UTMSI lands biggest grant ever
The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) has been awarded its largest research grant ever - $2.88 million to study the waters and wildlife off a wide swath of the Alaskan coast.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) awarded the grant on Wednesday, Sept. 24, to conduct chemical and biological surveys along the continental shelf in the Chukchi Sea over the next three years, said UTMSI's Dr. Ken Dunton, who will be the study's chief scientist. The research will be done in areas MMS has leased for drilling by oil companies, although no drilling has begun yet.
Information developed from the survey will help MMS understand the locations of wildlife hotbeds so the agency can direct oil companies not to drill in those areas, Dunton said.
Winning the grant makes UTMSI a bigger player in national discussions about high gas prices and oil and gas drilling.
"There is a huge push to solve the nation's energy crisis by drilling," Dunton said. "This is a now issue. … We are involved in collecting information on the environmental characteristics of that area that the MMS must have to promote responsible extraction of those reserves without impacting the environment."
Dr. Steven M. Lanoux, assistant director of operations at UTMSI, will be the grant's project manager. Dunton and his wife, Susan Schonberg, a research scientist associate at UTMSI, will be doing much of the work involved in the study. Other UTMSI folks to be involved in the project will be research assistant Flora Buerger, graduate student Nathan McTigue and a graduate student to be named later, Dunton said.
UTMSI also has recruited scientists from other parts of the country to take part in the study as sub-contractors.
"What we've put together essentially is an all-star team of who's-who in Arctic marine science," Dunton said.
"From Russia to Florida," Lanoux added.
Professors to be involved in the research include David Maidment of Austin's U.T. campus; Jacqueline Grebmeier, Lee Cooper and Rodger Harvey, all of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Chesapeake Bay Laboratory; Boris Sirenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences; John Trefrey of the Florida Institute of Technology Division of Marine and Environmental Systems; and Brenda Konar and Nora Foster, both of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
The research also will establish a baseline that will show the types and amounts of chemicals that already are naturally present and just how much and what kinds of wildlife live in the waters. If changes take place in the environment later, having the baseline information will help scientists determine how much things have changed and whether the changes occurred because of natural processes or human activity.
The area of study is environmentally sensitive for a variety of reasons, including bowhead whale migrations, Lanoux said.
The survey will also help determine how the area is responding to global warming, Dunton said. Knowing that will help regulators know whether future changes are being caused by global warming or by drilling activity, he said.
Various universities and private consulting firms competed for the grant, but UTMSI won it simply because it put together the best proposal, Lanoux said. The grant proposal was written by Lanoux, Dunton and Schonberg.
Geographic information system strategies and data base management were among the strongest parts of UTMSI's proposal, Dunton said.
Scientists who go out in boats to do the field work involved in the survey can expect sometimes harsh conditions, even though the work will be done in the summer, Dunton said. Conditions likely will include freezing weather, gale-force winds and 20-to- 40-foot seas, he said.