New Research on Gulf of Mexico Loop Current

December 19, 2018

Gulf of Mexico Sea-surface altitude indicating surface current speed (Image: Louisiana State University / NOAA)
Gulf of Mexico Sea-surface altitude indicating surface current speed (Image: Louisiana State University / NOAA)

More than $10 million in grant funding has been awarded for a group of new projects that aim to fill research gaps in order to help improve understanding and prediction of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current System (LCS).

As the Gulf of Mexico's dominant ocean circulation feature, the LCS has far-reaching implications for a wide range of human and natural systems, including oil and gas operations, yet knowledge about the underlying dynamics that control its behavior is limited.

Following recommendations from a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report released earlier this year, the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program (GRP) announced $10.3 million in grant awards for eight new projects to conduct studies and collect data and observations that will inform the planning and launching of a 10- to 12-year research campaign to help better understand and predict the LCS.

“The campaign being planned is a major undertaking,” said Kelly Oskvig, program officer for the GRP, an independent, science-based program founded as part of legal settlements coming out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that seeks to enhance offshore energy safety and protect human health and the environment.

“Scientists have been trying to get a handle on the Loop Current for decades, and they’ve made great progress,” Oskvig said, “but there’s never been a long-term, comprehensive, internationally and multi-institutionally coordinated effort.”

“Over time this campaign could generate valuable knowledge able to help improve understanding of the Gulf’s complex oceanographic systems, promote safer offshore operations, facilitate disaster response, and protect coastal communities and ecological resources, among other things,” Oskvig said.

The eight new projects selected for grant awards through the first funding competition were chosen to conduct specific studies or collect particular data and observations identified in the NASEM report as short-term needs to assist with the long-term research campaign:

Dry Tortugas and Lower Keys High Frequency Radars
This project will procure, install, and operate high frequency radar systems to measure surface currents at three locations in the Straits of Florida region of the Gulf of Mexico: Fort Jefferson/Dry Tortugas National Park, Key West, and Marathon. Data from the systems will provide new, real-time data for model assimilation and validation to better understand the evolution of the LCS. Award Amount: $1,371,027
Project Director: Clifford Merz (University of South Florida)
Project Team Affiliation: University of South Florida in cooperation with Rutgers University and University of Miami

Gulf of Mexico Loop Current and Eddy Observations from HF Radar Systems
This project will procure, install, and operate high frequency radar systems to measure surface currents from two offshore platforms at locations in the northeastern most areas of oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Data from the systems will provide new, real-time data for model assimilation and validation to better understand the evolution of the LCS. Award Amount: $1,229,424
Project Director: Stephan Howden (University of Southern Mississippi)
Project Team Affiliation: University of Southern Mississippi in cooperation with CODAR Ocean Sensors, Shell, and Rutgers University

Informing the Loop Current Campaign: Data Compilation to Improve Understanding, Simulation and Prediction of the Loop Current System
This project will design, develop, deploy, and maintain an information system to digitally compile, update, analyze, and make publicly accessible physical oceanographic and hydrographic data from Gulf of Mexico Loop Current field studies. The system will be an important component of future data compilation efforts for a long-term LCS research campaign. Award Amount: $647,813
Project Director: Barbara Kirkpatrick (Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association)
Project Team Affiliation: Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association in cooperation with Fugro, Harte Research Institute, Ocean Sierra, RPS, Texas A&M University—College Station, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi, and Woods Hole Group

Loop Current Floats: Near Real-Time Hydrography and Deep Velocity in the Loop Current System Using Autonomous Profilers
This project will procure, deploy, and maintain a fleet of autonomous ocean dynamics-instrumented profiling floats to measure temperature, salinity, and current velocities in LCS active areas of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Award Amount: $1,155,371
Project Director: Amy Bower (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Project Team Affiliation: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in cooperation with Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education at Ensenada)

Numerical Modeling
This project will perform assessments of existing Gulf of Mexico forecasting systems to test the performance and sensitivity of current models in resolving both surface and subsurface circulation and to evaluate long-range prediction capabilities. Award Amount: $2,100,946
Project Director: Ruoying He (North Carolina State University)
Project Team Affiliation: North Carolina State University in cooperation with Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education at Ensenada), Chevron, Florida State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and University of California – Santa Cruz

Passive Gulf of Mexico Loop Current Observations from HF Radar Across the Yucatan Strait
This project will procure, install, and operate high frequency radar systems to measure surface currents at two locations in the Yucatan Channel region of the Gulf of Mexico: Isla Contoy and Puerto Morelos. Data from the systems will provide new, real-time data for model assimilation and validation to better understand the evolution of the LCS. Award Amount: $844,263
Project Director: Anthony Knap (Texas A&M University—College Station)
Project Team Affiliation: Texas A&M University—College Station in cooperation with CODAR Ocean Sensors and Rutgers University

Pressure and Current Meters
This project will procure and deploy a coherent field array of sensors in deep waters of the central Gulf region to measure currents and pressures in the full water column from areas near the ocean floor to the surface. Data collected about full water column circulation will increase understanding of LCS behavior and inform LCS forecasting efforts. Award Amount: $2,078,240
Project Director: Kathleen Donohue (University of Rhode Island)
Project Team Affiliation: University of Rhode Island

Taking the Pulse of the West Florida Shelf at a Hypothesized Loop Current Control Point
This project will procure, deploy, and operate a single-point, real-time, ocean dynamics mooring northwest of the Dry Tortugas to measure temperature, salinity, and currents at different depths. Award Amount: $937,997
Project Director: Robert Weisberg (University of South Florida)
Project Team Affiliation: University of South Florida in cooperation with University of Delaware

The GRP said planning for the next funding competition, which will also be directed at advancing the long-term LCS research campaign, is now underway and expected to open in 2019.



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