In 2004, an underwater mudslide collapsed a Taylor Energy oil platform after Hurricane Ivan struck the coast of Alabama; this mudslide caused the longest oil spill in U.S. history. According to this article from The Advocate, a team of LSU researchers is tasked with studying hurricanes and mapping the Mississippi River Delta in order to gain a better understanding of mudslides’ effects on offshore energy production.
The team of LSU researchers will be studying mudslides in the Gulf of Mexico, which will eventually lead to a better understanding of the effects of mudslides on offshore oil operations. In a statement, the marine geologist leading the team, Sam Bentley, pointed out the need for such an intensive study by saying, “the last major study like this was in the 1970s, and was also led by LSU. Much has changed since then, from the seabed conditions to the tools used to map the seabed and the need for offshore energy infrastructure. The knowledge gaps and possible liabilities are huge.”
The team will produce a comprehensive map of the Mississippi River Delta in order to gauge and better understand when and where mudslides occur, which can help predict risk. The seabed that surrounds the portion of the Mississippi River Delta that splits into Southwest Pass, South Pass, and Pass a Loutre, which is colloquially referred to as “Louisiana’s bird’s foot” is the primary seabed area that will be mapped by the team. According to officials, this work will be the first comprehensive map of the delta front in over 40 years, showcasing just how necessary this project is.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be providing about $3.8 million in funding for the project. This organization issues offshore space leases that allow the production of conventional and renewable energy. Along with BOEM, the other organizations involved are the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the Water Institute of the Gulf, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bentley also revealed that BOEM had asked his team 10 years prior to begin laying the groundwork for the study.
Kehui Xu, the LSU Coastal Studies Institute director and a professor in LSU’s Department of Oceanography & Coastal Science, spoke about the study by saying, “in the past, many surveys were done either before or after landslides, but not during landslides, which often happen when there are hurricanes and river floods. While regular sensors deployed before such events can be displaced, buried, or damaged, we will be working with the NRL to test and deploy some rugged and new sensors that can ‘travel with’ landslides.”
In order for an underwater mudslide to occur, loose sediment that’s set on an incline begins to slide downward all at once. This is often caused by waves and other shifting parts; however, larger mudslides often form due to the larger waves generated by storms and hurricanes. Marine Geologist Sam Bentley put this concept into practical perspective by saying, “imagine a kitchen board with pancake batter; if you want it to flow downslope, down a low angle… you can jiggle [the kitchen board]. When the Mississippi River dumps sediment out of the mouth, mud piles up right offshore. Sometimes, it piles up so steeply that it slides down of its own accord.”
Marine geologist Sam Bentley hopes that his team’s research will be able to assist energy companies in building their offshore projects in a safer way. Researchers hope to stock their equipment with necessary tracking capabilities so that smaller, slower changes in the seabed will also be detected–changes past surveys of the bird’s foot missed.
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