Oil spill produces educational experience?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 13, 2010

As oil continues to seep into the Gulf of Mexico, one Andalusia native is reaping the educational benefits of learning from the oil spill.

Sarah Wofford, a senior marine biology major at the University of Alabama, is spending her second summer studying at Dauphin Island Sea Lab as part of her hands-on class work.

While the oil spill hasn’t harmed any of Wofford’s class work, it did spark some oil-related research in her oceanography class.

“Luckily, our oceanography teacher, Monty Graham, was very into getting us involved in the actual research processes involved with the oil spill,” she said. “In addition to our normal course work we learned a great deal about the properties of oil and its potential effects on the Gulf of Mexico.”

Dr. Graham is the leading researcher on the effects of the oil spill at DISL. Wofford said his primary area of expertise is that of the processes that affect the production and distribution of marine zooplankton, which are small marine animals that live near the surface.

Wofford said that although none of the students or staff at DISL are directly involved in the cleanup of the shores or animals, they have been instrumental in the research process.

“We’ve actually been instructed to touch neither (shore or animals),” she said. “However, while I was in oceanography, we helped Dr. Graham with much of the research process in which he was involved.”

Wofford said her class assembled and deployed drifters, which are used to track the oil. These devices were sent down from Woods Hole Marine Institute in Massachusetts.

“We also did several studies involving the oxygen content and biodiversity of oil affected areas in Mobile Bay and nearshore parts of the gulf.”

Wofford said so she has learned that the biodiversity hasn’t been affected in the sense that species are on the edge of extinction, but that some of the areas of low oxygen now have new species composition.

“We trawled for fish in some of these areas and found that low oxygen areas had very little to no fish, but some bottom-dwelling organisms,” she said. “Higher levels of course showed more abundance, including different fish species, squid and several types of bottom-dwelling organisms.”

As for tar balls and oil washing up on shore, Wofford said, she’s only seen a few tar balls and bits of oil on the west end of Dauphin Island.

“However, on our last boat trip for oceanography, we saw a large slick about two or three miles offshore,” she said. “Fortunately, we didn’t get much wash-up on the shores behind the lab due to the outflow of rivers into Mobile Bay and longshore currents.

“The oil slick that we saw was made up of mostly weathered oil material. It was reddish brown, meaning that the iron present in it had been oxidized like rust,” she said. “It also had some debris floating in it but, luckily, no animals.”

Still, Wofford said they have seen some dead, oiled birds, but it’s been almost like any other summer there.

“Other than not swimming at the beach and the additional course work, it seems like any other summer,” she said. “Our professors definitely haven’t downplayed the situation and have used this as a teaching opportunity.

“As students, we have realized that this isn’t necessarily Armageddon as most of the media portray it,” she said. “We are simply trying to get on with our summer course work and just use this as a big learning opportunity, from a scientific, social and economic aspect.”

Sarah Wofford is spending her summer at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and has seen the oil spill first-hand. | Courtesy photo