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How the Oil Plume Changed One Scientist's Life

2 July 2010 1:31 pm
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The plumes of oil and gas spreading from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, which have the potential to create a low-oxygen dead zone, have attracted intense scrutiny from researchers. As part of the team that first discovered the plumes in May, biogeochemist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, Athens, has been working full throttle to study the plumes and understand what kind of an impact they might have on marine life.

The effort has thrust Joye in the limelight. Her team's first report of the plume became the lightning rod in a tussle between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and academics about the reality of the subsurface hydrocarbons and the pace of research.

From a profile of Joye in this week's issue of Science:

Just 10 minutes after the story went online, Joye's phone began to ring. Reporters kept calling until 2 a.m., she says, when she unplugged the phone. News trucks were parked in front of her office on the campus. "I didn't have a minute's peace," she says. "It was absolutely insane."

The media maelstrom did not go unnoticed at NOAA. On Monday, 17 May, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco released a cautious statement emphasizing that the Pelican cruise hadn't yet confirmed the presence of oil in the plumes and that the falling oxygen levels weren't an immediate danger to marine life.

Lubchenco added: "We eagerly await results from their analyses and share with them the goal of disseminating accurate information." In a subsequent lecture at a large research meeting, while discussing preliminary plume measurements from a NOAA vessel, Lubchenco warned the audience: "If we jump to conclusions, that doesn't serve science well. Verification, not conjecture, is what I would urge."

Joye and others were puzzled by the reaction to the Pelican findings. "A lot of academicians were surprised by NOAA's behavior," says Ernst Peebles of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, who has also identified plumes in the gulf. Ian MacDonald of Florida State University, Tallahassee, felt that NOAA was "basically challenging Samantha's interpretation of this data." NOAA says it wanted to correct misleading news stories and put out accurate information.

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