NOAA Asks for Time Out on Oil Plume Research Cruises

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), yesterday repeated her plea for researchers to be cautious in collecting and interpreting evidence of underwater plumes of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. Citing unusable data from some expeditions, she proposed a workshop to coordinate sampling methods before more cruises depart. But a prominent academic disagreed, saying that studying the plumes is too urgent to be delayed.

Lubchenco cautioned that oil samples needed to be chemically fingerprinted, because of the potential for confusion with natural oil seeping into the gulf. "There is a lot of potential out there for jumping to conclusions that may not be warranted," Lubchenco said at a research symposium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, organized by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. "We are all served best by proceeding in a careful, thoughtful, and quantifiable manner." Lubchenco appeared to be referring to her previous criticisms that the initial claim of a plume was premature.

In her presentation, Lubchenco highlighted new results from a NOAA research vessel, emphasizing that concentrations of oil in a plume fell off quickly and were undetectable 20 kilometers from the leaking well. "Even in a fairly short distance, the signal is becoming significantly diminished," she said. Within 5 kilometers of the well the concentration of oil was in the parts per million, dropping to parts per trillion beyond that.

Another plume is being studied by Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia and colleagues. In addition to NOAA ships, research vessels contracted by BP are also looking for plumes. Citing the number of teams in action "with more being proposed each day," Lubchenco said it was time to bring all the researchers together to discuss the results so far and harmonize methods. Until that happens, she suggests that no more cruises be planned, except for required monitoring.

Joye says research shouldn't be postponed, but she agrees with the goal of coordinating. She is already in contact with two other teams to make sure they sample the same way. But, she says, "I have only a vague idea of what the scientists on the NOAA ships are doing and how they are doing it."

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