URI oceanographers awarded grant from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study Gulf of Mexico Loop Current

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Gulf of Mexico Loop Current
A visualization of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current. (Image: Christopher Henze, NASA/Ames)

KINGSTON, R.I. — Dec. 27, 2018 — Researchers from the URI Graduate School of Oceanography were awarded a $2 million grant as part of a long-term research campaign to help improve understanding and prediction of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current.

GSO professors Kathleen Donohue and D. Randolph (Randy) Watts will deploy sensors in deep waters of the central Gulf of Mexico as part of their project to measure currents and pressures in the full water column, from areas near the ocean floor to the surface. Data collected about full water column circulation will increase understanding of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current System (LCS) behavior and inform LCS forecasting efforts.

The LCS is the dominant ocean circulation feature in the Gulf of Mexico. It influences all types of ocean processes and has implications for a wide range of human and natural systems, including oil and gas operations, storm and hurricane intensity, coastal ecosystems, and industries such as fishing and tourism. But despite its far-reaching impacts, knowledge about the underlying dynamics that control the behavior of the LCS is limited.

Following recommendations from a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report released earlier this year, the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program (GRP) is developing a 10-12 year research campaign to improve understanding and prediction of the LCS. In support of this effort, the GRP last week announced $10.3 million in grant awards for eight new projects to conduct studies and collect data and observations that will inform the planning and launching of the long-term research campaign.

While scientists have been studying the Loop Current for decades, this will be the first long-term, comprehensive effort, and the GSO scientists are uniquely qualified to participate.

“This project recognizes that to understand and predict the behavior of the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico requires knowledge of the deep currents in the Gulf,” said Donohue, the Principal Investigator of the project. “At URI, we’ve demonstrated a capability of measuring and mapping currents throughout the water column, over 3 kilometers from the surface to the bottom. For example, our research has shown that abyssal storms, massive currents that sweep along the ocean floor, drive Loop Current variability.”

The oceanographers will deploy an array of 25 instruments on the seafloor in June 2019 to measure currents and pressures before they are recovered in October 2020. Data will be transmitted while the instruments are deployed. The findings from this initial project will inform how best to design a larger array of instruments in the Gulf for the GRP’s 10-year research campaign.

“It’s a great opportunity for URI to build upon methodologies that we’ve developed over many years,” said Watts, the co-Principal Investigator. “We can bring URI’s expertise and special instrumentation to make big improvements in understanding and predicting the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Donohue and Watts will extend their research across international boundaries into Mexican waters where the interaction between the Loop Current and the eddies that shed from it likely originate. The project will emphasize collaboration, including colleagues in Mexico at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education at Ensenada who have expertise in Gulf of Mexico physical oceanography, and Sonardyne Inc., which has technical expertise in underwater acoustics, signal processing, hardware design and custom engineering.

Despite the oceanographers’ extensive experience measuring and mapping currents across the globe, the LCS project presents unique challenges. “A key challenge for this program will be to develop methods to retrieve data in near real-time from deep subsurface measurements, to input into computer models to improve forecasts of Loop Current behavior and, more importantly, to improve forecasts to 2-3 week lead times,” said Donohue. “That’s much longer than is presently possible, and it will be very valuable for the safety of operations in the Gulf.”

The National Academies’ Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It seeks to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice, and capacity to generate long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation. Visit nationalacademies.org/gulf to learn more.