Baylor University Researcher Studies Transportation of Oil Pollutants Along Gulf Coast

June 8, 2016

World Oceans Day is June 8

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WACO, Texas (June 8, 2016) – Each year, on June 8, events around the globe celebrate the ocean, its importance and how to protect it. World Oceans Day is the official United Nations-designated international day of ocean celebration, and the theme for this year’s campaign is “healthy oceans, healthy planet.”

Currently, researchers from Baylor University and University of Texas-Dallas are studying the transportation of oil pollutants along the Gulf of Mexico.

Joseph Kuehl, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, is partnering with William Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Texas Dallas, to conduct an observational and computational program that will measure the bottom boundary currents along the northwestern Gulf of Mexico in order to understand the transport of materials along the ocean floor.

“By increasing our understanding of boundary layer dynamics on the ocean floor, specifically over the Texas shelf break, we will be able to better predict the transport of materials like heavy oil pollutants,” Kuehl said. “This information is critical to our ability to respond to oil spills and measure the impact of off-shore drilling.”

In this Q&A, Kuehl discusses the project.

Q: What is the environmental significance of this project along the Gulf Coast?

A: Ocean circulation is fundamental to our understanding of the environment. We are targeting the bottom boundary layer over the shelf and slope. The bottom boundary is often neglected, but recent evidence suggests that understanding the bottom boundary layer is fundamental to understand general ocean circulation – in particular, the transport of materials (nutrients, pollutants and heat) between the ocean and coastal ocean. Our project seeks to improve our understanding of several of these issues. Specifically, we’re looking at the coupling between the atmosphere and ocean, the sensitivity of the Texas coastal zone to offshore oil spills and the transport of larva, nutrients and more around the Texas shelf.

Q: What are the steps associated with this research and what do you hope to learn?

A: This program is a joint effort between myself and Dr. William Anderson at UT-Dallas. I am conducting the field efforts and Will is conducting numerical efforts. We will use the observational data I recover (bottom current measurements, and water column temperature, salinity and density measurements), to both guide and compare with numerical large eddy simulations to understand the connections between the surface boundary layer and the bottom boundary layer in the coastal ocean. We will also attempt to understand the factors that drive the deep currents, such as tidal forcing, wave forcing, bottom topography and wind forcing. I will conduct several observation campaigns during summer and winter months to characterize the flows and structure of the ocean. Then we will apply theory and numerics to understand what is going on.

Q: The ocean floor is often a mystery. What are you finding there and where is it going?

A: What is on the ocean floor depends on where you are. In this area there is not much, just kind of a clay bottom, but there are reefs, such as the flower garden banks, as well as other topographic features like oil rings and critters that are found at the lowest levels of the ocean floor.

Q: Where are you at in the project? Have you traveled to the Gulf and deployed the instruments?

A: I have already deployed instruments and will be out on the water again in the coming weeks to hopefully recover and redeploy more instruments. My base of operations is Port Aransas and I use boats from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. This is still Year One of the project, so there are many more short cruises to collect data and deploy and recover instruments. We had one other short test cruise that went very successfully.

The research is funded through the Texas General Land Office Oil (TGLO) Spill Prevention & Response Program. The TGLO strives to protect and preserve Texas coastal waters, while partnering with the oil production and transportation industries to promote strong local and regional economies.

Joseph Kuehl, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, earned two doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering and physical oceanography from University of Rhode Island. His research interests are focused in three fields of study: hypersonic boundary-layer stability and transition, geophysical fluid dynamics and nonlinear vibrations. This multi-faceted research background allows him to find connections between varying fields of study, leading to new and novel solutions for complex problems.

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

With more than 10 percent of Baylor University’s freshman class pursuing major courses of study in the School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS), the focus remains on preparing graduates for professional practice and responsible leadership with a Christian world view. ECS majors include bioinformatics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, general engineering, and mechanical engineering. Among ECS graduate programs are Master of Science degrees in all disciplines, a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, and several dual degree programs. The Teal Residential College for Engineering and Computer Science, in which students and faculty live, fosters the pursuit of wisdom, academic excellence, and meaningful relationships for the development of diverse, innovative leaders.