face. And there are none bigger right now than the environment.

The concerns Rich and Roberto raised got more exposure as the national media picked up a YouTube video we produced of their experiments ( CNN tracked down Rich and Roberto at a conference in Bozeman, Mont., to talk about underwater plumes and, on his show, Anderson Cooper watched their plumes video on an iPad.

But Rich and Roberto aren't the only researchers at UNC who are helping to address this crisis.

Rick Luettich, director of UNC's Institute for Marine Sciences in Morehead City, is preparing to use highly detailed computer models to provide better predictions of where the oil spill will spread to in near shore areas, both under normal conditions and in the event of a hurricane or major storm.

Another institute researcher, research assistant professor Joel Fodrie, has been studying fish in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006. Using this baseline data and research there over the next two years, Joel will be in a good position to assess the impact of the disaster. Michael Piehler, an assistant professor at the institute, has studied the impacts of petroleum products on near shore ecosystems and will be conducting a comparative oyster reef study that will include some sites in the Gulf as well as four sites in North Carolina.

Here in Chapel Hill, marine sciences professors John Bane and Harvey Seim, who are experts in ocean circulation and currents, are looking at where the oil might go next. Andreas Teske, a marine sciences professor and microbial ecologist, has studied how tiny microbes present in sea water and on the ocean floor may be able to help clean up the oil spill. One of his graduate students, Luke McKay, took part in one of the first research expeditions to visit the spill site and surrounding waters, gathering samples that will help UNC researchers and their collaborators at other institutions determine what is happening to the marine environment in the Gulf and what can be done to minimize the damage.

Two other graduate students, Lisa Nigro and Tingting Yang, also visited the Gulf on a separate trip headed by University of Georgia researcher and UNC alumna Samantha Joye, which made several important discoveries about the large underwater plumes of oil that are not rising to the surface. We even have an environmental law professor, Victor Flatt, who is studying the legal implications of the disaster.

Researchers and academics have a reputation for living in ivory towers, far removed from the problems of the real world. But the way UNC's faculty and students have stepped forward to apply what they know to the current crisis in the Gulf belies that image. These researchers are willing to get their faces sunburned and their boots oily to help, as Rich and Roberto wrote, in any way which they can. They are my heroes.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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