LSU, Texas A&M Share A Passion For Gulf Coast Research

By tamu Times
21 November 2013

LSU and Texas A&M may be rivals on the gridiron, but academically it’s literally smooth sailing between the two schools – they both conduct world-class research on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

The two schools share several similar research interests, such as the study of oil spills, marine ecosystems and the overall health of the Gulf, especially in the area of hypoxia, which means oxygen-depleted water.

Piers Chapman

Piers Chapman

Texas A&M oceanographer Piers Chapman has a direct link with LSU.  He taught there for five years from 2002-2007 and also served as head of CREST (coastal restoration and enhancement through research and technology.)  The group was comprised of 11 Louisiana universities plus Mississippi State.

“We did research work and focused a lot on coastal marshes because Louisiana has so many,” Chapman recalls.

“We were funded mainly through grants from NOAA.  Back then, and still today, LSU was big on environmental research, oceanography and wetlands research.”

No doubt, the key area in which the two schools collaborate deals with studying hypoxia, and the water in the Gulf where the Mississippi River discharges, pouring huge amounts of fertilizer that has flowed into the river from hundreds of miles upstream, forming a “dead zone.”

Texas A&M University and Louisiana State University are the country’s leading universities when it comes to studying the dead zone. (The Mississippi is the largest river in the U.S., draining a whopping 40 percent of the nation’s land area.)

Water in and near a dead zone becomes hypoxic, resulting in a loss of marine life, even fish kills. The dead zone area has been measured as large as 9,000 square miles, or roughly the size of New Jersey, and it peaks in mid-summer.

Each summer, several researchers from Texas A&M and LSU head out on cruises to survey the conditions of Gulf waters.  This past summer, the team made its annual research cruise and established that the dead zone for 2013 was about 3,100 square miles, or about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Steve DiMarco

Steve DiMarco

“The best way to study how big a dead zone is each year is to take water samples at about a dozen sites or more in the Gulf,” says Steve DiMarco, Texas A&M professor of oceanography and one of the world’s leading experts on the dead zone who has made 27 such research cruises in the last 10 years.

DiMarco has received numerous grants from NOAA for his research, such as a $3.7 million grant in 2009 for multi-year field work.

Nan Walker

Nan Walker

“We count on two key people at LSU to help us.  One is Nan Walker, who is one of the best oceanographers in the country.  She is in charge of the satellite images we use during our cruises and also later to aid in interpretation of the data we collect.  She directs LSU’s Earth Scan Laboratory, a satellite data receiving station that captures images from six satellites in real-time using antennas on LSU’s campus. She and her team have developed techniques for processing the images to reveal spatial distributions of water temperature, particulate matter and phytoplankton that help us determine the impact of the dead zone.

“She gives us a view from the sky that is critical to our work.”

Walker has been helping the Texas A&M team since 2006.  She has been involved with LSU’s Coastal Studies Institute for years, a highly regarded group that in the last 50 years has led studies in coastal geography, arctic studies, marine geology, sediment transport processes and numerous other field studies.

“The productive TAMU/LSU collaboration dates back to the early 1990s when we were all involved in a three-year Gulf-wide study of circulation from the coast to the Loop Current. In the last decade, our joint research has become more focussed on the growing hypoxia problem along the Louisiana-Texas coast,” says Walker.

Another LSU faculty member, Kevin Xu, assists DiMarco with sediment samples.  He goes out with the team on the research ship and takes water samples at numerous sites, and from those the team can learn how big the dead zone is and how it is impacting areas of the Gulf.

“Kevin makes key measurements for us, and from these he can compile numerical models on how the hypoxia is forming,” DiMarco adds.

“Both Nan and Kevin serve as co-PIs (principal investigators), and we probably could not make the cruises a success without their expertise.  LSU and Texas A&M are research partners every step of the way on these dead zone cruises.”

“We have a very good working relationship and it’s a good example of how two research universities can come together to produce critical information about the health of the Gulf.”