When the University of Miami put the 96-foot research vessel F.G. Walton to sea ten years ago, nobody was thinking about today’s BP oil spill.

With ten two-person staterooms, the F.G. Walton has turned out to be one of the centers where independent science will be done to determine the damage the spill is doing to the Gulf.

While the F.G. Walton is already in the Gulf of Mexico with a mix of scientists and journalists, some major money has caught up with one of its researchers.

Joye-at-sea-featured.jpgSamantha Joye, a University of Georgia marine scientist on board the F.G. Walton, has been awarded a “rapid response” grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her work examining the impacts of the BP oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon’s runaway well on microbes in the waters and sediments near the spill site.

Since going to work on the research ship. Joye has been sharing her observations on her Gulf Oil Blog.

NSF says the grant to Joye and her colleagues is one of many Gulf oil spill-related grants NSF plans to award.

“The scientists involved in these efforts are a national asset through which we can gain an understanding of the ecosystem impacts of this vast oil spill,” said Phillip Taylor, Acting Director of NSF’s Ocean Sciences Division.

“NSF is well-poised, with its rapid-response flexibility, to enable these researchers to help the large federal government response.”

NSF says the Gulf oil spill is record-making in both it magnitude and its scope.  It is also unique in that it is spilling both oil and methane gas into icy cold deep waters.

The science agency is interested in the offshore oceanic impacts of the spill.

“This combination of oil and gas could stimulate a broader microbial population,” said Joye, “as well as potentially alter the distribution of the leaking material, possibly leading to more oil and gas pooling in deep waters and sediments.”

The Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters contain a diverse microbial growth in its sediments.

“These microorganisms are used to ‘seeing’ low quantities of oil and gas, which come from natural seepage,” she said.  “This spill is different because a very large amount of oil and gas is being introduced into a focused area.  The microbial response to this sudden infusion is likely to be dramatic.”

Scientists on board the F.W. Walton are studying the area around the spill site, locating, tracking, and chasing a large underwater plume.  They’ve estimated a large plume, at more than 15 miles long, 5 miles wide, and 300 feet thick at depths from 2,300 to 4,200 feet, is located south/southwest of the runaway well.

“This research is essential to assessing how massive amounts of oil will affect the health of the Gulf of Mexico in both the short and long term,” said David Garrison, Director of NSF’s Biological Oceanography Program.

Joye and other researchers are collecting samples of sediments, deepwater, and surface waters at 20 sites in the spill area.

The team is studying the factors regulating the activity of microbes in the water column, including nutrient availability, methane concentration, trace metals and vitamins, and the impact of oil on key microbial processes, including the oxidation of methane.

Joye says it’s critical to evaluate sediment impacts of the spill on microbial processes.

This Rapid Response Research (RAPID) mechanism has been regularly used to enable research on unanticipated events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or any other event where a timely presence is required to enable the research.

Pictured:  Samantha Joye in the Gulf of Mexico.  From Gulf Oil Blog.