UI Researchers Study Gulf Coast Marshlands With Eye on Potential Restoration

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

University of Iowa News Release

Although it may be too early to know how the British Petroleum (BP) oil disaster will ultimately affect the grasses that comprise Gulf Coast marshlands, University of Iowa College of Engineering researchers are taking precautions.

schnoorJerry Schnoor, UI professor of civil and environmental engineering, and two UI students -- both of whom are in the Gulf Coast region June 21-25 -- are conducting research in collaboration with Louisiana State University, just in case their worst fears are realized and the waves of crude oil washing ashore kill the marshland grasses. If such a disaster were to take place, having samples of native grasses already in hand would allow conservation workers to replant the marshlands, if necessary.

It's a scenario that may come true, says Schnoor, who adds that samples of native Louisiana grasses could be used to restore a partially ruined ecosystem.

"The marshlands are critical habitat for birds, fish, shrimp and crabs," Schnoor said. "Dense grasses hold the sand and sediment in place and protect coastal Louisiana from hurricanes, while simultaneously providing a nursery for threatened species like the salt marsh topminnow. If these marshlands succumb to crude oil toxicity, we will perform research into phytoremediation of the contaminated zones and reestablishment of native grasses like Spartina alterniflora."

The field work in which Schnoor and his colleagues will collaborate involves collecting three samples: one of pristine marshland grasses, another composed of oil-fouled grasses, and a third sample -- to be supplied by BP -- made up of oil from the fractured BP oil well.

So far, it has been difficult to collect samples of oil-fouled grasses, according to UI environmental engineering graduate student Aaron Gwinnup and undergraduate mechanical engineering student Elliott Beenk. Beenk is participating in the project thanks to a summer internship through the UI Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP)/McNair Scholars Program.

And Gwinnup said that although it is hard to find public access to the marshes, the students are confident they will obtain the samples they need. They noted that the mood of people in nearby Grand Isle, La., seems "tense," with few tourists visiting the barrier island and many residents erecting beach-front signs, some supporting and others opposing the oil industry.

Once the samples arrive back in Iowa City, they will be analyzed in the W.M. Keck Phototechnology Laboratory, located in the College of Engineering.

Said Schnoor: "First, we will determine the rate of biodegradation of the oil in the root zone of various oil-tolerant species, addressing the question, 'How long will it take to bioremediate the area?' Second, we will run basic toxicity tests to determine the maximum concentration of crude oil in which the grasses can still grow and thrive. That will allow us to know when and where re-establishment of the marsh is possible based on the concentration of oil remaining."

Why is the UI involved in Gulf Coast research? Schnoor says the answer has to do with collegiality among university researchers and a willingness to help out.

"We have a history of collaboration with Professors R. Eugene Turner, Louisiana State University, and Nancy Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium," Schnoor said. "Gene is a wetlands ecologist, and Nancy is the person who discovered the problem of Gulf Hypoxia (the dead zone). We collaborated with them on the role of the Midwestern Floods of 2008 in exacerbating Gulf Hypoxia. Iowa contributes to Gulf Hypoxia from the large amount of nutrients running off our land. If the University of Iowa can possibly contribute to protecting the salt marshes, it is time to step forward."

The research is being funded by the Allen S. Henry account from the University of Iowa Foundation.

Currently, the destroyed BP oil well that fractured on April 20 continues to pump as much as 100,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico, according to BP's own worst-case scenario. And there is no end in sight.

Schnoor and his UI colleagues are confident that the UI, while located far from the Gulf Coast, will offer first-rate scientific and engineering resources. The UI is home to the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), as well as the world-renowned water research center, IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering.

A co-director of CGEER and an IIHR faculty affiliate, Schnoor in July will receive the National Water Research Institute's 2010 Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Prize for dedicating his career to the sustainable use of water. Schnoor also serves as chair of Gov. Chet Culver's Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council and leads the UI initiative on Water Sustainability and the cluster hiring of 10 new faculty experts in water sustainability.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One,
Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

CONTACTS: Jerry Schnoor, 319-335-5649, jerald-schnoor@uiowa.edu; Gary Galluzzo, writer, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu