Rapid science: UNC researchers respond to Gulf crisis

Most research expeditions take months, if not years, of planning. Luke McKay got just 12 hours notice.

But when the stakes are high, UNC researchers spring into action. And as millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s damaged well on the ocean’s bottom, the stakes were as about as high as they get.

McKay, a graduate student in UNC’s marine sciences department, spent several days in early May aboard one of the first research vessels to visit the spill site and surrounding waters.

His rapid deployment began with a phone call from his advisor, professor Andreas Teske. At the time, McKay was on a cross-country road trip, driving a truck full of research equipment back to North Carolina after an expedition in the Gulf of California. Teske said a team of researchers from several institutions was weighing anchor from Louisiana the next day: could McKay get himself and some of his cargo there in time to join them?

“My reaction was yes, I will definitely go,” McKay says. “I’m a sucker for field work, so getting on a boat, no matter how long I have to prepare, I’m there.”

Sailing into the Gulf, the team soon encountered eerie signs of the major impact the spill was having on the environment: strange multi-colored oil slicks coating the water’s surface; the pungent smell of petrol hanging in the air; and plumes of smoke from controlled burns dotting the horizon.

The researchers raced to gather important information about the spill and how Mother Nature is responding. McKay’s focus was gathering surface water and sediment samples, and getting as many as possible.

“That was the overarching theme of this cruise,” McKay says. “Take whatever you can get and it probably will be used by someone, somewhere, sometime.”

Two other UNC graduate students, Lisa Nigro and Tingting Yang, visited the Gulf on a separate trip headed by University of Georgia researcher and UNC alumna Samantha Joye. Their team made several important discoveries about large underwater plumes of oil that are not rising to the surface.

Now back in Chapel Hill, McKay, Nigro, Yang, Teske and others are conducting tests and running experiments. One significant question is how naturally occurring oil-eating microbes are responding to the spill. Researchers are trying to pinpoint which ones are present and how big their appetite is.