Science & Technology

UWF plays major role in addressing oil spill impact

Since the day of the explosion on April 20 until last week, the Deep Horizon oil well gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Now, a temporary cap continues to hold, but with limited success, oil seepage has been detected nearby on the ocean floor and a relief well is still under construction.

As the crisis enters its fourth month and U.S. government and British Petroleum officials debate the next step to contain the spill, a team of University of West Florida scientists, professors, students and others continue to address the environmental impact of the spill on Florida. The university’s location, its resources, its expertise and its dedication to the Northwest Florida area have put UWF center stage.

Personnel have monitored the area’s waters and beaches for more than two decades and have compiled a wealth of data, which the university has made available to scientists studying the spill. In order to support these efforts, UWF has redirected internal funds while applying for various grants and other financial support.

Water sampling: The oil spill involves just the type of research the UWF Center for Environmental Diagnostic and Bioremediation does on a regular basis. Richard Snyder, director of CEDB, and other researchers are analyzing water samples from 10 sites in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties for dissolved oil and reporting their findings to the Escambia County Health Department, so that water safety determinations can be made by public health officials. UWF has monitored the water for decades, but after the spill, the process was expanded and accelerated to provide faster results.

Matthew Schwartz, an environmental studies associate professor and oceanographer, is involved in another project focusing on how changing levels could damage delicate ecosystems such as sea grass beds. He is testing for dissolved organic carbon and dissolved organic nitrogen — a range of different components naturally found in sea water that will change as oil and oil components arrive in the area.

“The oil-washed birds and oil-covered marshland are a very obvious impact of the oil spill and it’s horrible,” Schwartz said. “What I’m wondering is might there be invisible victims of the ecosystems as well. We will be looking at a combination of dissolved nutrients, dissolved oxygen and dissolved organic nitrogen; we are looking at all the stuff that you cannot see.”

Fisheries and reefs: William Patterson, associate professor of biology, and his team are monitoring fish and invertebrate communities to assess how oil components may or may not impact these ecosystems. His crews make regular trips off shore to record data, including film and photography with the aid of underwater robots. UWF has long-term data from almost 100 natural and artificial reefs from Destin to Alabama as well as data on migrations of economically important fishes.

Economy: Rick Harper, director of UWF Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development, is conducting regional economic analysis to gauge the spill’s impact through a state grant.

“Between now and Nov. 1, we are involved in work with the Florida Senate Select Committee on Florida’s economy to assess how the Northwest Florida economy would likely have performed on key economic indicators but for the oil spill, and compare that counterfactual baseline to the actual performance of the economy now that the oil spill has hit,” said Harper. “We are also assisting the Florida CFO Alex Sink as she works to assess the economic loss to Florida that is attributable to the spill.”

Business Assistance: The State of Florida Small Business Development Center housed at the University of West Florida is on the front lines working to help businesses with recovery efforts through administration of bridge loans, navigation of the claims process and other readjustment services that are critical to the business community and regional economy.

UWF is a member of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force, a consortium of scientists and scholars from institutions in Florida’s State University System as well as from four of the state’s private universities working in collaboration with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The task force brings together expertise and resources to assist the state of Florida and the Gulf region in preparing for and responding to the crisis.

For more information and updates regarding UWF personnel involved with the impact of the Gulf oil spill, visit or follow on Twitter by searching #uwfoilresponse.