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Tracking the Last Mile Before Oil Meets the Beach

Rolling waves, swirling currents, converging fronts, shifting sediments – all are connected as anyone who has chased a ball in beach waters knows. But how?

To understand the mechanisms that move water-borne objects or contaminants onshore, over 30 researchers from 16 universities gathered in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida last month – armed with drifters, dye, and drones – and conducted a three-week Surfzone Coastal Oil Pathways Experiment (SCOPE).

“We’re studying the region most hit by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which includes the coasts surrounding the Gulf,” explained Tamay Özgökmen, the team’s principal investigator, “to learn more about how things in the water get outside of the surf zone and onto the beaches.”

Scientists are tracking elusive ocean processes to visualize the movement of Gulf waters in 3D. For this experiment, they deployed 250 GPS-equipped drifters (30 were biodegradable) to track surface waters, using a “release and catch” method for repeated use of these specially-outfitted devices. Researchers injected an EPA-approved dye both along and outside the surf zone to trace its movement through the water column. Various in-situ instruments recorded water and atmospheric conditions.

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