Alvin, a Navy research submersible, has started to bring researchers down to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, as the fourth anniversary of the BP oil spill approaches.
A total of 22 dives are planned in a new series of exploratory trips planned for the submersible. Underwater missions will be managed by researchers from the universities of North Carolina and Georgia, as well as Florida State University and Coastal Carolina University.
Alvin can collect samples from the seafloor, including water, debris and small lifeforms.
Samantha "Mandy" Joye of the University of Georgia is chief scientist on the project. She will re-examine areas observed in 2010 and check on recovery of the ecosystems in those areas.
On 10 April 2010, an oil rig belonged to British Petroleum exploded, killing 11 workers. The accident also left a large volume of fossil fuel leaking directly into the Gulf of Mexico. The well was not capped until 15 July, over three months later.
The effect on marine ecosystems in the area was devastating. The effect is still being felt in coastal areas, as 300 pounds of tar balls from the accident lately washed up on islands off the coast of Mississippi.
"In the dives in the submarine, we'll actually be able to see the diversity of animals on the bottom and compare this to what a natural soft bottom community would look like," Joye said.
The dive on 31 March was the first time researchers returned, in person, to the site of the environmental disaster. Throughout the course of the project, samples will be taken from locations around the site of the rig.
"Our work is aimed at understanding the long-term impacts of the 2010 blowout and sites within 20 to 100 nautical miles of the wellhead," Joye added.
Alvin is operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) for the U.S. Navy, which owns the underwater vehicle. The craft was first commissioned in 1964, making it one of the world's oldest deep-sea submersibles. Just two years later, Alvin found a hydrogen bomb that had been lost at sea. In 1986, the craft explored the remains of the HMS Titanic. After 50 years, the craft has made more than 4,600 dives under water.
"Alvin carries two scientists and a pilot on dives lasting six to ten hours. With six reversible thrusters, it can hover in the water, maneuver over rugged topography, or rest on the sea floor," says WHOI on their website.
Underwater missions using the craft will continue until 22 April. Most of the project costs will be funded by the National Science Foundation, while the Gulf Research Board is financing three dives.