Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year 2-4 Consortia Grants (RFP-I)

Project Overview

Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE)

Principal Investigator
University of South Florida
College of Marine Science
Member Institutions
Eckerd College, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Hamburg University of Technology, Mind Open Media, Mote Marine Laboratory , National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NHL University of Applied Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, Research Association Berlin eV, Texas A&M University, University of Calgary, University of California San Diego, University of Miami, University of South Alabama, University of South Florida, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, University of West Florida, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Wageningen University



The University of South Florida, as the lead institution, was awarded an RFP-I grant of $11,002,000 to fund the GoMRI Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems (C-IMAGE) consisting of 12 collaborative institutions from three countries and over 150 research team members. The project Principal Investigator was Dr. Steven Murawski, Deputy Director Sherryl Gilbert, and Chief Scientist Dr. David Hollander.  The goal of C-IMAGE was to develop and integrate empirically-validated models of oil plume fate and ecotoxicology to more accurately predict contaminant distribution, composition, and ecosystem impacts from the Deepwater Horizon spill and any future oil-well blowouts. C-IMAGE specifically focused on 1) connecting near- and far- field modeling with high pressure experiments and associated hydrocarbon fractionation; 2) benthic microbial ecology and impacts of oiled sediments on benthic communities and overarching studies of sedimentation processes; 3) the impacts of oil on fisheries and fish populations, including early life history impacts and potential for lethal and sub-lethal ecotoxicological effects in adult fishes and their communities; 4) phyto- and zooplankton ecology and impacts on marine mammal populations; and 5) generating integrated food web models from empirical data.  In June of 2013, C-IMAGE was awarded an additional $50,000 to form an inter-Consortia Marine Snow Working Group (MOSSFA: Marine Oil Snow Sedimentation & Flocculent Accumulation) bringing total funding to $11,052,000.


Over its award period (three years, plus a nine-month no-cost extension), C-IMAGE organized approximately 250 outreach activities or products, including but not limited to:

  • A 5-year anniversary edition of Florida Matters focused on the spill and research conducted through C-IMAGE.
  • The Loop podcast series covering a wide range of topics, including ecosystem modeling, the high-pressure facility, high-pressure degradation studies, and sediment analysis. All of C-IMAGE’s podcasts can be found at the following University of South Florida website:
  • Teacher-at-Sea program that engaged eight teachers, offering them and their students through Skype sessions opportunities to learn and participate in scientific research. C-IMAGE researchers collaborated with the teachers onboard research expeditions to communicate the science, technology, and life-at-sea experiences.
  • Professional development programs offered in 1-day, 2.5-day, and week long formats. An example of one such program included a two-part series: 1) the SENSE IT series showed participants how to develop, program, and deploy their own water quality sensor networks; and 2) the GLOBE series instructed on how to collect, analyze, and communicate regional environmental data.


Research Highlights

C-IMAGE research, which entailed over 75 sea-going research expeditions, resulted in 58 peer-reviewed publications  to date and 53 datasets being submitting to the GoMRI Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC), which are/will be available to the public. C-IMAGE supported 45 Master’s and PhD students over its award period. Significant outcomes of C-IMAGE research according to GoMRI Research Theme are highlighted below:

Theme 2: Biological/Chemical Processes

  • C-IMAGE coupled near-field plume and far-field droplet models to recreate the behavior of oils, dispersants, and dispersed oils in the deep sea. C-IMAGE modeling predicted that near-field oil droplet diameters ranged from 0.01 mm to 0.8 mm with dispersants and from 0.3 mm to 6 mm without dispersants. C-IMAGE investigators found that decreases in droplet diameter resulted in larger simulated intrusion plumes (320 m, mean distance) above the wellhead and that the addition of dispersants increased far-field surface oil ranges by an order of magnitude, with maximum surface oil distribution increasing from 10 km to 370 km with the addition of dispersants in high crossflow currents. By incorporating results from the high pressure biodegradation studies with a variable flow rate, modeled oil plume concentrations were consistent with field observations.
  • Through its studies, C-IMAGE estimated that about 10% of all Deepwater Horizon oil was deposited on the sea floor affecting benthic communities. Additional sediment contamination occurred when marine snow accumulated oil during its descent (MOSSFA). Sediment cores from the northeast Gulf of Mexico showed an increase in surface marine snow during a four to five month period after the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout.
  • C-IMAGE work and collaborations have provided GoMRI the opportunity to understand the extent and severity of the contamination in northern Gulf sediments. Using a combination of techniques, C-IMAGE researchers observed a sedimentation pulse and rapid accumulation in the upper 1 cm of sediments in the Desoto Canyon, decreased bioturbation, and lower foraminifera populations. Decreases in foraminifera populations were attributed to reducing conditions as determined by redox sensitive metals (e.g. Mn). Long-term recovery of northeastern Gulf sediments revealed a timeline of redox conditions in the Desoto Canyon through annual sampling of sediments between August 2010 and August 2013. Re levels increased 3-4 times following Deepwater Horizon, indicating a shift towards reducing conditions and decreases in foraminifera in the two years after Deepwater Horizon. Re levels then decreased in the third year showing a return towards pre-spill conditions, in respect to redox conditions. Additionally, sediment polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels increased 2-3 times pre-spill levels, contributing to the foram mortality and reproduction inhibition.

Theme 3: Environmental Effects

  • Related to C-IMAGE’s MOSSFA work, C-IMAGE partners at Wageningen University compared 52 other spills and evaluated the presence or absence of conditions favoring a MOSSFA event. The study found that an oiled marine snow event would have occurred at 15 of the 52 studied spills, supporting the consideration of benthic ecosystems affected by MOSSFA when evaluating oil spill response. Additionally, the ecosystem modeling team investigated the potential planktonic component of the MOSSFA event. C-IMAGE researchers found that the trophic cascade from overfishing already negatively impacted the zooplankton populations in the eastern Gulf and that the oil spill had little long-term effect on plankton populations. Further, while there was an initial bloom of phytoplankton biomass, this was short lived, and these populations were not reflected in the sediment makeup. This study has implications for assessing the anthropogenic impacts on trophic shifts and should be considered when looking for a potential MOSSFA event elsewhere with a related trophic impact.
  • C-IMAGE researchers advanced the use of optics and remote sensing to measure the spatial extent of oil slicks and its potential impacts on primary productivity. Researchers used the VIIRS satellite to detect natural oil seeps under cloud-free conditions and with significant moon-glint. Optical remote sensing, including products from the VIIRS satellite, provides useful area estimates of surface oils associated with natural seeps and oil spills.  
  • The “Mud & Blood” expeditions to the northern Gulf were an integral part of the C-IMAGE I program to collect samples of offshore demersal fishes following the Deepwater Horizon blowout to assess PAH exposure in golden tilefish, king snake eel, the commercially significant red snapper, and to collect co-located sediment core samples. Researchers found frequent incidence of skin lesions in bottom dwelling species of fish in 2011 with a significant decrease in 2012 and beyond.  This trend was also seen in PAH metabolite concentrations in fish bile of some species. The PAH compound signature found in contaminated fish livers was highly correlated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon.  Continuing C-IMAGE investigations found that concentrations of PAH components were higher in the sediment dwelling tilefish than red snapper or king snake eel. PAH levels decreased over time in the eel and snapper but remained elevated in the tilefish, indicating sustained oil exposure. To evaluate the additional impacts on the red snapper populations, differences in growth, diet and trophic shifts between natural and artificial reefs before and after the Deepwater Horizon spill were studied. It was found that the red snapper populations at reef sites in the Gulf experienced a diet and trophic shift after the Deepwater Horizon spill, increasing their trophic position and increasing their benthic versus pelagic prey. These shifts likely had a cascading impact on the relative abundances of their prey resources.

PDF Proposal Abstract - C-IMAGE I

Project Research Overview (2015):

An overview of the project research activities from the GoMRI 2015 Meeting in Houston.

Direct link to the Research Overview presentation.

Proposed Research Overview (2011):

For an overview of the proposed research, see the Proposed Research Overview presentation from the GoMRI Fall 2011 Meeting in New Orleans.

This research was made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.