The chief scientist for our mission aboard the Pisces is John Kessler, an Assistant Professor of Oceanography at Texas A&M University in College Station. The focus of his research career is studying oceanic methane – how it influences oceanic chemistry and, ultimately, the climate. Here’s a brief Q & A with Dr. Kessler:
Why study oceanic methane?
JK: The ocean is by far the largest global reservoir of methane, and methane is a main component of natural gas, so a lot of people look at it as a potential fossil fuel. But methane is also a very potent greenhouse gas, and there are hypotheses that there could potentially have been large natural releases of methane from the seafloor that rose through the water and into the atmosphere, ultimately changing the climate of the planet. This oil spill is simulating one of these natural emissions that we normally study, it’s just doing it on a scale of a million times what we would normally see.
How did you and your team end up coming to the Pisces?
JK: Shortly after the spill began, another professor on this expedition (David Valentine of the University of California Santa Barbara) and I hypothesized that a large fraction of the material emitted from the wellhead was natural gas, and, therefore, methane. We put together a proposal and were funded by the National Science Foundation to do at-sea research back in June. During that time, we developed a relationship with NOAA and the Subsurface Monitoring Unit . They invited us out to try to quantify the size of the plume, what controls it, and how quickly it’s going away.
What are some of the challenges of this project?
JK: Logistics! Normally we’d have four to six months to prepare a project of this sort. This time, we had about a week. It’s also challenging intellectually. A spill of this size, with this methane content, hasn’t really been seen before. We’re going into a scientific and environmental problem with very little background data, which poses unique challenges.
Are you getting the results you expected?
JK: Because this spill is so unique, I don’t think any results could be 100 percent expected. Still, the results we are seeing make scientific sense. We will conduct more analyses later in this expedition to confirm the results we are seeing.
How do you feel about the work you are doing here?
JK: I feel very fortunate, as a scientist, to contribute to the understanding of this spill, and what it means to the ocean and to the larger environment. The impacts of methane research are not normally as directly apparent to society. Being able to contribute in this way is something that I feel very fortunate to be able to do.